Every year in January Stanford Students for Life (SSFL) lines White Plaza with approximately 500 grave markers, representing the more than 50 million victims of legal abortions in America since Roe v. Wade. Members of the group stand by the memorial all day to testify to what they see as one of the grossest violations of human rights in our time.
Although the display provokes a fruitful exchange of ideas, in the past too much of this exchange has missed the point and centered instead on the shape of the grave markers. The cross might have seemed an inoffensive, culturally-recognizable grave-marker to those who founded the tradition of the *Roe v. Wade *memorial. But they must have underestimated the percentage of their audience who would view the cross as an intentionally religious symbol.
So when last year’s president, Daisy Morin, decided to invest in new, religion-neutral grave markers, consisting of upright stakes adorned with roses, I applauded the decision. The religious overtones of the former display not only riled pro-choicers; they distracted from the purpose of the demonstration, which is to make a pro-life statement—not a religious statement.
The truth is that the pro-life stance does not depend on religion. The logical case for life is built entirely upon premises grounded in the Constitution and science. These premises lead to the pair of conclusions that form the crux of the pro-life argument. The first is that the only relevant question in the debate over the legality of abortion is whether or not the fetus should be considered a human person. If the fetus is a human person then abortion should be illegal; if the fetus is not a human person then abortion should be legal. The second is that the fetus should be considered a human person. Together these statements comprise the pro-life conviction that abortion should be illegal.
We derive the first conclusion from the Constitution. Foremost in the famous triptych of rights enshrined in the Fifth Amendment is the right to life: “No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The preeminence of the right of an innocent human person to life remains even when it comes in conflict with other “rights” (whether legally extant or alleged) such as a right to comfort or a right to a career of choice, or with various social priorities such as population control.
It is important to emphasize this point because pro-choicers regularly justify legalized abortion on the grounds of “women’s rights”. However important it may be to safeguard the freedom of all citizens to pursue a lifestyle of their choice, this freedom cannot be so unlimited that it takes precedence over the innocent’s right to life.
Even Harry Blackmun, the very justice who penned the Roe v. Wade decision, admitted as much when he wrote: “If this suggestion of [fetal] personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by [the Constitution].” Here Blackmun is essentially endorsing the first pillar of the pro-life position: the debate over abortion’s legality hinges on the question of fetal personhood.
Common sense agrees. If the fetus is deemed not to be a human person then even pro-lifers would support abortion on demand. But if a woman’s toddler is preventing her from pursuing her career does she have the right to kill him? Of course not. Why? Because the toddler is a person whose right to life takes precedence over his parent’s freedom to pursue the career or lifestyle of her choice. The same logic applies if the fetus should be considered a person.
The debate over the legality of abortion, then, reduces to the question of fetal personhood, and the most reasonable definition of a person is a living human organism. Additional constraints on this definition based on race, age, or level of dependency inevitably reduce to discrimination. As a handbook published by Feminists for Life puts it, “If we take any living member of the species homo sapiens and put them outside the realm of legal protection, we undercut the case against discrimination for everyone else.”
Science is clear that a human fetus is a living member of the species homo sapiens. Individually, a sperm and an egg are living cells; but when they are fused together they acquire the characteristics (growth, maintenance of homeostasis, etc.) that biology assigns to an independent living organism. Hence it is the moment of conception that marks the beginning of a new human organism and therefore the beginning of personhood and the rights that come with it.
Both pillars of the pro-life thesis that abortion should be illegal are thus vindicated solely on the authority of science and the Constitution. Not once in this article have I appealed to the Bible or the Qur’an; nowhere have the words “God” or “soul” appeared. Morin was right to call for religion-neutral flowered stakes instead of crosses. Let’s hope that the new display helps SSFL make its statement to campus this January without the distraction of irrelevant religious tensions.
Charlie Capps is an officer in Stanford Students for Life and a member of the undergraduate leadership board of the Catholic Community at Stanford.