I’m speaking tonight at the University of Michigan. One objection I’ll almost certainly get during the Q&A will be that the unborn are human but not persons.
Whenever I hear this, I ask, “What’s the difference? Do you mean there is a class of human beings whom we can set aside to be killed while others can’t be? And who exactly qualifies not to be killed?”
The answer as to who qualifies will inevitably be ad-hoc and disqualify many people outside the womb. Once that point becomes clear, my interlocutor will try and turn the tables on me. “So why do you assume that humans have more value than animals? Isn’t that ad-hoc?”
Setting aside for the moment that if all animals (including humans) are equal, this undermines the case for elective abortion rather than strengthening it, do our intuitions really suggest that species membership is morally irrelevant? For example, is there really no difference between a man who kills the family dog to feed his starving son and one who kills the son to feed the dog? And if humans are no different than animals, why are we outraged at Michael Vick who clubbed pit bulls to death for losing fights? Isn't it because we expect better of him as a man?
Truth is, while it’s commonly asserted that species doesn’t matter, it’s seldom argued for. Indeed, our intuitions scream otherwise.
As Christopher Kaczor points out, there’s a moral difference between a hit-and run involving a squirrel and one involving a newborn, even a mentally disabled one. And while some people are vegetarians out of respect for animals, “there’s still an important difference between eating a hamburger and a Harold burger, even if Harold, due to his mental handicap, was no more intelligent than a cow.” Indeed, our condemnation of cannibalism rests on the assumption that differences in species are morally relevant, as does our condemnation of sex between humans and animals.
At this point, a clever critic of the pro-life view might bring up human-animal hybrids. Imagine we have a monkey with 60 percent monkey DNA and 40 percent human DNA, and the brain of a human. Imagine further this chimp shows signs of having a rational nature, like his human counterparts. Doesn’t that defeat the claim that having a human nature is an all or nothing proposition?
As Kaczor points out, the animal-human hybrid objection is a non sequitur. Suppose creatures of mixed origin are indeed manufactured. If that happens, “then we shall have to debate about whether they should be included in the category of persons. But the debate about such creations need not undermine the moral conviction that all human beings—anyone who arises from human parents—should be accorded equal rights.”
Finally, writes Kaczor, a mentally disabled girl and her dog may be equally incapable of reasoning, but this condition in the girl is a tragedy but inconsequential for the dog. That’s why we take heroic measures to help her develop this skill while not giving it a second thought for Fido. In short, species matters.