Let’s Take the Abortion Debate To A New Level

| The same tired arguments are endlessly repeated by both sides.  There are better ones. |

(3,888 words, approx. 30 min reading time)

Let’s Take The Abortion Debate To A New Level

Here’s how small children argue:

Is not!  Is so!  Is not!  Is so!  

A similar quality of debate is occurring with abortion, where the key proposition “A fetus is human life, and killing human life is wrong,” has been subject to this refrain:

Is not!  Is so!  Is not!  Is so!

It’s time to advance the conversation.  Let’s begin by clearly stating the two arguments one last time:

The Pro-Life Argument.  Human life begins at the moment of conception, not the moment of birth.  This is proven by countless medical studies that show a fetus is generating brain waves,  has a heartbeat, reacts to pain, and—well—looks like a human.  Since it is human life, killing it is wrong, and therefore abortion is wrong.  Circumstances of the conception (rape, incest, etc.) don’t change the fact that abortion is killing.  Therefore all abortion should be illegal, for the same reason that killing another person is illegal.

The Pro-Choice Argument.  While in the womb, a fetus is not an independent human being, it is part of someone else’s body.  The moral, ethical, and legal arguments concerning abortion are therefore complex, not simple.  Reasonable people are sharply divided over this issue, and for many it’s a religious question.  As such, it is not an appropriate thing to be controlled by the state.  It should be left to individual choice.  

OK, now that we have the two arguments on the table, let’s convert them into their components as they would appear in syllogistic logic:

Premise #1: Killing human life is wrong.

Premise #2: A fetus is human life.  

Conclusion: Killing a fetus is wrong.  

That’s known as a syllogism.  If you accept the two premises, then the conclusion is necessarily true.  But in this case are the premises true?

So far in the abortion debate, the energy has gone towards debating Premise #2, with little if any discussion of Premise #1.  To move the discussion forward, we need to reverse this. 

Premise #2 is self-evidently correct.  Of course a fetus is human life.  To qualify as “human life” it has to be human and it has to be alive.

A human fetus is, by definition, human.  It’s not a giraffe fetus, or a polar bear fetus. Equally obviously, it’s alive, in the sense that it’s made up of biological cells and they’re dividing.  So of course Premise #2 is true.

Now let’s look at the more vulnerable premise:  “Killing human life is wrong.”

First we have to define “wrong.” 

“Wrong” is a concept, and concepts are harder to define than are physical things, like fetuses.  Dictionaries generally define “wrong” as not in accordance with what is morally right or good, or something which deviates from truth or fact. 

Let’s go with the first half of that definition.  “Morally right” can have it’s foundation in religion, but it doesn’t need to and in this case must not.  If the only argument for or against abortion is based on a religious belief, then the US Constitution won’t accept that.  It needs to be based on something else, and here let’s turn to a concept that features prominently in the Declaration of Independence: self-evident truth. 

A self-evident truth does not need to be based on religious teachings or belief.  It is…self-evident.  Or put another way: it’s something that everyone, from most every culture and religious tradition in the world, would likely agree with.  Here’s an example:  “It is easier to burn your skin on something that is hot than on something that is cold.”

In other words, it has to be so obvious that no one can seriously disagree with it.  That’s a self-evident truth. 

“Killing human life is wrong.”  Is that truth self-evident?

Most people would probably agree, as an abstract principle. 

But it’s clearly not wrong to kill a human life in certain circumstances.  Here are ones we can probably all agree on.  It’s not necessary wrong to kill a human life if:

  1. We are acting in self-defense, where our own life is in danger.
  2. We are engaged in a “just war” (as we see it) and the enemy must be defeated. 
  3. Mercy killing.  (People might disagree on the circumstances that would allow this not to be wrong, but most can agree that such circumstances might exist.) 

So let’s go back to the original question: Is it a self evident truth that killing human life is wrong?

Clearly it’s not, because there are cases (see above) in which it’s not wrong.  Unfortunately, no one’s going to agree perfectly on what the exact circumstances are that would permit killing without it being wrong. 

But we’ve made progress.  That long-standing refrain of the pro-lifers “abortion is killing” has been robbed of its potency.  Yes, abortion is killing, and it’s the killing of human life.  But that by itself doesn’t mean abortion is “wrong”.  We’ve already seen too many examples where killing is not wrong.  The pro-lifers have to do better.  

And that’s the point.  They haven’t.  Their arguments for the last thirty years have not progressed beyond the “abortion is killing”, and “killing is wrong” premises.  And the pro-choicers haven’t bothered to attack them on this, their most vulnerable quarter.  

The pro-choicers have avoided the subject altogether, throwing out little quips about personal freedom, and “a woman’s right to reproductive control” and such things.  All that is well and good, but it doesn’t directly refute what the pro-lifers are saying.  And that’s why the “Is so”, “Is not” argument continues endlessly.  Neither side is refuting the other’s arguments.  They’re simply ignoring them.  

The question the pro-lifers must be addressing is why  killing unwanted fetuses is wrong.  Hiding behind semantics and definitions is not sufficient.  Forget trying to prove  that fetuses are human life (that’s accepted), or that killing human life is wrong (that’s not accepted in every circumstance).  Address yourselves to the specific question: why is killing an unwanted fetus wrong?

Let’s look at some possible answers to that question, and then some possible rebuttals.  The only rule is that retreating to religious doctrine is taboo in this exercise.  Because if the only argument against killing fetuses is religious doctrine, then the pro-lifers have lost their case.   All arguments must be based on self-evident truth.  

Why killing human fetuses is wrong:  the argument.  Human life is so precious and infinitely valuable, that it should be protected wherever possible.  Yes, there are exceptions: homicidal maniacs must be stopped, self defense takes precedence, etc.  But unless some extraordinary circumstance is involved—and a woman’s reluctance to have a child is not sufficient—human life should be protected and be allowed to reach its full potential.  Accordingly, abortion should generally be outlawed.  

Rebuttal.  The importance of protecting human life, and allowing human life to reach its full potential, is hereby accepted as a self-evident proposition.  The disagreement comes in interpreting how best to do this.  There are times when protecting one human life can only be accomplished to the detriment of another.  In which case what ethic governs the choice of which human life shall suffer? The matter is hugely complex, because in most such situations, protecting one human life may cause another to suffer, but perhaps only marginally.  Or in some cases greatly.  What scale of relative values can we use?  Inconveniencing a mother would perhaps seem trivial compared with killing a fetus.  But should the needs of a fully-developed human be assigned no more priority than the needs of a several-week old collection of microscopic cells?

Again, the question is not whether to protect human life.  The question is how best to protect it.  Consider the circumstance of a young, unmarried woman from a poor family, faced with an unwanted child.  The odds are that if she keeps the child, her prospects will be dismal.  Both she and the child might expect to stay in deep poverty all their lives, probably representing a net drain on society.  Quite possibly that child, being a victim of its environment, will end up a criminal, and might even be responsible for taking other lives.  

Alternatively, by having an abortion, the young woman may be able to finish her schooling, obtain a good job, and become a useful contributor to society.  Pursuing that scenario, she might at some point decide to marry and have several children, being now financially secure.  These are children that she might not have had in the first scenario.  Growing up in a good environment, there is every hope that these children will likewise become contributors to society, rather than a drain on its fabric.  

In scenario #1, the scenario in which we “protect” the life of the fetus, we end up with two human lives, neither of whom amounts to anything, and both of whom are a drain on society.  

In scenario #2, the scenario in which we “kill” the life of the fetus, we end up with four human lives, all of whom are productive and happy.  

Obviously there is no guarantee that either scenario #1 or #2 would unfold in that way, although they are plausible.  The point is that in the case where we “kill” the fetus, we end up with four happy lives.  In the case where we don’t “kill” the fetus, we end up with two, let’s say, “unhappy” lives.  

So how can it be said that not killing the fetus—in this hypothetical example—is “protecting” human life? In some cases it is, in others it isn’t.  And there is absolutely no way of knowing in advance.  

Notice how in scenario #1 the mother chose to have no more children.  In scenario two she went on to have three children.  I have never known a pro-lifer to advance the argument that women should be required to conceive, and give birth to, as many children as they are biologically capable of producing.  Nor have I ever heard the argument advanced that women who don’t have large numbers of children are in some way misbehaving or acting against the interests of society.  

The issue with the pro-lifers is only that once conceived, a fetus should be allowed to reach its full potential.  But why?  It’s not self-evident.  

What societal goal is achieved by this? Compassion to the fetus?  What about compassion to the mother?

The anti-abortionists would say you can’t compare the two.  The fetus is being threatened with death.  The mother, only with inconvenience.  

But what about the new egg that that mother produces every month? And what about the infinity of sperm that every post-pubescent male produces? Between the two, there are an infinity of lives that, if not being threatened with death, are being threatened with the lack of existence.  Are the two issues that different? How can you say that a fertilized egg is fundamentally more deserving of “reaching its full potential” than is a combination of unfertilized egg and a single sperm?  

An argument can be made that human life is so valuable and important that the human species should have as one of its primary goals the bringing into existence of as many humans as possible.  Such a society would never allow a reproductive-age woman to not be pregnant, because every month that she was not pregnant would represent the “loss” of a human that could otherwise have been produced.  This is the premise in Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, although in that plot very few women are able to become pregnant, so perhaps it makes sense.

But with a normally-fertile population, such a society would collapse from the weight of exponential growth in its numbers.  At some point someone in that society would have to stand up and say “Wait a minute, maybe we should be worried less about quantity of human life, and more about quality.”

But what heresy!  What selfishness!  Whose future life is such a person proposing to do away with in order to enrich someone else’s?

Once you cross the line between thinking of human life as needing to be preserved at all costs, hence maximizing the number of humans, and start thinking about the need to balance that goal with “quality” of life, even if attaining a reasonable quality means that some present, potential, or future life will not exist, then you have crossed the only barrier there is, and everything thereafter is a continuum.  

A societal decision to not require every child-bearing-age woman to be continuously pregnant, is different only in degree from a societal decision to kill all children without—say—a sufficiently high IQ.  In each case you are choosing to allow some amount of “quality of life” priority to eliminate some humans that would otherwise exist.  

And since we have crossed that line, i.e. we don’t as a society require every woman to be continuously pregnant, then we are forced to somehow choose where on that continuum the trade-off should come between quality and quantity of human life.  

There is an anti-abortion bumper sticker that reads: “Abortion—a baby can live without it.” But it makes just as much logical sense to say: “Free sex and no birth control—a baby can come into existence because of it.”  Either one: restricting abortion or encouraging free sex without birth control, is going to result in more babies.  If that’s what we want (more babies) why aren’t we doing both?  And don’t give me any moral objections to unlimited free sex.  We’re talking here about the lives of children! A little awkwardness in our relationships is surely less important than that!

By the same token, if we don’t necessarily want more babies, let’s encourage abortion and birth control and discourage free sex.  Or let’s ignore the babies altogether, and encourage or discourage these activities independently, and based solely on their effects on society.  But the point is we can’t point to the “sacredness of babies” to proscribe one of these activities (abortion), and then ignore the sacredness of babies when it comes to proscribing another (unlimited free sex.)

Either babies are sacred, and the more the better, or they’re not, and the production of babies should be decided on some basis other than preserving and producing as many of them as possible at all costs.  

And let’s also not pretend that the uniting of egg and sperm suddenly changes the entire equation.  The proposition is ludicrous, that once united, a thing of infinite value exists, but that a few seconds before uniting, nothing exists and no one cares what happens to that particular sperm and egg.  How can something (an un-united sperm and egg) have no value in one second, and (after uniting) have infinite value the next?

A pro-lifer will say: “Because in one second, there was no human being, and in another second, there was.”

Well, so what? That begs the question.  Call the fertilized zygote a human being if you wish.  It doesn’t really matter what you call it.  It’s still a fertilized zygote.  A few seconds earlier it was a separate sperm and egg, with the potential of becoming a unique human being with unique DNA.  But the question remains: why does it have no value in one second, and infinite value the next?

“Value” typically derives from a combination of scarcity and demand.  Oxygen is extremely abundant, but it is still valuable because no one could live without it.  The element Astatine is extremely rare, but it’s not valuable because no one needs or wants it.  Likewise some things are extremely rare, and highly in demand: like diamonds.  That makes them valuable.  Other things are abundant, but not greatly in demand, like sand on ocean beaches, so ocean beach sand is not especially valuable.  

But what can we say about a fertilized zygote? They certainly aren’t rare.  Society can produce many more of them then it possibly needs or wants.  And as for being in demand—well, some are and some aren’t, as we’ve discussed.  In short, the value of a fertilized zygote is not something it possesses intrinsically, it is a function of the particular circumstances existing at the time.  To a childless couple trying for years to reproduce, a fertilized zygote is priceless.  To an unmarried teenager trying to work her way through school, a fertilized zygote not only has no value, it represents calamity.  

Given a society in which there is no shortage of human beings (as contrasted to Europe in the 14th century for example, or perhaps America in the 18th), it makes no sense to place an automatic infinite value on a fertilized zygote.  The zygote should be accorded a value appropriate to its circumstances.  And that line of reasoning can only lead to a society in which the creators of the zygote (the parents) make the decision on whether to continue nurturing it, or not.  

The only possible argument against this is a religious/spiritual one: that a human soul is imbued into the fertilized zygote on or about the moment of fertilization.  Because souls are sacred spiritual things, no mere human should tamper with the vessel that carries them.  Before fertilization, there is no soul involved, hence the pieces (egg and sperm) can be destroyed or allowed to expire at will.  Afterwards, destroying the vessel is no different that murdering a mature human being .  

There are two variations on this concept.  One holds that a new “soul”, or distinct individual human essence, is “created” at the moment of conception, and is unique to that particular combination of egg and sperm.  

The other one holds that there exists somewhere a kind of reservoir of souls, and when an egg is fertilized one of these souls is taken from the reservoir and put into the zygote.  When the thing dies, the soul returns to the reservoir.  This is the “reincarnation” belief.  

In the case of the first, that each sperm-egg combination is unique and generates the creation of an equally unique soul, I don’t know how anyone who believes this can stand the thought of all women not being continuously pregnant.  The killing of the zygote will “kill” the soul, but the failure of an egg to be fertilized “kills” that potential soul just as absolutely.  In fact, a religious person should favor the scenario in which the egg is fertilized and then killed, to the scenario in which it is never fertilized.  Better to have a soul created, and then destroyed (or perhaps go to an after-life) then to never have been created at all.  How could anyone think otherwise? If it could talk, wouldn’t the soul vote in favor of a few moments of existence for itself, compared to no existence at all? Ever? Of course it would!

So anyone ascribing to this “soul created at moment of conception” theory should be ignoring the minor tragedy of abortion, and should be turning their attention to the infinitely greater tragedy of eggs going unfertilized.  Where are our priorities after all? Let’s get those souls created first, then worry later about what’s going to happen to them.  

In the case of the reincarnation concept, that a reservoir of souls exists, then the whole issue of abortion doesn’t really matter.  If an egg doesn’t get fertilized, then a soul waits until one does.  If that fertilized egg somehow doesn’t survive, then the soul goes to another one; much like missing one bus and getting on another, or having to change buses when the first one gets a flat tire.  


We have moved far beyond the “Is so/Is not” argument.  

We have seen why we can’t retreat behind phrases like “Killing is wrong” to make our point.  

We need to delve deeply into our system of belief and understand why killing is wrong, and in what circumstances might it not be wrong.  

Then we have to take those conclusions and apply them to the question of how society should deal with fertilized zygotes.  Is killing them wrong in all circumstances? If so, why?  If not, why not?  What do we mean by wrong?  What system of belief are we using to reach our conclusions: prevailing morality, the teachings of a particular religion, or self-evident premises?

But above all, we must be careful to use logic, and to follow it through to its conclusion.  If a belief system values fertilized zygotes sufficiently highly, then it must want as many of them as possible to be produced.  Otherwise, what do we mean by “value?”  And that leads inexorably to a society in which all women are kept continuously pregnant. (Handmaid’s Tale.)  Any retreat from that extreme and we are letting our moral belief be offset by someone else’s inconvenience.  And that is no different than what the pro-choicers believe in.  

The pro-choicers, meanwhile, having crossed the line and sold themselves out to the concept of inconvenience being more important then the mere existence and production of zygotes, must face the awful truth that down that path lies the Brave New World idea of killing all babies that aren’t perfect, or don’t measure up in some other criteria. 

Or put another way: If you believe the mother’s preference alone should determine whether she aborts the baby, then that belief is inseparable from believing eugenics is OK.  Are you sure you’re for that?  If you’re pro-abortion rights, and not pro-eugenics rights, you have a flaw in your logic.

 Yes, you can claim that the situation changes when the fetus is separated from its mother and becomes an individual human being, but that change is not necessarily more significant then when the zygote is fertilized, or when the human is able to communicate with others, or when it is able to feed itself, or any of a dozen other benchmarks in its development towards maturity.  If inconvenience of the mother outweighs the perpetration of a new life, then you must confront the reality of where this principal ultimately can lead.  And a system of morality and law to govern it must be developed.  

So there are no easy answers in the abortion debate.  But there is a plethora of invalid arguments on both sides.  This is a plea to see us, as a society, move beyond the “Abortion is killing” and “Women should control their own bodies” slogans.  Whatever our laws are going to be, let’s arrive at them from intelligent discussion of the real issues involved.  

Here’s hoping that the abortion debate, going forward, will see some new ideas put on the table, and some genuine progress made towards finding common ground.

My own belief:  I happen to be strongly pro-choice, but not because I’ve resolved the logical, ethical, and theological challenges discussed above.  As an extreme libertarian, I want the state to control as little as possible, and I want the individual to have as much freedom as possible.  The morality of abortion (as discussed herein) is above my pay grade.  But the question of whether it’s a decision the government should make, is not.  Given the complexities of the abortion issue, I want the state to be as far removed from it as possible.  That’s just my opinion.  I respect the opinion of others, who’ve reached a different conclusion. 

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