A Logical Look at Legalized Abortions

Recently, Alaska has been in the news for putting a parental notification law on the ballot. Of course, multiple people have jumped up to say that such a law somehow violates women’s rights. How the law violates women’s rights when these same “women” (under-aged girls) have to get parental consent for medical treatment, not just notification. This means Planned Parenthood argues that when it comes to killing a fetus, a 15 year old has a right to her body, but when it comes to consenting to a field trip or the like, the 15 year old no longer has a right over her body. This is a contradiction, but I digress.

I’ve been thinking more and more about people who are against abortion, but then qualify their statement to say, “But I would never make it illegal for others.” This forces the question, “Why not?” The only proper reason to be against abortions is that one believes the fetus to be a human person. If one believes the fetus to be a human person, then it should follow that one believes the fetus has rights.

One way to look at it is by the possible logical scenarios for abortion:

(1) All fetuses are persons; all persons are entitled to the basic right to life; therefore, all fetuses have the basic right to life (abortion is always wrong, with certain medical exceptions)

(2) Some fetuses are persons; all persons are entitled to the basic right to life; therefore, some fetuses have the basic right to life (abortion is sometimes wrong)

(3) At least some fetuses are not persons; all persons are entitled to the basic right to life; therefore, at least some fetsuses do not have the basic right to life (at least some abortions are not wrong)

(4) No fetuses are persons; all persons are entitled to the basic right to life; therefore, no fetuses have a basic right to life (no abortion is wrong)

This is what the abortion debate boils down to, whether or not a fetus is a human person. Arguments (2) and (3) make little sense because it raises unanswerable questions; “What makes one fetus a person and another fetus a non-person?” Unless the fetus is dead, it seems any standard we could offer would automatically be arbitrary. If we argue on size, then would this mean a person who is 5’4″ is less of a person than someone who is 6’0″? If we say that a fetus has to be at least a foot long in order to be a person, how did we come to such a conclusion? What is to prevent us from saying person hood begins at 5’5″ and all people below such a mark are not persons?

Being a person must be based on something non-arbitrary, which makes arguments (2) and (3) difficult to support.

It seems that the debate comes down to arguments (1) and (4). If a fetus is a person, then that fetus is entitled to certain rights. If the fetus is not a person, then the fetus is entitled to no rights.

The problem with argument (4) is that it runs into the same problem that arguments (2) and (3) do, namely that it establishes an arbitrary definition for “person.” What is the difference between a fetus two minutes prior to birth and an infant two minutes after birth? What makes one a person and the other a non-person? Is it the location outside of the womb? If so, what makes the womb different? Why is it a person outside of the womb, but not inside when nothing genetically has changed for the fetus? The standard is simply arbitrary.

If someone says, “I agree in basic human rights” and also “I believe that fetuses are human persons,” then by logical necessity, that person must also argue against legalized abortion. We have laws against murder because we believe that humans are entitled to a basic right to life. If fetuses are persons then they are also entitled to this same right. For instance, I am allowed to kill a deer for sport or for a meal. I am not, however, allowed to do this with a human person. This is because humans have higher rights than animals. Abortion is the act of taking a life, therefore if all humans have a basic right to life (and when this right is violated, the violator is charged with murder) and fetuses are persons, it follows that abortion should be illegal.

Thus, such an argument is illogical:

(1a) All fetuses are persons; all persons have the right to life; therefore, abortion should be legal

The conclusion contradicts the second premise, “all persons have the right to life.” If we are to be consistent in believing that all human persons have a right to life and that all fetuses are human persons, it follows that killing a human fetus – when the existence of the fetus does not post an immanent threat to the mother’s life – is, in every case, wrong.

Many people are starting to realize that a human fetus is also a human person. I even did an entire series relating to this issue over at Virtue and Life. Some, however, argue that not all human persons are entitled to the right to life. These arguments are broken down as such:

(5) All human persons have the right to life

(6) Some human persons have the right to life

(7) Some human persons do not have the right to life

(8) No human persons have the right to life

Very few people will argue in favor of argument (8). Anyone who supports argument (8) would have to be against all laws against murder. Such a person could argue that one’s right to life is dependent upon one’s ability to either trick others into letting him live, or kill others. There are very few people in this world who believe this.

Some ethicists do fall into arguments (6) and (7). One of the most famous arguments was brought forth by Judith Jarvis Thompson when she argued in her essay, “A Defense of Abortion,” that even a fetus who is a human person is not entitled to the right to life. Her argument can be summarized as :

(a) All persons have an autonomous right to the use of their individual bodies

(b) A person’s right to his body trumps anyone’s right to life insofar as anyone is relying on the person’s body for survival (e.g. “Bob has an autonomous right to his body. John relies on Bob’s body for survival. Bob has the right to terminate John’s life because John is relying on Bob’s life)

(c) Therefore, since a fetus relies on a mother’s body in order to survive, even though the fetus is a person, his right does not trump the mother’s right over her own body

The problem with Thompson’s argument – and therefore with arguments (6) and (7) – is that premise (a) doesn’t work. The premise is fallacious in that it’s a case of special pleading, that is, we would only say a person has an autonomous right to one’s body in the case of abortion, but not in other cases. For instance, a child is reliant upon the parent for survival. If the parent goes out to a club one night and leaves the child at home, under Thompson’s argument the parent shouldn’t be charged with neglect. After all, the child is reliant upon the bodily actions of the parent, meaning the parent’s right to his body trumps the child’s right to live.

The above, however, is a priori wrong. We innately know that such an action is wrong and allow our laws to reflect that such an action is wrong. Likewise, it ignores that we have an ethical obligation to others, specifically our children.

However, instead of going into a long explanation here of why both premise (a) and premise (b) are false, there is an excellent article by Francis Beckwith titled, “Personal Bodily Rights, Abortion, and Unplugging the Violinist” that does an excellent job of dealing with these issues.

In short, arguments (6) and (7) end up being implausible; we end up creating an arbitrary standard to say that “John is not entitled to the right to life, but Susan is.” Arbitrary standards, though meant to be subjectively applied, end up being universally applied. Thus, to take the rights away from one person inevitably means other people will also have their rights taken away.

Logically and scientifically only the combination of arguments (1) and (5) fit with reality. The other arguments or any other combination either is internally inconsistent or inconsistent with reality. It would appear that if one wants to be logical in looking at abortion and factual, one would have to agree that all fetuses are persons, that all persons are entitled with the basic right to live, and because of these premises, abortion ought to be illegal (with few exceptions).


4 thoughts on “A Logical Look at Legalized Abortions

  1. Your logic is flawed in that you have not understood that the fetus’ life until a certain time (age) when it is viable on its own is dependant on another life. This makes it an exception and therefore it must be dealt with as an exception. The same criteria can not be applied to the unborn and born because it is possible with the proper care for the born to be cared for and live disconnected from its original “host”. I am not arguing in favor of abortion just against your logic.

    1. That’s not a flaw in logic, but would instead be a flaw in the premise (a factual flaw and not a logical flaw).

      Secondly, that’s still an arbitrary standard. There is literally no difference between someone who is put on life support at the age of 22 and someone who is in the womb after 22 days of development; the only difference is the “equipment” being used to keep the other alive. That is, a fetus at 22 days of development is only contingently reliant upon the mother; conceivably we could develop an artificial womb in which the fetus is not reliant upon the mother.

      Third, you’re arguing for reliance, but reliance does not determine personhood. Again, an infant is physically reliant upon her mother, or at the very least is reliant upon someone for nourishment, which requires the physical action of another. So the reliance that a 22 day old fetus has is a difference in degree and not in kind when compared to an infant.

      So you’re wrong. The fact that the fetus is dependent upon someone else’s life is not an exception at all. It used to be that a premature baby wasn’t viable outside of the womb because we lacked the technology to keep them alive. Does this mean they weren’t persons?

      Another problem you run into when trying to create an exception in abortion is basic metaphysical laws, the primary one being that an essence can’t change without killing the being holding the essence. For instance, a bear can become a rug, but in that changing essence the bear is killed. So we look to the fetus and ask, “Is it a human?” If not, then when the fetus changes into a human, the fetus should die. But this doesn’t happen – the heart continues, the genetic code remains the same, etc. So we ask, “is personhood essential to human nature or accidental?” The definition of man is “a rational animal.” Rationality is only found in personhood, so it would seem that since a fetus has to be a human (due to the aforementioned facts), the fetus is also a person, though lacking the current capacity to act on his rationality.

      With the above in mind, how can we then form an exception based upon reliance? The simple truth is that we can’t. A fetus at 6 weeks relies on the mother just as a fetus at 6 months or a child at 6 years – the only difference is the degree to which they rely on the mother, not the kind of reliance.

  2. Joel,

    When you listed the 4 logical scenarios for abortion, why in the first scenario did you allow for medical exceptions? I am not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I would like you to spell out the case for that exception, logically and theologically.

    1. Well this is a hotly debated ethical stance. But I am thinking of cases where the death of the fetus is immanent (as in, there is no possible way to save the fetus), but such a death also threatens the mother. In such a scenario, an abortion is justifiable. Likewise, if the pregnancy presents an immanent threat to the mother where only the fetus or the mother can be saved, it could be argued that the mother is justified in an abortion (think of “Sophie’s Choice”).

      My own personal beliefs are different on this, but this is one area where I think legally we would have to leave it open-ended. Here we have two person’s competing for life, so who do you choose? Who has the moral right to live? In either case, the personhood or moral importance of either the fetus or the mother is brought into question. Both are equally persons (by nature) and both are of equal moral equivalence, so it becomes quite an issue.

      Some might argue that there is a difference between killing and letting die (which I find a lot of validity in), but even this has some problems. So this is the one area in abortion that I currently find morally ambiguous.

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