There’s no doubt, one of the most polarizing issues of today is abortion. Is abortion wrong? The two sides of the abortion issue have never been further apart. While the folks on the one side of the issue keep pressing for personal liberty at all cost and blame religion for attempting to trample on those freedoms, the folks on the other side stare blindly at the radicalization of the self over against what appears to be an intuitively basic knowledge that life is to be protected. Many in this camp will say that we can know that abortion is wrong simply through our intuition, and while this may ultimately be true, it does not help to resolve the issue as a matter of an objective moral law or public policy because it is unable to bridge the gap between the two sides.
Now, it should first be noted that the issue of whether or not abortion is morally permissible is not necessarily a religious one. Though there are obvious religious insights that can help us navigate the difficult issue, we can actually arrive at a logically sound conclusion about what side of the argument is more valid by simply examining the issue in some depth without the aid of religion. So, it is especially fruitful to find arguments based on the common shared experience of simply being human and thinking logically within a moral landscape.
So then, which position is more valid and why? Should personal choice triumph? Should life be spared at all cost? When is it permissible to end a human life? If I may put it more bluntly, when is it permissible to kill a human being?
Since people often use words in different ways and understand them differently, it’s helpful to be on the same page about our understanding of abortion. It’s practical and important to define what we’re talking about when we’re discussing abortion. So, what exactly is abortion? Abortion is taking the life of an underdeveloped, innocent human being. I realize there may be those who would challenge this definition of abortion, and we will get to those objections in a moment. For now, the definition can simply be gleaned from our uniform experience as human beings.
It is true that various civil justice systems have the power (and arguably should have) to end the life of another human being, but it is never done to an innocent human being who has not provoked it. What do we call the act of one person or people ending the life of another human being? Well, we generally call it murder.
Let’s be clear – we’re not simply talking about killing. It’s important to distinguish between simply killing and murder. Though there are obvious similarities between murder and killing, murder does not simply mean to kill. For example, if someone were to break into a house, and the resident in self-defense was to kill the assailant, the resident would not be guilty of murder. The resident is guilty of nothing – he is wholly innocent since all he’s doing is protecting his own life and that of his family. It is the assailant who has instigated the exchange and was he to kill the resident, it is he who would then be guilty of murder.
It is the same with civil law – some states have implemented the judicial power of capital punishment for extremely dangerous criminals who are a threat to its citizens. Though some may argue that this also should be impermissible, we can all agree that this is fairly different also in terms of being defined as murder, since the state has not instigated the conflict. It’s clear that not all killing is murder. What differentiates murder from killing is that murder is an act of aggression without adequate instigation by the victim and proper justification by the agent(s) carrying it out. Killing can be done to exact justice. Murder implies ill intent and cannot be justified!
Since a human being, in whatever stage of development (embryo, fetus or baby) has done nothing to instigate a conflict, the abortion of that life means ending the life of an innocent human being. In fact, generally (unless a pregnancy is the result of rape) the catalyst for the pregnancy and the human life is the mother herself. Now, is this killing that can (with the possible exception of the rare occasions in which the mother’s health is in jeopardy) be understood to be something that is being done in self-defense? Not at all. In the vast majority of cases, abortions are not the result of any possible health crisis of the mother. It’s fairly easy, therefore, to establish that abortion is ending an innocent life of a human being and is generally not in self-defense. Thus, abortion qualifies as murder – the taking of the life of an innocent human being.
And so we have to ask – is it right to take the life of an innocent human being? Under normal circumstance, the easy answer to that question is a resounding ‘No!’ and since we’ve already established abortion is the taking of an innocent human being, the conclusion logically follows that it is wrong to do so. In fact, the logic of the argument is undeniable (If the premises of the syllogism are true, the conclusion follows logically):
Generally speaking, no one will contend (moral relativism answered ahead) that Premise 1 is not true. Most people who are pro-choice will contend Premise 2 – that abortion does NOT take the life of an innocent human being without adequate justification. What is generally contended is not the guilt or innocence of the baby, but whether or not the baby is actually alive, is a human being, or is an actual person. The justification typically takes on various forms, many of which we’ll look at shortly.
Some arguments in support of abortion are quite antiquated by modern science, as happens to be the case with the notion that the thing we’re aborting is not really alive. Modern science has clearly demonstrated that from the point of conception, there are processes taking place during the development of the embryo and fetus that are clearly only found in living things. Shortly after conception, human beings have their full DNA determined and begin the quick development cycle.
If the supposed “non-living” object inside the mother’s body is not alive, then what exactly is abortion supposed to accomplish? It’s alive. It’s growing. That’s the reason why people want to get rid of it. It’s not just the mother that is alive because there is already another set of human DNA that is unique from that of the mother inside the mother, which identifies him/her as a unique individual, albeit small and inside the mother’s body.
Abortion is the means by which the life inside the mother’s body is exterminated. The very act of abortion presupposes that life exists inside the mother’s body, and is growing. If it weren’t alive and growing there would be no need for abortion.
Inevitably, some will argue that since the child cannot sustain itself, it is, therefore, not a viable life and cannot be counted as a living being. However, viability is a moving target. Medical advances have improved the level of viability just in the last 50 years and will continue to improve them in the future. Do we then move the level of viability that determines whether someone deserves to live or not based on medical advancement?
Let’s think about what it would mean if the level of human development were used to argue for whether or not that human being deserves to live. If this argument were to be extrapolated, we could just as easily argue that newborns, 1-year-olds, 9-year-olds and even many teenagers should not be considered viable life simply because they cannot live on their own. And let’s think about some of the more frightening implications of this argument. If human beings are only worthy of protection if they are able to sustain themselves independently of other people, that includes a lot of people in our society, including those who are disabled, temporarily incapacitated, many of the elderly, etc. Should we then argue that those people can be terminated also?
Additionally, if size is somehow a barometer for who gets what kinds of rights, then should not men have more rights than women simply by the fact that men are generally larger? But this would be an absurd position to hold. Basic human rights cover all human beings, not just the smaller or weaker or underdeveloped.
Some will argue that the life that is inside the mother is not really a human being until some point later in the development or after the actual birth. But don’t kinds reproduce after their own kinds? Cats produce cats. Dogs produce dogs. Human beings produce human beings. It would be an absolute shock if were we to wait for the living thing to be born of a human female and come to find out the baby is actually a kitten. What else could the life inside be, but a human being? Even at the earliest stages of development that life inside the mother’s body has a full human DNA distinct from all other creatures of other types of living things that identify the being as a full human being. None of us came from an embryo; we were a human embryo. We’ve always been a human being ever since we were conceived. Our human nature has not changed. We have not progressively come to be human beings. We have simply developed into more mature human beings. The counter argument is, of course, going to be that we can hardly visually identify the living thing inside the mother as a human being. But visual identification is not a compelling reason for disenfranchising a human being. If it were, would we not also be justified to claim that badly deformed people should cease to be human beings as well? Additionally, people are generally unaware that human form takes shape quite early during development and does so at an incredibly fast pace.
Is the organism in the womb not a human being simply by the fact that it is inside a womb? Does the change of environment change the substance of the thing? How does a change in location suddenly change a non-human entity inside the womb into a human one outside it? It makes no sense. Where one is located has no impact on who one is. Do you cease to be a human if you walk into the kitchen or the living room? No! So, does moving 6 inches down a birth canal change the status of the fetus from a non-human being to a human being? No!
Is it possible that the human being is alive in the mother’s body, is a human being, but is not an actual person? Well, if we are to take a scientific angle on this, there is little doubt that a baby is a person since within a strictly physical sense, other than his/her level of development, little distinguishes between our understanding of a human being and a human person. A large sum of traits of personhood is built into the DNA very soon after conception. A human being is synonymous with a human person.
The issue of personhood in a philosophical sense is a bit more complicated. The argument stems from the notion that human personhood is not based on human substance or nature, but rather on certain properties, or characteristics. Those who favor this view claim that human beings are not persons unless they have some property attributed to them outside of their substance or nature. For example, some would define personhood as that which has self-awareness, and then argue that since the human being inside the womb has no self-awareness, then she can’t be a person. But why use self-awareness as the factor that determines personhood? Why not some other property or characteristic, like a limb for instance?
For the sake of argument let’s entertain the notion that self-awareness determines personhood. Does this view hold up under scrutiny? Suppose we have a person who is in a tragic accident that causes him to lose his consciousness but is still alive. Is he still a person? Of course, he is. It would be foolish to suppose that the human being is not a person anymore. Now, suppose he regains his consciousness. Is he now a different person? Of course not! Now, suppose he has lost all of his memory. Is he now a different person? Well, if all we are is simply a combination of parts and properties, then he would have to now be a different person. But that is absurd. Of course, he’s the same person. He’s the same person because what unifies him is not his self-awareness, but his substance or human nature.
Roughly every seven years our natural physical self is recycled and physically speaking most of the parts that build our bodies are completely new. Does this mean we are completely different persons? Of course not! We don’t lose personhood or change personhood based on the gains and losses of certain properties. Do people cease to be persons if they have Alzheimer’s or Dementia? And if self-awareness is the barometer, then what happens when the person’s simply sleeping? Does he cease to be a person and can we kill him while he’s asleep?
The view with the most explanatory power is that which states that personhood is intrinsic to human substance or nature, and cannot be separated from the human being, regardless of the properties or lack of properties of the human being. Personhood is not conferred by external beings that could also remove personhood qualifiers. We are intrinsically persons from the first moments of our very existence simply by our very nature or substance.
For a more in-depth philosophical treatment of the issue of personhood and its implications on the topic of abortion, please see the following:
Perhaps the most widely used argument in favor of abortion rights is the one that deals with the woman’s body. Shouldn’t women have the right to make their own moral decisions without the state or the church to infringe on those rights? Shouldn’t a woman be able to do anything she wants with her body? While on the face of it, this sounds like a good argument, does it really stand up to scrutiny? The first question we should ask is where that fundamental right to absolute self-dominance comes from. Do we all really have absolute authority over our own bodies? There is no question that our bodies are our own and we have a fundamental right to do with them as we see fit, but this right can’t be unlimited. If it were, then it would also be a good argument for surgically implanting bombs, walking into public places, and detonating ourselves and multitudes of others. Would we accept that argument as a means of extending personal freedoms? Absolutely not! The fact of the matter is that no person in civilized society can do anything he or she wants with their body. The argument fails to account for the fact that we’re not merely talking about the woman’s body. Her decision is not done in complete isolation from any the direct implication. Her choice will impact the life of another. We’re, therefore, not speaking merely of the freedom of the mother.
When the rights of one infringe on the rights of another, then those rights need to be curbed in order to avoid trampling on the inalienable rights of others. There is another right – the right to life. And this right is in direct conflict with the mother’s right to choose. The question that should then be asked is this: “is the absolute freedom of the mother to choose without any limits more important than the baby’s right to live?” But why would a woman’s right of choice trump a child’s right to life? The living human being in the mother’s body has an inalienable and an even more fundamental right to life.
To compound the problem of absolute liberty there is the notion that since the mother is the vessel in which the embryo lives, then the mother should have complete control over her own embryo and that no one else should interfere with her decision, whatever decision she chooses to make. It is evident and understandable that the mother’s body is the vessel in which the baby will develop and that fact alone is somewhat of an inconvenience for the mother. But does that mean society should just leave her alone to do what she pleases with her embryo or her child? In other words, does the mother actually own the child? It’s true that the child has no say in the matter and is more or less a silent passenger during the stages of development, but is the child actually owned by the mother? And if so, then what happens when the child turns 5 years-old. What if we said that it should be acceptable for 5-year-olds to be killed if the mother so chooses since the child supposedly belongs to her? If she did have ownership over the child in her womb, why would she not retain ownership of the child outside the womb?
Children are not slaves. They cannot be owned. The baby does not really belong to anyone. The baby is simply under the care and supervision of the mother. The mother is a steward, not a slave owner.
But what if we identify some ailment in the baby while it is still in the womb? Can we not surmise that the baby is going to have a really hard time living and fitting into society? Can we not see that whatever birth defect or abnormality the baby has is going to cause the baby to have a really bad quality life? Is this not reason enough to just end that life early?
Let’s pause and ask about exactly how we can determine the quality of one’s life before birth. Is this not just a purely subjective judgment on our part? Who exactly determines what is this subjective notion of life’s quality at which point it is Ok to terminate a human life? Do we really know how the future is going to turn out? What if we eventually found a cure for whatever ails the child? Surely, everyone’s heard of great stories of courage and prosperity even in situations when people are fighting against the odds.
Even more importantly, to say that a child will have a difficult time in life doesn’t necessarily give us the right to end the life. If it were, then why stop at birth? What’s to keep us from rounding up every child alive who happens to be in pain, suffering from an ailment or living in poverty and simply terminating them all to save them from “poor quality of life?” Ironically, this is what Richard Dawkins, the world’s foremost atheist would favor – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWkJ6cZ0FY8). And what’s to keep us from terminating the elderly because of a value judgment about the deterioration of their lives?
Utilization of this argument is also at the whim of those who “beat the odds” and achieve things not thought possible, like the little girl born with no hands winning a penmanship award, for example.
Shouldn’t a child be terminated if we know that she will be born into a family that does not want her? Will she not be subjected to psychological trauma and undergo much pain in her life? Is it really worth allowing the child to live, if we know all of this beforehand? Surely, when we are well aware that growing up is going to be difficult for the child in question, we have a hard time accepting the fact that the child will probably face difficult circumstances. But what child today does not? With marriages breaking up at an alarming rate, bullying in schools, the rise of drugs and violence, and with the decay of the moral fabric of today’s society, most children are under some duress. Does this somehow justify the termination of any child at five, 10 or 18 years old? In short, there are unwanted children alive today all over the world, orphaned, disabled, born to families that can’t afford them. This cannot be a good justification for abortion. If it were, then it somehow implies that all the unwanted children alive today should also be candidates for termination as well. And that is a horrific and indefensible position.
This argument also presumes with some faulty logic that it is better to be murdered than to live in some sort of psychological discomfort. It also excludes the other less heinous solution of simply giving the child up for adoption so she can have a better life for herself. The termination of the baby is selected as the solution, when less drastic and more morally acceptable and preferable solutions are readily available.
Should anyone make a claim to personal rights as a defense for ending the life of some other innocent life? Considering the fact that a good argument can be made why the act itself should be considered murder instead of just killing, the argument would need to accommodate a justification why the personal right of choice of one individual trumps the personal right to life of another. By comparison, how legitimate would it be if someone were to make this argument: ‘I think it is my personal choice to not live near any Samoan Indians, therefore I think I should simply have the right to kill one if he lives nearby.’? It’s clear that personal choice merits liberty only if that choice does not infringe on the rights of other individuals whose more fundamental right to life is more important and takes precedence.
Within moral relativism, with which people make up their own subjective moral values and duties, one can easily say something like this:
‘I wouldn’t want to judge what others do…that’s between them and God. I may not like abortion myself, but I can’t force my moral beliefs on others. I think they should be free to make their own choices.’
But what does this sort of thinking really say? It basically says I wouldn’t want to kill a baby in the womb, but I can’t morally enforce that others should not kill the baby either. And what is the difference between this and someone saying something like this:
‘I may not like slavery, but I can’t enforce my moral beliefs that slavery is wrong, on others, so others should have the right to own slaves’
Does that make any sense whatsoever? Absolutely none! If everyone’s free to create completely arbitrary moral laws for anything, the collapse of society is imminent. What if we created such an arbitrary law that allowed the murder to one such people group? Would that be morally right? How could we ever have a functional society if everyone is basically building up their own subjective moral framework?
For more insights into civil rights and natural moral rights, you may read this: http://www.talithakoumfiles.blogspot.com/2012/03/abortions-sermon-on-operating-table.html
For more information about objective moral laws and how they differentiate our understanding of good and bad people, you may read this: Was Adolf Hitler a Better Man than Martin Luther King, Jr.?
What if the woman is raped or if incest takes place? Shouldn’t the woman, at least in those circumstances, be allowed to have an abortion? While these types of situations are truly tragic and emotionally challenging, we must nonetheless consider the moral claim that rape or incest justifies murder.
When a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, women will most likely be going through extreme hardship because of the trauma. It is, therefore, proposed that they should not be forced to keep the baby since the baby is bound to remind them of the traumatic experience. In other words, they should not be forced to keep the baby of the rapist. But let’s identify one very important thing yet again – not having an abortion does not necessarily entail keeping the baby. There are morally preferable solutions, such as putting the child up for adoption upon birth. Additionally, if the baby is the result of a rape or incest, why would we think that the solution to the problem of the crime of the father is to end the life of the child?
Today’s rhetorical spin in public forums gives lip service to the notion that abortions are undesirable and acceptable only under certain conditions, such as rape or incest. Yet it has become a commonplace option that has been utilized in a much wider range of instances. The verdict of the 1973 court case itself (Roe vs. Wade) that legalized abortion and has since been responsible for the deaths of over 50 million babies (source: Guttmacher Institute, 2011, August. Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States), was the result of legislating the exception.
Now, even when we take an empathic position with regards to women having the right to an abortion in cases of rape or incest, does it really follow that the exception should be extrapolated to create the rule? And just how commonplace are pregnancies that result in rape or incest anyway?
A 1995 Justice Department report indicates that there were roughly 170,000 completed rapes in the United States. A more recent 2011 report from a European source (source: European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control International Statistics on Crime and Justice, 2011 – http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_rap-crime-rapes), indicates that there were roughly 30 rapes for every 100,000 people in the United States. With the population of the United States being roughly 311,705,000; we can determine that in all there were roughly 93,512 women raped. A 2008 domestic Justice Department report, however, indicates a number much lower. The Justice Department document titled Criminal Victimization in the United States (http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cvus08.pdf) indicates that in all there were 52,470 rape victims in 2008. Now, let’s give pro-choicers the benefit of the doubt and use the higher number of rapes reported in 1995, and do some rough calculations to see how many pregnancies generally result from rape.
|Female Rape Victims||200,000 (using a round figure)||200,000|
|⅓ Too young/old to get pregnant||-67,000||133,000|
|Window of fertilization (3 days for every 30 days)||10%||13,300|
|¼ of all women in the US of child-bearing age have been sterilized.||-25%||10,000|
|Only ½ of the assailants penetrate/deposit sperm.||-50%||5,000|
|15% of men are sterile||-15%||4,250|
|15% of non-surgically sterilized women are naturally sterile.||-15%||3,600|
|15% are on the pill and/or are already pregnant.||-15%||3,070|
|It takes from five to ten months for an average couple to achieve a pregnancy. Calculate using the smaller fewer number of months.||-1/5 months (-20%)||600|
|In a healthy, peaceful marriage, the miscarriage rate ranges up to about 15%. For the trauma of rape, let’s use 20%.||-20%||450|
|Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain which is easily influenced by emotions. There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.||20%||225|
For more details on these calculations, sources, etc. please refer to this: http://realweb.ifastnet.com/stats.html and http://www.abortionfacts.com/online_books/love_them_both/why_cant_we_love_them_both_29.asp
The number remaining is 225 pregnancies because of rape, which closely matches the 200 found in clinical studies. The bottom line is that studies available agree that there are no more than two pregnancies per 1,000 assault rapes. Compared to the actual number of abortions per year, that’s less than 1% of women who have abortions do so, because of rape.
What about incest? Well, that number is actually lower in cases of incest. The fact of the matter is that those who have abortions because of rape or incest are an underwhelming minority. Should we forego the weight of the logical arguments in favor of preserving life in order to create a sweeping law to allow for massive termination of human beings because of such a minor exception?
Increasingly people are becoming more aware of the untenable position of allowing personal freedom to extinguish the right to life. At least 50% of the US population self-identify as pro-lifers (on some of the polls this number is as high as 75%). So why do pro-lifers take a beating in the political arena? Even with the majority in favor of preserving life, still, the position to defend life is ironically understood to be a radical position. Did we ever imagine that trying to protect the right to live in civilized society is a fringe position?
If we care about human rights we must concede that life is precious and must be protected. We cannot hide behind the pretenses that we want justice and with the same breath extinguish the right for human beings to exist. If we do not care for human rights enough to relinquish temporary personal liberties so as to protect life, we are perpetuating a moral slippery slope that will one day see all of our own liberties in jeopardy. Lest we forget this and walk into the quicksand of absolute moral collapse, there can be no liberty without life!There can be no liberty without life! Click To Tweet
For an interesting look into why life cannot be easily reduced into constituent parts, you may check out this article on Perils or Reductionism. For more information on abortion please visit http://www.caseforlife.com.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.
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