By Rubel Shelly
Abortion is seriously and objectively wrong.
This isn’t a political statement and has nothing to do with being a Democrat or Republican. It isn’t racist, antifeminist, or a bigoted judgment against people who have chosen to have an abortion. It is neither religious nor antireligious. It is the simple, straightforward assertion of an ethical position that squares with all we know about procreation, biology, and being human.
Stated most simply, abortion is wrong because what is killed is human.
If a developing, living collection of fetal cells is removed from a womb at, say, 8, 14, or 20 weeks, it does not morph into a fish, land-roving reptile, or subhuman animal. In other words, the nine-month trajectory from conception to birth is not an evolutionary development from nonhuman to human; neither is it the gradual molding of a life with human potential by the hand of God. It is the natural gestation period of human life from fertilized egg to babe in arms.
Every cell of the living organism under development has its unique and complete genetic code. By virtue of that genetic code, the organism is programmed from the instant of conception to develop into a 70-year-old male or female—unless prohibited by disease or violence.
To sum up, then, my thesis is that a fertilized human ovum is not something to be distinguished from the human species, is not an emerging or intermediate (i.e., subhuman) species, and is not a potential human being, but is in fact an early, physically immature, and genetically distinct member of the human race. Thus to violate, harm, or destroy that member of our race intentionally is to be guilty of a serious moral transgression.
In a format that logicians use, my argument takes this very simple form:
Major premise: All activities that destroy human life without adequate moral justification are instances of serious moral wrongdoing.
Minor premise: Prevailing abortion practices in the United States are activities that destroy human life without adequate justification.
Conclusion: Therefore, prevailing abortion practices in the United States are instances of serious moral wrongdoing.
When a philosopher offers an argument, he or she is not in an emotional state of red-faced screaming or pressing for someone to embrace his or her personal opinion. One is, instead, proposing to offer proof of a public truth. That is, a philosophical argument proposes to give evidence that establishes—either to some degree of high probability (with inductive arguments) or to a logical certainty (with deductive arguments)—that a given claim is correct and should be accepted by others as established fact.
The deductive argument I have offered is in the form of a classic Aristotelian syllogism. While there are infinitely many ways to formulate Aristotelian syllogisms, there are only 256 logically distinct formulations, with only 24 of these being valid. This argument is one of those 24 valid forms (i.e., AAA-1) and is identical in form with the following:
Major premise: All human beings are mortal beings.
Minor premise: All American citizens are human beings.
Conclusion: Therefore, all American citizens are mortal beings.
In the case of the two arguments above, their validity (i.e., bare-bones connection of premises to conclusion) means the premises cannot be true and the conclusion false. The claim of the conclusion may be rejected on the grounds “I just don’t care” or “I am willing to be guilty of serious moral wrongdoing,” but it cannot be rejected on the basis of either scientific fact or logical reasoning.
The major premise of the argument states a nuanced moral fact. That is, it does not claim that every instance of taking a life is morally wrong and thus blameworthy. There are such things as accidental deaths and justifiable homicides (e.g., self-defense). The statement here can be affirmed by both a pacifist and a just-war theorist or by both an opponent of capital punishment and an advocate of the death penalty—who will then need to debate what constitutes “adequate moral justification.” It also leaves for further discussion the issue of abortion where a mother’s life is in jeopardy or in cases of rape and incest—cases that are open for discussion among people who oppose our country’s prevailing, abortion-on-demand practices.
But might one argue that on-demand abortions have “adequate moral justification”? And, if so, on what grounds?
First, one could argue that the issue is a woman’s right to control what is done to her own body. But it has already been shown that the developing fertilized egg in her womb is not her bodily tissue. It has a genetic code distinct from hers and is not comparable to an appendix or gall bladder. The fact of a distinct genetic code means that a woman is not making a choice about her body, but about the body of another human being that is dependent on her for survival.
Second, some argue that the “developing” life in her womb cannot be counted as “human” until it develops a brain or other critical organ systems. But this is a false argument, because the subsequent development of human organs and organ systems is still a gradual thing well after birth (e.g., reproductive system) and not simply during the first several months after conception or until the child is outside the mother’s uterus. This would-be defense justifies not only abortion but also infanticide.
Third, some philosophers grant the fully human status of fetal life and still defend the right of abortion on the basis of “unwanted intrusion” into a woman’s life. In a famous and influential article, Judith Jarvis Thompson asks a reader to imagine waking up one morning in a hospital room with a famous violinist’s circulatory system linked to his or hers for life support. You have been kidnapped because you have the right blood type and are being used as the violinist’s living kidney dialysis machine.
Thompson argues that an unwanted pregnancy is the moral equivalent to her scenario with the violinist. Neither the mother nor you owe the life support necessary to sustain the attached person—although he or she is a living human being. She argues it is morally justifiable for either to “unplug” and let the attached person die.
At best, however, her analogy is relevant only to cases of forcible rape. At worst, it casts fetal life in the role of an unwanted intruder and presumes no obligation on the part of adults to protect vulnerable human life. It also overlooks the fact that newborn and very young children continue to be utterly dependent on adult care and nurture well after birth. May children be “unplugged” whenever they are deemed inconvenient, intrusive, and/or unwanted?
Fourth, with the hard scientific facts about the human state of an embryo generally admitted now, other pro-abortion thinkers (e.g., Margaret Olivia Little) have attempted to shift the discussion to maternal intimacy with a mother’s offspring. Little argues that a woman who decides she cannot bring her baby into an environment of poverty, lack of opportunity, or an intact family structure that is willing to nurture the child may simply “refuse to create” a mother-child bond by having an abortion. Her notion is that “refusing to create” is morally distinguishable for the customary language of “ending a pregnancy/life.”
Again, though, this proves far too much. Suppose the woman’s poverty or job loss strikes three months after the child’s birth or that the child’s father walks out on mother and child at six months or two years or on the day the child becomes a teenager? For that matter, what about siblings who “refuse to create” a sister-sister or sister-brother bond? May they choose to terminate those lives with their unique genetic identities without moral criticism?
For me to urge a woman carrying the organism I helped create (by providing one-half its genetic material) to destroy that living entity in order to spare me embarrassment, child support, or some other obligation would be wrong of me. For a woman who is carrying such a living entity in her womb to elect to expel that being and to deny the organism essential life support because she doesn’t want to postpone a career or has decided she just isn’t ready for motherhood would be wrong of her.
The decision by two humans to have sex has potential consequences known throughout all of nature. To have sex is to will its consequences, and to will a consequence—whether explicitly or implicitly—is to create a moral obligation. Coerced sexual intercourse (i.e., rape or incest) does not carry the same willing of a consequence and, for many, is a plausible exception to the general rule.
Both males and females of the human species have a right to control their own bodies and minds. More than that, they have a responsibility to do so. A man should neither seduce nor force a woman to be sexually intimate with him. He should respect her person to the degree that, if he truly loves her, he makes a covenantal commitment with her and engages in sexual intimacy for the sake of communicating his one-flesh dedication and willingness to co-parent with her. If timing or lack of desire for parenting is their joint decision, their right to control their bodies permits them to prevent conception by the conscientious practice of birth control. Similarly, a woman should respect her body to the degree that she accepts the same responsibility.
To deny and flee one’s moral responsibilities to human life by ignoring the process just cited and choosing instead to abort an inconvenient, stress-inducing, and/or unwelcome life in that life’s earliest days to weeks is ethically wrong. To do so with intentional violence against that life has become all too common. We should rethink it as a culture of civilized human beings.
Or is the claim that we are “a culture of civilized human beings” too compromised to be meaningful under our prevailing abortion practices?
Rubel Shelly is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.