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Department: Parting Shot

Look! A Baby!

The Argument Against Abortion

by Thomas Teacher

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 15

It is wrong wilfully to take innocent human life. The human fetus is an innocent human life. Therefore it is wrong wilfully to take the life of a human fetus.

Almost all attempts to justify abortion challenge not the major but the minor premise. That is, they deny that the human fetus is an innocent human life. One trivial argument challenges the innocence of the fetus, arguing that it is an aggressive invader of the mother's body, and that it is therefore lawful to expel it, however horrible the consequences for it. This is argued by only a few eccentrics, in defiance of the most fundamental principles of justice. For guilt, in law, presupposes moral responsibility, and nobody supposes that unborn fetuses have the mental equipment to be judged legally responsible for their actions. This silly argument may thus be dismissed without further delay.

Most attempts to justify abortion therefore challenge not the innocence but the humanity of the fetus, proposing that it is not "fully" or "truly" human.

These arguments all share one key feature. They require a non-scientific definition of human life. But a human life is definable in entirely scientific, biological, terms: a human life is a living human body. A living human body is physically and genetically identifiable. It is either a whole body (even an embryo is a whole body, although not fully developed) or a damaged whole body (someone who has lost an arm or a leg, an eye or a kidney) that is nevertheless still functioning as an organism.

A separated organ or other detached part or piece of the body, though it may not quite be dead, is dying and will soon die unless it is successfully reintegrated soon enough within its own or another body. Such a separated organ is not a human body.

This definition of human life is entirely biological. Equine life, feline life, and canine life can be defined using precisely cognate criteria of genetic signature and physicality. There is no need to invoke any religious or mystical or metaphysical concepts to make this definition of human life work.

Those who justify abortion mostly seek to evade the problem of taking innocent human life by arguing that what is immoral is not the taking of innocent human life, but taking the life of an innocent human person. The minor premise here is that not all human life is the life of a human person. They cannot deny that the (human) fetus is human, for that would be absurd; nor that it is alive, for that would be more absurd still. Hence, it is human life, even a human life. But they deny that it is a "person."

The problem here, of course, is that there is no scientific or biological definition of a human "person," while philosophical definitions of the "person" are by no means universally agreed upon. Different cultures have ­defined many children and adults as not human "persons" (or cognate concepts), and have used such exclusive definitions to justify exploitation or even extermination. Exclusive definitions of the "person" tend to be essentially arbitrary. They invariably serve the interests of the persons doing the defining and excluding.

So the case against abortion is based on exclusively scientific grounds (except for the first premise, the wrongfulness of wilfully taking innocent human life); while both religious (e.g., Anglican) and purportedly "rationalist" justifications of abortion require a mystical extra "MacGuffin" or "thingamabob" to be added to the biological definition of a living human being before it can be accorded any human rights. The religious justifications of abortion are not based on revelation, and the "rationalist" justifications of abortion self-evidently cannot be. They are certainly not based on reason. So they are based on nothing at all, except perhaps will and power.

The case against abortion is purely rational. The case for abortion is mere wilfulness, the generation of an empty "concept" in order to furnish a specious justification for a deed that, however emotionally understandable in terms of a personal reaction to a personal crisis, cannot be considered a reasonable moral act. 

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