Yesterday, January 22nd, was the anniversary of the famous Roe v. Wade decision made by the US Supreme Court in 1973, which was effectively a federally signed permission slip for women to get abortions. But many people, including myself, do not agree that the issue of abortion is settled by court fiat because… well, the court was wrong.
Abortion is an issue fraught with emotionally and rhetorically powerful arguments, so we have to make sure that we handle this issue with care. However, we are discussing an issue of great importance; if the pro-lifers (those against abortion) are correct, then we have been allowing the systematic destruction of the most helpless member of society for the last 42+ years. And if the pro-choicers (those in favor of abortion choice) are correct, then pro-lifers are looking to take away a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
Most of the ‘street-level’ arguments for and against abortion are a combination of assuming what they’re trying to prove (begging the question), personal attacks, accusatory motivational assumptions, straw men, loaded questions, and any number of other logically fallacious ways of thinking. How often have you heard a discussion on abortion where the pro-lifer is accusing the pro-choicer of hating babies and wanting to use abortion as birth control? …and in response, the pro-choicer accuses the pro-lifer of misogyny and being against women’s rights?
In fact, if you’re trying to hone your skills in logical fallacy identification, watch a popular level debate (on Fox News or CNN or something, those are almost always hilariously bad) and count the number of fallacies used by both people. That’s some hardcore on-the-job training, so be warned.
When we are approaching the issue of abortion, we have to ask two vitally important questions – one scientific and one philosophical.
What is the unborn? This is a scientific question.
What gives us value? This is a philosophical question.
Due to the fact that this is an introductory post, I don’t plan on addressing all of the possible objections to the pro-life position or arguments for abortion. What I plan on doing here is laying a foundation for pro-life thinking; a foundation that can be applied when discussing the issue with those who disagree.
Before we dive into the philosophical side of this question, let me just address the scientific question right away. The unborn is human. There is absolutely no way for you to deny this and maintain even a modicum of intellectual respectability. Rarely do I make such authoritative statements, but in this case… it is warranted. When a sperm cell and an egg cell combine together, it creates a separate organism of the same species. If you think that the combination of a human sperm and a human egg makes something other than a human zygote, I don’t know what to tell you. Perhaps you should read up on some basic biology a little more?
The full humanity of the unborn has been known for quite some time, yet one of the arguments used in pro-choice circles is that we don’t know if the unborn is human. For example, Alan Guttmacher wrote a book called “Life in the Making” (published in 1933) and on page 1 he says this:
“We of today know that man is born of sexual union; that he starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm. This all seems so simple and evident to us that it is difficult to picture a time when it was not part of the common knowledge.”
So we’ve known this for at least 82 years, but lets pretend that we don’t know and run with it.
Wouldn’t it be safer to assume that the unborn is human and respond by giving the benefit of the doubt to life? More on this later.
If you need to be reminded how babies are made, watch this video from TED.com.
(skip to 2 minutes if you want to get right to the animation)
Oftentimes, you will hear a [misinformed] pro-choice advocate say, ‘the unborn isn’t human!’ with all sorts of moral indignation. When they say this, they probably don’t mean that the unborn isn’t a human organism. What they probably mean by this is that the unborn human being is not a ‘person’; a being that has inherent moral value.
The question of ‘personhood’ is the question of philosophy mentioned above.
What gives us value?
It seems to me that the most straight-forward and consistent way of answering the question ‘what gives us value?’ is to say that all human beings have value in virtue of the kind of thing they are, not in virtue of a function they perform. This is not to say that non-human organisms are not valuable, but that is a different discussion.
But why does just being human make a being valuable? Great question.
It is because defining human value in terms of anything other than humanity would be to exclude a group of people who clearly have inherent value.
In his book “The Case for Life“, Scott Klusendorf came up with an acronym that describes the situation we encounter when talking about the moral worth of the unborn. The acronym he uses is S.L.E.D.
I thought about adapting Scott’s work into my own acronym or something, but there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, right? I have encountered these arguments in discussions with people myself, so I can attest to SLED’s validity. The purpose of SLED is to show that the 4 main differences between the unborn and the born (size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency) do not disqualify the unborn from personhood.
The pro-choicer will often point to how small the unborn is in an an attempt to show that it is ok to abort. But in what other situation do we justify the killing of a human being based on size?
On that line of thinking, you are justified in killing anyone smaller than you.
But be careful, I’m 6ft 1in, 230lbs. There is a good chance that I am bigger than you.
L: Level of Development
The pro-choicer will often point to how developed the unborn is and say that because the unborn has not yet developed X or Y, we are justified in killing them. But in what other situation do we justify the killing of another human being because they are not developed enough? As shown in the video above, development is a continuous process. At what point in the continuum do we point to something and declare that we can abort today, but not tomorrow? At best, this would result in an arbitrary, subjective understanding of human value based on function.
On that line of reasoning, you would be justified in killing anyone less developed than you.
The pro-choicer will often point to the location of the unborn as a reason to justify killing her. But in what other situation do we justify killing a human being because of where she is? A change in location doesn’t change your worth as a human being.
D: Degree of Dependency
The pro-choicer will often point to the unborn child’s dependence on her mother as a justification for ending her life. But in what other situation do we justify killing someone based on their dependence on another human being? Children are dependent on their parents for food, clothing and shelter but that is not an adequate justification for killing them.
My favorite objection to the reasoning behind S.L.E.D. is that while it would be unjustified to take the life of a human being based on any single one of those, it is justified to take the life of a human being when all are taken into account. They are agreeing with the logic behind SLED and making a special case for the unborn. This is a logical fallacy known as special pleading.
That being said, there are times when abortion is justifiable, if not essential.
For example, when the unborn child implants into the fallopian tube, this is called an ectopic pregnancy. If this were to happen and we do nothing, neither the baby or the mother would survive. If we abort the child, it will result in a dead child and an alive mother, and 1 death is better than 2.
Some questions and objections are easy to answer, but much more difficult to apply to real situations.
What if the woman was raped?
What if it was a mistake?
What if birth control failed?
If we are totally lacking in the empathy department, these questions are easily answered. Rape, mistakes and the failure of birth control result in a valuable human being that is valuable because of what it is, not based on anything else. However, this does not help the woman in the situation. What she needs is help, not an argument. I’m not trying to be unreasonably dogmatic in these situations… I hope you can see that.
Thought experiments are a common tactic used in ethical discussions like abortion, and for good reason. These thought experiments allow us to step outside of the situation and think about more ‘meta’ issues surrounding the situation. We have to be careful with these though, because the thought experiments may not be analogous in the morally relevant ways.
While I think there are good reasons to think that all humans are persons, there may be some people who are still unconvinced, for whatever reason. Perhaps they think we can never know if the unborn is really a ‘person’. To those people, I would ask them to consider what J. W. Wartick calls The Epistemic Argument Against Abortion.
If you are unsure of whether or not the unborn child is a person, why would you default to allowing it to be killed? The most reasonable and appropriately cautious thing that we can do is default to the pro-life stance until further information is given. After all, we don’t want to be complicit in the active destruction of valuable human lives, simply because we are agnostic on the personhood question, right?
As I said earlier, this post was not designed to present a full pro-life case. It was meant to provide an introduction to the topic from a pro-life perspective. There are many more arguments for and against abortion that did not address, but I will undoubtedly be doing that in future posts.
Thus concludes my introductory post on abortion; I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you have any questions or whatever, feel free to leave a comment below or find me on twitter!
——————- EDIT – 2/18/2015 —————————-
I’d also like to thank everyone in the comments section for bringing up good points. I do plan on responding to them, likely in a blog post dedicated to the particular points (responding in a comment just doesn’t seem good enough).