On its most basic level, the right-to-life position rests on two pillars: that the fetus is alive from the moment of conception and that the fetus has an intrinsic right to life.  To be honest, I was foolishly under the impression that the first major pillar was settled even among the pro-abortion crowd.  Certainly, with all of the medical advancements we have had since the 1970s, people recognize that life begins at conception?  Sadly, this is simply not the case.  For example, a couple of my friends were involved in what turned out to be a rather lengthy debate over abortion on Facebook.  At one point in the debate, the pro-abortion defender argued that the fetus is not alive because “Dr.’s have determined that a fetus is not yet alive until a specific point in development.”  Later in the discussion, her husband expanded on this view, “the medical community has created a threshold of existence that hinges on the development of the fertilized egg, most notably the nervous system.”

It is a grave mistake to define life as requiring a functioning nervous system.  By this definition, all unicellular organisms would fail to qualify as alive.  If one goes a step further and requires a functioning central nervous system, then a much larger swath of organisms, such as plants and fungi, may be relegated to the realm of the non-living.  A much better definition of biological life can be found with a suitable dictionary. For instance, the Penguin Dictionary of Biology defines life as “complex physico-chemical systems whose two main peculiarities are (1) storage and replication of molecular information in the form of nucleic acid, and (2) the presence of (or in viruses perhaps merely the potential for) enzyme catalysis.”  This clearly places a fertilized egg as a living organism.  Further, life begins from the moment of fertilization as marked by the slow block to polyspermy under this definition.

The larger issue in the debate on fetal rights lies with the second pillar.  Defenders of a pro-abortion stance argue that rights should be conferred after the fetus either reaches a specific point in development (e.g., nervous system development, point of viability, birth, etc.) or acquires a minimal set of attributes.  The list of attributes or point in development typically differs from person to person.  Hence, it is impossible to argue against specific examples.  However, it is important to ask why we should accept any one set of criteria once they are proposed?  There is no agreement as to what developmental characteristics mark the fetus as a person requiring rights nor is there a clear set of attributes that is universally accepted.  This is a serious problem for those who espouse a functional definition of life.  As an example, the bioethicist Peter Singer has famously championed infanticide of disabled infants and non-voluntary euthanasia of “people who through accident, illness, or old age have permanently lost the capacity to understand the issue involved.”  Most pro-abortion defenders balk at this suggestion, but why should we not accept Singer’s criteria?  Likewise, there is no convincing reason why we must accept any functional point (such as birth) as the unique point at which life begins and rights are conferred to the baby.

A secondary issue with functional definitions of life is that those definitions are notoriously difficult to contain.  Returning back to the argument that life begins at the moment a nervous system is developed.  If we accept that a nervous system is the requirement for rights to be conferred, then it is not clear why the following scenarios are not morally acceptable.

1. Terminating the life a person who is under a powerful anesthetic or in a coma.
2. Killing a person who is a quadriplegic.
3. Relegating a person who has suffered a debilitating stroke and lost feeling in half of their body as a second-class citizen simply because they do not retain functionality of a complete nervous system.

A better approach is to confer rights based on the ontology of the person.  Humans are unique and deserve basic rights because God has implanted His image within them.  This grounds the rights of the fetus based on what it is–a special creation of God worthy of protection–as opposed to some complex of attributes that it gains and may lose at some later point in life.  An argument for this position might be the following:

Premise 1: Humans are unique because they are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26)
Premise 2: God has commanded us not to kill others specifically because they are created in the image of God (Gen 9:6).
Premise 3: If the image of God is imputed to people at fertilization, then abortion is morally wrong in most situations from the moment of fertilization.

Of course, some argue that the image of God is not imputed at fertilization.  However, I think there is compelling scriptural support for people to possess the image of God from the moment life begins.  The most notable is the immaculate conception of Jesus Christ.  Relating rights to the ontology of the person explains why a mother’s right to choice should be limited by the fetus’ right to life.  Most people recognize that a parent does not have a right to kill an 18 mo. old child.  Here, the rights of a parent’s choice are limited by the child’s right to life.  The only difference is that the United States currently does not recognize the fetus’s right to life.  This is why pro-life supporters must champion the rights of the unborn.  We are the only voice for those who do not have one.