Saturday, March 28, 2009

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

Abortion is the intentional killing of a human fetus by chemical 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 meeting 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 moral category entirely separate from abortion (since it does not involve the killing of a human fetus), so it will not be addressed here.

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. 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 a fallen, cruel, and unfair world, sometimes life-taking is necessary, as most 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 who believe 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. No real argument can be brought against the claim that what creates a human pregnancy (a fetus) is 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, all persons are not human (such as God, angels, ETs—if they exist), and not all humans are 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 therefore follow that not all humans are persons. The fetus as a person in progress, not a potential person or nonperson.

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; some assert viability outside the womb; some say a sense of self interest. All of these criteria would take away humanity from those in comas or other physically compromised situations. Humans can lose levels of consciousness through injuries, and even infants are not viable without intense human support. Moreover, who are we to say just what qualities make for membership in the moral community of persons? 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 the best ontology is to regard personhood as a substance or essence that is given at conception. Even if one is not sure when personhood kicks in, one should err on the side of being conservative simply because so much is at stake.

Many argue that outside considerations experienced by the mother should overrule the value of the human embryo. But these considerations always involve issues of lesser moral weight than the conservation and protection of a human life. An unwanted pregnancy is difficult, but the answer is not to kill a human being. Moreover, a baby can be put up for adoption. There are many others who do want the child and would give him or her great love and support.

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 fallen and disoriented world awaiting its final redemption. 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 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 a human being) that human life has unique value. A case can be made against abortion by using the Bible (only the Old Testament or both the Old and New Testament combined) as the main moral source, but I have not given that argument here. Rather, this essay has given an argument on the basis of generally agreed upon moral principles. If it is to be refuted, one or more of those principles, or the reasoning used, 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. Anti-abortion laws are not an intrusion of the state into the family any more than laws against murdering one’s parents are intrusions into the family.


Anonymous said...

Dr G.,
Wow! Your short essay has got to be one of the most insightful, direct argument against abortion I think I have ever read. Bravo!

I already printed it off- I need a hard copy of this one.

Unknown said...

Well stated. I think Christians need to be well versed in this sort of dialogue, one that utilizes natural law moreso than scripture. Thank you for modeling this.

Along the lines of natural law...creation itself may make a case for "necessary" killing, but how are Christians to consider this in light of Christ's command to take up our cross? Opening the can of necessary death could, I believe, undermine the pro-life cause itself. Thoughts on this?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

A and J:

The commandment in The Decalogue is "You shall not murder," not "You shall not kill." In a fallen world, killing is sometimes necessary: in self-defense, in just wars, in legitimate police action.

We are always to take up our Cross, but this is not identical to pacifism, which cedes the world to the evil and violent. Lethal force should be a last resort, but it must be a resort. We should "seek peace and pursue it" as the Psalm said, and "inasmuch as it depends on you, be at peace with all people," as Paul affirmed.

"There is a time for every purpose under heaven." Sometimes peaceful means give out. Jesus came to die, but he will come back with a sword coming out of his mouth to bring vengeance on the unrepentent.

The pro-life case is build on protecting the legally innocent. That is their category. Murderers convicted of murder in a fair trial are not in that category. They have forfeited their right to life and the state may (and should) execute them (Genesis 9; Romans 13). They are not legally innocent.

Of course, if all killing of humans is wrong--even fighting the Nazis in WW II--then killing unborn humans is wrong as well. But that is counterintuitive and not supported by the Bible.

Even a soldier can take up his Cross by being brave, self-controlled, and prayerful in battle. Wars should be fought for love, since we should do all to love God and neighbor. The soldier loves his country, his cause, and God. He can even love his enemy by not inflicting needless casualties and cruelty. In a fallen world, war is sometimes necessary.

Taking up the Cross is not incompatible with the legitimacy of capital punishment, police forces, and the military. Nor does it undermine the case for the sanctify of human life.

Bill Honsberger said...

Hi Doug. I have tried to steer my students away from the "person" term altogether. Much like the word "culture" there are so many contradictory definitions that the term is useless. Tooley's paper (1972 What is a Person?) shows how the vagueness of the term allows for virtually any definition and therefore any allowable evil under the guise of the term. So for Tooley a person is someone who has consciousness of self - roughly around 2 years old. So they can be killed for any reason prior to that. Singer of course takes it much worse. I reinforce your point that the fetus is human (now I know what that term means) and that does not change regardless of stage of development. I also address the arbitrary nature of taking one part of the total parcel of humanity (consciousness) and making that the sum total of what makes one a "person". I call the term person a "philosophical fiction" in much the same way Roe v. Wade is a legal fiction.
Enjoyed the article.
Lord bless

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


You cannot avoid personhood--the language or the concept. It is deeply pertinent in the law as well. Tooley is just wrong on this take on it. There are persons who are not human, but no humans who are not persons. Beckwith defends the personhood of the fetus in Defending Life.

Wintery Knight Blog said...

It's a great essay. I liked to it from my blog. Did you know about the discussion between Greg Koukl and Scott Klusendorf on the state of pro-life apolgetics in the current cultural climate?

I blogged about it, with the link to the show, here.

Unknown said...

The fetus as a person in progress, not a potential person or nonperson.
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