By Gregory Koukl –
No one really talks about abortion.
Certainly there are discussions about choice and privacy. There are debates about the risk of back-alley abortions, the hardship of teen pregnancy, and the trauma of pregnancies due to rape and incest. Plus there is concern about the abuse of unwanted children.
Responding to any of these issues, however, requires an answer to a prior question about abortion itself. On this question there is an unusual silence, yet it is key to answering the moral question of abortion.
Only One Question “Can I Kill This?”
Imagine your child walking up when your back is turned and asking, “Daddy, can I kill this?” What is the first thing you must find out before you can answer him? You can never answer the question “Can I kill this?” unless you have answered a prior question: What is it? Abortion involves killing and discarding something alive. Whether it is right or not to take the life of any living thing depends entirely upon the question “What is it?” The answer one gives is pivotal, the deciding element that trumps all other considerations.
Let me put the issue plainly. If the unborn is not a human being, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human being, no justification for abortion is adequate.
Some say the unborn is not human, but merely a non-viable tissue mass, a part of a woman’s body. Others say it is only a “potential” human, or a human that is not yet a person. If any of these options turn out to be true, then it is hard to imagine how any additional considerations could make a difference. No further defense would be necessary. Have the abortion.
On the other hand, maybe the unborn is a bona fide human being, deserving the same care and protection you and I enjoy. If so, then abortion takes the life of a fellow human simply because she is in the way and cannot defend herself. This is not an adequate reason to kill someone.
This distinction simplifies what seems to be an intractable moral problem. To many, abortion is a complex issue with no easy answers. If I am right, though, it is not complex at all. When one clears away the irrelevancies on both sides—the name calling, the misrepresentations, the circular reasoning, the medical misinformation, the emotional language—the issue becomes very clear and reasonably easy to answer. The hard part is applying what we discover.i
Untying the Gordian Knot
The answer to this most fundamental question—What is the unborn?—is the key to answering virtually every other objection about abortion. Most issues raised in the abortion debate are irrelevant rabbit trails dragging us off the track. Here are some examples.
“Women have the right to privacy with their doctors.” Certainly, we all have a right to a measure of privacy. No privacy argument, however, is a legitimate cover for a conspiracy to harm another innocent human being. The right to privacy does not protect parents from charges of sexual or physical abuse of their children. If the unborn are human beings, we ought to protect them, just as we do other defenseless children. Privacy is not the issue.
“Women should have the freedom to choose.” This sentence is incomplete: Women should have the freedom to choose . . . what? No one has unrestricted freedom to choose. The freedom depends on what kind of choice one has in mind. We do not have the freedom to choose to eliminate human beings who get burdensome. The real question is not choice, but “What is the unborn?”
“Making abortion illegal forces women into dangerous back-alley abortions.” This argument has force if we are talking about elective surgery. Why burden a woman with the additional risk of a dangerous, septic environment to have her operation? But when taking a human life is involved, then the picture changes dramatically. Should the law be faulted for making it more risky to kill another innocent bystander? The fact that bank robbery is dangerous to the felon does not seem to be a good reason to make grand larceny legal.
“These children create a drain on the economy.” This objection is easily put into perspective with a simple question. When human beings get expensive, do we kill them? There are many others who are burdensome to society. Shall we remove them with one lethal, final solution? No, we do not do that to human beings. If the unborn is a human being, we should not do that to him, either.
“Unwanted children should not be allowed to come into the world.” This may be a good argument for birth control, but not for abortion if a real human being already is in the world, albeit not visible to the casual observer.
“Women should not have to continue a pregnancy that is a result of rape.” Carrying a child conceived in violence can be emotionally devastating. The question is misleading, though, because it does not capture the real issue: Why should the child pay with his own life for his father’s crime?
The real question is, How ought we treat other human beings who remind us of a traumatic experience? If the guilty rapist is caught, may the rape victim shoot him because of the emotional relief it gives her? If not, then why should she be allowed to kill her innocent child for the same reason?
“But that’s different,” one might reply. “The rapist is a human being.” Precisely. One’s humanity is the relevant issue. No matter how bad any criminal is, we still respect his life by not summarily executing him. In the same way, if the brutal criminal and the innocent child are equally human, then the child’s life deserves the same respect as the rapist’s.
“Your view forces women to become parents against their will.” No one should be forced to become a parent, but if the unborn is a human being, then the pregnant woman already is a parent. No parent should escape her responsibilities by killing her unwanted children. Clearly, the issue is not unwanted parenthood but “What is the unborn?”
You might think of other concerns I have not mentioned. Each can be dispatched with a simple test question. Ask, “What would be the relevance of this objection if we were talking about a bona fide human being?”ii Despite the apparent complexity of abortion, there is just one issue to resolve, not many. Answering one question, “What is the unborn?” answers almost all the others.
The Moral Logic of the Pro-Life View
The moral logic pertaining to any pre-born human life can be stated simply:
(1) It is wrong to kill innocent human beings. (2) Abortion kills innocent human beings. (3) Therefore, abortion is wrong.
The first is a moral premise. Human beings have value transcending either their physical appearance or the function they fulfill in society. Because of intrinsic human worth, it’s wrong to take a someone’s life without the weightiest moral justification.
The second is a factual premise. At the point of fertilization, the unborn becomes a unique, individual, living human being, ontologically distinct from either mother or father. She is not partially human, potentially human, or possibly human, but she is a complete human being as long as she lives. Her body will take many forms during her life, but she will always be the same thing—a human being—until she dies.
The third step is a moral conclusion that follows validly from the first two premises.iii Abortion is evil because it intentionally destroys a precious human being. This killing is unjustified because the reasons usually given—inconvenience, economics, emotional hardship, etc.—are not adequate to justify taking another human life. Instead, the unborn should be treated as any other human being when facing life-and-death ethical questions.
Pro-lifers affirm this moral equation. Pro-choicers, by and large, deny it because of the second premise. To them, no bona fide human being is sacrificed. This second premise, then, will be the focus of my attention.
The Unborn Is Alive
The first question—Is the unborn alive?—is easy to resolve. Because of the emotional nature of this issue, many people who ought to know better express unjustified skepticism here. “Nobody knows when life begins,” is a common refrain. However, the statement simply is not true.
In the process of reproduction there is no beginning of life because there is no period of non-life in the entire sequence of events from mating to birth. The individual sperm and egg are alive. The zygote formed from their union is alive, as is the developing fetus during its entire term. Finally, the child delivered at birth is alive.
From beginning to end there is an unbroken continuum of life. Life does not begin at some stage of development; the unborn is alive at every stage. The unborn displays every biological requirement for life from the first moments of conception: metabolism, reaction to stimuli, growth, and reproduction.iv
The Unborn Is a Separate Individual Being
When does the individual life of the unborn begin? When does it become a being distinct from either of its parents? This question is much easier to answer than some are willing to admit, partly because the issue is confused by a common misconception: A woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her own body. This assertion is false on at least two counts.
First, a woman cannot do whatever she wants with her own body, and neither can a man. In a civilized society, there are no legitimate liberties unfettered by legal restrictions. The law routinely interferes with our personal autonomy when there is proper justification. What would justify interference? A variety of things come to mind, but each involves putting another human being in jeopardy. The real issue, then, is whether or not our personal autonomy creates a threat to another.
There is a second reason the personal autonomy argument fails. The living thing inside the mother’s womb is not the mother. It is a separate and distinct living being domiciled within her. The quickest way to make this point makes for interesting conversation at a party. When this issue comes up, simply say to the woman, “Can I ask you a personal question? Does your body have a penis?”
“No,” she replies.
“Could your unborn’s body have a penis?”
“Yes,” she replies.
“Then the unborn’s body is not your body, is it?” This is not a trick, but a clear line of thinking that forces us to conclude what should be obvious from the start—the unborn is a separate being from his mother.
Further, the unborn is capable of existence completely independent of the mother’s body. That is what makes fertilization in vitro possible. Eventually, the developing embryo will need a biologically appropriate environment to grow in, and a woman’s body is the best place for that to happen. In principle, however, the developing fetus could live completely apart from the woman.
At this point, a rejoinder surfaces: “It’s only a blob of tissue, not a real human being.” However, all humans are blobs of tissue, in one sense. The real question is, What kind of “blobs” are they?
All pieces of human tissue must come from a real human being. If the unborn is only tissue, like skin, where is the human that this human tissue came from? The mother does not qualify because the embryo has something different from every other cell in the mother’s body: its own unique chromosomal fingerprint. Eventually it will also bear other distinctions—separate heart and brain waves, different blood type, to name a few. It will develop these differences because the unborn actually is different from its mother from the very beginning.
Mere human cellular material can never become a human being. The zygote, however, is different. It already is an individual being, a unified, self-contained, self-integrated living entity with its own nature possessing the active (inherent) capacity to develop through all stages of maturity—embryo, fetus, infant, adolescent, and adult. All that’s needed is proper nurture and environment, no different than you and I.
Fertilization is the biological point at which a completely new being comes into existence. An egg with 23 of the mother’s chromosomes (in the case of humans) unites with a sperm with 23 of the father’s chromosomes, creating an individual living thing. Hence, what actually comes into existence at conception is not a “fertilized egg”—sperm and egg cease to exist, strictly speaking—and it is not a mere clump of human cells.
We conclude, then, that the unborn is a living being, separate from its mother.
The Unborn is a Human Being
This brings us to our next question: What kind of being is it? There is only one answer. The unborn is a human being. This can be demonstrated in a couple of different ways. Suppose you were to line up six zygotes in a row from six different species. Would you be able to tell which one was the human? Yes, you would, at least in principle.
First, the DNA identifies which zygote is human. With the naked eye you would see little difference between the zygotes. However, a closer look with a high-powered microscope would show that each is developing according to a special set of plans. These plans are encoded in a unique DNA structure—the unborn’s genetic signature—setting it apart from all other types of living things. A close look at this signature tells us what kind of being the zygote is. In the case of the unborn, we know it is human by its human genetic structure.
Second, this difference becomes obvious if we watch the development long enough. The cell begins to differentiate, eventually allowing us to see clearly what kind of being it is. It cannot develop in any direction, but only in a way consistent with its internal structure. Its DNA indicates what kind of bodily form the adult is going to take, but even at this nascent stage she is still human.
At this point we must be careful with our language. Just because we see radical changes in the way the developing zygote looks does not mean it starts out as non-human and then changes into a human. Rather, it begins to look more human to our eyes because the physical development is determined by what kind of being the zygote is originally. Advanced human forms develop out of existing human beings.
This is very important. Nature knows nothing of creatures that start out as one kind of thing and slowly become another kind of being. Rather, they develop according to a certain physical pattern precisely because of the kind of creature they already are. Their form changes, but what they are stays the same.
The Principle of Biogenesis
There’s another reason we know the unborn are human. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientists Francesco Redi, Louis Pasteur, and Rudolph Virchow were all instrumental in disproving the theory that life spontaneously springs forth from non-living material. Their work led to the Principle of Biogenesis which says two things. First, all life comes from preexistent life. Second, each being reproduces after its own kind.v According to the scientific Principle of Biogenesis, a new being comes from living parents (or parent, in the case of asexual reproduction) just like itself. Collies beget collies, horned toads beget horned toads, paramecium begets paramecium, etc.
This gives us a practical test if we are uncertain what kind of being a developing fetus is. We can simply ask what kind of parents it has. Since every being reproduces after its own kind, human beings can only reproduce other human beings. Therefore, the individual, separate, living offspring of two other human beings is always another human being.
If you are tempted to disagree, you will have to answer a difficult question: How do two human beings create a separate being that is not a human being—in violation of the Principle of Biogenesis—but later becomes one?
Acorns and Oaks
At this point an objection is sometimes offered: An acorn is not an oak, only a potential oak. In the same way (the claim goes), the unborn is not human, only a potential human. This objection, however, makes a common, but easily remedied, mistake.
True, an acorn is not an oak tree. All this shows, though, is that an infant is not an adult. An acorn is the immature stage and the tree is the mature stage, but both are oaks. An acorn can become an oak tree, but it never becomes an oak. It already is a complete oak, even at the infant stage.
The confusion can be cleared up by asking a simple question: “What kind of seed is an acorn?” There is only one answer: an oak. Ask the same question at every stage of growth—seed, sprout, sapling, or tree—and the answer is always the same.
“But the unborn does not look like a human being,” is another rejoinder. Sure it does. It looks exactly as every human being should look at this stage of growth. In our experience we are visually acquainted with more advanced phases of human development: newborn, child, adolescent, and adult. The reason we are reluctant to call a developing unborn a human is because he looks so different from the stages of growth we are familiar with.
This teaches us an important lesson. Living things never look the same at one stage of development as they do at another. That is what it means to develop biologically: constant change according to a predetermined growth pattern.
A monarch goes through four stages of development—from egg, to larva, to chrysalis, to winged adult—but it always remains a monarch. It changes shape, color, and size, but still remains itself through every stage. That’s why it is a mistake to dismiss the unborn as only a “potential” human being. A fetus is potentially a teenager and a teenager potentially an adult, but each is a human being, regardless of her stage of development.
When does the unborn become a member of the human race? When she becomes a distinct, living being at the moment of conception. The unborn continues to be a human throughout her life until the day she dies.
“Look Like” or “Be Like”?
Using science and some straightforward common sense, I have carefully shown that an unborn child at every stage of her development is an individual, living, human being. First, she has a human genetic structure. Second, she is the offspring of human parents. Third, she will develop an unmistakable human form given time and nurture.
What we learn from this is that a human being is not a “look-like” kind of thing, but a “be-like” kind of thing that looks different at different stages. Sometimes humans look familiar, healthy, and normal. Other times they look odd. In rare cases their bodies look all wrong, but the human is still there.
Sometimes we hear of anencephalic infants, like “Baby Theresa.”vi She had only a brain stem; the cerebral cortex never developed. Theresa was apparently incapable of thought. When this happens people are tempted to regard the child as less than human because she does not have the same capabilities we have.
Some wanted to farm this child for her organs, killing her in the process. “We would not be killing a human being,” they said. They were mistaken. Of course Theresa was human. She was severely handicapped, but still human. She could not be anything else.
The movie “Elephant Man” was a remarkable chronicle of the life of John Merrick, a human being grotesquely misshapen from birth. He was caged, whipped, and treated like an animal until a compassionate doctor took him under his care.
A scene from that film is etched in my memory. Merrick ventures out of the hospital one night, cloaked and hooded to hide his disfigurement. As he attempts to evade boys who are taunting him, his hood comes off, exposing his horrible face. Merrick runs, weaving in and out of the throng trying to escape the screaming bystanders. Concerned townsmen begin to take up pursuit. No one knows what crime has been committed, only that a hideous creature has been put to flight.
Finally the mob, with walking sticks upraised, corners the Elephant Man in a subterranean stairwell, intent on destroying the monster. In a moment of desperation Merrick faces his tormentors and cries out, “I am not an animal. I…am…a human…being.”
The crowd goes silent and hovers over him for one perilous moment. Then, as his words sink in, each person turns away in shame, leaving John Merrick trembling in the shadows.
John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was a human being. Baby Theresa, the anencephalic, was a human being. So are millions of others who are odd, misshapen, and severely handicapped. So are the unborn. All are humans, even if their physical bodies are so distorted or so small that they are unrecognizable.
By any objective standard, then, the embryo qualifies as a member of the human race. From the moment of conception the embryo is an individual. The zygote is distinct from mother, father, and other living things, having her own unique genetic fingerprint. The embryo is living, characterized by metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction. The embryo is human, carrying DNA with a human genetic signature. Finally, the embryo is an individual being, a self-contained, self-integrated living entity with her own nature. She has the innate capacity to proceed through the full series of human developmental stages. All that is needed is proper nurture and environment, no different than you and me. She is a unique, individual self (though not yet self-aware), and will remain herself until death. She will never become a human; she already is one. That is incontrovertible science.
“Personhood” and Value
The crux of the moral puzzle at this point has to do with value: What gives human beings their worth? There are two general possibilities. Either human value is derived from some extrinsic, changeable quality (size, level of development, location, social convention, ability, etc.), or humans are valuable because of some intrinsic, unchangeable quality.
Classically, western civilization has affirmed the latter, a conviction summed up eloquently by our Foundering Fathers as the cornerstone of all human rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….”
The biblical grounding the Founders relied upon is found in Genesis 1:27: “And God created man in His own image.” The moral ramifications of this imago Dei are clarified a few chapters later: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
This one moral conviction has been the impulse for every human rights crusade up to the end of the 20th century, from the abolition of slavery, to child labor laws, to the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, to Dr. Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights in the ‘60s. Of course, the Founders may have been wrong, but such ideas have consequences. Remove the moral foundation and the moral edifice built upon it topples.
Here is the problem. If humans are valuable because of some transcendent, metaphysical quality, then that value is intrinsic and obtains regardless of physical/functional changes—size, location, abilities, etc. Conversely, if physical/functional changes affect human value, then the value is not intrinsic. It is instrumental and temporary, contingent on those external factors. Human value becomes transient. This liability is most evident in the current attempt to drive a wedge between the categories of “human” and “person.”
To say the embryo is human, but not a human person invites my standard response: “What’s the difference?” What is the relevant distinction between the two? Generally, the difference turns out to be legal and political, not metaphysical.
In virtually ever occurrence in public discourse, “personhood” is legal language used as a tool to arbitrarily identify which human beings we currently choose to protect under law. Therefore, to say the embryo is not a person is the same as saying “No bachelors are married.” It is simply a definition, not an argument.
If the biblical standard grounding our human rights is sound, the “personhood” issue is completely moot. Humans are intrinsically valuable because something non-physical about them bears God’s image. Humans are valuable qua human, that is, simply in virtue of their humanity. They are not valuable only if they satisfy some additional functional personhood requirement.
Historically, altering that equation has only served to disenfranchise the weak and vulnerable: Black slaves in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Jews under the Third Reich in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the unborn with Roe v. Wade in 1973, and the ethnic cleansing of the late 20th Century.
Lincoln understood that any attempt to alter this truth would be self-destructive. In “Fragments on Government and Slavery,” July 1, 1854, he wrote:
If A can prove, however conclusively, that he may of right enslave B, why may not B snatch the same argument and prove equally that he may enslave A?
You say A is white, and B is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.
The argument that the unborn does not look or act like other “persons” is devastating for all of us. We do not lose our value because of physical differences or missing capabilities. Our value is intrinsic, not merely instrumental.
The pro-choice enterprise in most of its formsvii is doomed to fail because it ultimately reduces human value to functional terms. The liability is that whatever can be functionally defined can be functionally defined away.
For example, columnist Michael Kinsley dismisses embryonic value because of size. They are “microscopic groupings of a few differentiated cells.”viii This move only works if human size determines human value. Since size is relative, human value based on size would be relative, too. Bigger is better, relatively speaking. Change the perspective and you change the value.
For thinkers like Kinsley, embryos are so small compared to adults that their moral status is negligible. But for others, though, contemplating the size of the universe is enough to convince them of their insignificance even as adult humans. If value is based on size and size is relative, then all humans can be made tiny from one vantage point. Compared to Michael Kinsley, embryos have no value. Compared to the size of the cosmos, Mr. Kinsley has no value. Both conclusions are flawed for the same reason: size—or shape, or abilities, or any physical factor—cannot influence transcendent value.
These reflections on the nature of being human suggest three critical lessons. One, our rights to liberty and freedom obtain in virtue of our humanity, not our personhood. Two, equality has nothing to do with some physical trait that all humans share. Three, some intrinsic quality provides the basis for equal human rights. These cannot be denied because some extrinsic quality is lacking. We cannot tie human value to functional or developmental elements without destroying our case for innate human worth. There is therefore no justification for the human vs. person distinction.
Were You Ever an Unborn Child?
I am Gregory Koukl. I was myself when I was conceived. I was myself the day I was born, and I will be myself when I die. Even if I alter my appearance or obliterate my memories I will still be me. I am the same person for my entire lifetime from beginning to end, even though my body changes in a million ways.
What about you? Were you ever an unborn child? It does not seem to make sense to say you once were a sperm or an egg. Does it make sense, though, to refer to yourself before you were born? Did you turn in your mother’s womb or kick when you were startled by a loud noise? Did you suck your thumb? Were those your experiences or someone (or something) else’s?
If you were once the unborn child your mother carried, then you must accept an undeniable truth: Killing that child through abortion would have killed you. Not a potential you. Not a possible you. Not a future you. Abortion would have killed you.
Greg Koukl is Founder and president of Stand to Reason, an organization training Christians to defend classical Christianity. STR is located in Signal Hill, CA, and can be contacted at str.org.
i The public tends to confuse psychological complexity over abortion with objective moral complexity. As Stephen Schwarz points out, “People rightly see the psychological complexity of abortion—that it can be an agonizing decision, that opinion is divided, etc. They wrongly interpret this complexity as moral complexity, and thus fail to grasp the horror of abortion.” (Stephen Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990, 134-135).
ii Virtually all of these responses ask if the reason given for abortion is also a good reason to kill another human being, such as a toddler. This tactic, known as “Trotting out the Toddler,” continues to place the focus on the only question that matters: What is the unborn? Is the unborn a human being?
iii For an argument to be valid, there must be moral terms in the premises (“It’s wrong to kill”) if there are moral terms in the conclusion (“Abortion is wrong”). When one draws a moral conclusion based merely on the way things are he’s committed the naturalistic or “is/ought” fallacy: You can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” My argument does not fall into this error.
iv Some have suggested that brainwaves ought to be the evidence of human life, but if the unborn isn’t alive before it has brainwaves, how does it ever grow a brain?
v See R.L. Wysong, The Creation-Evolution Controversy (East Lansing: Inquiry Press, 1976), 180-2. See also the “biogenesis” entry in W.G. Hale, The HarperCollins Dictionary of Biology (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 77; and “spontaneous generation” in Eleanor Lawrence, Henderson’s Dictionary of Biological Terms (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1989), 513. Wysong uses the phrase “the Law of Biogenesis.” The other texts affirm the salient details of the concept.
vi Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1992, Home Edition, Part A.
viiI say “most of its forms” because some abortion advocates concede the full humanity and full personhood of the unborn. See Judith
Jarvis Thompson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (1971), and Eileen McDonagh, Breaking the Abortion
Deadlock: From Choice to Consent (New York, Oxford University
viii Michael Kinsley, “If You Believe Embryos Are Humans…,”
Time, June 17, 2001.