Arguments For and Against Abortion
27 January 2023
According to the World Health Organisation, every year there are an estimated 73 million abortions worldwide. This corresponds to approximately 200,000 abortions per day. In 2020, about 1 in 5 pregnancies ended in abortion in the US.
Abortion is the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy. The debate regarding it is a long one. In fact, the first known abortion dates back to 1550 BC. But this says nothing about the moral value of the issue. Murder is far more ancient — in fact, in Biblical tradition, it is one of mankind’s first sins. That its origins are ancient does not prove that it is moral.
With the overturning of Roe v Wade, talk of abortion has been difficult to avoid for any person online. Due to the tidal wave response, many have been exposed to a wide array of arguments for abortion — none of which, I believe, justify upholding abortion as a right.
As we inspect the different arguments for and against abortion, it will become apparent that much discussion is rights-based, and that there are many presumptions about humanness and values that underlie the debate. [Note that this post will be focussing primarily upon the moral worth of abortion, not whether everything immoral should be illegal (though in this case, I would think so).]
“It’s my choice!”
Some will say that you can’t support freedom and simultaneously be anti-abortion. We live in a culture obsessed with control, and it claims: “People should be free to do whatever they want! As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, it doesn’t matter!”
Now, as many abortion-opposers would object, it does hurt somebody — but we will address that point later. First, we should remark that just because certain persons have the capacity to choose, does not mean that all choices are equal, or that there is no wrong choice, or that there are no choices you cannot make. Your choices aren’t virtuous just because you chose them freely.
Having a choice is empowering, but not every choice made is an empowered choice. A person might choose to get drunk every night — this is clearly not an empowered choice, but a disempowered choice. Anything built on a disempowered choice will simply be an extension of disempowerment.
A person might choose to kidnap and murder someone else. Should we praise them simply because they made a choice? Just because they acted freely, should we congratulate them for their bravery? Surely not!
There’s a limit to any privilege. Do enough things wrong, and you’ll have freedoms taken away from you. Freedom and rights are accommodated by responsibility. Your right to choose does not trump your responsibility to consider the well-being of your fellow man. An abortion-opposer might go further and add that your right to choose does not trump your responsibility to be a good mother to the child in your womb.
Regarding reproduction, a truly empowered choice would be for women to have good discernment and solid boundaries regarding who they have sex with in the first place! Take control over your body by controlling your sexual desires.
“It’s my body!”
The baby, though being in a relationship of dependence upon the mother, is not part of the mother. To be a fully mature female does not depend upon the existence of a baby in the womb. That the child is a separate body is implicitly admitted by those who justify abortion by calling the baby a “parasite.” Such a claim is in tension with the idea that only the woman’s body is present.
But, accepting (for a moment) that it is just your body — can you morally mutilate your own body? Just because something is yours (or you), it does not mean you can do anything you want to/with it. We have already established that choices are not moral or allowable simply because they were chosen.
Suppose a woman takes a pregnancy test, not wanting to be pregnant. Of course, she will only go to an abortion clinic if the test comes out positive, but why? What is it that the positive test tells her that the negative test does not? The negative test tells her that it’s just her body. But the positive test tells her that it’s no longer just her body — another body is present. I know of no woman with twenty fingers and four feet — someone else is there.
The fact that one goes to an abortion clinic is an acknowledgement of another body present. A supporter of bodily autonomy cannot then allow a pregnant woman to get an abortion, for that would impact another body. If it isn’t your body, then you certainly cannot harm it, just as a landlord cannot murder a tenant just because they live on his property.
Conceding that there is another body involved, other abortion-supporters may argue that the right to bodily autonomy trumps the right to life. Indeed, this even applies to corpses. In many countries, you cannot legally take the organs of the deceased without their prior consent.
Some will bring up the “violinist argument” to demonstrate that the woman is not obliged to carry the fetus to term, even if it is another body. This argument was made famous by Judith Jarvis Thomson, who posited that a person can be equal to another without having the right to another person’s body. She defended this with an analogy:
“… imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own.
The director of the hospital now tells you, ‘Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you — we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.'”
(A Defence of Abortion, 1971)
Thomson’s point was this: even though the violinist is a human person, with the same dignity and right to life, he does not have the right to use your body without your consent. Just as you can reach around and unplug the violinist, so can a pregnant woman “unplug” the fetus.
This analogy, however, is not as strong as it first appears — it is guilty of false equivalence. For most women who become pregnant, they have consented to the act of sex, which brought about the pregnancy. In that vein, the analogy only works for rape victims. [See later section: “It’s not my fault if I get pregnant!”]
And there is yet another false equivalence: Thomson’s analogy ignores the moral responsibility of a mother. Parents have a responsibility for their offspring that they do not have for strangers. You are not morally responsible for the well-being of some random guy, but you are morally responsible for your child. As a parent, you have a parental role that should move you to make great sacrifices for the sake of your offspring.
Even as a rape victim, by virtue of being the parent, a mother is duty-bound to carry the child to term. It’s nice of you to give food to the poor in your city, but not to do so would not be breaking the law. But to neglect and fail to feed your child, in your home, is against the law. There’s a moral and legal difference between a stranger-stranger relationship and a mother-child relationship.
The pro-abortion argument might respond with this analogy: “Imagine you’re a parent of a child, whom you love, who gets very sick. They need a kidney transplant or else they will die. Suppose you are the only one in the world who meets the conditions for such a kidney donation. It would be nice, and it would save your child’s life, to donate your kidney. It wouldn’t kill you. Should the law force you to give your kidney to your child?” Just as a parent does not have a legal duty to give their born child their kidney, a mother should not have a legal duty to give her preborn child her uterus.
But again, we have another false equivalence. Consider: What is the nature and purpose of a kidney and how does that differ from the nature and purpose of a uterus? The kidney exists in my body for my body. The uterus exists in my body for someone else’s body.
The uterus is unique from all other body parts. It is the woman’s most selfless organ. It exists more for my offspring than for me. And with that knowledge, the preborn child has a right to the womb in a way that the born child does not have a right to the kidney.
At the bare minimum, there is a parental responsibility to meet the basic needs of one’s child. We might distinguish these ordinary needs from extraordinary needs, for which there is no duty to meet them. The uterus is the food, shelter, and clothing of the preborn child.
Ordinary care (i.e., the basic care required for regular human growth and development) is an obligation. However, the sacrifices required for the violinist are above the call of duty — it is extraordinary care. It’s heroic and admirable to meet extraordinary needs, but it is not an obligation.
“Men want to control us!”
By itself, this claim just assumes the worst of the opposing side. It also ignores the fact that there are women on the opposing side — women who might even be feminists also! A more comprehensive construction of an abortion-supporters egalitarian point may be this: “A woman who is denied an abortion is required to sacrifice educational and work opportunities. Because men cannot become pregnant, they can pursue their professional goals freely. Therefore, abortion restrictions make women unequal with men.”
Anthony McCarthy responds that the practice of abortion actually creates inequality between the sexes because it does not respect the experiences which are unique to women (such as pregnancy). Some on the pro-abortion side will dismiss pregnancy as a harmful condition that reduces pregnant women to “incubators.” But true gender equality involves respect and support for what makes women different.
Some will automatically dismiss any male contribution to the debate, saying, “No uterus, no opinion!” But this just ignores the possibility of a woman holding the exact same view. It also suggests that pregnancy is something a woman does to herself and that it is purely a woman’s issue. This, of course, is ridiculous, for there would be no pregnancy if not for the man’s contribution.
“It’s not my fault if I get pregnant!”
Some on the anti-abortion side of the debate will argue that women should take responsibility for the pregnancy. If a woman gets pregnant from consensual sex, even if she was using contraception, it’s still her fault and should accept the consequences — she knew the risks.
A pro-abortion response may be this: “Suppose I get hit by a car while crossing the street at a crosswalk. Cars are meant to stop, but they don’t, and I get hit. Is it my fault? If I cross a road, there’s always a chance that I could get hit by a car. But just because I know there’s a risk, does not mean I consented or should be blamed for that risk being realised!”
Now, as you might be able to tell, there is a false equivalence here. When crossing a road, you have a justified belief in the ability and autonomy of the drivers on that same road — they are intelligent beings with a moral responsibility not to hit you. It’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that nobody’s going to hit you when you legally cross a road. There are moral agents (i.e., drivers) who are motivated to ensure this. Suppose you are hit by accident — the responsibility falls upon the driver.
Now, when having sex, you cannot expect the same of pregnancy. The fertilisation of an egg is a biological process. There is no agent with a moral responsibility to make sure you are not impregnated – no agent, that is, other than the couple participating in sex. You cannot hold the biological process accountable. You are the “driver” here.
If there is a risk in an act, that is not dependent upon (or influenced by) any other autonomous being, then you are the one to blame if that risk becomes realised. A better analogy might be this: Suppose you run by a cliff, an acceptable distance away from the cliff’s edge, but a rock gives way, and you tumble, fall, and perish. Who is to blame? The rock? How can you blame an inanimate object?
Similarly, for a less gruesome analogy, suppose you hit a baseball ball through your neighbour’s window. Surely you cannot then say to them, “I consented to baseball, but I didn’t consent to smashing your window, so I’m not paying for it!” Your neighbour can rightfully argue that by entering the game, you embraced the risks associated with it. In both analogies, the consequences are unexpected, unintended, you didn’t consent to it — but the blame can only be attributed to you. (Similar logic can be applied to child support. A man may have consented to sex, but not a child — should he then have to pay child support? Yes! By virtue of engaging in sex, he must accept the consequences.)
The idea that somehow the responsibility does not lie with the mother is born from the dishonest and dangerous view that sex and procreation are unrelated phenomena.
Before we consider arguments regarding life at conception, let’s investigate how a child develops in the womb. There are a number of different dating systems for pregnancy, the most commonly used being “gestational age” (ga.), which begins from the start of the woman’s last menstrual period and dates fertilisation at two weeks along. “Fertilisation age” (fa.) begins on the day of fertilisation, and “implantation age” begins at implantation.
1. Germinal Stage
This stage begins at conception, when the sperm and egg cell unite in a fallopian tube and become a zygote. It’s interesting to note that, within the first two hours after fertilisation, the zygote releases 2-3 (even up to 5) sparks of light. This is due to an increase in calcium and rapid release of zinc, which joins itself to small molecule probes, creating a microscopic flash of light. (This, obviously, proves nothing about whether life begins at conception — but it may be considered symbolic for those who hold this view.)
The zygote begins to travel to the uterus, and about 24 hours after fertilisation, cell division begins — from one cell, to two, to four, etc. Cells begin to take on certain characteristics, and will separate into two masses, eventually becoming the placenta and embryo.
While journeying to the uterine wall, the zygote develops into a blastocyst, which is made up of three layers: (1) The ectoderm: skin and nervous system. (2) The endoderm: digestive and respiratory system. And (3) the mesoderm: muscle and skeletal system.
The blastocyst then attaches to the uterine wall (i.e., implantation). A large number of conceptions will have failed to reach this point, failing to survive through various processes. But if all goes according to plan, the blastocyst essentially takes over hormonal control of the whole uterus, and implantation finishes about 7 days after fertilisation (3 weeks ga.).
2. Embryonic Stage
Weeks 3-10 ga. mark the embryonic period, playing an important role in the development of the brain. At 3-4 weeks fa., a heartbeat can be detected. About 4 weeks fa., the neural tube forms (and with it, brain vesicles form), later to develop into the central nervous system (i.e., the spinal cord and brain).
Around 4 weeks ga., the head begins to form, soon followed by distinct facial features. The blood vessel (later to become the heart) begins to pulse, and a heartbeat can be detected later by ultrasound at 6-7 weeks ga.. During week 5 ga., stubs appear that will form arms and legs. It is around this time that most women become aware of their pregnancy (4-7, or more commonly 5-6, weeks ga.).
Around week 7 ga., the embryo begins to develop their first sense — touch. By week 8 ga., fingers have begun to form, the embryo has all of its basic organs (aside from sex organs), and the production of brain cells begins. In week 9 ga., the embryo can suck her thumb, open and close her jaw, stretch, and sigh.
By the end of the embryonic stage, cell differentiation is mostly complete. The basic structures of the brain, central nervous system, and peripheral nervous system have been established, and rudimentary neural networks begin to form as neurons form connections with other neural cells.
Most abortions take place during the embryonic stage, and a remaining 20% take place later.
3. Fetal Stage
The remainder of the pregnancy is termed the “fetal stage.” Systems/structures established in the previous stage continue to develop. Between 9-12 weeks ga., reflexes begin to emerge, and the fetus begins to make motions with its arms and legs. By the end of the third-month ga., all parts of the body are formed. This marks the end of the first trimester of pregnancy.
During the second trimester, the fetus increases six times in size. The heart grows stronger, body systems develop further, and hair, lashes, and nails form. By the end of the trimester, the central nervous system becomes more responsive, and brain activity resembles that of a sleeping newborn. A baby born at this stage has a slim, but possible, chance of survival. In fact, fetuses born too early have been known to be saveable at as early as 21 weeks ga.
The third and final trimester continues development and growth, and muscles in the lungs prepare for breathing. Childbirth, on average, occurs at 40 weeks ga.
If you’re wondering when pain comes into the picture, there is no consensus. The matter is still debated by medical professionals, who have together argued that fetal pain comes to exist somewhere within the wide range of 7-24 weeks ga.
There are two types of abortion: medical and surgical. Medical abortions can be performed up to 9 weeks ga. and involve taking pills to induce a miscarriage. Surgical abortions use suction to remove the preborn child. Some abortion procedures are as follows (you may desire to refer to the previous section and note the child’s development at each stage):
Abortion pill (4-7 weeks ga.): The woman is given pills to kill the embryo. If this does not work, she is given a second drug to cause cramps and expel the embryo. The woman will experience cramps and bleeding.
Manual vacuum aspiration (up to 7 weeks ga.): The abortionist uses a thin tube, inserted into the uterus, and a syringe to suck out the embryo. The vacuum suction is weak, so the child is ripped apart slowly.
Suction curettage (weeks 6-14 ga.): The most common surgical abortion. An abortionist uses rods (or medication) to dilate the woman’s cervix in order to get their instruments through to the uterus. A tube is inserted into the uterus and is connected to a suction machine — the force of the suction is 10-20x that of a normal house vacuum. Baby does not come out whole, but is sucked out piece by piece — arms, legs, hands, etc. The abortionist may use a loop-shaped knife tool to scrape the remaining parts out of the uterus. They may then take the contents and piece back the body, to make sure all body parts have been removed and nothing is left in the mother.
Dilation and evacuation (weeks 13-24 ga.): A second-trimester abortion. The preborn baby is too large for suction. An abortionist dilates the cervix (larger than previous) by inserting rods a least a day before the abortion. The mother is given anaesthesia for the pain, and a suction tube is used to remove the amniotic fluid surrounding the baby. Inserting forceps (i.e., a sopher clamp), the abortionist then twists, dismembers, and pulls out parts of the fetus — an arm, leg, etc. Because the head is larger (maybe the size of a plum), it is crushed, white material (i.e., brain) runs out of the cervix, and a rotating technique is employed to avoid cutting the woman upon removal. The abortionist then scrapes out any remaining tissue and assembles the baby’s parts on a tray, to determine if any part of the body is missing.
Dilation and extraction (from 20 weeks ga.): Like the previous method. Days are dedicated to dilating the cervix with various dilators. The abortionist uses ultrasound to locate the legs and begins to remove the fetus starting from the feet to the head. Scissors are inserted into the base of the skull, creating an opening for a suction tube to remove the brain. The skull collapses and is removed. This, and similar procedures, have also been termed a “partial-birth abortion.”
Intracardiac injection abortion (from 25 weeks ga.): A third-trimester abortion. The preborn baby is injected with a drug to cause cardiac arrest, usually killing it. Dilators are used to open the cervix so that the baby can be delivered. The baby is later checked, and if alive, is injected again. The woman will eventually have contractions and deliver a dead baby.
There are many stories of babies who survived abortion attempts and were left to die after being born. Melissa Ohden is the product of a failed abortion. A toxic saline solution was injected into her mother’s uterus, intending to burn and poison the baby. When she was born alive, she was left to die — fortunately, a nurse heard the baby crying and rushed the child to the NICU. Melissa suffered severe respiratory problems, jaundice, and seizures — but she was eventually adopted out and today lives to speak out against abortion.
“How do you know life begins at conception?”
The moment a preborn child comes into existence, so too do a mother and father come into existence. But when does such a child come into existence? For the abortion-supporter, it is often the case that their beliefs about when life begins synchronises with their beliefs about when abortion should be banned.
But by arguing, for example, that life begins at six months, the supporter implicitly concedes that something significant happened six months earlier that causes us to count the passage of time (i.e., fertilisation) — so, one must ask, why draw the line at six months at all? Why not point back to time zero?
But suppose a supporter does not know when abortion should be banned, should they not then err on the side of caution? Surely you would not proceed with a building demolition without being sure that the building had been properly evacuated. Anything else is a blatant disregard for life.
But the pro-abortion side might respond, why stop at fertilisation? “Sperm and egg cells are alive too!”
Dr Maureen L Condic expertly responds to such a claim, making a case for life beginning at the beginning of fertilisation (fertilisation being a process). She explains: Scientific distinctions are made between various cell types, based on two relatively simple criteria: cells are known to be different from each other because they have different compositio … and because they exhibit distinct types of cell behaviour. (When Does Human Life Begin? 2008). That is, what it is made up of and what it does.
A sperm has the genetic material of the father, while an egg has the genetic material of the mother — via their composition, we can tell that these are two different cells. A sperm swims to find and fertilise an egg, while an egg lays around and awaits fertilisation — via their behaviour, we can tell that these are two different cells.
Now apply this to the fertilised egg. Even before the chromosomes have combined within the cell, the zygote has the genetic material of both mother and father — a unique composition distinct from that of sperm or egg. And, upon the entry of the sperm, the zygote is quick to prevent the entry of any further sperm — again, this is behaviour distinct from that of sperm or egg. The zygote, quite unlike the sperm and egg, will then proceed along the stages outlined in the previous section (i.e., Fetal Development).
By these distinctions, we can conclude that, upon fertilisation, there is something new that we didn’t have before. This new thing, it can then be argued, is the offspring of the parents. And if parents are morally responsible for their offspring, parenthood begins here, and they ought to protect that child from that point forward.
One of the key issues in the abortion debate is the matter of personhood. One may distinguish between a human and a person. A human is more to do with biological classification and what makes Homo sapiens distinct from other things/creatures. A person has moral and legal consideration (such as the right against inviability) and cannot be harmed without good reason. However, what qualifies as a person is up for debate. “Human” is a scientific term, while “person” is a philosophical term. A fetus is certainly alive, it is certainly human, but is it a person? [Discussion of this matter is long, complex, and continuing — naturally, many aspects will not be addressed here.]
Understandably, many people define “person” as “human,” and use the terms synonymously. That which is human is a who. This however poses a problem. Surely my hair, blood, limbs, etc are not considered persons apart from myself. A bag of blood is human, but it is not a person. The definition must be more specific than this. A way to expand the definition might be to say that a person is the primary sum of a distinct human being. This, of course, goes for twins — who, despite being biologically identical, are distinguishable in the eyes of physics.
But one might respond that this is also problematic. If I were to be cut in half, each half would not then be counted as separate persons, despite having a different location within space-time. Perhaps a simpler definition of personhood is as follows: “the primary sum of that which begins as a human zygote.” This definition even includes the dead — which is not so problematic when one considers the great amount of care usually taken when dealing with dead bodies. But if one were opposed to the dead being persons, all one would have to do is insert the conditional of “living” into their definition.
(It may also be interesting to consider whether people with dissociative identity disorder are one or more persons. Perhaps one could employ the argument from personal identity — “the continuity between my mature, conscious self and my embryonic, fetal and childhood self and my future older, possibly demented self.” Though, on the practical level, it makes little difference, for moral consideration is attributed to the body by virtue of even a single alters personhood.)
For those who believe in a transcendent soul, a person may be defined as a human soul. The question then becomes when a human attains such a soul, to which one might return to the previous section. In this case, the body is no longer relevant to personhood upon death, as the soul leaves the body.
Some (such as Peter Singer) would claim that such definitions with the conditional “human” are speciesist, and that the definition of person should not automatically exclude animals/androids and should instead be concerned with capacity. For example, many will define personhood in terms of human consciousness, rationality, and/or self-awareness.
A fetus is not conscious, nor can it reason, it certainly isn’t self-aware, and therefore it is not a person and killing it is permissible. But this is problematic. While sleeping, you are not conscious, rational, or self-aware — are you then no longer a person? It may be objected that the mere capacity for these is all that is necessary, whether or not they are utilising them at present. But what of the severely disabled? They have no capacity for reason, they may not even be self-aware.
Similarly, a person in a coma has no such capacities. One may argue that they may gain these abilities in the future, and so must be attributed personhood by virtue of that future capacity. But how then does this differ from a preborn child? Given all goes to plan, a zygote will progress into a conscious, rational, and self-aware being also — it is its nature. Just because circumstances (e.g., one’s age) limit one’s consciousness, rationality, and/or self-awareness, does not mean one is less of a person. Is it not more intuitive for personhood to be a matter of existence, as opposed to circumstance? Indeed, human rights are not given based on circumstance or age.
One might argue that if it’s not evil to pull the plug on a brain-dead person, it’s not evil to abort a preborn child with yet no brain activity. There’s an obvious problem here — the preborn child is only in this state temporarily. They are going through the necessary and basic motions which lead to brain activity. There is no consciousness without this process.
Is it then ok to exploit that window of limited consciousness, despite knowing that greater consciousness will be realised in a matter of mere months? What if we knew that the coma patient would recover in due time? Are we then free to do as we please with the unconscious human until that moment?
Again, one might respond, what about the fact that a preborn child has never been conscious, rational, or self-aware? A grown person, prior to being in a coma, has a conscious desire to live. But why is that relevant? Even with such a view in mind, most abortion-supporters still draw a line at some point along the pregnancy. But why? The fetus hasn’t expressed a desire to live.
Even for months after birth, babies cannot be said to be rational, self-aware, or conscious (at least in any way comparable to a grown human). Perhaps it is pain perception that abortion-supporters are concerned about — but anaesthetic can nullify that. And yet killing a child then would still be abhorrent. Why?
Killing is not wrong because of pain or awareness — it is wrong because the thing killed is a human. Along a different vein, Don Marquis argues that killing is understood in terms of what killing does to us — it imposes on us the misfortune of premature death. Premature death is a misfortune because when one is dead, one has been deprived of future life.
Suppose one man falls into a coma from which he never recovers and dies after many years. Suppose another man dies suddenly. Neither scenario seems more unfortunate than the other, both were deprived of a future conscious life. Likewise, abortion deprives preborn children of future conscious lives.
Briefly, we might also consider that consciousness and rationality come in different degrees. If consciousness/rationality/self-awareness is the measure of worth, is a 10-year-old more valuable than a 2-year-old who has less awareness? Does a 40-year-old have more worth than a 90-year-old dementia patient? We seem to be equally concerned about the well-being of all persons, but if human worth is a gradient, then surely that would not be the case. Surely personhood does not slide in and out of existence like this.
But even supposing that a preborn child is not a person, does that then justify killing it? We even treat the dead with respect! How much more should we treat living humans with respect. We do not freely go around killing other mammals that inconvenience us. Are we free to butcher and inflict terrible pain upon animals? Of course not! Such a thing is abhorrent and signals the makings of a psychopath. Even a meat eater has a conscience about how animals should be treated. Most animals are not self-aware nor have the potential to be so. They have no real concept of “I” or “me,” and never will.
Some will argue that the capacity for pleasure and pain is what qualifies personhood. This excludes fetuses and coma patients but includes many animals. This definition becomes uncomfortable when one considers that, choosing between a coma patient and a bird, one would have to prioritise the bird.
But the pro-abortion position continues, claiming that even if one can argue that personhood includes the human embryo, people do not behave in a way that treats the embryo as equally valuable to a person already born. Using an analogy to illustrate this point, they posit that this proves that preborn children are not as valuable as persons outside the womb.
“Imagine you’re in a burning building. In one room there is a 2-month-old baby. In the other room, there are 20 frozen embryos. You only have the time to save the one baby or the 20 embryos, but not both.” Most would save the baby, but does this intuition prove that the embryos are sub-human? No. The fact that I would save the baby over the embryos does not prove that the embryos aren’t persons.
For example, what if you had to choose between the love of your life (i.e., your spouse) and 20 random strangers. You’re probably going to save your spouse. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the strangers aren’t persons. It just means that you have a stronger emotional attachment to your spouse (as you should), and perhaps even a sense of obligation to save them above others.
Even as you sit there reading this, people are dying in the world — and yet you are unfazed. Does this mean that the people out there dying aren’t persons with inherent worth? Obviously, no. Just because you’re unfazed by their deaths does not mean that they are not persons and does not mean you can kill them yourself.
On the other hand, if you received information that your friend had died, you would have an emotional reaction. Indeed, even if you had found out that your dog had died, you would react — and under the majority account of personhood, your dog is not even a person! The fact that we are inclined to choose the baby over 20 embryos proves nothing about the personhood of those embryos.
We might save the baby because it is more familiar to us. We have seen babies being cared for outside of the womb, but embryos are hidden and cared for within the womb. Certainly, we are more inclined to purposefully care for a baby, for (in a normal circumstance) an embryo’s care is biological and automatic, requiring no deliberate or direct action on our part. We might save the baby because we believe we are more likely to succeed in caring for it.
Chances are that the baby will keep living upon it being rescued. But upon rescuing the embryos, we must be careful to keep them frozen, or else they will die — does the mechanism require electricity? Where do I take the embryos? Who will the embryos be implanted into? Will the embryos respond well to implantation? The inability to save the embryos is not the same as directly killing the embryos. And even more than that, not saving the embryos does not serve as proof that they are sub-human.
“What about rape, incest, and teenage pregnancy?”
Oftentimes, the pro-abortion side of the debate will point to instances of rape, incest, and teen pregnancy, saying that abortions should be allowable because of these cases. However, it must be considered that maybe 1% of aborted pregnancies are provoked by rape, and less than 0.5% are in response to incest. [And these are the larger estimates! A later survey suggested that 0.3% were due to rape, and 0.03% were due to incest.] Even if exceptions were made for these two circumstances, more than 98% of current abortions would still be banned.
First, it must be stated that rape and incest are wrong — nobody disagrees with this. Rape, in particular, is horrific. It can leave life-long scars. Perpetrators of such an act should face severe penalties. But do these situations make abortion permissible? Well, it doesn’t seem so. Killing your offspring isn’t going to mend your trauma. Abortion will not un-rape a rape victim. Upon having an abortion, will the victim suddenly forget that she has been raped? Of course not! In such a sense, the child is hardly more of a reminder than the event itself.
Does such a child, conceived into this situation by no fault of their own, deserve the death penalty? Such a punishment isn’t even dealt to the rapist! If the guilty doesn’t even face execution, why should the innocent? Suppose a man commits a crime against his town and his son grows to look like him. Despite being reminded of the crime upon seeing the boy, the townspeople are not justified in attacking him, for he himself has done nothing wrong. If anything, the boy (and the preborn child) are also victims of the criminals’ actions. Rape is a crime. Being conceived is not. A child of rape is no less valuable than a child of consent.
Both abortion and rape similarly feature a vulnerable party being attacked by a stronger party. Justifiably, one might say that the death of a child at the hand of one’s own parent is just as morally depraved as rape.
Regarding teenage pregnancy, it should be noted that, in 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that most women who get an abortion are in their twenties. In fact, most women who get abortions are above the age of 25, 60% have already had at least one child, and about 80% are unmarried. Less than 10% of women who get abortions are under 19 years old.
Supposing no rape or incest victim was under 19, exceptions made for rape, incest, and teen pregnancy would still result in an abortion reduction of at least 82%. Women ages 18-24 are also more likely to choose less reliable contraception — such as oral contraception and condoms. While their desire to not become pregnant can be implied by the use of contraception, the rate of unintended pregnancies suggests incorrect or inconsistent contraceptive practices.
Some will argue that if a teenager cannot adopt a child, how can she be forced to give birth to a child? But the response is similarly concerned with maturity: if a teenager is not ready for a child, then she is not ready for sex — and certainly, she is not ready to take a life. How can she be old enough to kill it but not old enough to care for it?
In fact, the care need not extend for too long. A mother not willing to care for her child need not raise her child beyond that window of time in which no one else can care for it. But during that window, there is a responsibility to care for that child’s needs. Imagine you were kidnapped. You wake up in a locked cabin alongside a newborn baby of no relation to you. There’s no means of escape, but in the cabin, there is everything you might need to care for the baby.
It takes no great deed for you to support this child and meet its basic needs. And when you’re finally freed from the cabin, you don’t have to go on and raise the child. You are obliged to meet its ordinary needs (being the only one who could do so at the time), but you are not obliged to meet its extraordinary needs. Likewise, a pregnant woman is not obliged to raise her child, but she is obliged to meet its ordinary needs — such as supplying her uterus and feeding and clothing the child until suitable carers are found (i.e., adoption).
Some will baselessly argue that a child born in such circumstances will grow to be miserable. But in fact, through private adoption agencies, almost all babies are adopted within the first month after birth. In domestic infant adoption, the number of children who aren’t adopted is pretty much zero. There are an estimated 1-2 million couples waiting to adopt in the US, and Guttmacher’s latest figures state that there were 930,160 abortions in the US in 2020 (up from 916,460 in 2019). Some sources estimate that there are as many as 36 families for every one child placed for adoption.
Babies are adopted almost instantly; however, it is true that older children are slower to adopt. The average child waits for an adoptive family for about three years, and the average age of children waiting for an adoptive family is eight. The adoption system is not to be confused with the foster care system, though they do cross over. Foster care homes children who are temporarily unable to live with their family due to crisis, unsafe conditions, abuse, neglect, etc. Most children who leave foster care never return to it — many return to their parents/carer, go live with a relative/guardian, or are adopted out.
These systems aren’t perfect, but they could be worse. But the effectiveness of the adoption and foster systems are a separate issue to whether abortion is morally permissible. The next claim, that a child will be miserable and so should be aborted, is a cold one. This attempts to equate abortion with mercy killing. But how can someone assess the value of someone else’s future life?
There are those who would argue that children with severe disabilities should be aborted, but this borders on eugenics and many of these disabled people are actually very happy to be alive. Some may be born into poverty, but a chance at happiness is better than no chance at all. Happiness is not dependent upon wealth.
By being alive, a person is given an opportunity to be happy — abortion strips that opportunity away. How arrogant and anarchic for someone to judge another person’s life as not worthy of living, and then act upon said judgement.
“It’s a form of healthcare!”
Some may worry about the physical well-being of the mother. “Pregnancy is risky! So much can go wrong! What if she dies during childbirth?” However, the fact of the matter is that, by far, the majority of women are perfectly safe during pregnancy and most maternal deaths are preventable.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the maternal mortality rate in Australia in 2018 was 5 deaths per 100,000 women giving birth. Of the maternal deaths which took place from 2009 to 2018, many were only indirectly related to the pregnancy.
From 2012 to 2018, women ages 20-24 were the least likely to die from pregnancy or birth, followed by ages 30-34 and 25-29 (recall that most women who get an abortion are in their twenties) — women under the age of twenty had the highest mortality rate. For the vast majority, abortion does not qualify as healthcare issue.
Abortion-supporters will often refer to instances where the pregnancy does pose a threat to the life of the mother. Chorioamnionitis is a dangerous condition involving an inflection of the placenta and the amniotic fluid. Chorioamnionitis can cause the baby to be born early and can lead to complications (and possible death). If the mother stays infected, she will die.
An even more dangerous instance is an ectopic pregnancy — when an embryo implants itself outside of the womb (most commonly in one of the fallopian tubes). Ectopic pregnancy is fatal for the embryo, who cannot survive outside of the womb. It is also dangerous for the mother, causing her fallopian tube to burst or rupture and leading to life-threatening bleeding.
It must be said that directly and intentionally taking the preborn child’s life is not our only option here. Instead of doing an evil act, it is far better to do good or neutral acts to bring about an effect. To address chorioamnionitis, you need to get the infected membranes out of the mother’s body by inducing labour.
Removing infection is a good action — leaving it alone would have resulted in the deaths of both the mother and child. The good effect is that the mother does not die. The bad effect is that, if it is prior to viability (i.e., the child cannot survive outside of the womb at that stage of development), the preborn baby will die. This is not an abortion — this is a response to a rapidly growing infection.
Suppose a woman is 23 weeks pregnant, but has cancer and needs chemotherapy. If waiting one more week would not threaten her life, then the child could be born at 24 weeks and put into an incubator, giving the child a higher chance of survival than if the mother had chemotherapy earlier while pregnant. The mother can then go on to receive chemotherapy and both parties can, in the best instance, go on to live. But if the mother was earlier in her pregnancy and there was no time to wait, or else she will die, then it may be permissible to administer chemotherapy if the mother so chose. We’re not administering chemotherapy to harm or kill the child, but to kill the cancer.
In the case of an ectopic pregnancy (in the fallopian tube, in this instance), instead of an abortion, the mother could have a salpingectomy — a removal of a fallopian tube. If it were possible to take that embryo and implant it somewhere else, we would do so, but we lack that technology. The bad effect then is the dead embryo, and the good effect is that the mother survives. We must consider the action and intention. An abortion targets the child and intends to bring about its demise. A salpingectomy targets the fallopian tube and the intention (if the technology existed) would be to save both lives.
Imagine two people are drowning and you lack the strength to save both. You have a few options — successfully save one, don’t save either, or unsuccessfully try to save both. The best thing is to save one. Obviously, in doing so, you don’t then turn around to intentionally and directly kill the other person. You might save one, then move to save the other, but he sinks and drowns before you can do so — but you did not kill him, you just failed to save him. The result is the same, but the means are profoundly different. Likewise with an abortion and salpingectomy.
The abortion-supporter might argue that women are going to try to abort anyway — which is dangerous and unsafe. But for such cases, I have little patience. It’s like asking for murder or rape to be made legal, so that they can be committed more safely. Why should an abortion-opposer be concerned about whether or not a person is safe while they commit murder? There are so many options for women. The fact that they might then still choose to put themselves at risk, all for the sake of killing their own child, is not a good argument — nor will it gather much sympathy from the opposing side.
Suppose authorities tell their people that to join the enemy is treason. They are also warned that attempting to get to the enemy requires a journey through a minefield, which is impossible to navigate through without professional assistance. Others can’t then turn to the authorities and say, “People are going to try to join the enemy anyway — and they’ll die! You might as well help them out.” Well, no. That’s on them. [Not a perfect analogy, but you get it.]
Abortion does not seem to have a positive effect upon society. 40% of minors who have had an abortion report that neither of their parents knew about the abortion — considering this, one may say that abortion fosters dishonesty. Implicitly, abortion suggests ideas such as:
- You, as an individual, are dispensable by us. Whether or not you were born does not matter.
- Love does not involve sacrifice.
- I ought not to bear the consequences of my actions.
- Might determines right. My freedom is only limited by those able to make claims of their freedom against mine.
It has been indicated that ever having an abortion, sterilisation, and/or methods of contraception increases the likelihood of divorce — up to two times. The British Journal of Psychiatry (2011) found that women who had an abortion were 81% more likely to experience mental health struggles. The American Psychiatric Association (2008) stated that they did not believe these mental health challenges would be different whether the woman had a first-trimester abortion or chose to remain pregnant and have the baby. The underlying cause of the issues may relate to the cause for pursuing an abortion, but they are correlated, not causally linked. It seems that people with mental health issues are more likely to get an abortion, which makes finding out the mental impact of abortion a little trickier. There seems to be controversy regarding the impact abortion has on mental health, and more questions must be asked and answered before we can have a better idea.
One might speculate that banning abortion may lead to people taking sex and marriage more seriously. This in turn would strengthen the family, leading to a stronger economy and society. People are also less likely to experience mental health issues while in a stable marriage.
Banning abortion, it may be said, will disproportionately affect the poor. Poor women are more likely to experience unintended pregnancy. At the same time, richer women are more likely to have abortions than poorer women. But across the board, the same proportion of women would be upset (or not upset) by unintended pregnancy. Lower-income women aren’t less concerned about the prospect of having a child. The main difference between the two is the supply of contraceptives. Women who earn less are less likely to use contraceptives, but they aren’t less likely to have sex – meaning they have more unintended pregnancy. Obviously, the answer to this is to supply contraceptives and fill in the gap (and advertising celibacy is also an option). But even if the scales were balanced, poorer women are less equipped to care for children than are wealthier women. This problem, however, does not make abortion moral. If anything, this is a case for more effective adoption services and/or more supportive child welfare systems.
“The Bible doesn’t say anything about abortion!”
Some will try to claim that the Bible is silent on abortion and therefore it is permissible for Christians to take any stance on the matter. Let it first be said that the Bible specifically prohibits murder (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5) — especially the murder of innocent and vulnerable parties (Exodus 23, Proverbs 6).
From previous sections, we have established that there is good reason to think of the embryo as a body apart from the mother and worthy of personhood. This concept of personhood can be tied into the concept of man being in God’s image — and by virtue of being made in His image, you cannot kill him for no good reason (Gn9:6). Surely then, killing a fetus is a violation of the command against murder.
Scripture also speaks of God knowing us before He formed us in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 22:10) and of His active role in our formation in the womb (Psalm 139, Jb 31:15). A child is spoken of as sinful, a characteristic of the human condition, even at the moment of conception (Psalm 51). Indeed, the incarnation took place at Jesus’ conception (e.g., Luke 1:26-45) — it is at that moment that He became “the word made flesh.”
Exodus 21:22-25 explains that permanent injury to the fetus or mother evokes the principle of “eye for an eye.” If you kill the fetus, that is a capital crime. However, there is debate regarding how this verse should be translated. In many translations, verse 22 refers to miscarriage:
When men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman, so that she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury, the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman’s husband demands of him, and he shall pay in the presence of the judges. But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life… (NABRE, v22-23)
This verse seems to imply that the unborn child is of lesser value than the woman. If the child dies, the offender is simply fined. But if the mother dies, the penalty is “life for life.” Rabbinic tradition sides with such an interpretation. This is not to say that the preborn child has no worth (there is still a fine), but that it is not of the same moral consideration. The key issue here is the translation “miscarriage,” which implies death. But does the Hebrew carry the same meaning?
The phrase translated “she suffers a miscarriage” is יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְיָצְא֣וּ. The first term, “yatsa”, is a verb meaning “to go or come out, depart, come forth.” The second term, “yeled”, is a noun meaning “child, young, fruit, son” — the fetus is named. By all accounts, this is better translated as “the child comes forth.” In fact, in Hebrew, there is a different word referring to miscarriage that is not used here (i.e., sakol). If anything, yatsa refers to birth or deliverance – it is frequently used to refer to live birth and is the same word used of Esau and Jacob’s birth (Genesis 25). Yatsa never refers to miscarriage, so why should this verse be an exception?
In the verse, it isn’t specified whether the mother or child is the one sustaining injury. The application is general, and so it is better for us to say that it refers to both. If there is no permanent injury to the woman or child, the offender must be fined whatever the husband demands. If there is permanent injury to either the woman or child (including death), eye for an eye applies.
Gleason Archer concludes:
There is no ambiguity here, whatever. What is required is that if there should be an injury either to the mother or to her children, the injury shall be avenged by a like injury to the assailant. If it involves the life (nepes) of the premature baby, then the assailant shall pay for it with his life. There is no second-class status attached to the fetus under this rule; he is avenged just as if he were a normally delivered child or an older person: life for life. Or if the injury is less, but not serious enough to involve inflicting a like injury on the offender, then he may offer compensation in monetary damages…
(Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 1985).
Some will quote Genesis 2:7 to defend their pro-abortion argument. The verse reads:
Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living person. (NASB)
The argument is that life begins at first breath, and because a fetus does not yet breathe air while in the womb, it is not life. Ignoring the glaring extrabiblical problems with this take, it is a blatant instance of Scripture being used out of context. The verse is a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive statement. Adam came to life at first breath. Adam was never technically conceived — he was formed of dust and God’s breath of life. Tim Barnett writes, “The Bible doesn’t teach that every man comes to life at first breath any more than it teaches that every woman comes from the rib of a man.”
The pro-abortion Christian might take a different route, saying, “God values choice! You can’t truly love or do good without freedom!” Free will is a good. But take one look at the pattern of Scripture and you’ll see that its outcomes are not always good. When people go too far with their freedom, bad things happen — and consequences follow. Life is gift, a state of being; but freedom is a responsibility, a test, a tool. Life is something you have; freedom is something you use. For your sake, and the sake of others, your freedom is limited in many ways – you physically cannot fly, and you morally cannot commit triple homicide. Being good, God will tolerate much evil born from our will – but being good, God sets and supports limits. If we were left purely to our own devices, our lives today would be unrecognisable, and the Old Testament would be a lot grimmer. God drew a line – He hindered our will – for the good, and He often used people to do it. It’s not compassionate to pass the Samaritan by, thinking, “Ah, well, somebody willed that he be robbed and left for dead. I shouldn’t get in the way of that.” [You might notice that this paragraph resembles the first section of this post.] Abortion is the surface manifestation of a deeper problem to do with the human condition, the will, and sexuality.
The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion. Their Catechism states, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception” (2270), holding that “abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (2271). Similarly, the Christian Orthodox Church is resolutely opposed to all attempts to permit induced abortion and has been since its earliest history. Among Protestant churches, opinions vary — however most find themselves against abortion. Christian tradition is largely on the anti-abortion side.
Conclusion: A Culture of Death
You may have noticed that I did not use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” throughout this post. It is more accurate to frame the debate in terms of anti-abortion and pro-abortion (abortion opposers and abortion supporters). One may, for instance, disapprove of abortion yet believe people should have the option — “pro-choice,” as it is commonly applied, does not seem to capture this fully. They may better be described as anti-abortion and pro-choice.
The trademark of a culture of death is the use of euphemisms to disguise and soften reality — to make something appear civil when it is not. It’s not euthanasia, it’s “dying with dignity.” It’s not pro-abortion, it’s “pro-choice.” It’s not a baby, it’s “pregnancy tissue,” a mere “product of conception.” Members of such a culture will be unwilling to describe the reality honestly or in any detail. They would rather focus on their idea about the matter, as opposed to the matter itself. Carl Braaten writes:
The culture of death is essentially marked by the business of redefinition… In order to deceive ourselves about the reality we create, we cannot but buffer our killing with a language which suggests we are doing something else: hence we invest our language with academic unintelligibility… with euphemistic attributes… or a perverted grammar…
(I Am the Lord Your God, 2005)
Braaten writes that we wilfully redefine sex, family, and even life to suit our purposes, even to the point of simply contradicting ourselves in a kind of double-speak. Peter Hitchens states in an interview that, without absolute law, a person can argue himself into any appalling position without even realising it.
Such sophistry often leads to rationalising the demonisation and/or dehumanisation of those on the other side. “It’s not a person, it’s a fetus! It’s not a person, it’s a Jew!” Somehow, mankind has deceived himself into believing that he has the power to arbitrarily distort the definitions of reality. But the reality is this: In pregnancy, you become a mother, and by abortion, you become the mother of a dead child.
Originally published at The Walk. Photo by Mart Production.
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My response at this early stage of (just completed reading , )is that such a fine body of work is worthy of a series of articles. No less than four.
The subject is so primal , so raw so comprehensive and diverse that submitting it in one very large presentation runs the risk of impairing meaningful comprehension.
Thank you for your work. Thank you for your love of Jesus Christ and the “ light” which He alone infused into each one of us…..before we were born.
Thank you, Kaylene! I completely agree and am currently working on having it available in five smaller parts – much more digestible for the average reader 🙂