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  • Paul Stark

Three kinds of arguments for abortion—and where they go wrong

Abortion ends the life of a human being at the embryonic or fetal stage of her development. Is this killing morally permissible? Or is it an injustice?

More than 150 years ago, a Boston physician named Horatio R. Storer pointed to the heart of the issue. "The whole question," he observed, "turns on ... the real nature of the foetus in utero."

Does the unborn child have a right not to be intentionally killed? Does she matter like we matter? Does she count as one of us?

Almost all arguments offered in defense of abortion relate to this fundamental question in one of three ways. Some arguments just assume that unborn children don’t matter. Some arguments try to show that unborn children don’t matter. And some arguments contend that unborn children are actually beside the point.

Here's why each of these types is mistaken—and why children in the womb deserve our respect and protection.

Arguments that assume unborn children don't matter

Many popular arguments only make sense if unborn children don't really matter—if they don't have the kind of value and right to life that other human beings have. Consider these examples.

Freedom. Abortion defenders say that women have a right to choose, or that we should "trust women," or that we should respect their moral agency and let them decide. People have the right to choose to do lots of things, but there are some things that aren't okay. No one has the right to decide to kill a teenager, for example, because teenagers are valuable human beings who have human rights. If unborn children are also valuable human beings, then we likewise may not kill them.

Circumstances. Supporters of abortion frequently point to the difficult circumstances that pregnant women face. But if unborn children have a right to life, like children who have already been born, then killing them is no more justified in tough socioeconomic circumstances than killing born children in those same circumstances.

Consequences. People sometimes say that prohibiting abortion would produce terrible consequences, such as the deaths of many women from illegal abortions. But no one would argue that we should legalize infanticide in order to make it safer and easier for desperate parents to get rid of their newborn children. If unborn children also deserve protection, then (alleged) negative consequences aren't a good reason to make it legal to end their lives.

Equality. Legalized abortion is necessary for women's equality, some people argue, because the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth fall uniquely on women and not men. But the challenges of caring for 10-year-old children fall on the parents of 10-year-olds and not on everyone else—and laws against killing or abandoning such children are clearly still justified. If unborn children matter, like 10-year-olds, then the same is true of laws protecting them.

Tolerance. Some people say that personal opposition to abortion shouldn't be imposed on others. But if abortion unjustly takes the life of a innocent person, then society shouldn't allow it. No one would say, "I'm personally opposed to withholding basic care from nursing home patients, but I don't want to impose that view on everyone else."

None of these arguments, then, would justify the killing of born human beings. If unborn children deserve the same respect, then these arguments don't justify killing them either.

Arguments that try to show unborn children don't matter

Other arguments in defense of abortion try to actually show that unborn children don't matter—that they are different from the rest of us in some way that is morally significant. And that's why killing them is permissible.

One way to argue for this view is to claim that unborn children aren't even human beings (in the biological sense of the term). But that's empirically false. The science of embryology shows that human embryos and fetuses are living human organisms—members of the species Homo sapiens—at the embryonic and fetal stages of life.

A second approach is to argue that although unborn children are biologically human, they do not have the same value and right to life as older human beings—they are not yet "persons" like we are. But the differences between born and unborn human beings simply aren't relevant to whether or not an individual bears a right to life.

Unborn children may look different, for example, but appearance has nothing to do with value. Unborn children are less physically and mentally developed, but toddlers are less developed than teenagers, and that doesn't make them any less important. Unborn children are dependent on someone else, but so are newborn children and many people who are elderly, sick, and disabled.

Human rights are not based on characteristics like these. They are based on our shared humanity. That's why every human being matters.

Arguments that unborn children are irrelevant

According to a third category of argument, however, abortion is justified even if unborn children are valuable human beings. That's because those children happen to live inside the body of someone else—someone who has a right to bodily autonomy.

One version of this view says that pregnant women have a right to do whatever they want with whatever is inside their body. But autonomy is limited when someone else's body is also involved. Most people agree, for example, that pregnant women shouldn't ingest drugs that cause birth defects. And if harming unborn children is wrong, then killing them (through abortion) is even worse.

Another version contends that just as we may refuse to donate an organ to save someone else's life, a pregnant woman may refuse to let an unborn child use her body to survive. Abortion, however, isn't merely the withdrawing of bodily support—it is intentional and active killing, often by dismemberment, which violates the child's right to life (the right not to be intentionally killed) and right to bodily integrity. The father and mother, moreover, bear responsibility for the ordinary care of their child because they brought her into existence.

Bodily autonomy is real and important. But it can't justify intentional killing or wipe away our obligations to those who depend on us.

Arguments for abortion can't get around the truth

Almost every statement in support of abortion falls into one of these three categories. They are fatally flawed.

Both bodily rights arguments and appeals to freedom, circumstances, consequences, equality, and tolerance can't get around the heart of the issue—whether unborn children count as members of the human family deserving of our respect and protection.

And arguments for excluding unborn children from the human family can't get around two stubborn truths. The first is a fact of science: Human embryos and fetuses are human beings. The second is a principle of justice: Every human being has an equal right to life.

That's why there's no getting around the conclusion, as Horatio R. Storer put it in 1860, that killing children in utero is a "violation of … all reason, all pity, all mercy, all love."

This article appears in the August 2018 issue of NRL News.

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