With the recent release of several undercover videos purporting to reveal that Planned Parenthood illegally extracts the organs from aborted infants and then sells them to other parties for research purposes, abortion is an even greater hot-button issue than it was previously. However, while these videos seek to inform the public about the inner workings of Planned Parenthood, and perhaps to sway pro-choice individuals with their disturbing revelations, the truth is that abortion is an immoral action regardless of what undercover videos may or may not reveal. What these videos demonstrate is that it is easier for individuals to accept disturbing practices when they are out of sight and out of mind.
I am convinced that if pro-choice advocates truly understood the conclusions that necessarily follow from their arguments, they would abandon their defenses, or at least take pro-life advocates more seriously. In this article I consider the most often heard arguments for abortion rights and highlight their problems in hope that it might lead some to reconsider their views.
Argument 1: Abortion should be legal, but limited to a specified time-frame.
I have only ever heard two forms of this argument, though there may be others. Some pro-choice advocates believe abortion should be legal until the fetus develops a nervous system and can experience pain, arguing that it is inhumane to cause pain to any life form. There is a considerable amount of debate about at what point a fetus begins to feel pain, but most health professionals usually state that it occurs somewhere between twenty and twenty-four weeks gestation. Other pro-choice individuals hold that abortion should be illegal once the human-in-utero can survive outside of her mother’s womb, which is possible from twenty-four weeks onward. That thirty-eight of the fifty United States ban abortions at or before the point of viability, demonstrates that this view is widely supported.
Regardless of which of the two considered positions the advocate of limited abortion rights adopts, the logical conclusions that necessarily follow are quite disturbing. For instance, if one holds that abortion should be legal so long as the fetus being terminated does not experience pain, one is essentially claiming that either a) the state should only recognize a life as valuable so long as it is capable of suffering and/or b) it should be legally permissible to terminate a human life form if it experiences no pain from said termination. It logically follows, according to this position, that the value or life rights of any human being, whether in gestation or 125 years old, are dependent on their potential to experience pain. My guess, though, is that advocates of this view would hesitate to support a law that would make murder or infanticide legal so long as it was committed in such a manner that no pain was experienced by the victim.
One might argue that it is not simply the absence of pain alone that makes terminating a pregnancy justifiable, but the lack of other characteristics that make up the human experience. This view is considered further in point 3.
Those who base the permissibility of abortion on the fetus’ viability, or potential to survive outside of the womb, overlook the fact that, while the infant is no longer dependent on the biological mother for its survival, it must be cared for in order to survive. However, if abortion rights are primarily rooted in a woman’s right to do with her body as she chooses, and if a human-in-utero has no legal claim on his/her biological mother, then one must ask why (or whether) the mere change in the infant’s physical location grants it rights. In other words, why is it legally permissible for the biological mother to terminate the human-in-utero while it is within her womb, but it is not permissible for the infant to be terminated or even neglected outside the womb? After all, the infant is still dependent on others for her survival and will die if not cared for. There is thus a glaring logical contradiction in this legal reasoning. On the one hand, advocates of this position believe that a fetus has no legal claim on the biological mother while in utero, but they believe that once the infant is removed from the biological mother’s womb it has a legal right to survival, yet all that has changed is the infant’s physical location. There is no reasonable basis for holding that a mere change in one’s environment bestows or rescinds her life rights.
This brings us to the second, closely related argument for abortion rights.
2. Abortion should be legal at all points during the pregnancy because a woman has exclusive rights over her person.
Although even many pro-choice advocates see the position as problematic, the conviction that a woman should have the legal right to have an abortion at any point during her pregnancy is held by a sizeable number of pro-choice advocates. Furthermore, aborting infants during the third trimester remains legal in several U.S. states. The argument for this position, as previously stated, is that a woman has exclusive rights over her person and thus has the liberty to choose whether to continue to support the human-in-utero that is dependent upon her. The first issue with this argument, which is also the reason many states have made abortion illegal once the infant is deemed “viable,” is that defending a woman’s abortion rights only necessitates ending the life of the human-in-utero during the first twenty-three weeks of pregnancy. From twenty-four weeks onward, it is no longer necessary to terminate the life of the human-in-utero to maintain a woman’s right over her person.
The second, and most unsettling problem with this position is that it opens the door to infanticide. Some have already argued that infanticide, like abortion, should be legal. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, in an article published by the Journal of Medical Ethics, write:
[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. (Source)
While many will rush to label this position as “extreme” and “irrational”, it has strengths in light of certain defenses given for abortion rights. For instance, if a thirty-four week-old infant inside the mother’s womb can be terminated, why can’t a thirty-four week old infant outside the womb be terminated? One may respond that since the infant is no longer necessarily dependent on the mother, the mother no longer has a right to dictate what happens to the infant, though this argument only works for those who believe abortion should be illegal from the point of viability. Those who hold that abortion should be legal for the entire duration of the pregnancy, including the period of viability, but argue that infanticide should be illegal base their argument on an arbitrary boundary that has no logical support. Other than physical location, which provides no real grounds for terminating a fetus, there is no difference between a viable infant in the womb and a viable infant outside the womb.
3. Abortion should be legal because a human embryo or fetus is not a person.
The greatest weakness of the position that a human embryo or fetus is not a person is that all attempts to define “person” in such a way that it excludes human embryos and fetuses are either fallacious or result in disturbing logical conclusions. The first argument given by advocates of this position is that personhood is a legal concept defined by the state and thus whether or not a fetus is a person depends on the dictates of the state. If it is indeed the case that the recognition of personhood is dependent upon the state, this extends to all individuals and not just fetuses. At several points in history, one cultural group or society has questioned the personhood of another group or society. For instance, when Europeans explorers first encountered indigenous peoples in North and South America they argued over whether these natives were people. During the era of slavery in the United States, many flat-out denied that people of African descent were persons, or saw them as persons, but persons of a lesser status. Pseudoscientific attempts were even made to argue that African slaves were not human, but apes.
If those who argue that personhood and the rights associated with it are dependent upon the state’s definition of personhood, they are logically required to hold that a human being, regardless of age, religion, or race, is not a person with rights unless the state says so.
Others claiming that a fetus is not a person avoid the above problems by arguing that personhood is not a legal concept, but a philosophical concept independent of legal statutes. This position, however, is plagued by its own fissures. The philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that for something to be considered a person, it must meet the following criteria:
For X to be a person X must be:
- A rational being.
- A being to which intentional predicates are ascribed.
- A being towards which a certain attitude, the personal stance, is taken.
- A being that is capable of reciprocating (3).
- A being that is capable of verbal communication.
- A being that is self-conscious.
One who adheres to Dennett’s criteria is not necessarily guilty of fallacious reasoning, but they do hold to a system that would condone views most find objectionable, especially if Dennett believes an individual must meet all six of his criteria to be considered a person. The most fundamental criterion on Dennett’s list, and the criterion upon which the other five criteria depend, is self-consciousness. A person is not able to think rationally, intend actions, or communicate in a meaningful way unless they are aware that they exist and are the origin of these actions. The problem with basing personhood on self-consciousness, though, is that experts aren’t exactly sure when it arises, and furthermore there are several stages of self-consciousness. Can personhood be established on a factor that is itself so difficult to establish? Is even the most basic level of self-consciousness enough to qualify an individual as a person?
While cognitive scientists disagree about when self-consciousness develops, most agree that it originates, at its most basic levels, between twelve and twenty-four months. If one posits that 1) self-consciousness is a criteria for personhood as Dennett does, 2) agrees that self-consciousness develops at twelve to twenty-four months of age, and 3) believes that abortion is morally permissible because the human-in-utero is not a person, then it logically follows that any human creature that lacks self-consciousness, such as a one-year-old child, is likewise not a person and thus has no right to life.
There are likely other philosophical critera and arguments for what makes an entity a person, but since my purpose here is only to highlight the difficulties with basing abortion rights on lack of personhood are problematic due to the difficulty of establishing what exactly constitutes a person, and finding a definition of personhood that avoids disturbing conclusions.
4. Abortion should be legal because making it illegal would fail to solve or even exacerbate the problem.
This popular go-to argument, in its full form, rhetorically states that prohibiting abortion would only make things worse because women would still get abortions, but they would be forced to have dangerous, “back-alley abortions” rather than having the procedure carried out in a controlled, sterile, safe environment. Abortions are still going to happen, they argue, so why not at least make sure the procedure is safe for the mother? Advocates of this view are quick to cite studies and statistics that show that countries with more restrictions on abortion do not have less abortions, and in some cases even have a higher abortion rate.
These statistics would have force if they demonstrated that restricting abortion causes increase in abortion, but all they show is correlation. Statistical correlation indicates a relationship between some occurrence -be it a behavior, event, or spread of an idea- and the data. What is crucial to recognize, though, is that correlation is not necessarily causation. For example, data might show that a certain ethnic group has a higher average lifespan than other ethnic groups, but this information alone would not justify concluding that the longer lifespan is due solely to the group’s ethncity. It might be the case that this ethnic group has cultural and dietary customs that result in a healthier lifestyle. Without further scrutiny and data, it is likewise erroneous to claim that stricter abortion laws cause higher abortion rates. As Ross Douthat argues, “…many of the countries where abortion is illegal are located in Africa or Latin America. These countries have much higher poverty rates and a higher incidence of other social pathologies which may increase the perceived need for abortion.” He further highlights that when states with similar socioeconomic conditions are compared to one another, those with stricter abortion laws are seen to have lower abortion rates. For example, conservative U.S. states with stricter abortion laws typically have lower abortion rates than liberal U.S. states with less restrictive abortion laws (source). Furthermore, the two most Catholic European countries, Poland and Ireland, have much lower abortion rates than than other European countries with more secular inclinations.
The statistics are really beside the point, though, since the greatest problem with the argument here being considered is that it is essentially claiming that, if people are going to keep doing something anyways, that something should remain legal. It is easy for many to accept the argument when that something people are doing is abortion, but what if it was instead murder. After all, it is clear that murder continues to occur despite its being illegal. Does this mean murder should be condoned?
5. Abortion should be legal because sometimes it is necessary to save the life of the mother.
I admit that this is the argument to which I am most sympathetic, especially because if abortion was restricted only to such cases it would decrease the annual rate in the U.S. from approximately one million to less than ten thousand (source 1, source 2). Furthermore, many cases in which the mother’s life is threatened by her pregnancy are ectopic pregnancies in which the human-in-utero will not survive. In such cases the termination of the fetus is justifiable since the fetus has no chance of survival and failing to terminate would additionally result in the death of the mother. Even the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, two of the world’s most pro-life religious institutions, condone preventative measures in such cases. Roman Catholics maintain that it is never permissible to directly terminate a pregnancy, but the Doctrine of Double Effect allows for life-saving actions that may result in unintended, unfortunate consequences.
Abortion is an unfortunate reality with which we are forced to grapple in modern society, but it doesn’t have to be, especially since there are many problems with the arguments utilized by pro-choice advocates. Arguments for abortion are often logically contradictory and risk opening the door to further atrocities. That said, it is likely that the greatest barrier to overcoming abortion will not be convincing people that their arguments are fallacious, but transcending the utilitarian, materialistic worldview that reinforces the pro-choice agenda. As a good friend of mine recently wrote, the “consumer-utilitarian culture,” as he calls it, is “the same cultural mindset that enslaved the world for the economic success, tends to think of abortion as a useful tool to maintain our potential success and happiness in modern life. Life is the modern world seems to be thought in terms of convenience and utility. At the heart of this debate, seems to be, “In the Pursuit of Happiness”, without ever defining what “Happiness” is.”
I hope my words are received well by those who stumble across them since I have tried my best to express myself charitably. I should also emphasize that, although I am adamantly pro-life, I do not judge those who have had an abortion. I have argued in this article against the act of abortion in general, which I believe should be judged and condemned.
As always I welcome feedback, and I am happy to amend my posts when necessary.