Before Roe v. Wade (1973), rhetoric on both sides of the abortion argument focused on population control.
Abortion supporters argued that abortion, especially for minorities, could cut welfare expenses and act as population control, whereas opposers argued that legalizing abortions may disenfranchise disabled Americans and Blacks.
After Roe — and possibly because of it, as Mary Zeigler of Yale Law School said — abortion rhetoric turned to rights-based arguments, forming the pro-choice and pro-life coalitions.
In many cases, the abortion debate today rests on shaky, uncompromising rhetoric.
Pro-choice images depict women protesting and statistical figures. For some, this pro-choice tactic is off-putting, almost "dehumanizing" to the fetus, Naomi Wolf said. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson went so far as to define the fetus as a parasite.
By emotionally appealing to women’s rights and refusing to acknowledge the personhood of the fetus absolutely, pro-choice people alienate abortion supporters who wish to incorporate women’s rights into an ethical system.
Pro-life rhetoric is no better, emphasizing the right of life of the fetus above all, sometimes even superseding the health and life of the mother. To them, the sanctity of life must be upheld in all circumstances.
Pro-life signs portray smiling women in the last trimester of their pregnancy, when less than 0.17% of all abortions occur, or ultrasound pictures of the fetuses.
Both philosophical arguments are inconsistent. To be consistently pro-life, one must oppose the death penalty and meat consumption. In fact, the pro-life argument that the government must abridge the right of abortion due to a compelling state interest should extend to factory farming and capital punishment. However, only 8% of Americans oppose both abortion and capital punishment, according to CNN.
To be consistently pro-choice there must be an underlying principle. If it were the minimization of suffering, then sentience — rather than the viability — of the fetus must be the determinant factor. However, sentience is a murky standard because there is no consensus within the medical community. Even then, it would also entail vegetarianism due to the sentience of animals. If it were for the value of the potential of a fetal life, then it is easily dismissable. As Peter Singer said in Practical Ethics, a potential king is not entitled to the rights of a king until becoming a king.
According to Harvard Political Reviews, the central question of the abortion debate is whether a fetus is a human being. Scientifically, it is — and it should be.
However, the central question should be where does personhood begin and where does it end?
This is an unresolvable question — the question that justices chose not to consider in Roe v. Wade due to its moral and religious implications.
“We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins,” Justice Harry Blackmun said.
But by willfully choosing to ignore the question, pro-choice proponents lose ground and supporters in the abortion issue. So, what can be done?
First, both sides must concede that their ethical systems are inconsistent and hypocritical, thereby admitting that there may not be a worldview that comprehends and harmonizes all moral particulars.
Both sides, however, must still search for a compassionate system that harmonizes both interests. A push for an extramoral, extrareligious view of abortion, grounded on “building a wall of separation between church and state” and appealing to current societal undercurrents and situations is also valid, albeit impractical and polarizing.
Secondly, the pro-choice side must continue to focus on pragmatic considerations for women and the disproportionate effects of abortion on their health, future and careers. However, activists must not dehumanize, disregard or objectify the fetus.
Regardless of whether they think a fetus is a person or not, they should avoid asserting that a fetus is simply a “parasite” or an unwanted thing. In so doing, they alienate moderates and nonsecularists. They must root their rhetoric in the statistical and real effects of abolishing and dismantling abortion wherein abortion-seeking women will subject themselves to illegal, unsafe procedures.
Roe v. Wade recognized abortion as a fundamental right of a women’s liberty via the implied right to privacy, and, to protect women, it must remain so. Using mindful, respectful rhetoric, pro-choice people can maintain — and enshrine — this fundamental right within our societal context.