"What we disagree over is not really abortion," observes philosopher Francis J. Beckwith. "But rather, our disagreement is over the nature of the being whose life abortion terminates, the unborn."
Is the unborn (i.e., human embryo or fetus) a human being? Do all human beings have a right to life?
Science: What is the unborn?
From conception the unborn is a distinct, living and whole (though immature) human organism -- a full-fledged member of the species Homo sapiens, needing only a suitable environment and nutrition to develop himself or herself through the many stages of human life. This is not a matter of religion or morality, but basic biology.
In The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (Saunders/Elsevier, 2008), perhaps the most widely used embryology text, Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud explain: "Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or occyte (ovum) to form a single cell -- a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual."
Adds Dr. Micheline Matthews-Roth of Harvard Medical School, "It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of its life."
Abortion is the killing of a young, growing human being before he or she is born. Most abortions entail dismembering the unborn human via the suction curettage or dilation and evacuation (D & E) procedures.
SLED test: Discrimination is not justified
A pro-choice advocate may concede that the unborn is a living organism of the species Homo sapiens, but deny that he or she bears a right to life. On this view, some humans merit full moral respect and protection and others (namely, the unborn) do not.
Such discrimination is unfounded. Philosopher Stephen Schwarz uses the acronym SLED to summarize the differences between unborn and born human beings, none of which are significant in a way that would justify killing the former.
Size: The unborn is smaller than an infant, but most people are smaller than basketball star Kevin Garnett. As Dr. Seuss famously put it, "A person's a person, no matter how small."
Level of Development: The unborn is at an earlier stage of his or her development than a newborn, but an eight-year-old child is less developed (both physically and mentally) than an adolescent. Older, stronger, more intelligent humans do not have greater worth and dignity than those who are younger, weaker, less intelligent and more vulnerable.
Environment: A trip through the birth canal cannot account for a change in the rights of a human being. Location does not affect who or what we are.
Degree of Dependency: The unborn is totally dependent on his or her mother for life, but so are newborn babies. People who rely on kidney machines, insulin or pacemakers are no less valuable than other human beings.
Differences of age, size, ability and condition of dependency -- like those of gender, race and ethnicity -- are not relevant in deciding who counts as a subject of basic rights. Says pro-life author and speaker Scott Klusendorf, "It's far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal in fundamental dignity because they share a common human nature."
'Personhood' criteria fail
Yet some philosophers and bio-ethicists ascribe "personhood" (i.e., full moral worth) only to beings who have certain acquired properties, such as the immediate capacity for self-awareness or other higher mental functions. Since unborn humans lack these qualities, they are not yet persons and may be killed without weighty justification.
Although every human being, including the embryo and fetus, possesses by nature the basic, root capacities to function in the way characteristic of persons (e.g., self-awareness, choice, rationality), the pro-choice philosopher contends that such capacities must be developed and immediately (or nearly immediately) exercisable.
This position is untenable. First, since any of the proposed criteria for personhood come in varying degrees -- i.e., basic capacities for higher mental functions are developed to a greater or lesser extent -- it follows that personhood also is a matter of degree. Thus, some people are more valuable than others, and there is no basis for human equality and the equal treatment of persons. But this is radically counterintuitive.
Second, personhood criteria tend to exclude from protection clear examples of valuable persons. Since infants cannot yet perform abstract mental functions, several prominent intellectuals who defend abortion also defend the moral permissiblity of infanticide. But this conclusion is obviously wrong.
The equality of all humans
The alternative is that human beings as such have intrinsic moral value: they are valuable by virtue of what (i.e., the kind of entity) they are, rather than because of additional characteristics or abilities that some human beings have and others do not. Thus, each and every human is equal in fundamental dignity and rights, including the right to life itself.
It is therefore prima facie wrong to kill unborn human beings, who are valuable, rights-bearing persons deserving of respect, just like every other member of our species.
Answering pro-choice arguments
Most pro-choice rhetoric assumes the very point it must demonstrate: that the unborn entity killed by abortion is not a valuable human person. This is a logical fallacy called begging the question.
Consider whether an argument for abortion also works to justify killing or harming other human beings. If not, it begs the question by presupposing a lesser status for the unborn.
"Women should have the right to choose," abortion defenders say. But women should not have the "right to choose" to drown their 10-year-old children. The question at hand is whether the unborn, like a 10-year-old child, deserves full moral respect and ought not be killed for the convenience or benefit of others.
"Abortion is a private matter between a woman and her doctor," some claim. But we do not permit spousal abuse on the grounds that it is a private matter between a husband and his drinking buddies. "Women should be able to control their own bodies," it is often said. But this assumes only one body is involved -- that the unborn does not count as another person.
The real issue is not choice, privacy or bodily autonomy, but the moral status of the unborn. Is he or she a rights-bearing human being (as pro-lifers argue, above)? If so, killing him or her by abortion, like killing a toddler for the same reasons, is a serious moral wrong.
'Personally opposed' to abortion?
Many people say, "I'm personally against abortion, but I shouldn't try to force my views on everyone else." But the reason to personally oppose abortion -- that it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being -- is precisely the reason it should not be allowed. No one says, "I'm personally against blowing up innocent civilians, but if that's what you want to do, go right ahead."
The 'back-alley' claim
Pro-choice advocates frequently claim that prohibiting abortion would lead to dangerous, "back-alley" abortions, and many women would be hurt or killed as a result. But this argument fails on two levels.
First, it begs the question as to the moral standing of the unborn. Imagine saying, "Because some people may die attempting to kill their children, the government should make it easy and legal for them to do so." The fact that bank robbing is dangerous for a criminal is not a good reason to make the practice legal.
Second, the claim that thousands of women died each year from illegal abortions prior to 1973 -- when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion on demand -- is simply false. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 39 women in the United States died from illegal abortion in 1972, and 24 died from legal abortion. "I confess I knew the figures [of 5,000-10,000 maternal deaths per year] were totally false," admits Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
In truth, abortion-related deaths declined due to modern medicine and technology, not legalization. Dr. Mary Calderone, former medical director for Planned Parenthood, concluded in 1960 that "abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous."
The argument from rape/incest
Women who become pregnant against their will as a result of rape or incest are often used to argue for the legality of abortion. This emotional appeal does not withstand scrutiny.
First, the vast majority of abortions are not performed for those reasons. In Minnesota, less than one percent of women who had abortions in 2009 reported that the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Pro-choice advocates must explain why society should permit the other 99 percent of abortions.
Second, abortion in such cases is nevertheless unjust. The circumstances of someone's conception clearly have no bearing on his or her moral status as a human being. And it is wrong to kill human beings because they stir memories of a painful event. Why should an innocent child die for the crime of her father?
Finally, having an abortion typically does nothing to relieve the pain of a rape victim. In a lengthy study on the pregnancies of sexual assault victims, researchers David Reardon, Julie Makimaa and Amy Sobie conclude: "Abortion only adds to and accentuates the traumatic feelings associated with sexual assault. Rather than easing the psychological burdens, abortion adds to them."
A pro-life case
The scientific facts of human embryology show that abortion kills a living member of our species. Such killing is wrong because every member of the human family -- regardless of size, level of development, environment and degree of dependency -- possesses equal and inherent dignity and ought to be respected and protected.
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