There are three foundational questions in the debate about abortion.
  1. Does a right to life even exist for anyone?
  2. If it does exist, how and when is the right to life conferred to an individual?
  3. Are there instances where a person’s choice has more value than another person’s right to their own life?
I believe that the first question is largely non-controversial in this debate. Most individuals recognize the right to life for humans beginning at birth and ending at natural death. Thus, I will tacitly assume that the answer to the first question is “yes, humans do enjoy a right to life.” However, I want to examine the second question in some detail, for that is one of the crucial divides. The third question, although very important, will not be dealt with at this time. However, a few posts here by other bloggers have touched on this very important issue.
Argument for the Right to Life from Conception
A deductive argument that humans possess the right to life from conception is given below:
P1. If the right to life is an intrinsic property of humans and human life begins at conception, then humans possess the right to life from conception.
P2. The right to life is an intrinsic property of humans.
P3. Human life begins at conception.
C. Humans possess the right to life from conception.
A good argument has two essential features. First, the argument must be sound. This argument follows the general argument type known as modus ponens, which is a valid form of argumentation in classical logic. Second, the premises of the argument must be more plausible than their negations. If an argument satisfies these two criteria, then the consequent of the argument cannot be rationally denied. For that reason, we should examine the three premises in greater detail.
The First Premise
I do not think the first premise is controversial. If the right to life is an intrinsic property of a living human (see below for a discussion of the meaning of this term) and human life can be shown to begin at conception, then it is reasonable to affirm that humans possess the right to life from conception. A defense of intrinsic rights and the beginning of human life will be provided below.
The Second Premise
An intrinsic right is taken to be an essential property of the person. Intrinsic rights are differentiated from other “rights” such as the right to vote, the right to drive a car, etc. Those “rights” are better termed privileges, which are non-essential properties of a person. Unfortunately, our language has muddled these two issues up, leading people to conflate the right to life with the right to drink a beer. The two are not on the same level.
Most people have no trouble recognizing that all humans have an intrinsic right to life after birth. The idea is clearly articulated in the Declaration of Independence and is the philosophical bedrock for the legal definition of murder. Furthermore, most people do not have any problem identifying situations in the past or in contemporary cultures where this right is violated for some individuals or groups of individuals. Indeed, one need look no further than the Nazi Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, or slavery in the American South for poignant examples. The sticking point comes when we examine the rights of humans before birth.
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. This topic takes us deep into moral relativism, and this short blog cannot possibly give a full and adequate treatment of the subject. Suffice it to say, the list of attributes or point in development typically differs from person to person; hence, it is impossible to argue against specific examples. It is important, however, 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. A clearly defined list of characteristics that determine when rights are conferred to a human is only useful if it can be applied to all people. For example, suppose we accept the idea that a properly functioning central nervous system is a/the criterion for the right to life to be conferred. It is not at all clear why the following scenarios are not morally acceptable based on this criterion:
  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.
This takes us to the real crux of the issue. If human rights are merely something that we invent and develop, then there really is no such thing as a right to life for anyone at any time. This means looking back in time and passing judgment against slave owners, the apartheid, those sanctioning the Cambodian killing fields, or the Holocaust, to name a few, is ultimately incoherent. Who are we to pass judgment on what another person thinks is right concerning killing another person or in some way treating them as a means rather than an end, if people do not possess any rights? The problem is that people don’t live like that, and we know it. People have no trouble recognizing slavery as a clear example where an entire culture endorsed the dehumanization of people purely for pigment levels in their skin. However, if rights are a function of some qualities defined by a culture, then it is irrational to claim American slavery is immoral for those individuals practicing and endorsing it. This is the inevitable conclusion of the subjective morality that is driving the pro-abortion movement to define unborn babies as non-human. Thus, if the pro-abortion advocates want to embrace the negation of premise one, they seem to have a very heavy burden to shoulder in demonstrating that one individual (or culture) may pass judgment on another individual (or culture) in the absence of intrinsic rights. Furthermore, they have the difficult task of establishing when rights are conferred and for what reasons.
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 fetal rights 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. Therefore, we can provide a theological argument to support affirming the first premise.
P1’: Humans should not be unjustifiably killed because humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26; 9:6).
P2’: If the image of God is imputed to people at fertilization, then abortion is morally wrong in most situations from the moment of fertilization.
P3’: The image of God is present from conception.
C’: 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 that people possess the image of God from the moment life begins. The most notable is the virginal conception of Jesus Christ.
The Third Premise
Arguing against the third premise flies in the face of the numerous scientific discoveries about human development as well as a basic definition of what life is. The Penguin Dictionary of Biology provides an excellent, concise definition of biological life:
“[Living organisms are] 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 definition unequivocally places a fertilized egg as a living organism. Furthermore, the moment of fertilization is marked by the slow block to polyspermy, which is a series of biochemical processes that limit the number of sperm that may penetrate the oocyte to one. This provides a clear point in time marking the formation of a new organism with its own unique life trajectory.
Adding additional criteria to the definition of life is a grave mistake that can lead to bizarre and absurd conclusions. For example, some pro-abortion advocates claim that a fetus requires a functioning nervous system to be alive. By this definition, however, 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. Similar absurdities result with other “definitions” of life. It is far more plausible to agree with modern science and affirm premise three rather than its negation.
So What Does All of This Mean?
A simple argument demonstrating that humans possess a right to life from conception was presented. It was further argued that each premise is more plausible than the corresponding negation. Thus, the conclusion of argument cannot logically be avoided. Murder is the unjustified killing of an innocent human. If the argument goes through, then what else would you call an abortion? Certainly the unborn baby is innocent. Abortion is legal in the US, but that does not make abortion any less immoral. Is lawfully killing a spouse in country where such actions are legal moral for those people? Clearly not! The law is in error and must be changed.