Recently, President Obama called for a “fair-minded” discussion on abortion. My question is quite simple; does he actually understand the severity of this issue? If a fetus is a human being, then abortion is murder. If a fetus is not a human being, then pro-life advocates are advocating the restriction of women’s rights. The consequences on both sides are drastic, so it’s hard to find a “middle ground” on this issue.
Thus, I offer up the following arguments against abortion. With great apologies to Peter Kreeft, I have followed a similar thought pattern that he presented in his book The Unaborted Socrates. The thought pattern comes from chapter one of his book as do some of the arguments (however, once can go back to some of my previous articles, specifically the “Christianity and Abortion Series” to see that many of these arguments are ones I’ve used for a while).
Is Abortion Murder?
Pragmatic Answer –
Is abortion killing? Yes, it is killing. We know the fetus, even at the earliest stage of conception, is biologically alive. Thus, terminating the life of anything that is alive is killing. The question then becomes, is the life human?
When we eat a fish, we have killed the fish. We have terminated a biological life, but no moral code has been broken. So really, the abortion issue does come down to if the life in the womb is human. If it is not, then kill away for it has little value. If it is human, however, then we must reconsider abortion (even in the case of rape and incest).
From a pragmatic view we must look at abortion this way; does our view of humanity change what humanity is? For instance, if I look at a fish, can I call it a bear? Yes, I can, but does this make it a bear? No, it does not. A fish does not contain “bear-ness,” thus no matter what I think the fish is not a bear, it is simply a fish. Likewise, the fetus either is or is not human life, regardless of what I think. Pragmatically then, wouldn’t it be better to be against abortions just in case a fetus actually does hold the essence of being a human?
For instance, would we support our military if they simply blew up targets, not knowing if there were civilians in side or not. Imagine the following scenario:
The military intelligence sees a building. They know it is either an orphanage or a terrorist training camp. They do not have enough information and plead ignorance, but conclude it is okay to blow up the building anyway. Is this good military practice? Of course not – we would put the person on trial who ordered the bombing. Before engaging in the act of killing, they would want to know what they were killing.
Likewise, isn’t this what we are doing with abortion? When we plead ignorance, when we say, “Well, we can’t know,” or “The issue of abortion is above my pay grade,” aren’t we allowing the killing of something without knowing whether or not it is human? We would not accept such a rationale in any other situation, so we should not accept it here. If we plead ignorance to the situation, then pragmatically we should be against abortion because we could potentially be killing a human life.
But I am not here for a pragmatic defense; I am here to support the truth.
We should define human personhood as “a rational animal.” This simply means that we have a rational soul that seeks knowledge (unlike all other creations), but we are likewise physical. Now, we can say that a fetus does not seek knowledge, but this deals with the function of being rather than the being of being. For instance, an infant does not function rationally, but does hold the capacity for rational thinking, thus we view an infant as a human being. This is important to keep in mind – just because part of the being has not functioned yet, has not been actualized, does not mean the being is not part of the greater human essence (lest we say people who sleep or infants are not humans). Thus, just because the fetus fails to function as a human does not prove it is not a human. So all the claims that a fetus looks different or doesn’t function the same way an adult human does are irrelevant – functionality doesn’t deal with being.
So we come to the next question, what is a fetus? Is it a fish? No, it is not a fish. Is it a cat? No, it is not a cat. If it is not human, what is it? If we do not know then why do we advocate killing it? How can we justify killing something when we do not know what it is? If we look at an object in the wilderness and do not know what it is, only that it is alive, how do we determine it is not human? We can look observably at it and conclude that in no instance has a human ever come from something like this, thus it is not human. However, not only do humans come from fetuses, it is the only way humans come about.
The problem becomes clearer when we look at the genetic code. The genetic code you have within your body now is the same one you had at the moment you were conceived. The moment your mother’s egg was fertilized with your father’s sperm, you came into existence with a genetic code, the same one you have now. The genetic code you have now was the one you had 10 years ago, 10 minutes after you were born, 10 minutes before you were born, and when you were conceived. Not everything in the code up to this point has been actualized. In fact, most of your code has been actualized now than when you were 15 years old or 2 months old. As you have grown older, the potential in the code has developed increasingly and been actualized as you have matured. You may have had bright blond hair when you were three, but your genetic code dictated that it would darken, as you grew older. Thus, your hair is different now than it was when you were three because of the genetic code you have had.
The above shows that the potential of our genetic code is actualized as we develop in life. It is what makes us unique. Furthermore, this genetic code is there from the moment of conception. Your father’s sperm only had part of your genetic code. Your mother’s egg only had part. Though they held the potential for human life, by themselves they could not create human life. Once they came together the code was complete and you were brought into existence.
The “zygote” has a complete DNA structure. It is not the mother’s DNA. It is not the father’s DNA. The “zygote” has a complete DNA structure that is unique both to the mother and father. So if it isn’t a person, what is it?
So I ask, am I a person? Yes I am. Am I a fetus? No I am not. Yet, the same genetic code that existed in me when I was a fetus is the same code I have now – so what changed? At what point did I become a person even though my genetic code never changed? Under classification for something to be a different species there must be some variation in the genetic code. However, if I go from one species to another (from something to human) then there must be a genetic code change. But there is not one. From the moment of conception to now, my genetic code has remained the same. Thus, if we trace this back, scientifically I have been a human from the moment of conception because my genetic code has never changed.
Common Sense Argument
Physical appearance does not matter (part 1) –
But what if we ignore the science of the issue? What if we turn to ‘common sense’ and say that a fetus is only a potential person while adults are actual persons (again, ignoring the scientific evidence that shows there’s no difference between the two)?
We often look at a zygote and an adult and say, “Look at all the differences!” But that is irrelevant. Look at an infant and an adult. We run into four major differences between an infant and an adult:
1) Size – an adult is far bigger than an infant
2) Development – Infants are far less developed in their bodily systems; internally and externally, many things that adults take for granted, infants haven’t developed or learned
3) Dependence – an infant is dependant upon an adult for survival. Without an adult present, an infant will die
4) Mobility – The infant (in the earliest stages) cannot move anywhere without the aid of the adult, while a properly functioning adult can move wherever he pleases
Now, do any of these massive visible differences make killing an infant any less of a murder than killing an adult? Is it worse to kill an adult or a child? The answer to all of this is no. We do not distinguish between the two. If you kill an infant or kill an adult you will face the same penalty because we view the killing of both as murder.
Is it worse to kill a preadolescent – whose reproductive abilities have not developed yet – or to kill an adolescent who can reproduce? Neither; it is equally evil to kill both because we view both as human, though both function differently.
So it seems that the stage of development in human life bears no affect on whether the life is human or not. An infant who is one minute old is viewed to be just as human as someone who is 50 years old.
Let us apply this even further. Is it less evil to kill someone who is dependent or immobile? Is it less evil to kill a 50 year old that is paralyzed and cannot walk than a fully functioning 50 year old? Of course not; if anything, we would say killing the helpless is MORE evil than killing those that can help themselves. Both are evil acts, do not get me wrong, but in common sense situations when the helpless are murdered, we view it as more evil.
So then what is the difference between a zygote/fetus and a newborn infant? What difference is there other than both are at a different stage of development? The infant is far closer to being a fetus than being an adult, so what magical property occurred that caused the fetus to become a human? From a common sense view, since there is more difference between an infant and an adult than an infant and a fetus, if an infant and an adult are both human, then it logically follows that an infant and a fetus must also be human.
Viability Doesn’t Matter –
But an objection could be raised to this; we could say that viability outside of the womb is what makes a person human. Already, in order to take this position we must abandon the scientific argument (of genetics), but must also give up a belief in third term abortions (since those include viable fetuses). Regardless, does viability affect whether or not a fetus is human?
The word viability has within it the implicit understanding that object A is dependent upon object B. Thus, if B does not exist, A will falter and die. Already, we can see the problem in this argument based solely upon the previous argument concerning degree of dependence. An infant is not technically viable as the infant requires someone to take care of him or he will die.
Furthermore, the fetus is not dependent upon the mother for whom he is, but rather requires the mother for nourishment; he already has his own genetic code. Conceivably, we could remove the fetus from the womb from the moment of conception, put him in an artificial womb that provided the needed nourishment, and he would still live. This is because his identity is not provided by the mother, merely his nourishment. But this is no different than an infant who likewise requires nourishment from the mother. The dependency is the same, the methods of executing that dependency change, but we are still willing to say an infant is human. Thus, the viability argument fails.
We can finalize this in the fact that we still consider the sick and elderly or mentally challenged. All of those are depended upon someone else. None of them are “viable” in that they depend on someone else to help them. In fact, all of us are dependent! We depend on each other; we depend on the farmer, on the fisherman, etc, all for our nourishment. So none of us are actually viable. The viability argument fails completely.
But let us go even further into this argument. If personhood is subjective then we must do away with all laws of murder; there is no legitimate way to determine if a person has killed a human or a non-human, due to the subjective nature of personhood. If, however, personhood is objective (in that we can always know if a person has murdered another person or simply killed a non-human organism) then it must be objective regardless of time and place. So we take the viability argument and apply it to infants 2,000 years ago. If a modern infant is born with health problems we can place the infant in an incubator and the infant is saved. If, however, this same infant were born 2,000 years ago when there were no incubators, due to him not being viable outside of the womb he would have died. Was he still a person?
Again, if we view this objectively, though he was not viable we must still admit that he was a person. If we take this view subjectively, then we must do away with all laws on murder. Logically, personhood is objective in that we know what is and is not human. Thus, the infant today who can be put in an incubator and the infant who died 2,000 years ago because he was not viable are both still human. So the viability argument fails in every aspect of its use.
Physical Appearance Doesn’t Matter (part 2) –
Continuing on the thread of common sense arguments, though we must now admit that 2nd and 3rd term abortions are wrong because they kill a human being, what about first term? When do we become persons? How can we say that a single cell zygote is a human when an adult and a zygote look different?
The inherent problem is that we must define what something is, not what it looks like. Looks do not determine what something is. It might feel silly based on observations to say a zygote is human, but feelings do not determine what something is. Slave owners in the South felt it was silly to say a black man was human, but their feelings did not change the fact that black men are humans. Germans felt that Jews were lower humans, but their feelings did not properly reflect the fact that Jews are equal to all other human beings. Thus, though it might feel silly, this says nothing about whether or not a zygote is a human.
In a zygote we do not see organs, cells, limbs, or other things we see in adult males, but this does not offer us any insight on whether or not a zygote is human. For instance, we do not see adult genitals on an infant, but we chalk this up to development rather than a change in species or the differentiation between “human” and “non-human.” Rather, the idea that a zygote does not have organs is an argument about how developed it is rather than what it is.
So, what is a zygote? A zygote is potentially an adult, but not potentially human, because it is already human. There is a difference between the essence of something and the actuality of something. The actuality simply means the essence has been acted upon, but the actuality does not define what something is, rather it is the essence that defines what something is. A 60 year-old woman has some of her growth behind her and some of her growth ahead of her. She is further along in her genetic code than her 5 year-old granddaughter. Thus, the granddaughter is potentially an adult, but already a human. Likewise, with a zygote, from the scientific standpoint, it is potentially an infant, but already human. A zygote is just another stage in human development.
The essence is already there in a zygote. It will not potentially become a rabbit. It will not potentially become a plant. If properly functioning, the zygote will grow into an infant, will become a child, will become an adolescent, and will become an adult. This can only happen because the essence of “humanness” is already present within the zygote though not all aspects of humanness have been actualized. But the lack of actualization means little in determining if the zygote is human or not. A preadolescent has not had his reproductive system actualized, but he is not less human. He still has the essence of humanness within him, though that entire essence has yet to be actualized. In fact, this is how it is in all humans; no human alive has actualized the entire essence of what it is to be human. Thus, if we must actualize the entirety of the essence of being human, then none of us are human. Rather, it is far more rational to simply say that so long as something has the essence of being human, it is therefore human.
So, from the above view it is nigh impossible to say a zygote or fetus is a not human. I use those terms as scientific definitions of human development. Just as an infant is different from a child and a child from an adolescent, but all are human, so a zygote and fetus are different from an adult, but all three are still human. If we plead ignorance, we must be against abortion. But if we accept reasoning, common sense, and science, we must likewise be against abortion. To be for abortion, as shown above, one must abandon all reasoning. How is that for a “fair-minded discourse”?