By: Hendrik van der Breggen
This article is part of a debate on abortion. For an introduction see: Arguing Dialectically about Abortion. For an opposing view see: Philosophical Arguments for Abortion.

I favor the pro-life position on the abortion issue, all the while realizing that many good and decent people disagree with me. Why do they disagree? It seems they are influenced by popular claims and arguments favoring the pro-choice view.

I intend no disrespect to anyone in saying this, but I think that many popular claims and arguments favoring the choice for abortion consist of knots of illogic that should be untangled.

Consider the following sixteen knots.

1. Pro-lifers/anti-abortionists are anti-choice.

Reply: In one sense, yes. That is, on the pro-life/anti-abortion view, choice for abortion gets limited (though pro-lifers might disagree to what extent this should be: no abortions allowed at all, or no late-term abortions only, or abortions allowed only for special cases such as rape, incest, threat to life of the mother).

But in another very important sense, no, pro-lifers/anti-abortionists are not anti-choice. They favor women having the usual choices everyone else has (e.g., career, education, marriage, voting, etc.) but they also realize that each abortion wipes out a whole life-time of choices—so anti-abortionists increase the total of choices.

2. The human fetus is merely a potential human being.

Reply: No, the fetus is a human being with potential, not a potential human being.

Contemporary science—embryology, fetology, and biology—tells us that the human fetus is in fact a human being. It’s a genetically distinct, self-governing dynamic organism/ entity that belongs to the human species. It’s not feline or canine; it’s human. It’s not a cat or a dog; it’s a human being. It’s not a kitten or a puppy; it’s a child, albeit an unborn child. (The word “fetus” is Latin for unborn offspring or little one.)

Significantly, 95% of academic biologists in a recent global survey hold that individual human life begins at fertilization. For additional scientific evidence, see “The origin of human life at fertilization: Quotes from medical textbooks and peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

The fetus, then, is a developmental stage of human being, i.e., it’s a human being that becomes the subsequent stages (if no interference or malfunction occurs). Again, the fetus is not a potential human being, rather it’s a human being with potential. A potential human being is the sperm and egg before union.

3. Abortion is just another means of contraception.

Reply: No. A contraceptive prevents the union of sperm and egg. Abortion destroys the human being created by the union of sperm with egg.

4. Abortion is simply the termination of pregnancy.

Reply: The words “termination of pregnancy” are a euphemism (nice words to cover up something not nice). Birth is also the termination of pregnancy. Abortion, however, destroys the pre-natal human being, often by ripping off limbs and crushing skulls.

5. A brick is not a house, so getting rid of a brick or even a few bricks is no big deal, so abortion is no big deal. (This pro-choice argument is from Canada’s famous abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler.)

Reply: Yes, but if you had a brick that grows into a house complete with furnace, air conditioning, blue curtains, a super-computer, plus plumbing (plumbing that, unfortunately, leaks for the first couple years), you probably wouldn’t destroy that brick. (For further argument, see here.)

6. An acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being, so abortion is no big deal.

Reply: To compare an acorn to a fetus and an oak tree to a human being and then conclude that a fetus is not a human being is to draw a false conclusion from a faulty analogy.

The unstated premise consists of the following comparison: acorns are to oak trees as fetuses are to human beings. But this is problematic.

To call an acorn an oak tree is, on a more accurately construed analogy, like calling a fetus an adult. Consequently, to say that a fetus is not a human being on the basis of an acorn not being an oak tree is to say a fetus is not a human being on the basis of a fetus not being an adult. This is mistaken.

In other words, the acorn-oak tree analogy confuses the concepts of kind and developmental stage. Yes, an acorn isn’t an oak tree, that is, a seed isn’t a grown tree. But we need to ask: What kind of seed is the acorn? Answer: Oak.

The acorn is the first developmental stage of the oak. Subsequent developmental stages include sprout, sapling, and tree. Significantly, all the stages are oaks—i.e., oak entities, oak beings.

Now consider the fetus. What kind of fetus are we talking about? Answer: Human.

The fetus is an early developmental stage of the human. The first stage is the zygote (fertilized egg) and subsequent stages include the embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, teen, and adult. Significantly, all the stages are human—i.e., human entities, human beings.

An acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being, so abortion is no big deal? The logic of this argument is just plain nutty. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the attempt at humor.)

Is it a mistake to call a fetus a human being? No. What is a mistake is to think that only adults are human beings, which is what the faulty acorn-oak-tree analogy would lead us to believe.

7. The unborn human being/fetus isn’t a “person,” so abortion is morally permissible.

Reply: Here we need to think carefully about personhood. The idea behind this pro-choice argument is that the unborn human being lacks some specific feature which makes it a person and thereby confers the right to life to it. But this approach to personhood is problematic for several reasons.

First, the so-called decisive features that are allegedly required for personhood weaken the personhood of many human beings who in fact have the right to life.

For example, if consciousness or having desires or feelings or exercising some degree of rationality is a crucial criterion of personhood, then the right to life of sleeping, stunned, or mentally disabled persons or even infants is jeopardized. The equality in equal rights gets ungrounded.

Second, pointing to a feature such as consciousness or having desires or feelings or rationality as the basis of the right to life confuses a sufficient condition for a necessary condition. Yes, if one has such a feature, then that’s enough to confer the right to life. It’s a sufficient condition or indicator of the right to life. But a question remains: What is it that is needed or necessary for such a feature to hold in the first place to ground the right to life in the cases of sleeping, stunned, or mentally disabled persons or even infants? It very much seems that the human being’s capacity for such features is necessary to make sense of conferring onto them the right to life. But this capacity is what the fetus has.

At this juncture, one might object that the mental state of the fetus is more like a permanently comatose condition or permanently vegetative state than someone who is sleeping, stunned, or mentally disabled, so just as the natural ending of one’s consciousness marks the absence of the right to life (as in the case, arguably, of the permanently comatose or permanently vegetative individual), so the fetus who isn’t conscious doesn’t yet exist as a person, so no harm is done to any person by killing a fetus via abortion.

In reply, the analogy is faulty. The state of being of the fetus is more like a non-permanent coma or non-permanent vegetative state: the fetus will awaken—if we don’t kill him/her. This is as morally significant in the case of the fetus as it is of the individual in a non-permanent coma or non-permanent vegetative state (even if that person were previously always in such a state).

Also, to push the point further (by looking at its possible negative consequences), if non-consciousness or not having desires or feelings were sufficient to justify killing a fetus, then it would be morally permissible (if medically possible) to alter a fetus’s nervous system so consciousness would never arise. This would then allow us to let the fetus grow into its later stages and be a source of body parts for the rest of us. (Think of the 2005 movie The Island, starring Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor, but instead of docile intelligent clones they would be more like zombies.) But this isn’t morally permissible, surely. And this moral impermissibility counts against the view that the fetus’s non-consciousness disqualifies it for the right to life.

Third, because of reasons such as those above (and others), it’s clear that we can cast some serious doubt onto the view that a preborn human child/fetus is not a person—but if so, then we should err on the side of caution by not killing the fetus. Just as when I’m not sure whether there’s a deer or a fellow hunter behind the trees, I should err on not shooting.

8. Every child should be a wanted child. (This is from Canada’s famous abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler, again.)

Reply:  Yes, but these words neglect the truth that instead of enhancing the wantedness of unwanted pre-natal children, abortion kills them. Everyone should have a home and be loved, but this doesn’t mean we should kill the homeless and unloved—nor those who might become homeless and unloved.

9. Pro-lifers aren’t helping people after they’re born.

Reply: Maybe some aren’t. But many are. Witness the proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers. Also, witness the fantastic response gotten from a newspaper editor who asked (disparagingly, expecting no good answers) what pro-life people have done personally to help lower-income single moms. It turns out that pro-life people do a lot! See here.

Permit me to speak from personal experience. My wife Carla is deeply pro-life. But she is also humble and doesn’t talk much about the good things she does. She sees such talk as morally inappropriate—as bragging. So I will brag on her behalf!

When Carla and I were dating and during our first years of marriage, Carla worked in a group home caring for—helping—children who were severely handicapped physically and mentally.

Later (while I was completing my PhD and beginning to teach philosophy courses) we lived in a low-income, high crime neighborhood for eleven years. During this time Carla began (along with a couple of friends) a community center to help our needy neighbors. Carla also tutored some of our neighbors’ kids. She also taught single parents how to make inexpensive but nutritious meals (she even took the time to become certified by our local health department to do this). She also helped organize a weekly food distribution. She also helped a neighbor (a single mom with five kids) learn to drive, obtain a driver’s license, and find some part-time employment (subsequently Carla often loaned our car to this mom for grocery shopping). Carla also helped a young woman deal with her abusive husband. Carla also used her nurse training to help injured neighbors as well as neighbors with young children, including a home birth. And there’s much more, but space doesn’t permit. (She also homeschooled our two sons during this time!)

You get the picture: pro-life people (like my wife) are against abortion and they often do lots of good stuff—which we tend not to hear about.

Also, a logical point should be made: Even if pro-lifers weren’t (contrary to fact) helping people after they’re born, this would not make killing of unborn children morally correct. Pro-lifers argue that killing unborn children is wrong, period, so the critics’ objection is beside the point. The objection is irrelevant, in other words. It would only make pro-lifers hypocrites.

(Note: Hopefully, pro-choicers are helping people after they’re born, too, to provide a real choice, and thus not merely advocating for the right to kill unborn children.)

10. Not allowing abortion is to impose your morality onto others.

Reply: But killing another human being is the ultimate imposition of morality onto that other human being. Not allowing abortion is a less severe imposition of morality.

11. Rape, incest, and protection of life or health of mother justify the general abortion practice.

Reply: No. Arguments that abortions are necessary for these special situations are legitimate (if at all) only for those situations. In North America these special situations account for less than 5% of the total. To justify the total practice on the basis of 5% is a hasty generalization (i.e., a mistake in reasoning).

12. Rape justifies abortion.

Reply: Rape is wrong, definitely. But perspective is needed.

Of the total abortion practice, abortions for rape account for a small percentage only (less than 5%).

Also, the mother has been victimized—she needs care. Abortion does not undo the trauma of rape. Moreover, abortion can be traumatic, too. And abortion may be related to subsequent health problems (see the film Hush).

Furthermore, to kill by abortion the human being conceived by the crime of rape is like killing an innocent bystander at the scene of a crime, a crime perpetrated by the bystander’s father. The father deserves (severe) punishment, not the child.

Rape justifies abortion? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is certain is that we shouldn’t victimize a woman twice. Also, we should speak for those who can’t. And we should listen to those persons who were conceived in rape (see video Conceived in rape by Rebecca Kiessling et al.).

13. The life-of-mother-versus-life-of-child situation justifies abortion.

Reply: Yes, possibly, as self-defense. But this situation is rare in North America. It’s very rare, if not non-existent.

Dr. Kendra Kolb, a neonatalogist, recently stated this: “there is no medical reason why the life of the child must be directly and intentionally ended with an abortion procedure.”

Also, Dr. C. Everett Koop in 1980 (when he was Surgeon General of the United States) stated the following: “In my thirty-six years in pediatric surgery I have never known of one instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother’s life” (source: C. Everett Koop, “Deception-on-demand,” Moody Monthly, May 1980, p. 27).

Again, justifying the general situation on basis of small percentage is a hasty generalization.

14. Every woman has the right to control her body, so every woman has the right to abortion.

Reply: But abortion involves two bodies. The right to control one’s own body is one thing; the right to kill another’s body is quite another. I have the right to swing my fist, but that right ends at the tip of another’s nose.

(Those who insist that the fetus is part of the woman’s body make a conceptual mistake, as I argue here.)

15. Difficulty in policing and enforcing abortion law would render it useless.

Reply: We should note that it is difficult to police and enforce laws against, say, texting and driving, but (in Canada) the law works to discourage texting and driving. Law has a teaching role. The point: if an action kills or threatens to injure innocent others, a law against the action is not unreasonable, even if not 100% effective.

Also—and importantly—we should notice that there’s room to be creative here. In view of the huge differences of view on abortion presently in North America, perhaps a politically practical law against abortion could at least (a) criminalize late-term abortionists only, not women pressured into abortion, plus (b) help women so pressured (just as Canadian anti-prostitution law criminalizes pimps and johns, not the women pressured into prostitution, plus helps the women get out of prostitution).

Such a law could save the lives of many children and help desperate women, plus provide political space to encourage thoughtful, democratic discussion about creating even better, more life-affirming laws and ways to help desperate women facing crisis pregnancies.

For further thought on what an abortion law might look like, see Charles Camosy’s 2015 book Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation. Camosy proposes what he calls the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. This act would protect the vast majority of pre-natal children, allowing abortion in the small percentage of hard cases, plus provide support for women to enable them to keep and raise their babies.

16. You are a man, therefore your arguments about abortion don’t count.

Reply: Yes, I am a man. But this is an ad hominem fallacy, the mistake in reasoning which occurs when the arguer is attacked instead of his/her arguments, when doing so is not relevant. It’s to mistakenly attack the messenger instead of the message.

Generally I favor the pro-life position on the abortion, and I realize that that many good and decent people disagree with me. Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice on abortion, I hope we would all agree to seek truth, think carefully, and show respect to those with whom we disagree.

I’ll conclude with this. The vast majority of abortions are due to social problems, whereas abortions for the horrific circumstances of rape, incest, or when a mother’s life is threatened account for a small percentage only. Surely, social problems require social solutions—not the killing of children.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, recently retired as Associate Professor of Philosophy at Providence University College, Manitoba, Canada.

Image: Tangled ropes by Dennis Jarvis (via Flickr)

For further thinking about abortion, here is a list of some of Hendrik’s relevant work

Hendrik’s previous articles for Political Animal Magazine:

Hendrik’s articles from his newspaper column (and blog) Apologia:

Hendrik’s academic articles:

Some books on abortion (written by others) recommended by Hendrik

Introductory level:

  • Francis J. Beckwith, Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life (College Press, 2000).
  • Gregory Koukl, Precious Unborn Human Persons (Stand To Reason Press, 1999).

Advanced level:

  • Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • Charles C. Camosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Eerdmans, 2015).
  • Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, 2nd edition (Witherspoon Institute, 2011).
  • Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 2nd ed. (Catholic University of America Press, 2010).

Also, especially for Christians:

  • Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Crossway Books, 2009). (Christians who see themselves as pro-choice should read the chapter, “Dead Silence: Does the Bible justify abortion?”)

For support for a crisis pregnancy, see your nearest Crisis Pregnancy Center.