Appearance doesn’t determine whether human beings have human rights

By Paul Stark, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life

Editor’s note. This appears in the current digital edition of National Right to Life News. I trust you are reading it cover to over and passing it along to pro-life family and friends.

Ultrasound technology provides a powerful visual witness to the humanity of babies in the womb.

At their very earliest stages, though, unborn children don’t really look like us. Young embryos are tiny and lack many characteristically “human” features. That can make it hard to regard them the same way we regard older human beings. Even many people who oppose the killing of 20-week-old fetuses, for example, have little objection to the destruction of embryos in the earliest weeks through abortion or for the purpose of biomedical research.

“People treat as human that which appears to be human,” writes the late Harvard professor James Q. Wilson, a defender of abortion early in pregnancy. He offers this thought experiment:

Imagine a room on the walls of which are arrayed, in chronological order, exact color photographs of the human embryo, suitably enlarged, from first fertilization, through early cell divisions and implantation, through the emergence of various human, or human-like, features, and on to the complete fetus the day before normal delivery. … Suppose we then ask a variety of people … to examine these photographs and to tell us in which one … they first see what appears to be “a baby.” Having examined such pictures, most people, I speculate, would select those that represent life at around seven to nine weeks after conception.

Some people, Wilson acknowledges, may find that the unborn child looks like “a baby” even earlier than seven weeks. His claim, though, is that “it is precisely the degree of resemblance between a fetus and an infant that is of moral significance.”

Appearances can illuminate reality and awaken moral intuitions. But they’re also a notoriously unreliable guide for determining how to treat others. If the “degree of resemblance” to a prototypical person makes someone valuable, then Nick Vujicic—who has no arms or legs—is less valuable than most people.

So was Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man” with severe deformities that made him a “freak show” attraction. Many cultures have thought less of ethnic groups whose skin color (among other aspects of appearance) bore little similarity to their own.

Do human rights vary according to a human being’s degree of resemblance to whatever we take to be the standard? Would Nick Vujicic count more if he had one or two limbs rather than none? Abraham Lincoln quipped that if light skin color confers superior value, as many Americans of his time believed, then “by this rule, you are a slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own.”

The truth is that appearance, in itself, is morally irrelevant. That’s why, to avoid serious injustice, we must see beyond it. Young unborn children may not look “human” to us, but they look exactly the way human beings are supposed to look at the embryonic stage of life. Each of us once looked like them—because each of us once was one of them. That’s the reality of human developmental biology.

Surface differences like color, shape, and size can prevent us from seeing that in the most important respect we are the same. We are all human. And that’s what matters.