Abortion is a very controversial subject in our country and rightly so. Opponents of abortion charge that it is the murder of an unborn child. Those who support abortion claim that it is a basic human right. With 50 million legal abortions performed in the U.S. in the last half century, with 60% of all African American pregnancies in New York City ending in abortion, with 80-90% of all babies diagnosed prenatally with Down syndrome being aborted, and with as many as 100 million female babies ‘missing’ worldwide due to the practice of sex-selection abortions, the stakes are unimaginably high. If opponents of abortion are wrong, then they are attempting to strip women of their rights. If abortion advocates are wrong, then they are complicit in a moral atrocity to which every genocide in human history pales in comparison. The purpose of this essay is not primarily to argue against abortion, although I do fall strongly into the pro-life camp. The purpose of this essay is to examine several popular arguments in favor of abortion and show that they are seriously flawed.
If you are a proponent of abortion, I hope that you will consider these objections and will stop using these arguments. And if your support of abortion rights is wholly predicated on arguments like these, I hope that you will reconsider your stance on abortion altogether. I know that everyone in your circle of friends or your political community may be pro-choice. I know that support for abortion may seem like the only progressive, enlightened view. I know that you may think that only religious fanatics and misogynists oppose abortion. But I beg you to think through the following objections rationally. If you have never seriously interacted with pro-life arguments, I recommend starting with this debate between pro-life activist Scott Klusendorf and former ACLU president Nadine Strossen.
So what are some of the most popular pro-choice arguments and slogans that are deeply flawed? Here are a few:
“Women have a right to do what they want with their own bodies.”
The fundamental problem with this objection is that it assumes that laws against abortion are primarily concerned with what a woman can and cannot do to her own body. But they are not. Why? Ask yourself a simple question: how many brains does a woman have? One. But how many brains does a pregnant woman have? Still one. The woman’s body is not the issue in abortion: the baby’s body is. The developing fetus has a complete set of human DNA different than the mother’s. It has its own circulatory system, its own brain, its own fingers and toes and arms and legs. If it is a male, it even has a different gender than the mother. Therefore, the fetus is clearly not just ‘part of the woman’s body’. Laws against abortion aren’t telling a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body; they are telling a woman what she can and cannot do with someone else’s body.
“The government has no right to make laws telling a woman she can’t have an abortion”
Based on the argument above, it is clear why this second objection also fails: the government can and should be able to tell people what they can and cannot do to other people’s bodies. It is legal for me to shave my head or to cut my fingernails or to pierce my ears. It is even legal for me to stick a knife into my leg. But it is illegal for me to do any of these things to another human being without their consent. The government rightly recognizes that the other human being has their own rights which can and should be protected by law. Thus, if the unborn is a human being, the government can and should protect it from being harmed by anyone, even its mother.
“The unborn is not a human being, it is just a mass of cells.”
This objection is based on the belief that there is not medical consensus that the unborn is a human being from the moment of conception. But this belief is false. Numerous contemporary medical textbooks on embryology support the claim that human life begins at conception. Here are a few clear statements:
“A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).” Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition.
“Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte [egg], unite to give rise to a zygote.” T.W. Sadler, Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition.
“Human embryos begin development following the fusion of definitive male [sperm] and female gametes [egg] during fertilization… This moment of zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic development.” William J. Larsen, Essentials of Human Embryology.
From the moment of conception, the zygote has the same DNA as a fully-grown adult human being and will naturally develop into a fully-grown human being. That is not true of a sperm or an egg or a skin cell. The idea that the unborn is ‘not a human being’ is not supported by science.
“Until the fetus has a heart and brain, it is not a human being.”
This objection is primarily answered by reference to the medical texts above, which state that human life begins at conception. But it’s also worth pointing out that most people who raise this objection do so inconsistently. If the presence of a brain and heart makes the unborn human, then the fetus becomes a `human being’ extremely early in pregnancy. The brain and heart begin forming only a week after implantation, around the same time that most women realize they are pregnant. If advocates of abortion really believe that the unborn becomes a human being with a right to life at this point , then they should join forces with opponents of abortion in making all abortions illegal after the fifth-week of pregnancy. Since few are willing to do so, it shows that this objection is not actually the basis for their attitude towards abortion.
“It is moral to kill a fetus as long as it feels no pain.”
In no other case is the ability of a human being to feel pain the determining factor in whether its murder is morally justified. If that were true, then it would be moral to kill adults in comas or even conscious human beings with overdoses of opiates. Since killing comatose or anesthetized adults is clearly immoral, this argument cannot be used to justify abortion.
“No one should be forced to carry and raise the child of their rapist.”
Rape is extremely evil. But if the unborn is a human being, then the circumstances surrounding its conception cannot justify killing it. The easiest way to see this is to observe that if conception in rape could be used to justify abortion, it could also be used to justify infanticide. A mother who decides to deliver a baby conceived in rape, but later realizes that raising the child would be traumatic is not morally justified in killing the infant. For the same reason, if the unborn is a human being, then the evil committed by its biological father is no reason that he or she should have to die. Moreover, I have never heard a pro-life advocate argue that the woman should be forced to raise the child, only that she should not kill him. For more information on babies conceived in rape, I suggest looking at the website of pro-life activist Rebecca Kiesling, who was herself conceived in rape.
“Making abortion illegal will not decrease abortion; it will only make drive it underground and make it less safe.”
First, the claim that making abortion illegal will not decrease abortion is extremely unlikely. In the five years following Roe v. Wade, the abortion rate in the U.S. rose by over 50% (see page 2 here). If the legality of abortion does not affect abortion rates, how is this data explained? Second, even if this statement were true, it would not change the morality of abortion or our legal approach to it. The fact that laws against murder might force people intent on killing othersto hire criminals does not make us legalize murder. In the same way, if abortion is murder, the fact that people intent on having abortions might resort to breaking the law should not make us legalize abortion.
“Laws should not be based on religion”
Although pro-life advocates are often religious, many pro-life arguments make no reference to religious beliefs of any kind. For instance, in my discussion above, I have not invoked any religious reasoning in demonstrating the error of various pro-choice objections. The fact that there are many pro-life atheist groups should be sufficient to show that opposition to abortion need not be the result of religious belief. Secondly, the idea that religious sentiment of any kind should not inform our laws is often held inconsistently. No one objects when Christians affirm laws against sex trafficking or murder or rape on the basis of their religious beliefs. But if that is the case, then one cannot object when Christians oppose abortion on the basis of those beliefs.
“If you are opposed to abortion, don’t have one.”
Consider using this argument on any other moral issue of such importance: ‘If you are opposed to slavery, don’t own slaves.’ ‘I respect your choice to not own slaves, but you have no right to tell me not to own one.’ Such arguments are obviously false. The key issue is whether the unborn is a human being with its own rights. If she is, then I can and should oppose abortion, not merely by abstaining from abortion myself, but by ensuring that abortion is illegal.
“We should combat abortion by reducing poverty, not by making it illegal.”
Again, consider using the same argument in another context: ‘We should combat childhood sex slavery through reducing poverty, not by making it illegal.’ That reasoning is wrong. And obviously, not all people who have abortions are poor.
“Most people (i.e., men) who are against abortion will never even become pregnant.”
Again, consider using the same argument in another context: “Most people who are opposed to slavery are too poor to ever own slaves.” That reasoning is obviously invalid. A person can recognize the immorality of an action even if they are never in the position to commit it.
As I have tried to show, these ‘arguments’ for abortion are not valid arguments at all. When we remove these rhetorical obstacles, we are left with two central questions: 1) is the unborn a human being and 2) is the killing of an innocent human being murder? These clear, moral questions are at the heart of the abortion debate, but sadly are often completely and astonishingly ignored in discussions of the issue. When considering abortion, these questions should keep coming up again and again: is the unborn human? Is killing an innocent human being murder? If abortion is murder, can we really wash our hands of the moral responsibility of 50 million deaths by abortion in this country alone, or must we take an unequivocal, urgent stand against this atrocity? My hope in exposing the errors implicit in the arguments listed above is that both advocates and opponents of abortion will step back from slogans and rhetoric so that the real heart of the issue can be discussed carefully and seriously.
As I said at the outset, I know that in many political circles, the ‘right to abortion’ is unquestioned. To espouse a pro-life position is to be ‘benighted’, ‘archaic’, and ‘regressive’. But we should care more about which views are correct and less about how they are labeled. Think of what is at stake: the lives of hundreds of millions of unborn babies. We often ask ourselves: if I had lived in the antebellum South, if I had lived during the Holocaust, if I had lived under Jim Crow, would I have had the courage and the awareness to challenge what everyone else saw as acceptable but I recognized as a moral horror? You have that choice today. If you are interested in pro-life arguments, I recommend beginning with this debate between pro-life activist Scott Klusendorf and former ACLU president Nadine Strossen. For a fuller treatment of pro-life arguments from a Christian perspective, see ‘The Case for Life’ by Klusendorf or Beckwith’s “Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights” which is available free online.