Everyone would agree that abortion kills something. That much is clear.
But given that abortion does kill something, shouldn’t we determine just what it is that we’re killing before we advocate for the right to kill it? It would be reckless for a hunter to shoot at a rustling in the bushes without knowing what he is shooting at. In the same way, the right to choose isn’t the right to choose anything. Before we talk about whether one is entitled to make a certain choice, we must first know what is being chosen.
We all want people to have all of the liberties that they are entitled to have. At the same time, even the most ardent defender of choice would agree that some choices are wrong and should be restricted. Sound public policy decisions must discriminate between those choices that are good and those that are bad.
If the unborn are – as pro-lifers claim – human persons, then the choice to have an abortion is tantamount to murder. On the other hand, if the unborn are not human persons, then women ought to be allowed to do what they want with their own bodies. The entire abortion debate hinges on the identity of the unborn, not choice.
So what’s the right answer? One might be tempted to think that there is no way to resolve this question. Not so. It might surprise many people to learn that the science of embryology overwhelmingly supports the claim that the unborn are human beings. This is affirmed in numerous embryology textbooks. There is a clear scientific consensus that conception results in the existence of a living, distinct and whole human being. True, the unborn aren’t able to think like us or do many of the things that an adult can do, but our value as human persons doesn’t depend on how we’re currently able to function. All human beings possess equal moral value in spite of inequalities in size, development, intelligence and dependency. An embryo cannot actually reason, but neither can newborns or those in a deep sleep. A fetus may not be able to survive outside of its mother’s womb, but neither can those on dialysis or life support survive apart from sophisticated machines. Our equal value must be rooted in our common humanity, not the unequal expressions of our humanity.
If the unborn are in fact human – which the scientific evidence suggests – then abortion simply is a human rights violation.
There are, of course, hard cases. In tackling these cases, we must take seriously the humanity of the unborn. Procuring an abortion in response to rape or incest only adds another victim to an already tragic crime: the unborn child. We ought to punish the criminal, not an innocent third-party who has perpetrated no wrong. The unborn are just as innocent as their mothers.
Appeals to bodily autonomy, liberty and the right to choose are mistaken. If, as I have argued, abortion takes the life of a human person, then the scope of liberty simply does not extend to abortion anymore than it extends to murder. There is no right to have an abortion, period. To argue that abortion needs to be safe, legal and rare in order to minimize harm from illegal back-alley abortions is like saying that we need to make bank robbery safe, legal and rare in order to minimize harm to bank robbers. Neither practice should be legal to begin with. Speaking of safe abortions makes as much sense as speaking of safe murder.
The images displayed are indeed shocking and horrific. That is the reality of abortion. It is an inherently violent procedure, one that needs to be brought out into the light and exposed for what it truly is.
You’ll notice that I haven’t appealed to any religious teaching in this article. That’s because abortion isn’t inherently a religious issue, but a human rights issue. A strong case for the pro-life position can (and has) be made on the basis of science and moral philosophy. What I have offered here is only a very rough sketch of what such an approach might look like, but it is enough to dispel the myth that opposition to abortion can only be religiously motivated.
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform should be commended for bringing to light one of the worst human rights violations of all time.
Department of Communication and Philosophy