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)