A philosophical argument against abortion

I write this intending to avoid a religious argument or religious justification for abortion. While I believe certain “sins” can only occur with a religious backing (i.e. blasphemy against God or why homosexuality is wrong [having the religious backing doesn’t mean these views of morality are subjective, merely that one must invoke God in explaining why they are wrong]), there are others that one can look at through a secular point of view and still see these actions as being wrong (i.e. murder and abortion). Thus, though I believe Christianity has the best definition for humanity and the best argument against abortion, I believe one can use an entirely secular argument to discredit abortion. This article attempts to do that.

The problem with abortion is that no one really knows when human life begins. Science can help us determine the ontology of a human, but we set the boundaries for what is and is not human. Such boundaries in the abortion debate, have not been set.

One could argue that the ontological boundary has been established that something moves from being a “fetus” to a “human” at the point it leaves the womb alive. This, of course, allows for third term abortions. Some courts, however, have ruled that Roe v. Wade does not protect third term abortions and that life in the third trimester is human, thus it cannot be exterminated. This would mean that some courts view human life beginning when the “fetus” is viable outside of the womb.

The problem with the above definition – that human life begins when a fetus leaves the womb and is viable – is that some babies naturally born are not technically viable outside of the womb. Some need to be put on ventilators; others require other technological advances in order to live. A baby that is operated on in the womb – such as having a stunt put in the heart to help the baby develop properly – are never technically viable outside of the womb; they will always require some outside source in order to function properly. Under the idea that “viability” somehow makes someone human, such people are no longer human. Likewise, if someone is injured in an accident and requires any technological assistance in order to live, that person is really no longer a person. This definition of humanity, therefore, is severely lacking.

Does this mean that the extreme definition of humanity – a human isn’t human until outside of the womb – is one that is true? If it is true then we need to rethink certain laws. The one that comes to mind is someone receiving a penalty for killing an unborn. Some people, when they murder a pregnant mother, will often face double homicide cases. This means that in criminal cases a child in the womb is still viewed as a human, but in the case of abortion the child is viewed as something other than human (and subsequently allowed to be killed). If the “vitality” definition is true, we would have to re-think how much care we give to these babies inside the womb because they aren’t truly human.

This definition presented – life begins outside the womb – isn’t sufficient for defining humanity. The problem is there aren’t enough significant ontological distinctions to differentiate between an unborn baby and a baby that has been born. The unborn baby gains its nourishment through amniotic fluid and is connected to the mother by the umbilical chord. The unborn baby requires similar nourishment, but simply through different means. In other words, the unborn child in the third trimester and the birthed child have the same requirements, but simply hold different means for fulfilling these requirements. Since there are no other major ontological distinctions (‘looks’ hardly play into ontological distinctions, otherwise severely deformed people couldn’t be classified as human), it is difficult to say one is human and one is not human. Once the baby passes through the birth canal, nothing special happens to cause that baby to be anymore human than it already is. This would show that the “birth canal” standard is severely lacking.

What, then, is the best definition? As shown, it is nearly impossible to say a child is not human inside the womb. The reason for this is there is no way to tell when someone becomes human (we hardly know what it is to be human, at least in a described fashion).

I would advocate that the most logical explanation for when humanity begins is either at conception or at implantation. The reasons for this:

1)   It is the most common sense way of understanding when humanity begins

2)   It holds the least ramifications on its definition

3)   Under a “risk-analysis” view it works

In dealing with number one, common sense would dictate that human life begins at conception or implantation. A baby at three weeks looks different and is severely less developed than a baby at 20 weeks, but the baby at three weeks – if properly functioning and left to its natural course – will inevitably develop into a viable human being (the key word being viable). A child, if nothing is wrong, will become an adult – does this mean there is a human difference between an adult and a child? Absolutely not – the two are developed differently and at different stages of development, but hardly anyone would argue there is a difference between the two’s humanity. Both, it is agreed, are human life – if someone murders a 3 month-old or a 30 year-old, the punishment is the same. Likewise, what sense does it make to differentiate between a baby one week after conception and one that is outside of the womb? Different stages of development have nothing to do with evaluating humanity between adults and children, so why should such stages influence an evaluation of humanity between babies in the womb and outside of the womb?

The second issue is tied up with the third. The biggest risk in not allowing abortion (with the exception being for medical needs) is the emotional distress of the mother (if the pregnancy is unwanted) and her potential rights. In other words, to steal from Pascal’s Wager (which works in risk-analysis situations):

(1) If a “fetus” is not a human and (2) there is no moral consequence to liquidating the “fetus” then (3) preventing abortions violates the mother’s right to her own body.

Compare this to the view that abortion is morally wrong:

(4) If a “fetus” is really a human and (5) there is a moral consequence to liquidating the “fetus” then (6) allowing abortions violates the child’s right to life.

In other words, which is greater; the mother’s right to her body or the child’s right to live? If the child is human, then it is nearly impossible to argue that it is okay to liquidate this human life.

Under a risk-analysis view (the third view), especially of the law, abortion should then be illegal until a proper explanation of when humanity begins is accepted. Though a mother’s distress or financial status can cause emotional trauma for the mother, it is nothing compared to the taking of a human life.

The current standards, as shown, are woefully inadequate and illogical when applied to any other stage of life, thus it makes no sense to apply it to the stage of life that takes part in the womb.


3 thoughts on “A philosophical argument against abortion

  1. Dear Joel, nice post; but it seems to me that there are some assumptions that we must discuss. Nevertheless, I prefer to suggest a further reading befofe: the famous objection of Judith Thomson, “A defense of abortion” (1971). Can you read this paper and then give me your opinion?


    I think that Thomson gave a strong argument against yours, so I want to know… what do you think about her position? By the way, I’m analyzing the abortion issue in my own blog: Sagrada Anarquía (Sacred Anarchy). The blog is in Spanish, but, if you want, you may use a translator and read my position in the case of Peruvian legislation. I argued that in a liberal democratic State we mustn’t make abortion illegal in some special cases. (Please, sorry if my English is as bad as I suppose…I’m a good reader, but a terrible writer, I guess).

    1. I will certainly read it and get back to you. While I’m doing that, you may want to read a post I have on another site dealing with the humanity of embryos and fetuses (Part A and Part B). The entire series deals with the intrinsic value of humanity (start from the bottom up).

      Also, don’t worry about your English, it’s better than my Spanish so who am I to complain? 🙂

  2. Ok, then. I’m going to read your posts. I gave you a little response in my blog (but –in that momen– I was no sure if that Joel was you); nevertheless, I will be waiting for your answer to the Thomson’s article. Best wishes!

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