Abortion and Dehumanization

04 August 2020

From time to time, pro-life advocates argue that those who take a pro-choice position routinely dehumanize the unborn, paving the way for murder-by-abortion. Every so often, my own work on dehumanization is appropriated to make such arguments. In this essay and the next I want to show why these arguments don’t hold water.


Let’s begin with a dehumanization claim, as summed up in a comment by the journalist Kathleen Parker in an op-ed for The Washington Post, “When we use language to disguise reality — whether the developing human baby is a ‘clump of cells, a ‘fetus,’ or, even, a ‘product of termination’ — we move ever-closer to the dehumanization of us all.”  


Although Parker’s claim is about the special case of late-term abortion, her comment concerns the developing, unborn human being at any stage. Thinking of the living thing within the maternal womb as anything other than a developing human baby falsifies reality and thereby facilitates the mass murder of innocent human beings.


It's important to notice right off that Parker assumes something that is at stake in the disagreement between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, namely the question that the living thing growing inside of the womb is a human baby. I’ll set this issue aside for the moment (I’ll return to it in next month’s installment), and concentrate on a different one: the question of whether those who think of the unborn as a clump of cells, fetus, or product of termination thereby commit an act of dehumanization.


Here, a complication arises, because “dehumanization” does not have a single, straightforward meaning. There’s disagreement among researchers about exactly what dehumanization is. In this essay, I’m mainly concerned with the conception of dehumanization that I’ve set out in my writings on the subject. In my view to dehumanize others is to think of them as subhuman creatures. Dehumanizing groups of people in this way facilitates acts of lethal violence against them. It’s a regular feature of genocide and other mass atrocities. So, from the pro-life perspective, if people dehumanize developing human babies, they thereby foster acts of violence against them. Just as Nazis dehumanized Jews, and Hutus dehumanized Tutsis, those who conceive of the unborn as anything other than human babies are accessories to mass murder. 


Consider an article titled “Is dehumanization always and intrinsically unjust?” In it, the author, Michael Spielman, describes having written to me with the following series of questions:


Socially speaking, have you ever encountered a scenario in which you found "subhuman" to be a legitimate classification? Your book is saturated with examples of human beings who have been erroneously categorized as "less than human," for all sorts of despotic ends. But did you ever come across a case of dehumanization that you found to be morally defensible? If not, would it be fair to say that any effort to dehumanize a group of human beings is always and intrinsically unjust?

The title of Spielman’s essay doesn’t match its content, which doesn’t address the question of whether dehumanization is always intrinsically unjust. Rather, it takes for granted that dehumanization is intrinsically unjust, and then goes on to say that “abortion is ground zero in the contemporary intersect between public policy and dehumanization.” 


Can you think of any other institution that is propped up on the explicit dehumanization of its victims? Though racism remains a massive global problem, nobody argues in public that immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities are less than fully human—and yet this is exactly the argument that's being made in the context of abortion.

Let’s consider these first two steps. The first premise—that dehumanization is inherently unjust—seems reasonable enough. Its in the second premise—that proponents of abortion dehumanize unborn children in exactly the same way that immigrants, refugees, and ethnic minorities are dehumanized—that problems emerge. To see why, glance back at my definition of what dehumanization is. None of the terms listed by Parker, or commonly used by those in the pro-choice camp, describe the unborn as subhuman animals. Furthermore, in real cases of dehumanization of the sort that leads to mass murder, the dehumanized group is thought of as dangerous and unclean—as creatures akin to rats, cockroaches, or monsters and demons. This is very far removed from talk about an embryo a fetus, or a clump of cells. 


Other difficulties abound. As I explain in detail in my recent book On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It, dehumanization is essentially bound up with race. Before they are dehumanized, groups of people are racialized. They are imagined to belong to an alien and inferior race. Dehumanization is racism on steroids. And dehumanizers think that like race, subhumanity is transmitted biologically by descent: if an individual is subhuman, it must be the case that at least one of their parents is subhuman too. 


Neither of these criteria apply in the abortion case. Pro-choice advocates to not suppose that there is a race of fetuses, or that their mothers and fathers are subhuman creatures. Finally, to top it off, those who dehumanize others hold that subhumans cannot transform into humans by any natural means. Subhumanity is a life sentence. But even the most ardent pro-abortion people fully accept that fertilized ova naturally develop into human babies.


So, the claim that supporters of abortion dehumanize unborn babies is badly flawed. This is also true for other mainstream theories of dehumanization, for somewhat different reasons. But there is a response available to the enemy of abortion. She might concede that dehumanization is irrelevant to the moral controversy around abortion, but also claim that denying the humanity of the unborn is something very much like dehumanization. She might add that such denials of humanity are both false and profoundly reprehensible, and that objecting on the grounds that this is not dehumanization gives exaggerated weight to mere theoretical technicalities. 


To evaluate this defense, we’ve got to dig deeply into the concept of the human. That will be the topic of next month’s installment.


Comments (3)

UniBomberBear's picture


Thursday, August 6, 2020 -- 7:40 PM

If it were so that unborn

If it were so that unborn babies were successfully dehumanized then there would be dramatically less abortions performed. I noticed a few months back; a strange sort of paradox among the sheople on social media. I found that if I posted an image of allegedly dead puppies killed by a man that lived in a place with a wild K - 9 problem; I was met with, almost entirely by women, death threats, crazy replies, and called everything from a psychopath to a murderer, however posting something about abortion in the same manner yielded similar very strong feelings in the replies towards the abortion post , only this time by mostly all men. What this means , I dunno. I'm an Auto Mechanic not a Gestalt Grad Student..
This is my armchair philosopher's angle on this subject. I normally steer clear of this type of subject because I know by entering the fray i am doing exactly what these sort of ideologies are designed to do. same as Racism it's cousin dehumanization is not a term I use , neither is clump of cells , or glob of meat. I think that if a person does not know enough about the formal names as used in Biology currently , they are to be lowered to the 'insensible' , or 'less true' propositions following Wittgenstein's formula for stating a proposition using perfect syntax , to maintain the proper meaning . Much like computer code . If Wittgenstein lived today he would have had good use of Computer metaphors I bet. I would not even enter a discussion on this subject with anyone who could not understand this logic formula.
Sorry I began to meander. I maintain that a Human Being that has been outside of the womb long enough to educate themselves either from text , videos , primary datum, and etc. that they understand they are being singled out as the object that the sheoples will project their own spiritual weaknesses onto gives us the ability to defend , argue , and fight back against the one's eyeballing us up for their sacrifice of themselves . Envy mostly I think, and the Jungian transference some of these poor devils are expressing without ever understanding what they even feel. I'm writing this from currently unfolding onto me, as an intelligent man that will not wear a absurd surgical mask , I have been fired, dare not attempt take the bus or trolley due to harassment , being called a fool, idiot, and yes even murderer for not adhering to the script on CNN. These people are fools, and I expect they are the same types that fight each other at abortion protests. I always knew their kind, however I never thought they were this addlepated. I can only refer you all to a poem by Charles Bukowski 'the Genius of the Crowd'. He says it all better than I could. I want to just add that this is not a racial thing I feel at all, I am not a weak or helpless man , and could easily defend myself one way or another either with a weapon , or just my bare hands against these weak minded people , thing is I don't want to harm , or erase them off the map as they desire to do to me. Like I said it's still unfolding and from an Anthropological point of view its a priceless experience..

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, August 10, 2020 -- 6:12 AM

David has been nothing less

David has been nothing less than forthright on dehumanization. I have found his ideas helpful in delineating social commentary in my own community characterizing homeless and anarchist human beings who have denied the social contracts written without them in mind.

Abortion is another thing all together. Late term abortion is yet another thing. I accept the mantle of one who would find technicality in cleansing dehumanization from abortion only to leave things without any more clarity.

This is timely and prescient. I received a mailer just yesterday underscoring the need to stock the courts and defend fetal humans from late term abortions. Mike DeWine spent his PBS NewsHour moment last night imploring his citizenry not only to wear masks (Mike is no She-person UB Bear - take heed!) and to offer advice to Trump to beat this Abortion drum into the coming election.

In general I would be reluctant to take up this post (as UB Bear himself said) but we need to hear this maybe. We could use as much clarity on this as can be found, even if the effect is to defer attention from children at our border or social injustice in our own communities. These issues matter to many and need good words, even if the grammar and technical writing are at issue.

Welcome to the fray UniBomber Bear. I have to admit the ice cream people make me feel good inside and out. I doubt there are any who will give up their genius for Ludwig's grammar. I salute the mad masquerade.

lanejancy's picture


Thursday, April 25, 2024 -- 1:00 AM

When it comes to

When it comes to dehumanization, David has been completely honest. His thoughts have helped me define social commentary in my own neighborhood, which describes those who are homeless and anarchist and who reject the social contracts that were made without them in consideration.
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