Stump the pro-lifer

Cross-posted from ProLife NZ

Question 1

Don’t your views on abortion depend upon your religious view? But then wouldn’t the separation of church and state require that you not try to make others live by your religion?

Reply to Question 1

Opposition to abortion need not be based on religious views. The most fundamental reason why abortion is wrong is that it is contrary to the principle of the natural equality of all human beings. This principle is not religious; in fact, it lies at the foundation of our form of government.

This point may be made clearer if we make the following distinctions. A belief may be called religious for one of three reasons:

  1. it is strongly or passionately held, e.g. we might say that someone believes “religiously” that smoking is bad for one’s health;
  2. it has religious content , e.g. it concerns God or the supernatural realm;
  3. it is accepted on the basis of a religious authority , e.g. Christians believe that God is a Trinity of persons because the Bible and the Church teach this.

Clearly the pro-life view is “religious” in the first sense for many people. But this is obviously a metaphorical sense of the word “religious”, and many political and moral views are “religious” in this sense. It would be absurd to object to a view simply because it was passionately held.

The pro-life view is not essentially religious in the second sense. Of course it is possible to state and defend the pro-life view using religious terms, so that it seems as though the view necessarily has religious content, e.g. someone might argue that all of us are children of God, or made in the image of God, or the property of God, or that life is a gift of God, so that as a consequence abortion is very wrong. But the pro-life view can be more than adequately stated using moral principles that are generally accepted and which even seem to be fundamental in a free and democratic society. The pro-life view may instructively be compared with the civil rights movement in this respect: many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were Christian ministers who argued against segregation and discrimination on religious grounds. Nevertheless, the reforms they were urging could be defended also on non-religious grounds. In general, religious people understand justice religiously; non-religiously people understand it non-religiously. But what counts as justice is the same for both.

It follows that the pro-life view is not religious in the third sense: to see that abortion is wrong, it is sufficient to use ordinary moral and political reasoning; there is no need to appeal to special sources of religious insight and revelation, such as the Bible. True enough, the Bible does teach (through what it implies) that abortion is wrong; likewise it teaches that theft is wrong. And there are undoubtedly some people who don’t steal or seek abortions only because the Bible teaches this. Yet this fact is irrelevant to the sort of question which must be considered in a debate about public policy, viz. whether theft is unjust, whether abortion is unjust . Suppose we adopted this principle: if the Bible teaches that X is wrong, then we cannot outlaw X, for then we would be imposing a religious view on society. It would follow, absurdly, that we couldn’t outlaw murder, theft, perjury, assault, and rape, since the Bible teaches that all of these are wrong. But what holds in the case of these other injustices holds also in the case of abortion. The view that abortion is unjust cannot be dismissed as “a religious view” simply because the Bible and Christian teaching hold that abortion is wrong.


Question 2

But religions differ on abortion. Some religions actually would mandate that a woman have an abortion in certain circumstances, e.g. some rabbis think that a woman is obliged to have an abortion if her life is at stake. You would be denying religious freedom to people of those religions if abortion were illegal. If pro-life legislation went into effect, wouldn’t ministers and rabbis would be sent to jail for their views on abortion?

Reply to Question 2

Even religious practices can be outlawed if they bring about serious harm to others. For example, there have throughout history been many religions which have mandated human and especially child-sacrifice: an Aztec priest was actually required to sacrifice a human being once a day. But this practice would be illegal, and should be illegal in our country. Not all religious practices can be tolerated: those that involve serious injustice must be made illegal.

If abortion is taking the life of a human being, then it is a grave injustice, and those religions (and in fact they are very few in number) which actually mandate abortion in some circumstances would have to be limited by the law in that respect.

In any case it should be noted that there are dozens of priests and ministers who are in jail right now because of their views on abortion. They believe that their religion requires them to act in non-violent ways to hinder the practice of abortion. The law currently decides against them and sentences them to jail. It seems that, unfortunately, disagreement by religious people over abortion is deep and fundamental, so that however the law is decided, some sincere persons will end up going to jail. But it is mere self-deception to think that current laws avoid this consequence.


Question 3

Isn’t it ludicrous to say that a newly fertilized egg is a person, equal in dignity and importance to you and me?

Reply to Question 3

Note first of all that this is not a reasoned objection but rather something like an exclamation. No doubt some people find this idea ludicrous; but others evidently do not. From these obvious facts we cannot conclude either that the fertilized egg is a person or that it is not.

In any case, the pro-life position is more accurately expressed as the view that a fertilized egg is a human being, and that that–namely, its sharing our nature–is what gives even a fertilized egg a moral significance and indeed a certain human dignity. If by “person” you mean simply a “human being,” then of course the fertilized egg is indeed a “person”–this is not ludicrous at all. If, however, by “person” you mean an actually thinking and self-aware being, then of course a fertilized egg is not a person. But then neither is a newborn baby a person in this sense. And it is clear that our rights and dignity do not depend upon our being “persons” in that sense.

But that a “fertilized egg” is “one of us”–is a part of the human community–needs to be approached from the first-person case. You yourself were once an unborn child, before that an embryo, and before that a fertilized egg. If something had been done to damage that “fertilized egg”, then something would have been done to damage you. For example, an alteration bringing about a birth defect would have brought about a birth defect in you.

Next approach the question from the point of view of a mother. Suppose you are a mother looking upon a newborn baby. You reflect on how that baby was moments ago living within your womb. You reflect on how you were concerned early on in pregnancy with what you ate, since you were aware that most birth defects arise early on in development. Your thinking that everything went well for the embryo is just your thinking about the baby before you.

In fact it is not impossible, nor even difficult, to come to regard even a very immature human being, an embryo or “fertilized egg,” as having dignity and great significance. Of course we know that some people consider it ludicrous to regard a fertilized egg as a human being. But the real question here is: Must it be ludicrous so to regard it? Is it possible for each of us to come to regard a human embryo as part of the human community? Is this view of things available to all of us? And I believe that, upon serious reflection, it is clear that this is possible for us, that this viewpoint is available to us.


Question 4

If a fertilized egg is a person, and killing a fertilized egg is outlawed, then some forms of birth control will have to be outlawed– the IUD and some forms of the pill–because these work by killing the fertilized egg. Also, scientific research on human embryos would have to stop.”

Reply to Question 4

The argument under consideration is simply this: suppose some method of birth control works by somehow destroying the early embryo. Wouldn’t this method have to be outlawed, if abortions are? And how could this be right?

But why should we think that all forms of birth control have to be legal, whatever their nature and however they work? Why should this be a fixed point in the debate? What’s so objectionable about ruling out some forms of “birth control,” if they are in fact abortifacient? One might just as well argue: “abortion is used by many women as a form of birth control; so if abortions are illegal, then a form of birth-control will have to be made illegal, which can’t be the case.”

Again, why should we think that all forms of research have to be legal? There are of course tight safeguards regarding research on human subjects. What’s absurd about extending this kind of regulation even to experiments on immature human subjects? Note also that there are very few experiments on human embryos which couldn’t be carried out in some other and essentially equivalent way without employing human embryos at all.


Question 5

If the pro-lifers have their way, then won’t we end up living in a totalitarian state, with Pregnancy Police checking up on suspiciously missed periods, just as they did in Romania when abortion was outlawed?

Reply to Question 5

For the most part, people already act as though the unborn child is a human being. Generally, if a woman decides to “have her baby”, she speaks of the child in her womb as “my baby”; she tries to eat well; she saves the ultrasound picture of her child and shows it to friends; and so on. Indeed, it is natural and even easy to regard the child in the womb as a member of the human community. The one exception to this general practice is abortion, in which the unborn child is treated as a non-entity and a mistake: the fact of its existence is denied, as though it could be taken back or revoked.

Pro-lifers simply call attention to this self-deception, this inconsistency, and urge that even unborn children who are unwanted and slated for destruction be regarded as having the same intrinsic dignity and value as the unwanted child. Thus, it is not burdensome to regard the unborn child as an equal human being; our society would to a large extent already have achieved this simply by bringing an end to abortion. Pro-life legislation should be conceived of as the generalization, to society as a whole, of a way of regarding the unborn that is already practiced by those who are pro-life. And this way of life is not burdensome.

The objection that pro-life legislation would be totalitarian fails to take into account that the pro-life movement does not aim merely to pass laws; rather, it is a movement of reform which aims to change the mores and culture of our society. In order to evaluate correctly the character of pro-life laws, it is necessary to imagine them as adopted by a society in which the majority of persons have freely adopted pro-life mores. For such a society, pro-life laws would reflect their ideals of the human community and would not be totalitarian.

In any case, it should be noted, out of fairness, that any moral ideal whatsoever could conceivably give rise either to reasonable and liberal legislation or to bizarre, totalitarian legislation. It is not a fair objection against a movement based on an ideal, that its aims could be contorted into a totalitarian cast. For example, concern for the environment is a praiseworthy ideal. There are liberal laws that might reflect this concern, e.g. a mandatory recycling program. Likewise there are laws of a totalitarian character which might be devised to further this ideal, e.g. “litter police”, who invade your house and search for non-recyclable containers; or “light bulb police,” who conduct examinations to be sure you never leave light bulbs burning unnecessarily. Of course such laws are ludicrous, and it would be frivolous to object to the environmental movement, on the ground that environmentalism must lead to these sorts of totalitarian laws. Similarly, laws implementing “pregnancy police” are ludicrous, and it is frivolous and unfair to object to the pro-life movement, on the ground that its ideals must lead to totalitarian laws.

I think we can all agree that totalitarianism is bad; pro-lifers hate totalitarianism as much as anyone else.


Question 6

Aren’t pro-lifers inconsistent when they say that abortion is tantamount to murder, but then shrink from advocating the prosecution and punishment of the millions of women who have gotten abortions?

Reply to Question 6

This is not necessarily inconsistent. There are various ways in which the two views alluded to might be held consistently:

  1. Someone might think that no woman every freely and without coercion chooses to have an abortion, just as some people maintain that suicide is never a freely chosen act. If this is the case, the woman’s responsibility for procuring the abortion is considerably mitigated;
  2. Someone might hold that a woman who gets an abortion does something seriously wrong, and is responsible for it, but that the act itself carries with it its own penalty, since she loses her child in the abortion. It might be thought that any further penalty is unnecessary;
  3. Someone might hold that, although many abortions merit punishment, still, the state’s decision of whether to punish or not should be made with an eye to the common good, and the common good would not be served by punishing women who procure abortions.Why? Because if any were punished then all would have to be; but it would be too harsh to punish all–the cure would be as bad as the ailment. So none should be punished; rather, the abortionist should be punished as being a sort of initiator of the abortion.

Question 7

Isn’t the pro-life view sectarian? It is a narrow, conservative view, that can only be attractive to members of the religious right.

Reply to Question 7

Strictly, a viewpoint is conservative if it seeks to preserve the status quo . In this literal sense, it is the “pro-choice” view, of course, that is conservative, and the pro-life view is, rather, progressive. The “pro-choice” position wants to preserve business as usual, but the pro-life view aims at a far-reaching reform of the ideals and policies of our country.

The term “conservative” could also mean a certain view of the nature and limits of government–that less government is generally better and that people should be “left alone” as much as possible. This view, in its extreme form, is often called “libertarianism”, and when applied to economic matters, it is strenuously resisted by those who call themselves “liberals.” Yet, curiously, the “pro-choice” view is conservative in this sense: it is essentially a libertarian view, since it urges that pregnant women should just be left alone to do what they wish, free from any government interference, regardless of the nature and character of the act of abortion.

Once again, a view may be called “liberal” rather than “conservative” if it is rooted in principles and ideals typical of the liberal political tradition. That tradition begins with late medieval speculation about contract theory and is articulated in modern times by J. Locke and then (though more controversially) J.S. Mill. Liberalism in this sense is egalitarian and benevolent . Its central principle is the natural equality of all human beings, and it is marked by the expansion (rather than restriction) of the scope of the moral community. Without doubt, the pro-life view is “liberal” in this sense, and the “pro-choice” view is illiberal. The pro-life view is grounded on the idea that it is the humanity of the unborn child which makes him or her the equal of anyone else in society, i.e. it forcefully asserts the natural equality of all human beings. Furthermore, the pro-life view aims to extend the scope of moral concern to children before they are born, whereas the “pro-choice” view is caught up with drawing lines that exclude some human beings from moral consideration.


Question 8

Well, then, aren’t pro-life people inconsistent, and not really pro-life, because although they oppose abortion, they don’t oppose capital punishment or the killing of animals?

Reply to Question 8

It is true that superficially, executing a criminal, slaughtering an animal, and performing an abortion seem to be of a piece. Each action is an act of destruction; each is an act of harm; each involves killing a living thing. The question of consistency would therefore seem to be equally pressing for someone who opposes capital punishment, or who opposes killing animals, but who is not similarly opposed to abortion.

If it is wrong to kill a guilty murderer, isn’t it wrong to kill an innocent and vulnerable developing human being? If the murderer should be given another chance, shouldn’t the unborn child? If the murderer’s life is worth living and not hopeless, isn’t the unborn child’s also, no matter how desperate or difficult his or her circumstances may appear? Likewise, if it is wrong to kill an animal, isn’t it wrong to kill the fetus, which is certainly an animal? If convenience, comfort, or even serious self interest do not justify slaughtering an animal, how can they ever justify an abortion? Clearly it is inconsistent to be opposed to capital punishment or animal killing, and yet to favor the “right to choose.”

But a pro-lifer who favors capital punishment, does not recognize animal rights, and opposes abortion is not in the same way inconsistent. For this combination of views follows consistently from the adoption of the principle that “it is always wrong to take the life of an innocent human being.” Because it is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being, abortion is wrong, since abortion involves the destruction of an innocent human being. Because a criminal convicted of a capital crime is not innocent, it is not always wrong to take his or her life through capital punishment. Because an animal is not a human being, it is not always wrong to take the life of an animal. This is a perfectly consistent set of views, which all can be accounted for given the stated principle.

Why would it be wrong to kill human beings but not animals? The reason has to do with equality: a killing is not an act of equality — the killer is superior, the killed is inferior, because the life of the killed is controlled by and indeed terminated by the killer. Thus killing is incompatible with human equality and therefore unjust. Human beings are in fact equal; killing is incompatible with this equality. But human beings and animals are not equal. Although human beings and animals are alike in sentience, i.e. they can both feel pleasure and pain, human beings are superior in that they have superior powers of knowledge and desire, in particular, they have the ability to reason and the ability to aim at the good of another. So it is not necessary for human beings to treat animals as equals; in fact, it is wrong for them to do so, since they are not equals.

The distinction between human beings and animals is important for our purposes because it makes it clear that human beings are set apart by their capacities and potential. A human being is a thing which has the capacity to think, which has the capacity to aim at the complete good of another. Our value as human beings lies in our potential, not in our achievements. And this is why it is appropriate to think of the unborn child as having value and in fact as being the equal of any human being. For human equality is an equality in capability of reasoning, and the unborn child has this capability. True enough, this capability is not at all realized–but then, neither is it realized in the case of a newborn baby. A newborn baby has no distinctive human abilities which the unborn child does not have.

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