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Defining the unborn is central to any discussion of abortion

Earlier in the summer I wrote about a pro-life dialogue training presented by a group called Justice for All (JFA).

In that column, I highlighted three essential skills fundamental to creating a dialogue on the issue of abortion:

Ask questions of the other person with an open heart and the purpose of gathering information (what?) and asking for reasons/evidence (why?).

Listen to understand, which entails genuine intent to know the other person’s position.

Establish common ground when possible, recognizing points of agreement.

This column looks at a few more insights JFA shared, focusing on the central question – the definition of the unborn.

Most likely, you have engaged in a conversation on abortion that quickly went awry. The conversation ended up focusing on tangents that – though important – were not essential to the dialogue. For example, the conversation may have quickly digressed into topics such as poverty, the woman’s right to choose, or timing of and desire for the pregnancy.

These topics miss out on the fundamental question defining the unborn. But, by directing and redirecting a conversation to this question, we face the question that should intellectually settle the issue.

JFA recommends "trotting out the toddler" to refocus the conversation. For example, redirecting someone who is focused on the "right to choose" might sound like this:

"I agree that women should have the right to choose many things. But consider a woman who has a toddler. Should she be allowed to choose to kill her child?"

The response to this question should be a resounding "No!" Asking reasons (why?) for this belief might lead to the following: "Because the toddler is a human being." We would wholly agree.

A statement about the humanity of the toddler dovetails into an opportunity to ask another key question. Is the unborn a living, human organism? It’s important that this question requires us to brush up on our biology as we articulate what it means to be living, a human and a whole organism.

That the unborn is "living" is evidenced by demonstrating the growth through cellular reproduction, reaction to stimuli, and metabolizing food for energy. That the unborn is "human" can be shown by the fact that the unborn has human parents and a DNA structure unique to a human being. That the unborn is a "whole organism" can be revealed through the active development through the stages of human development. These types of verifiable scientific facts debunk flawed arguments that the unborn is a mere ball of living cells or no different from the functional parts of sperm and egg.

While the scientific facts of the unborn child’s humanity may be established, a difficult question may yet remain. "Is the unborn equal to the rest of us?" In other words, while a person may admit the unborn is a human being, they may not believe a "human" is a "person" with the inalienable right to life. For example, they may claim that the unborn lacks intelligence or is incapable of self-awareness.

In response, you can gently challenge the other person, asking why attributes such as intelligence or self-awareness are significant and confer legal rights on a human. Ultimately, such attributes are overly broad and overly narrow. For instance, they may include the equal protection of animals while excluding the legal protection of an infant (for example, presence of some level of self-awareness). Such absurd results shed light on the fact that our legal rights do not stem from some attribute or property we acquire, but that our legal rights arise from our God-given human nature.

With these three essential skills and the focus on defining the unborn, which opens up subsequent key questions, JFA provides a basic roadmap for navigating almost any difficult conversation on the topic of abortion.

This "method" of dialogue provides the tools to encounter other people in a manner that respects their human dignity, builds relationships and, God willing, changes minds and hearts.

Finally, with these tools at your disposal, take courage – do not be afraid – to engage a family member, friend, or random stranger in your work of spreading the Gospel of Life.


Tom Venzor is the associate director of pro-life and family with the Nebraska Catholic Conference in Lincoln. Contact him at

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