In 2015, 13,155 abortions were performed in New Zealand[i]. Those figures account for 18 percent of pregnancies during that year, and, depending on one’s stance on abortion, represent either women’s rights to reproductive choice or a tragic loss of valuable human life. As a Christian, I’ve always adhered to the pro-life position, but it wasn’t until I was recently challenged in a discussion that I began to look into the philosophical and scientific facts regarding abortion. I was somewhat surprised to discover that, contrary to the impression given by the media, the pro-life case is strong, appealing to the best knowledge we have regarding embryology, and undergirded by sound philosophical reasoning. As such, I’ve taken it upon myself to present what I believe to be a sound case against abortion by appealing to science and philosophy. Of course, one could offer a theological case, but since many people don’t believe in Scripture, it seems evident that the pro-life cause will be better served by appealing to facts that are held in common by both religious and non-religious persons. I’ll present the case over several posts, so be sure to check in regularly for more content.
Simplifying the Debate:
The first step towards productive discussions about abortion is to simplify the debate. Much public dispute stems from abortion’s apparent complexity. Often in conversations concerning abortion one or more parties will exclaim, “well, it’s a complicated issue”. On one hand, it’s easy to understand why this attitude prevails when one considers the plethora of issues that confront both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. For those unfamiliar with abortion terminology, “pro-choice” typically refers to those who are in favour of abortion, while “pro-life” refers to those who stand against it. A keyword search on stuff.co.nz reveals recent articles dealing with protests, demonstrations, parental consent, teen abortions, counselling and advice, secret abortion clinics and clandestine procedures, not to mention abortion laws and women’s rights. Taking all of this into account seems like an insurmountable task, and even if one could, making the opposing parties to see eye to eye seems equally if not more difficult. However, appearances can be deceiving. Although there are numerous issues surrounding abortion that warrant consideration, the moral issue rests predominantly on one question: what is the unborn?
Greg Koukl offers a helpful illustration to clarify this point[ii]. Imagine you are standing at your sink, scraping the remains of dinner from a stack of dirty plates and preparing to wash the dishes. Your 5-year old son enters the kitchen while your back is turned, and asks “Mum (or Dad), can I kill this?”. What’s the first thing you’ll say in response? “Sure, have at it”, or “No, leave it alone”? No—before you can answer the question directly, it’s necessary to determine what the thing in question is. If it’s a cockroach or spider, perhaps you’ll say yes. If it’s a cat or a dog, obviously not. If it’s a sibling or friend, definitely and unequivocally not.
Similarly, when we ask the question “can we abort the unborn?” we must first determine what the unborn is. If it is merely a clump of cells, then killing and removing said cells from the mother’s body is morally unproblematic. Just as one might remove a tumour or appendix without moral quandary, so one may expel the unborn. However, if the unborn is a human being who possesses a fundamental right to life, then abortion becomes, at face value, an egregious moral evil. As Christopher Kaczor writes, “If… [the unborn] is an innocent person, a being with a right to life, then having an abortion would seem to be wrong, for the right to life of one person entails the duty of others not to intentionally kill him or her”[iii]. To put it simply, if the unborn are human persons, abortion is most likely wrong. However, if they are not, abortion is morally unproblematic.
Begging the Question:
When approached from this angle, it becomes clear that some pro-choice arguments implicitly beg the question. In philosophy, to “beg the question” means to assume what one is meant to be proving. In this instance, the following arguments assume that the unborn are not human persons rather than proving it. I’ll deal with these in more detail in future posts, but consider the following examples:
- It’s okay to oppose abortion personally, but we shouldn’t force our views on others.
- If abortion is made illegal, women will be forced to get dangerous illegal abortions.
Regarding the first argument, no one would defend the view that although they’re personally against killing toddlers, they don’t want to force their views on others. If killing toddlers is truly wrong, then no one should be allowed to do so, even if they don’t think that it’s wrong. In the same way, if aborting unborn human persons is truly wrong, then no one should be allowed to do so (except perhaps in exceptional circumstances). So why is this argument sometimes offered in defence of killing the unborn? Because it is assumed that there is a fundamental difference between the unborn and the toddler, namely, that the unborn is not a human person. However, this is the very question that must be answered before drawing conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of abortion.
As for the second objection, it also assumes that the unborn are not human. Otherwise, as Scott Klusendorf aptly discerns, the advocate of abortion would be claiming that “because some people will die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so”[iv]. Such moral reasoning is clearly absurd. If, however, we assume that the unborn are not human, then the objection merely claims that because some people will die attempting to rid themselves of a non-human entity known as a foetus, the state should make it safe and legal to do so. This makes far more sense, but is based on a very contentious assumption. These two examples of question-begging arguments underscore the importance of determining what the unborn is before deciding whether or not it can be killed.
Note that so far no case has been offered to show that the unborn actually are human beings with a right to life. In this post, my aim has been only to sharpen our focus and tease out the underlying question that should play a significant role in determining one’s stance on this issue; namely, what is the unborn? Perhaps the unborn are not, in fact, human beings, and can therefore be killed without wrongdoing. We’ll take up that question in future posts.
[i] Abortion statistics: Year ended December 2015. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/health/abortion/AbortionStatistics_HOTPYeDec15.aspx
[ii] Koukl, G., Klusendorf, S. (2006). Making abortion unthinkable. [MP3]. California, CA: Stand to Reason.
[iii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: Women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
[iv] Klusendorf, S. (2009). The case for life: Equipping Christians to engage the culture, p. 23. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.