Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why I am Pro-life: A Short, Nonsectarian Argument

Thirty eight years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States of America overturned the abortion laws of all fifty states in an act of "raw judicial power" and deep legal illogic, finding a nonexistent "right to privacy in the Constitution" that was applied to abortion. Perhaps fifty-two million unborn human beings have been legal killed by abortion since that grim day.

Today President Barack Obama applauded this egregious and blood-letting decision. Of course, he did; he has premised his abominable political career on being on the wrong side of this life-and-death issue. If you don't think so, read The Case Against Barack Obama. One cannot be pro-life and support this man.

I wrote the following essay as a short, philosophical defense of the pro-life position. It has been published in a secular textbook, Taking Sides, a work on moral issues. Please ponder this argument, spread the word, and promote the culture of life against the culture of death and callousness.


Abortion is the intentional killing of a human fetus by chemical and/or surgical means. It should not be confused with miscarriage (which involves no human intention) or contraception (which uses various technologies to prohibit sperm and egg from producing a fertilized ovum after sexual intercourse). Miscarriages are natural (if sad) occurrences, which raise no deep moral issues regarding human conduct—unless the woman was careless in her pregnancy. Contraception is officially opposed by Roman Catholics and some other Christians, but I take it to be in a moral category entirely separate from abortion (since it does not involve the killing of a fetus); therefore, it will not be addressed here.[1]

Rather than taking up the legal reasoning and history of abortion in America (especially concerning Roe vs. Wade), this essay makes a simple, straightforward moral argument against abortion. Sadly, real arguments (reasoned defenses of a thesis or claim) are too rarely made on this issue. Instead, propaganda is exchanged. Given that the Obama administration is the most pro-abortion administration in the history of the United States, some clear moral reasoning is called for at this time.

The first premise of the argument is that human beings have unique and incomparable value in the world. Christians and Jews believe this is the case because we are made in God’s image and likeness. But anyone who holds that humans are special and worthy of unique moral consideration can grant this thesis (even if their worldview does not ultimately support it). Of course, those like Peter Singer who do not grant humans any special status will not be moved by this.[2] We cannot help that. Many true and justified beliefs (concerning human beings and other matters) are denied by otherwise intelligent people.

Second, the burden of proof should always be on the one taking a human life and the benefit of doubt should always be given to the human life. This is not to say that human life should never be taken. In an often cruel and unfair world, sometimes life-taking is necessary, as many people will grant. Cases include self-defense, the prosecution of a just war, and capital punishment. Yet all unnecessary and intentional life-taking is murder, a deeply evil and repugnant offense against human beings. (This would also be acknowledged by those, such as absolute pacifists, who believe that it is never justifiable to take a human life.)

Third, abortion nearly always takes a human life intentionally and gratuitously and is, therefore, morally unjustified, deeply evil, and repugnant—given what we have said about human beings. The fetus is, without question, a human being. Biologically, an entity joins its parents’ species at conception. Like produces like: apes procreate apes, rabbits procreate rabbits, and humans procreate humans. If the fetus is not human, what else could it possibly be? Could it be an ape or a rabbit? Of course not.

Some philosophers, such as Mary Anne Warren, have tried to drive a wedge between personhood and humanity. That is, there may be persons who are not human (such as God, angels, ETs—if they exist), and there may be humans that are not persons (fetuses or those who lose certain functions after having possessed them). While it is true that there may be persons who are not humans, it does not logically follow that there are humans who are not persons. The fetus is best regarded as a person with potential, not a potential person or nonperson.[3]

When we separate personhood from humanity, we make personhood an achievement based on the possession of certain qualities. But what are these person-constituting qualities? Some say a basic level of consciousness; others assert viability outside the womb; still others say a sense of self-interest (which probably does not obtain until after birth). All of these criteria would take away humanity from those in comas or other physically compromised situations.[4] Humans can lose levels of consciousness through injuries, and even infants are not viable without intense and sustained human support. Moreover, who are we to say just what qualities make for membership in the moral community of persons?[5] The stakes are very high in this question. If we are wrong in our identification of what qualities are sufficient for personhood and we allow a person to be killed, we have allowed the wrongful killing of nothing less than a person. Therefore, I argue that personhood should be viewed as a substance or essence that is given at conception. The fetus is not a lifeless mechanism that only becomes what it is after several parts are put together—as is the case with a watch or an automobile. Rather, the fetus is a living human organism, whose future unfolds from within itself according to internal principles. For example, the fertilized ovum contains a complete genetic code that is distinct from that of the mother or father. But this is not a mere inert blueprint (which is separable from the building it describes); this is a living blueprint that becomes what its human nature demands.

Yet even if one is not sure when personhood becomes a reality, one should err on the side of being conservative simply because so much is at stake. That is, if one aborts a fetus who is already a person, one commits a deep moral wrong by wrongfully killing an innocent human life. Just as we do not shoot target practice when we are told there may be children playing behind the targets, we should not abortion fetuses if they may be persons with the right not to be killed. As I have argued, it cannot be disputed that abortion kills a living, human being.

Many argue that outside considerations experienced by the mother should overrule the moral value of the human embryo. If a woman does not want a pregnancy, she may abort. But these quality of life considerations always involve issues of lesser moral weight than that of the conservation and protection of a unique human life (which considers the sanctity or innate and intrinsic value of a human life).[6] An unwanted pregnancy is difficult, but the answer is not to kill a human being in order to end that pregnancy. Moreover, a baby can be put up for adoption and bring joy to others. There are many others who do want the child and would give him or her great love and support. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for women to experience deep regrets after aborting their offspring.

The only exemption to giving priority to the life of the fetus would be if there were a real threat to the life of the mother were the pregnancy to continue. In this case, the fetus functions as a kind of intruder that threatens the woman’s life. To abort the pregnancy would be tragic but allowable in this imperfect world. Some mothers will nonetheless choose to continue the pregnancy to their own risk, but this is not morally required. It should be noted that these life-threatening situations are extremely rare.

This pro-life argument does not rely on any uniquely religious assumptions, although some religious people will find it compelling. I take it to be an item of natural law (what can be known about morality by virtue of being human) that human life has unique value. A case can be made against abortion by using the Bible (only the Hebrew Bible or both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament combined) as the main moral source, but I have not given that argument here.[7] Rather, this essay has given an argument on the basis of generally agreed upon moral principles. If the argument is to be refuted, one or more of those principles or the reasoning employed needs to be refuted.

Although at the beginning of this essay I claimed I would not take up the legal reasoning related to abortion, one simple point follows from my argument. In nearly every case, abortion should be illegal simply because the Constitution requires that innocent human life be protected from killing.[8] Anti-abortion laws are not an intrusion of the state into the family any more than laws against murdering one’s parents are an intrusion into the family.

[1] See Scott Rae, Moral Choices, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 288-291.

[2] For an exposition and critique of Singer’s thought, see Gordon R. Preece, ed., Rethinking Peter Singer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

[3] See Clifford Bajema, Abortion and the Meaning of Personhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1974). This book is on line at:

[4] On the dangerous implications of his perspective, see Francis A. Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, revised ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1983).

[5] For a developed philosophical and legal case for including the unborn in the moral community of human beings, see Francis Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007); and Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008).

[6] On the distinction between a quality of life ethic and a sanctity of life ethic, see Ronald Reagan, “Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation,” available at: This was originally an article in the Spring, 1983 issue of The Human Life Review.

[7] See Rae, 129-133.

[8] See Beckwith, chapter two.


Jaime said...

You do make the case for your argument, and anyone sharing your axioms would agree. But of course you are already aware that, leaving nutheads from either side apart, the differences arise from the axioms: whether a zygote, a morula or a blastocyst should be considered a human being, or whether this category is attained later on.

In any case, your argument renders it morally correct that a woman be forced to endure the pregnancy of a child conceived during rape. And since you are relying on natural law to sustain your case, dont't you find that to be morally very wrong, based on "what can be known about morality by virtue of being human"?

Unknown said...

"Of course, those like Peter Singer who do not grant humans any special status will not be moved by this.[2] We cannot help that."

why can't you argue pro or against this? P. Singer argues against speciesism, saying that belonging to a particular species is not morally relevant. You can test this position with specific thought experiments.

And you say "human beings have unique and incomparable value in the world.".

I'm sure that we all agree that humans are "unique", not even Singer would disagree. And your "imcomparable" is wrong, since you do compare them with other animals, to say that we are superior. To say that humans are unique we simply need to give *suffienct* conditions (no other animal can build space rockets), but the whole argument here is about *necessary* conditions.

So your argument starts with a weak premise that you don't defent, that you actually say you *can't* defend, and a non sequitur.

Boonton said...

1. As for the right to privacy being fictional. The Constitution clearly recognizes that the rights it puts in writing are not an exhaustive list. The right to privacy was not created in Roe but before Roe. It's interesting to note that without a right to privacy not only could the state do things like prohibit married couples from using contraception, they could also do the opposite, such as mandate contraception for 'undesirable' married couples or try to order some women to get pregnant and have children to, say, achieve some goal of population growth
2. The right to take a life in certain cases seems to need some thought. I have a right to take a life to, say, protect my home from invasion by robbers even if those robbers do not intend to kill me. I have a right to say no to a request that I donate my kidney even though the burden on me may be minimal and my refusal will result in certain death of a sympathetic person.
3. Like many pro-lifers, you seem to confuse the moral problems with the state deciding abortion with the state simply not deciding. In a world where the state is forcing people to have abortions (such as is said to happen in China under their 'one child' policy even to this day), the state is morally accountable for the decision to abort as it removes the ability of the woman to do anything In contrast Roe simply moves the burden of evaluating the morality of abortion onto the individual woman. This seems pretty natural. Spin all the political theories you want about personhood, social contracts, etc. That doesn't alter the fact that we come into the world not through governments, laws, or even marriages but through the bodies of women.
It's pretty much accepted that different sovereigns have different jurisdictions. For example, if I accidently kill someone my actions are judged usually by state laws and if I'm convicted of a crime it's usually by a state jury (except in certain circumstances where jurisdiction might fall to the Federal gov't or even in the case of some war crimes to an international tribunal). Simply, when you're an individual in a state you're under state jurisdiction, when you're a cell in a womb your under woman's jurisdiction.
Might the woman make an immoral call? Yes. Then again states make immoral calls all the time. Innocent people are convicted, guilty people not, guilty people get convicted but are given punishments that are unjustly harsh etc. As you said it's an imperfect world. Mother's on average probably do a better job than gov'ts but you still have to take a pretty high 'error rate' like it or not.
4. Regardless of whether or not you like the 'natural' idea that women have sovereignty in this area because it's their bodies and their burden because that's just how nature designed humans, pro-lifers often gloss over the distinction between choosing abortion and simply not acting to stop abortion (or punish it afterwards). Pro-lifers, for example, often bemoan Roe because it took abortion 'out of the hands of the states'. But before Roe many states had legalized abortion and absolutely no state punished abortion as murder. Even today when the subject comes up of whether pro-lifers would actually treat women who have abortions as murders, the response is to sow confusion (or engage in some creative forms of denial, such as a pseudo-feminist claim that women who get abortions are 'also victims'...innocents supposedly brainwashed by abusive boyfriends or doctors scheming to earn the vast fortunes to be found in the 'abortion industry'). Legal arguments then, such as a 14th amendment argument against abortion, should honestly be discussed not as returning a pre-Roe status quo but actually a radical change in legal thought.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I won't respond to the legal argument, but I agree with the dissenting opinion in Roe that this was an act of "raw judicial power."

No person has the right to take the life of an innocent human being. That is simply why abortion should be criminalized. A woman has no sovereignty or autonomy over the other life within her. That should be valued virtuously.

By decriminalizing abortion, the state opened the doors to 52 million abortion, the vast majority of which were not needed to save the life or even improve the health of mother.

That is evil.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

To K:

Incomparable concerns value; it does not means there is no comparison whatsoever, but that we have a unique value not on a par with anything else. It really means: without peer. You are giving a jaundiced reading of the word to try to make me look silly, but there is nothing wrong with the way I used the word,

Unknown said...

So what is your argument against Singer's critique of speciesism?

Nancy C said...

Thank you for posting this essay.Want to talk about this topic in my class of communication.