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.
Rather than taking up the legal reasoning and history of abortion in
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 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.
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. 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? 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). 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. 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. 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.
 See Scott Rae, Moral Choices, 3rd ed. (
 For an exposition and critique of Singer’s thought, see Gordon R. Preece, ed., Rethinking Peter Singer (
 See Clifford Bajema, Abortion and the Meaning of Personhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1974). This book is on line at: http://www.ccel.us/personhood.toc.html.
 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).
 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).
 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: http://www.nationalreview.com/document/reagan200406101030.asp. This was originally an article in the Spring, 1983 issue of The Human Life Review.
 See Rae, 129-133.
 See Beckwith, chapter two.
I was interested to see that you appear willing to condone abortion in circumstances where the mother's life is endangered. Why would you ever prefer the life of the mother to the life of the fetus? You suggest that in these circumstances the fetus should be considered "a kind of intruder". Does that mean you would condone abortion of a fetus by a healthy rape victim?
In order to be intellectually consistent, I fail to understand how a religiously motivated opponent of abortion can condone the practice in these circumstances.
I should add in closing that I oppose abortion on purely secular grounds. I agree with Singer that treating the fetus as if it were not a live human being is a convenient legal fiction.
Rape intrudes on the woman and is evil. However, the pregnancy itself (most times) does not pose a threat to the mother's life. That is the difference. I do not support abortion for rape or incest unless that pregnancy results in a direct threat to the mother's life (not just mental health).
Remember that the reasoning I gave in the article did not appeal to any uniquely religious convictions. That is a separate argument.
I find your analysis very troubling. There seems to much groundless posturing and warrantless concluding. Because you and I are on the same side of the issue, it just seems to me that if we are going to make the case that we ought to make it substantially.
For example, the main pillar of your argument seems to be, "The fetus is, without question, a human being." What is the warrant that takes us beyond this question? Perhaps I've missed something, but after several readings of your article I find only your naked assertion.
Judeo-Christian history, as an example, has only recently become as pedantic as you are. There is nothing in the Jewish literature from the first millenium B.C. to indicate this view of the fetus even in light of extensive proscriptions and punishments on related matters. The patristics, when condemning contraception, did so not with any view of possible harm to the fetus but only insofar as contraception seemed "black magic". St. Jerome didn't believe a fetus was human until after it was born; Augustine held to the Aristotlean view of 40 or 83 day "ensoulement" after conception. And Pope Innocent III as late as the 13th century didn't believe the fetus was "without question, a human being."
So in light of all of that, what is your warrant for your bold departure from this tradition? I don't think it can be natural law, for all of these good people were just as "natural" as we are!
And all the blustering for the fetus sure comes to a quick halt when Mom enters the picture.
If, as you assert, it is beyond question that the fetus is human, what possible standard do you have for asserting the superior right of the mother? Is the mother "more human"? Does she have a superior right to life? Those are difficult questions, but failing to answer them shows a moral kinship with the opposing view that hardly helps your case. And the analogy of the children playing behind the targets merely begs the question in your favor. No one questions the humanity of children at play but that is the very question under examination with regard to the fetus.
So I applaud your efforts and hope you can find more support for your position.
There is no naked assertion that the fetus is human; it is fact of biology: members of species procreate members of the same species.
The children and the target example does not beg the question. It elucidates how we make should decisions under uncertainty when there are matters of consequence. We don't know if children might be hurt or killed, so we don't shoot at the targets. If we don't know whether the fetus is a person or not (the analogy), then we should not kill it. I am not assuming the fetus is a person there.
Does biology tell us exactly when the soul enters the fetus? Of course not. So to state a fetus is human - without that knowledge - is ipso facto to make a naked assertion. Unless you want to carry this non-sectarian thing as far as to say no humans have souls...but I don't think that you do.
The fact that like-begets-like says nothing of the timing of when like-becomes-like. Your presupposition - and one which I might share by the way - is that like-becomes-like at conception. But in the overall context of your article - i.e. a the non-sectarian argument - there is no necessity to that conclusion. Aristotle didn't believe that. What is it, other than your assertion, that proves that a fetus is human at conception? It's DNA? A banana shares 96% of its DNA with humans. What does that mean? And without that necessary conclusion that a fetus is "ensouled" at conception, I'm afraid using your argument in the real world would be futile or even counter productive.
The rest of my initial posting was just to show that your presuppositions are entirely modern. Why should we believe you and not St. Jerome, or Augustine - or keeping with the non-sectarian model - Aristotle?
I think there has to be a more robust defense. But I suspect we'd have to be sectarian to find it.
Thanks for the interaction.
I wish you peace.
This argument has been repeatedly used in the real world; in fact, this very essay was published in a secular collection of work on ethical issues. Further, I have given the argument in public lectures and in secular classrooms.
No one ever debates the humanity of the fetus. Personhood is more the issue of debate.
Species membership begins at conception. This is a commonplace of biology. What else would come come a human sperm and human egg? A monkey? An asparagus?
Hi Dr. Groothuis,
When you say, "members of species procreate members of the same species" that is really a tautology and not a proof, don't you think? And should this abomination of cloning continue its advance, it may be that different species may reproduce each other in the not too distant future. What then?
And, of course, the "human/person" distinction is helpful because it points to that distinctively human attribute - the soul. What I fail to find in your reasoning is proof that the soul enters the human fetus at any time. You apparently hold firmly to this view but what is your proof? And that is the basis for my charge that you are making "naked assertions" - you have not at any point made the case that the human fetus has a soul and when said soul makes its entrance. Without a soul is a human fetus really that much different than an asparagus? If I've missed it, please show me that proof. I would greatly appreciate it.
And biology is of no help because biology is a physical science and a soul is a non-physical thing. So biology cannot hope to accomplish the great task you set before it - it simply is unqualified. In fact, biology might actually undermine your efforts because a hardened rationalist could point to the biological fetus and proclaim, "Look! No soul!" What would we say of biology then?
Without the proof I am asking you for, Dr. Groothuis, any conversation with between pro-life and pro-abortion is simply a retreat into presuppositions which is never productive.
And yes, thank you, for reminding me that your argument has been used "repeatedly" in the real world. But without the proof for which I am asking, the counter argument - i.e. that a fetus has no soul and is therefore just a "blob" - effectively negates your argument. I cannot see how someone who holds the opposite view could possibly be swayed simply because you assert the position you do. Please help.
And why should we take your word over Aristotle? Or Jerome? Didn't they have biology, too?
I said precisely nothing about "the soul" in my essay; that is because it is not theological argument per se. Humanness and its value is the issue. Biology speaks to species membership at conception. You can argue all you like, but that is a fact. If someone makes the bogus distinction between human and person for the fetus (which I could argue against, but do not in this essay), then I appeal to the argument from ignorance, as laid out in the essay.
We will end the discussion at this point since (a) I am making no progress with you (b) I have other things that demand my focus.
Sorry if I misunderstood and thank you for your kind attention.
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