Are We Talking about the Same Thing?

Ann, a student at Tokyo Christian University featured in JFA's March 2018 Impact Report, took several steps to engage her community in dialogue about abortion.  These activities culminated with an outreach event she planned on her campus, complete with her own handmade JFA-style display.

Ann had a confusing interaction during her outreach event that illustrated a common misunderstanding that plagues conversations about unwanted pregnancy.  Though Ann had an increased challenge due to conversing in her second language, a point of confusion similar to the one she raises here is faced routinely by pro-life advocates, even if they are speaking the same language as the pro-choice advocate:

Ann's display was similar to page 3 (shown above) of JFA's Exhibit Brochure.

“The display was a series of pictures of the development of the unborn, much like [page 3] of the JFA brochure.  The conversation-starter was the question, ‘When do we become human?’ My friend who approached said it was difficult to place an exact time at which we become human, but once we have a heartbeat and brainwaves, we would be human.  As I asked more questions, she said that after birth we are human because we are able to breathe on our own. Then she said it depends on those around and on the individual as to when we become human. Some adults would even say they are not human.  

“It seemed the more questions I asked, the more philosophical her answers became.  I was getting a bit frustrated with myself, not sure why my questions were leading her to mark the beginning of human life much later than she had at first.  Then she said something perhaps very important for the discussion of abortion in Japan.  I had used the Japanese word ‘ningen’ for human.  She said that the word ‘hito,’ written in the katakana characters, is used in the biological world to refer to the human.  In our conversation, I had assumed that we were talking about the same thing when we said ‘ningen.’  However, clarifying this word brought us back to the same place of discussion. She said she did not know the start of the life of ‘hito’... I have not yet researched what Japanese biologists say, but because she taught me this distinction and I said I would look up this katakana word ‘hito,’ this leaves an opportunity for continued conversation.”

Ann’s conversation demonstrates a common misunderstanding between pro-choice and pro-life advocates - the misunderstanding between humanness in the biological sense and humanness in the sense of rights and value (or, as some say, personhood).

It's common for pro-choice advocates to point to a wide range of developmental markers as "the beginning of human life."  Some may say, "No one knows when life begins. It's just too complex."  Others may even say, "Well, at fertilization, the unborn is human, but it isn't human."  When pro-life advocates hear these phrases, we are often dumbfounded.  Uncertain of how to proceed,  we often just repeat, multiple times, the same biological evidences for the humanity of the unborn.

But wait!  Are we really sure we know what the pro-choice advocate means when she says, "No one knows when human life begins?"  One simple question can help you find out:

"Do you mean, 'No one knows when human life begins, biologically?  Or, do you mean that no one knows when a human with intrinsic value and basic rights begins?"

In Ann's conversation in Japanese, she was using a philosophical word for "human," when she had intended to use a different word, found in a biology textbook.  In the American context, people often use the same phrase, "when a human life begins," to refer both to the point at which biological human life begins and the point at which humans gain rights and value.  Typically, a scientist and a philosopher will agree about the first definition for "human" (the biological definition), but may have a disagreement about the second (the philosophical definition).

Of course, as pro-life advocates, we believe these two points in time are actually the same.  We believe that fertilization, the point at which we begin to exist biologically, is the very same point at which we should be treated equally to all other biological humans - and we have good reasons for this!  But we must remember that, in most cases, pro-choice advocates will not start out agreeing with us.  In order to address their arguments, we must first make sure we understand their arguments.  

Whether two people are speaking two different languages or both are speaking English, they may misunderstand each other.  In Ann's conversation with her friend, we would expect these confusions, but the same confusions exist among English speakers.  We may be more frustrated, in fact, since we assume that if we're all speaking the same language, we all mean the same thing by a word.  In truth, we have to work almost just as hard to understand another English speaker, if not harder!  (See "Human but not human" (Mar. 19, 2018) for one attempt at starting a conversation by seeking understanding.)

When we focus on listening to understand what the person means, we have a much better chance of helping to change a mind.