The Roots of the Abortion Debate

Pro-life and pro-choice advocates both seem to genuinely believe they are acting ethically. How can this be?

I believe the question really boils down to how an individual views human life. Before I explain this, however, let me first dispel the common misconception that we somehow “don’t know exactly when life begins”. This is an outright falsehood. Any honest, thinking person who defends abortion will immediately concede that life begins at conception. Science answered that question a long time ago (for confirmation, just open any embryology textbook). Those who claim that a fetus is “only a clump of cells” overlook the fact that ALL of us are really just clumps of cells.

So let’s consider first the viewpoint of the pro-choice activist championing the cause of “women’s rights”. These defenders of abortion must concede – as a matter of established scientific fact – that the procedure involves the termination of a living human organism. They will argue, however, that abortion can nevertheless be ethically justified. The question isn’t “When does life begin?” but rather, “When does life become valuable?”

Does value come with a heartbeat? Measurable brainwaves? Extra-uterine viability? Birth? Ability to talk? Ability to walk?

In order to rationally justify the practice of abortion, a person must first accept the existentialist notion that human life is devoid of objective meaning (meaning derived from a Higher Source – not to be confused with subjective meaning derived from oneself). This philosophy then makes it possible for a person to embrace utilitarianism – a brand of ethics that seeks to maximize the overall level of “happiness” in the world.

Following utilitarianism to its logical conclusion, one can then successfully argue that abortion is ethically justifiable. The aborted child doesn’t enter the world to experience happiness or unhappiness, and the life of the woman with the pregnancy is made more “happy” (just for the sake of argument here) by not having to raise or support an unwanted child.

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.” -Peter Singer

On the other hand, those who do believe in things like objective meaning and universal truth will naturally see the issue quite differently. If one believes in a loving, all-powerful God with a perfect sense of justice, then our sense of right and wrong must account for more than just what makes people “feel happy”.

This is why those of us on the pro-life side of the argument often speak in terms of the sanctity of human life rather than the happiness of human life. What does this mean? It means that we view all human life as having God-given value and certain inalienable rights – from the moment of conception to the moment of death. A life is valuable because it is created in the image of God – not because it possesses certain physical, mental, or emotional abilities…and not because it enjoys more total “happiness” than “unhappiness”.

Incidentally, our disagreements over the value of human life spill over into a number of other pressing social issues, from assisted suicide to infanticide to the animal rights movement. But I’ll leave those topics for another day.

When it really comes down to it, both the pro-life and pro-choice crowds ARE acting “ethically” – at least within the framework of what they believe to be true. Both are following their “starting point” to the natural, logical conclusion. The difference lies in that “starting point” – the presumptions one holds about God and the value of human life.

I’ve written before about the horrors wrought by “Social Darwinism” during the 20th century. Only a handful of decades ago, it was commonplace in western countries for the physically and mentally disabled to be forcibly sterilized (and in extreme cases, systematically murdered). Ideologically speaking, this practice was justified using the same philosophical framework that’s currently employed to justify abortion. And in the end, eugenics only fell out of fashion because of the stigma of being associated with the Holocaust. The human race, it seems, has a tendency to follow an idea to its logical conclusion…at least until people become sufficiently horrified.

In conclusion, I want to ask you to honestly compare the two alternatives I’ve described. Should we view the abortion debate through a utilitarian lens that seeks only to maximize our subjective feeling of happiness? Or should we accept the Christian claim that God has made us in His image, and that all human life, regardless of age, gender, race, or physical/mental ability, is valuable and deserving of legal protection?

Which world would you rather live in? Which world would you rather leave for your children?

Also Recommended

Why I am Pro-life: A Short, Nonsectarian Argument (Douglas Groothuis)

What we learn before we’re born (Annie Murphy Paul, TED Talk)

Eugenics, Past and Future (Ross Douthat, New York Times)


46 thoughts on “The Roots of the Abortion Debate

  1. Matt,

    You’re a 100% right in this post. The terrible sadness of it is that a lot of these young women who got abortions never got to hear the other side of the argument. It’s crucial that we as Christians bring as much publicity to this issue as possible, and bring as much awareness to young women in this predicament that there are other options available to them that are far more honoring to the sancity of human life, and to the God we serve. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Outstanding post, Matt. Your ability to analyze this divisive debate systematically is admirable. It’s great to meet so many other Pro-Life allies in this battle to end the killing. I, for one, feel the momentum shifting…and I have a lot of hope in the youth of today, who I believe are waking up to lies of the pro-abortion crowd. Thank you!

  3. i have often said we are still products of conception, and being born doesnt change that. and that clump of cells in the womb is a clump of human cells, and is alive, so therefore is human life. human life is supposed to be protected. convenience seems to be the most elementary excuse for terminating that life pre-delivery.
    as for the argument/question ‘what if the woman was raped?’ well, speaking from experience, when i was asked that question at 16, i answered with ‘why should the baby pay for what the rapist did?’. turned out i didnt conceive … but i would not have had an abortion if i had conceived.

    as always, a good post. the imagery is quite disturbing. the procedure must be horrible! and doctors can do this and still sleep at night?

    • I actually considered posting a couple of (rather graphic) photos of the abortion procedure…but ultimately thought that the medical diagram is every bit as chilling. I’ll never understand how people can inflict this kind of horrific violence and still sleep at night – as you stated.

  4. Matt,

    You do a good job of touching on many of the core issues of today’s abortion debate in relation to the 21st century ideals of today’s society and in a concise easy-to-digest manner.

    However, since the title of your post is “The Roots of the Abortion Debate,” then to get at the root we have to dig down TO the root. We are a product of history, and as one of the wisest of us all once said:

    Ecclesiastes 1:9 (CJB)
    9 What has been is what will be,
    what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.

    Abortion is no different. It goes back in time past Yeshua (Jesus). In fact to 1550 BCE (from a historical perspective this is the oldest evidence we have). The true roots of the abortion debate come down to a very simple statement:

    In the beginning God . . .

    We can repackage the abortion debate as the pro-choice do and have done over and over. In one form or another, they have done it for thousands of years, but in the end it always comes back to rationalizations (trying to make the unreasonable sound reasonable) concerning our Creator and creation.

    These rationalizations crept into Judaism and Christianity as it became Hellenized and influenced by pagan Greek philosophy such as Platonism and Gnosticism – the list gets long throughout time. We can read the writings of Josephus, Philo and Tacitus. We can study infanticide in Greek Athens and Sparta. We can read the Talmud and the Mishna. We can read Aristotle’s views. We will see every justification and every exception you have mentioned in this article by those that are pro-choice today as the same kind of reasoning they had back then, because in the end, the real root of the abortion debate is not quality of life, ethics or happiness – the real root as you have already stated is simply:

    “the presumptions one holds about God and the value of human life.”

    Respectfully, I would re-word it a little bit more emphatically with a simple question that addresses the root issue, because in this question, there is no middle ground:

    “Do you believe “we” are the creator of life or that “Adonai” is the creator of life?

    Ultimately, this has always been the root question behind the act of abortion throughout history.


    • “Do you believe “we” are the creator of life or that “Adonai” is the creator of life?”

      I absolutely agree: this is the heart of the matter. And framing it this way does an excellent job of forcing us to define our beliefs.

      Thanks for the excellent feedback!

  5. I think you do a great job of defending the pro-life standpoint, albeit through a Christian context. However, in a nation where laws are not (or at least, are not supposed to be) based on religion, it is impossible to use your arguments to justify banning women’s choice. If you take God out of your argument, what’s left? Completely objective ethics (which don’t exist). It’s a conundrum we face as a nation daily across the gamut on social issues.

    I think the “sanctity” of anything, such as life, or marriage, or whathaveyou, is outlandish to use as a basis for legislation. Obviously, I’m not alone and neither are you, so here we stand.

    Great blog, even if I stand across the line from you. Thanks for posting, as usual.

    • Great to hear from you, J.R. – and congrats on graduating!

      I do think you raise a fair point about my arguments being framed exclusively in a Christian context – a context that wouldn’t seem to carry much weight with anyone who holds different beliefs.

      However, while I agree that our nation wasn’t designed as a theocracy, I do believe that the concepts of “God-given value and certain inalienable rights” that I mentioned have been an intimate part of our heritage. Most of our laws, in fact, have a solid grounding in Judeo-Christian ethics…even if they may not be explicitly “religious” in nature.

      This is also true of the “sanctity” vs “functionality” definitions of human worth. If we deny legal protection to the unborn, why should we not also deny it to the mentally/physically disabled…or elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer’s…or infants, for that matter? Why should we ban a woman’s “choice” to throw her 2-month-old in a dumpster, if she decides motherhood just isn’t her thing?

      The dark reality is that the same philosophical framework employed to justify abortion is also *consistently* and *logically* used to justify a number of other horrific things. The “after-birth abortion” example I just gave is – believe it or not – actually gaining support in certain academic circles. Medical “ethicists” like Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva are simply following their philosophical beliefs to their logical, hellish conclusion.

  6. Reblogged this on catholicboyrichard and commented:
    Matt is a young medical student with a brilliant and logical mind. This post is written without rancor to either side, as well as a lack of judgmental thinking against those who disagree. It simply presents facts as they are. And those facts are what make me a “pro-life” person as well. God bless and please hear him out. He is on target.

  7. Pingback: The Roots of the Abortion Debate–Reblog | catholicboyrichard

  8. While this was incredibly well-written and well thought out, I’d like to point out that many pro-choicers choose to focus on a women’s right to choose what’s right for her body. To presume that she chooses it for personal happiness is to believe she is thinking entirely selfishly and that is hardly the case. An abortion is not an easy decision to make but for many, the crux of the issue is that if you take away that option for a woman then you take away her right to govern her own body.

    Removing abortion and various other methods of birth control turns a woman back into property/slave of a man. That is wrong- no one person should be controlled by another.

    For me, removing abortion as an option (as well as birth control) is taking away women’s rights. I cannot support that even if I would never choose an abortion for myself.

    Removing the rights of any citizen in this country is unconscionable. Why are we blatantly ignoring this vital issue?!

    • Thanks for bringing this up. I didn’t really dwell much on the “women’s rights” perspective in the article, but it definitely is something that needs to be addressed.

      That said, I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with labeling abortion a “right”.

      Since you referred to abortion as one of a number of methods of birth control, let me put aside for a moment cases of rape/incest/medical issues (these account for only a small percentage of all abortions, anyway). The majority of abortions are performed – as you stated – as a means of birth control.

      When people ask me why I’m not pro-choice, I respond by saying I AM pro-choice: I support a woman’s right to choose **whether or not to get pregnant**. Sex isn’t a biological necessity, and abstinence is a 100% foolproof way to avoid pregnancy. I support a woman’s right to make this choice. When a woman chooses to become sexually active – regardless of the type of birth control being used (if any) – she does so with the knowledge that this behavior might result in pregnancy.

      This is where personal responsibility comes into play. When a woman engages in sexual activity, she ought to be held morally and legally responsible for protecting the life of her child in the event that a pregnancy occurs. I would also add that a man who engages in sexual activity ought to be held responsible in a similar manner (ideally by helping to raise the child as a father…but at the VERY least, by being held financially accountable for the child).

      But when a man and a woman engage in irresponsible, recreational sex…they shouldn’t be allowed to decide that they don’t want to “keep the baby”. If two adults make poor decisions, the solution isn’t to murder an innocent child.

      You say that “removing the rights of any citizen in this country is unconscionable”. What about the rights of the child?

      Look again at the abortion diagram above. Isn’t THAT unconscionable?

  9. Matt,

    What an awesome post. Thank you for using you knowledge and talents to speak out against such atrocities that claim so many innocent lives in our nation. I pray the minds of the general public and our policy makers will sway to protect the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter, you are great!

    In Christ,


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    • I don’t have any formal background in philosophy, no. These kinds of issues are a major concern for me, however.

      And thank you for the link to your son’s blog! I will definitely be following it.

  11. I shared this post with some friends and I hope they are as impacted by it as I was. This is a frightening procedure.

    There was a huge billboard in Staten Island, NY that showed the horrors of partial birth abortions and I don’t think it lasted very long. Everyone was shocked. It would be nice if they learned something from it…

    • Agreed. Atrocities like this need to be exposed, and one effective way to do this is to simply show people what abortion looks like. It’s often easy for someone to say, “I’m pro-choice” when they think about the issue abstractly…but much more difficult when they’re confronted with images of the procedure they’re advocating for.

      It’s the same reason images from the Holocaust – while horrific and painful to look at – are also IMPORTANT to look at.

  12. If one accepts that all life forms on earth are intrinsically valuable parts of God’s creation, would one then not have to extend legal protection to those as well and for instance abandon all slaughterhouses? Since we do not seem to come to a universal consensus on decisions about life and death – where it all begins, who is in and who is out -, then, in consequence, we as individuals will have to make our own moral choices and individually be held accountable.

    • From a Christian perspective, I do think that our view of God’s creation will influence how we treat animals and care for the environment (for example). But I also don’t think we can equate the value of human life with the value of, say, bovine life.

      There’s a definite Scriptural basis for saying that human life is *uniquely* valuable in a way that differs considerably from the value of animal life:

      Luke 12:6-7
      Genesis 9:3
      Isaiah 49:1

  13. Hi Matt, followed you here from Catholicboyrichard. Timing is amazing as I have also been thinking about the root of all the debate about this issues thay are in the news and I think it really goes down to the fact of humans having souls. If someone doesn’t believe that then anything goes. I would like to write more but I don’t have the time at present.

  14. Great post, Matt. Thank you for being bold for the unborn! The two choices don’t have to be exclusive though: Valuing life leads to happiness (joy to be more precise).

  15. When did our belief and reliance on natural law (such as the attributes that we are born with) are of no consequence. Nature does not in any instance follow a path to extinguish their species’ very existence. Do mother dogs kill their young because they are weak and cannot support the size of their litter? They would rather die than to abandon or refuse to protect their young. The same can be said of most higher forms of life. We have entered an era where we are being coerced by society to break with our own natural instincts and nothing could be more psychologically debilitating than the denial of our own nature. We live in a world where the potential life of a sea turtle is more protected than the life of a human being.

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  18. Matt you are exquisite in your writing. I have never had an abortion. That being said, I did work in a clinic for six months, as an advocate for women. I prayed and prayed before accepting the job. When I read, God breathed the BREATH OF LIFE, to me it said, the living soul is not living until it takes a breath of life. That was my answer then, and I worked for six months in the clinic before quitting. I learned so much and was sickened that after 8 weeks abortions are even allowed! I would have to write quite a long response to tell you all that I learned. One sad thing that I learned was that when offered a contract for a declined abortion, not one protester outside the clinic would sign. All the contract asked was that the participant would offer grandparent visits, or help the mother, or even offer suggestions or donations to help her, or adopt a child, or counsel the mother. No one holding a sign would agree to “do” anything to help in exchange for someone not getting an abortion. I was so surprised the words of reprimand were empty. I wrote the contract in hopes if someone offered to help give one of these women an opportunity to succeed, she would decline the abortion, and the women agreed to it. Six months and not even a signature for a “visit”to see how the mother was doing with her child.

    Life is so fragile and so are those little ones in our charge, and even fragile are the women who for some ungodly reason – could not keep her own child.

    Thank you for your depth and courage in posting such an important and complex subject.

    • That is very disappointing that no one was willing to provide assistance beyond simply protesting. Definitely not sending a very consistent message…

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