For the sake of argument: Let us stipulate to every “good” reason for abortion. Abortion is necessary to vindicate women’s equality in society, economic opportunities, and full sexual liberty. Abortion is necessary because women are oppressed, because they are often unable economically to care for children, emotionally unprepared to do so, and left abandoned by predatory males. Abortion might be thought necessary to spare a child a miserable life, an unwanted life, or a life hampered by disability. Abortion is sometimes necessary as back-up birth control to end an unintended pregnancy and avoid motherhood. Abortion is necessary to avoid pregnancy and childbirth resulting from rape or incest. And abortion may be necessary to safeguard pregnant women’s health—physical, psychological, and emotional. All of these things make abortion’s availability necessary and desirable.
And let us assume also (again, for the sake of argument) the existence and prevalence of every possible “bad” motivation for restricting abortion. Abortion restrictions or prohibitions are intended as devices to keep women in socially subordinate roles. Abortion restrictions are advocated and enacted for religious reasons, to force various churches’ religious views on others. Abortion restrictions are advanced by the worst of moral hypocrites, unwilling themselves to bear the oppressive burdens they so cavalierly pile on women. Anti-abortion folks do not care about women and their lives. All these terrible motivations are present and are what really drive the so-called “pro-life” position.
Let us assume that all of this is true, and stipulate to it—for the sake of argument. Assume the very best arguments for abortion and the very worst of motivations for laws against it. (Please note, my friends, that I am not embracing any of these views myself. I am merely noting them, and conceding them, for the sake of argument.)
Here’s the key question: Would any of this justify a freedom to kill a born, living child? A six-month old? A newborn? Would any of these things—poverty, economic or social stress, lost or delayed opportunities, single-motherhood, male abandonment, sexual autonomy, conscientious but unsuccessful use of contraception, the child’s disability, rape or incest, the emotional or psychological distress of parenthood—justify what we would otherwise recognize as the simple murder of a living newborn, infant, or toddler? Would any ostensibly bad motive for forbidding mothers to kill their children—hypocrisy, callousness, intentional subjugation of women, discrimination, a desire to impose unwelcome religious beliefs upon others—render the deliberate killing of born, living human children right? Would such factors make child murder sufficiently defensible that the decision should be left to the choice of the mother?
The Only Issue
Hopefully, you are repulsed by this notion. Of course, none of these factors, even if true, would justify child killing!
Even if you are an abortion-rights proponent, you are repelled by any such suggestion. Offended even: For the unstated implication, obviously, is that the same argument should hold true with respect to abortion—that abortion is exactly like child-murder. And that notion is (I am assuming) highly offensive to the defender of abortion rights: abortion is not like child murder because the fetus is not at all the same thing as a child!
That, I submit, is, in the end, the entire issue. If taking the life of the living, unborn human fetus amounts to the same thing as taking the life of a living, born human child, then all or nearly all the “good” reasons for such killing, and all the “bad” reasons for banning such killing, tend to wash away. (There would still be situations of genuine, tragic necessity—self-defense—but that is essentially all.) Everything turns on whether the living, unborn human child in utero is a separate, living human being possessing a moral status as such, so that killing him or her is the same as killing a born human child.
If the living, unborn child is a living human being, morally entitled to be treated as such, nothing else matters. It does not matter (does it?) that pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood impose real burdens on women because, no matter that reality, it would never justify killing another human being (would it?). It does not matter that a pregnancy is not the woman’s “fault” (as if that were somehow relevant) or that the pregnancy was the result of a reprehensible sexual partner who abandoned her, or worse, a predatory or violent male criminal. All that might be true, and still, it would not justify killing an innocent, completely vulnerable, separate human being (would it?).
Conversely, if one collates all of the other, collateral pro-life arguments for restricting abortion—the age or stage of development of the unborn child; the seemingly greater illegitimacy and reprehensibility of certain reasons for abortion, such as sex-selection of a child to be born, race hostility or disability eugenics, spite of an ex-boyfriend, social pressure or convenience, or simply callous moral indifference—one is, in the end, adding only a series of makeweights. They add persuasive, rhetorical force only, in the sense that they serve to make clearer, or place in starker relief, the central point: the humanity of the living human fetus.
Finally, there are the pro-life arguments that constitute irrelevant and perhaps even harmful distractions: the woman’s sexual ethics, the failure to use contraception, or “waiting too long” to abort. These are beside the point. As I’ve argued previously, by the time of any abortion, these matters are long in the past and do not bear on the question at hand: the right of the unborn child to live “does not depend on any kind of judgment about the parents’ sexual morality. The decision on the table is whether to kill a distinct living human being. Nobody should care about sexual ethics at this point, for purposes of either condemnation or justification of abortion.”
When all is said and done, then, there is one and only one pro-life argument: that abortion kills a separate, living human being. That argument is premised on a simple proposition of biology, not one of theology: the human organism—the entity that is first a zygote, then an embryo, fetus, newborn, toddler, teenager, and adult—is the same human biological organism, merely at different stages of his or her life cycle. (If you had killed me at any of those stages, you would have killed me.)
Is there really any room for doubt about this, as a factual proposition? If not, shouldn’t that be the key point in any debate over abortion, and the response to any red-herring argument about women’s rights, social policy, sexual ethics, or men’s behavior? If the unborn child is a human being, does that not profoundly limit the scope of morally allowable arguments that might be made to justify killing him or her? Doesn’t it essentially eliminate all such arguments (except self-defense—where killing the fetus is a tragic necessity to preserve the life of the mother)?
If I am right about this, the focus of pro-life advocacy should always be, first, last, and always, on the human being gestating inside his or her mother’s womb.
Is Killing the Unborn Different from Killing the Born?
Is there any sound basis for distinguishing the killing of unborn living human beings from the killing of born human beings? I can think of just two arguments.
The first concerns the fact of pregnancy itself. In the case of a born child, the burden of pregnancy is past and could not possibly justify killing the child. But enforced, continued pregnancy is a distinct burden on the woman. This is undeniable. Pro-lifers need to be sensitive to this reality, concede its force, and do everything they can to embrace and support pregnant women in need. But the key point remains: however real the burden of pregnancy, it doesn’t warrant the killing of another human being. It warrants something different: the compassion, support, and love of others.
The second distinction one sometimes hears is that abortion is different because unborn children simply lack the same human moral standing as born children—that unborn lives do not matter. Even if biologically the same as the human organism that is later born, the unborn child is not morally worthy of regard as a human life, until birth. The human fetus is a morally inconsequential clump of cells and can be disposed of—killed—for essentially any reason.
Sometimes the claim takes the form of positing that the unborn child, while perhaps a human being, is nonetheless not a “person”—as if this were a meaningful, coherent, real-world distinction. This gambit tries to hide a morally and philosophically ludicrous position behind an artificial legal construction invented by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.
That characterization was among the (many) dubious holdings of Roe. (There is a far-more-than-plausible argument that the unborn are properly regarded as legal “persons” for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the “equal protection of the laws.”) But that’s not the point here. The point is that legal “personhood” (or not) is a fictitious construct of law and does not answer the basic question at hand: is there a morally justifiable basis for treating this type of human life as inconsequential and disposable, such that it can be killed without the same concern one would have with killing a born infant? One cannot wave one’s hand, incant the word “person,” invoke the Supreme Court’s ipse dixit, and have done with it. One must address the question and the facts.
That is where the moral debate should be joined. The unborn are surely not less human because not yet born. To be sure, they are vulnerable, fragile, and not fully developed. But the same can be said of newborn infants. Exactly what is it that supposedly makes members of this class of living human beings sub-human, such that they can be killed at will for the assumed benefit of others? And isn’t it more than a little bit disturbing how closely such a position resembles claims made in the past to support slavery or racial genocide?
The onus should be on those who would permit some human beings to kill other human beings simply because they are young, weak, dependent, vulnerable, or undesired.
How Does This Affect the Argument over a Constitutional Right to Abortion?
How does all this affect the legal argument for abortion as a constitutional right, the issue currently before the Supreme Court in the Dobbs case? (I wrote about Dobbs in two essays here last summer, and one for First Things last October.)
Hugely: once the humanity of the fetus is recognized, the game is up, for two reasons.
First, it gives the lie to Roe v. Wade’s risible characterization of the living human embryo or fetus as only “potential” life. Such a characterization is, really, if one thinks about it, almost laughably preposterous—either intellectually incompetent or willfully obtuse. Did the justices really think that the living human fetus is not living? That is simply factually false. Or did they think the living human fetus is not human? That is false, too. Roe’s foundations rest on one or the other (or both) of these literally fatally flawed premises.
Second, even under any of the odd, oxymoronic, question-begging legal theories offered for Roe—“substantive due process,” or “privacy,” or “equal protection,” or “bodily autonomy”—the claimed individual right to abortion must yield, under the Court’s doctrine, to a “compelling” interest on the other side. But what could be more compelling an interest than protection of living human beings from willful killing by others? The protection of human life—protecting the weak from the violent depredations perpetrated by the strong—stands at the very apex of the functions and duties of the state. If the unborn child is factually a human life, then saving such lives from the violence of others is a compelling interest if ever there was one. Indeed, it is a moral obligation and imperative.
This is true whether or not the unborn are classed as legal “persons.” For regardless of how one resolves that question of technical legal status, there is undeniably a compelling interest in protecting human life as such. If unborn human life fits that description, the legal case for Roe vanishes—as do essentially all other practical, moral, and philosophical arguments for abortion.
As it turns out, nearly all the “good” reasons for abortion—which I started by assuming to be valid—are in fact severely flawed. And the supposed “bad” motivations for banning abortion are usually complete red herrings, sideshows, or simply untrue. Nonetheless, it is important to keep one’s eye on the ball: the singular focus of the pro-life position should be on the unique, vulnerable, precious, living human being in the womb who is killed by abortion. Compared to that, nothing else really matters.