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Discrimination, Abortion as a Form of Discrimination: Why It Ought to Be Unthinkable, Servants of Grace
Abortion as a Form of Discrimination: Why It Ought to Be Unthinkable

Posted On January 2, 2016

The purpose of this article is to argue that the unborn, from the moment of conception, have a right to life that is on the same level as infants, children, and adults. An induced abortion [1] at any stage, therefore, is a form of discrimination that ought to be simply as unthinkable to our society as slavery and genocide. Indeed, our society’s permissiveness toward abortion is nothing short of hypocritical when placed next to its passion for “political correctness”. In a society where so many run eagerly to show sensitivity towards the “rights” of nearly every special interest group, no matter how extreme, it is unconscionable that the rights of the weakest and most defenseless among us are revoked in the name of “choice” more than one million times a year.[2]

The discrimination inherent in abortion may be termed natalism. As philosopher and ethicist Francis Beckwith explains, natalism is “the denial of the fundamental human right to life to a segment of human beings simply because they are not post-uterine.”[3] Natalism is a form of prejudice that is even worse than its counterparts of racism, ethnocentrism, and sexism because the end result is almost always the death of its victims:

Just as skin color (racism), ethnic origin (ethnocentrism), gender (sexism), national power (imperialism), and birth date (ageism) are irrelevant to one’s possession of fundamental human rights, so is one’s degree of development and location inside or outside the womb (natalism). Unfortunately, this politically correct prejudice, manifested in the practice of abortion, nearly always results in the death of its victim.[4]

Our argument that natalism ought to be unthinkable in our society will proceed in two steps. First, we will argue that whether the unborn have a right to life on the same level with all who are post-uterine is completely settled on the basis of one question: Are the unborn human persons? Second, we will argue that, from the moment of conception, the unborn are indeed human persons—and therefore in possession of a right to life equal to that of all other people.

The Significance of Human Personhood

Scott Klusendorf, Director of Bioethics at the Christian apologetics ministry Stand to Reason, recounts how whenever his young children ask him, “Daddy, can I kill this?” there is one question that needs to be asked in return: “What is it?” There are some things that it is appropriate to kill—black widows, flies, worms, and so forth. And there are some things that it is not appropriate to kill. It all depends upon the nature of the organism.

The Dignity of Human Beings

Nearly everyone acknowledges that there is special dignity and worth intrinsic to human beings. This dignity and worth includes the right to life. All human beings have this right, simply by virtue of their being human. Formally, this is reflected in one of the great documents of the American political tradition, the Declaration of Independence: “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, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[5] Biblically, this is most clearly seen in the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Do the unborn possess this right to life? The answer, as we can now see, depends upon whether or not they are human beings. If all human beings are indeed equal and equally in possession of the right to life, as our nation has historically affirmed, then if the unborn are human beings, then they also fully and equally have the right to life. There can be no question of “the rights of the mother” outweighing “the rights of the unborn,” for all human beings are equal. Such a scenario would be akin to “the rights of whites” outweighing “the rights of black people.” We would have a situation where everyone is equal, “but some are more equal than others.”[6]

Human, or a Human Person?

The most predominant strain of pro-choice argumentation holds that the unborn are human, but not human persons. They are potential persons. As I will argue in part two, this dualism is wholly incorrect.[7] To be a human being is to be a human person, and it is false to create a category of human beings that are not also human persons. However, the distinction between what is human and what is a human person is neither wholly arbitrary nor irrelevant to the abortion debate. For there are indeed things that are “human” but not “human persons” (and hence not in possession of rights). Human hair, for example, is human, but it does not have any rights. I can cut my hair at any time and have done no wrong. Likewise, human blood is both living and “human,” but not in possession of any rights. I might have my blood drawn for lab work, and then disposed of, and no wrong has been committed.

The right to life, then, is possessed not simply by virtue of being a piece of “human material”, but by virtue of being a human individual. Perhaps it should be obvious to all that the unborn are human individuals, not simply matter that belongs to a human. But it apparently is not. Thus, I fully acknowledge the need to demonstrate the human individuality, the human “being-ness” (or, in other words, the personhood), of the unborn. If the unborn are simply human matter, then their right to life is not nearly as clear. But if the unborn are not analogous to hair and blood, but are in fact full human persons—by which I simply mean human individuals, that is, human beings who are just as fully human as you or I, as fully human and fully equal as black people and white people, as men and women—then their right to life is obvious and its destruction ought to be unthinkable to all. Abortion then becomes a civil rights issue. The trampling upon the rights of the unborn becomes just as abhorrent as was the trampling upon the rights of people in the institution of slavery, [8] or in the Holocaust.[9] Like slavery and genocide, abortion would be unthinkable.

Personhood and the Constitution

Further, the question of personhood would also settle the debate about whether abortion should continue being legal, for we read in the fifth amendment that “no person shall […] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, and in the fourteenth amendment that no state (or other government institute) shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Indeed, the centrality of personhood to the debate is acknowledged in the decision of Roe v. Wade itself: “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment.”[10]

Personhood and Arguments for Abortion Rights

The fact that the issue of personhood settles so clearly and definitively the question of whether a civilized society should be willing to tolerate the thought of permitting abortion can be demonstrated by examining some key pro-choice arguments.

The right to privacy. This was the main factor in the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade. What right does the government have to tell a woman what she may and may not do concerning an issue as personal and private as her reproductive decisions?

The concern of this argument to keep government from overextending its authority ought to be appreciated. However, the fundamental purpose of government is not only to protect our freedom, but to protect life (see Romans 13:1-7).[11] We are not, and should not be permitted, to make “private” decisions that harm others and violate their rights. For example, all would acknowledge that it is wrong to torture innocent children, propagate incest, or commit murder “in private”. The reason is that these things, regardless of the “privacy” issues involved, injure and harm other human persons. The “right to privacy,” therefore, does not justify the permitting of abortions—unless we are already assuming that the unborn is not a person.

A woman’s right to do what she wants with her body. This argument is similar to the right to privacy, with the difference that in this case the fetus is viewed not simply as something in the woman’s body, but as a part of the woman’s body. Again, we should be against the unjust intrusion of the government into decisions about our own bodies. But there are certain instances when we acknowledge limitations even of this right. Any who agree with the government’s decision to make certain drugs illegal, such as cocaine and heroin, are implicitly acknowledging this.

The most significant problem with this argument, however, is that it wrongly assumes that the fetus is a part of the woman’s body. In actuality, it is not. For it has its own genetic code and distinct principle of existence. If it were a part of the woman’s body, then it would mean  that once the heart had formed (a primitive heart begins beating by the third week), the woman would have two hearts; once the eyes had formed (which begins in the third week), that she would have four eyes; and once the sexual organs have formed (which is by the ninth week),[12] that she has two sets of sexual organs—a disconcerting thing to consider, to say the least, if the fetus is male. The fetus is a distinct organism, not an extension of the mother. Hence, the issue is not whether a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body. If the fetus is a distinct human individual, then the issue is whether she has the right to do what she wants with someone else’s body.[13]

The “back-alley” argument. It is sometimes argued that women will have abortions anyway, whether it is legal or not. Further, if it is illegal they will be having these abortions in far more dangerous environments, likely by unqualified individuals, who will thus be putting the women’s’ lives in significant danger.

The initial appeal of this argument, again, is understandable. Who wants to see women bleeding to death in back alleys? But, on the other hand, who wants to see the defenseless, voiceless, most helpless members of our society dying either? The issue still comes down to whether the unborn are human persons. If they are persons, the danger of making it illegal to kill them is not a reason to permit their murder. As the Christian Apologist, Greg Koukl, has argued, “Why should the law be faulted for making it more risky for anyone to kill another innocent person? The fact that bank robbery is dangerous to the felon doesn’t seem to be a good reason to make grand larceny legal.”[14]

It should also be noted that the numbers of women who died through illegal abortions has been grossly distorted. Bernard Nathanson, one of the original leaders of the pro-choice movement, writes:

How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L. we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always ‘5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.’ I confess that I knew the figures were totally false.[15]

In actuality, “according to the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics, 39 women died from illegal abortions the year before Roe v. Wade, 1972.”[16]

“If you don’t agree with it, just don’t do it. The problem with this argument is that it is like saying, “If you don’t agree with slavery, don’t own slaves”, or “If you don’t agree with murder, don’t murder.” If abortion causes the death of unborn human beings, then it ought to be prohibited by society just as the killing of all other human beings is prohibited. 

The Unborn As Human Persons

            We have seen that if the unborn are human persons, then it follows that abortion ought to be offensive to our human decency and illegal in our nation. But are the unborn human persons? Our argument that they are will proceed in three stages: first, the unborn are living. Second, the unborn are living humans. Third, the unborn are living human persons.

The Unborn Are Living

            It is a universally accepted scientific fact that the unborn—regardless of where we come down on their personhood—are living things. Beckwith notes: “There is no doubt the zygote is biologically alive. The zygote fulfills the four criteria needed to establish biological life: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.”[17]

The Unborn Are Living Humans

The Law of Biogenesis states that what is conceived by two members of a species is also a member of that species. The offspring of a dog is another dog, of a whale is another whale, and of a human is another human. It cannot be another species from what produced it. Hence, the unborn offspring of human parents is itself human. I am not yet arguing that it is a person, but it is at least human. This is not my opinion, but is scientifically required by the Law of Biogenesis.

The French geneticist Jerome L. LeJeune confirms this: “To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.”[18]

The Unborn Are Living Human Persons

The genetic code of the unborn identifies them as human. If the unborn are living and they are human, is there good reason to conclude that they are fully human persons—that is, just as actually human as the rest of us? We will give six reasons that strongly argue for an affirmative answer.

Unique individuality. First, the unborn have a unique individuality. They are not simply genetically human, like an arm, but possess distinct human individuality. Their genetic code is unique. Their principle of existence is distinct. Their continuity through birth and into adulthood and death remains the same. “There is no decisive break in the continuous development of the human entity from conception until death that would make this entity a different individual before birth.”[19]

Personhood is ontological, not functional. Second, many argue that the unborn are “potential persons”. These individuals believe that interaction is essential to a full definition of personhood, and since the unborn are incapable of meaningful interaction, they are only potentially human. The problem is that this reasoning will justify infanticide just as much as abortion. Humans possess personhood because of what they are, not because of what they can do:

To accept a functional definition of personhood excludes not only the unborn, but also the unconscious, the temporarily comatose, the sleeping, newborns, and young infants. Therefore, it seems more consistent with our moral intuitions to say that a person functions as a person because he or she is a person, not that she is a person because she functions as a person.[20]

Gradualism fails. Third, one cannot gradually become human. Robert Joyce notes:

“[The gradualist position] fails to distinguish between natural processes and artificial processes. Only artifacts, such as clocks and spaceships, come into existence part by part. Living beings come into existence all at once and then gradually unfold to themselves and to the world what they already, but only incipiently, are.”[21]

Scriptural testimony. Fourth, the Scriptures have a bearing on this question. They give no indication that the unborn are “humans but not persons.” In fact, the Scriptures indicate that the unborn should be regarded as fully human, for they apply personal language to the unborn (Genesis 4:1; Job 3:3), refer to the unborn with the same terminology used for those who are post-uterine (Luke 1:41, 44), and indicate continuity of identity and existence between individuals in both the pre- and post-uterine states (e.g., Psalm 139). In addition, David seems to affirm that he was sinful not simply from birth, but from conception (Psalm 51:5), which would seem to necessitate his humanity at that point (a “non-person” could not have a sinful nature).

The existence of the soul. Fifth, the unborn have souls. If humans are simply material entities, on what basis are we justified in ascribing intrinsic dignity, worth, and the right to life to them? What rights do mere protons, electrons, and neutrons have? Even our intellect is simply the random result of molecular interactions, in reality having no more worth than swamp gas, if we are purely physical. If humans have value and a right to life, it is because they are more than just physical. It is because they have a soul. It is wrong to kill a human being not because they are a sophisticated collection of atoms, but because they possess non-material souls of immeasurable worth.

How do we know that the unborn have souls? The same way we know that post-natal individuals have souls: there are things true of them that cannot be true of purely physical entities. The unborn, for example, can feel pain. The experience of pain is weightless, colorless, odorless, and dimensionless. But it is nonetheless real. It therefore presupposes the existence of a non-material aspect to our being. And the unborn are capable of experiencing it.

But on what basis can we conclude that the unborn have souls from conception? On the basis of their continuity of identity. There is a continuity from conception to birth to death such that we are willing to say that it is the same individual, and not a different one, that was conceived, born, and died. But on what basis can we say this, if the individual was purely physical at conception? For the actual matter making up the cells and body of the individual is in continual flux. If I replace my neighbor’s deck board by board, such that eventually none of the original boards remain, it is no longer the same deck. It would be a new, different deck. In light of the same flux that happens in the matter constituting the human body from conception to death, on what basis can we therefore found our belief that it is the same individual going through all those phases? Only by positing the presence of something beyond the physical, a non-material aspect of the being, that did remain the same throughout it. The continuity of identity from conception to death, therefore, argues for the presence of a soul from the moment of conception.

The inconsistency of denying personhood to the unborn. Sixth, we know that the unborn are fully human persons because there is no consistent basis upon which to deny their personhood. There are four main differences between pre- and post-uterine humans: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency.[22]

Concerning size, is a bigger person more of a person than a smaller one? Concerning development, wouldn’t this criteria also imply that an adult is a more of a person than a teenager, being more developed? Concerning environment, does moving seven inches down the birth canal have any bearing at all on whether you are a human individual? Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Concerning dependency, wouldn’t this imply that those who are dependent upon dialysis machines or medication in order to stay alive are not persons either?

In essence, the only factors that could possibly warrant the placing of the unborn in a category different from the post-uterine in terms of the rights of personhood would in fact eliminate the rights of many sectors of the post-uterine population. There is no consistent basis upon which the unborn may be classified as “non-human.”[23] The refusal to acknowledge that the unborn are human persons has shocking parallels to the Nazi refusal to acknowledge certain ethnic groups as fully human.[24]

Conclusion

Abortion, causing the death of something that is alive, is not simply a matter of the right to choose. The question that must be asked is, “The right to choose what?” We have argued that the unborn are living, human persons. As such, they possess the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as every other member of the human race. The right to choose an abortion, therefore, is simply the “right” to end the life of another human being with equal rights and deserving of equal protection.

In abortion, a human person in possession of the right to life is discriminated against and denied his or her rights simply because they are either smaller, less developed, inside the womb rather than outside the womb, or dependent upon their mother. This is natalism, just as discrimination based upon race is racism and discrimination based upon gender is sexism, and is plain and simple a form of politically correct prejudice against the weakest and most defenseless among us. Such a thing should be unthinkable in a civilized society—especially one that is so pre-occupied with upholding the rights of even the most fringe special interest groups. In a society that claims to care so much about “the little guy” and marginalized, why are the littlest of guys and most marginalized not defended?[25] It’s time we as a society begin to stand up against natalism and give our unborn a chance at the God-created lives they deserve.

Notes:

[1] The meaning of the term “induced abortion” as used in this debate is now clear: the willful termination of a pregnancy. For a very thorough overview of the different types of abortion, see John Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993), 50-51.

[2] U. S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States [online], accessed 17 November 2002, Census; Internet.

[3] Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 12.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence,” in Clinton Rossiter, ed., The Federalist Papers (New York: Mentor, 1999), 496. “All men” is likely a gender inclusive term, as indicated by similar alternative phrases later in the context (“consent of the governed,” “right of the people”).

[6] George Orwell, Animal Farm (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1946). What about when the life of the mother is at stake? In those cases, it is better that one should live than that two should die.

[7] On the dangers of framing the issue in terms that imply a distinction between human beings and human persons, see Greg Koukl, “Are Humans Persons,” Stand to Reason Website [online], accessed 17 November 2002, http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/abortion/arehuman.htm; Internet.

[8] On the similarity between slavery and abortion, see Greg Koukl, “Abortion and Human Rights,” Stand to Reason Website [online], accessed 17 November 2002, http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/abortion/abhmnrts.htm; Internet.

[9] On the similarity between genocide and abortion, see Greg Koukl, “Murder is OK for the Unborn?,” Stand to Reason [online], accessed 17 November 2002, http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/abortion/murderok.htm; Internet.

[10] Norman Geisler takes the same position I have here argued in Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 136.

[11] And by this I mean human life or, more specifically, the life of human beings. I would take issue, then, with Justice Douglas, who although affirming in Roe v. Wade that the unborn have no right of life, shockingly affirmed in the case of Sierra Club Against Morton (405 US 727 – 1972) that the inanimate objects of the Mineral King area in California  (i.e., the “valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland” and so forth) have a right to sue over the building of a recreational development, a right to be asserted on its behalf by the Sierra Club. Hence, “swamps and tress have rights, but the human child in the womb has no rights” (Dr. Charles Rice, quoted in Beckwith, 29).

[12] For a helpful overview of embryonic development by weeks, see Kent M. VanDe Graaff and Stuart Ira Fox, Concepts of Human Anatomy and Physiology (Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1992), 863-869.

[13] Some think it is inconsistent to be anti-abortion and yet affirm the death penalty. But there is a tremendous difference between the two cases: guilt and innocence. The sanctity of life is upheld by the right of the state to execute those who have taken another human life (see John Murray, Principles of Conduct [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957], 107-122).

[14] Greg Koukl, Solid Ground, (November/December 1997), 3.

[15] Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 193.

[16] Beckwith, 56.

[17] Ibid, 42. See also the testimony that human life begins at conception in Randy Alcorn, Pro-life Answers to Pro-choice Arguments (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2000), 51-56.

[18] The Human Life Bill: Hearings on S. 158 Before the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 97th Congress, 1st Session (1981), quoted in Ibid, 42.

[19] Beckwith, 116.

[20] Ibid, 108.

[21] Robert Joyce, “Personhood and the Conception Event,” New Scholasticism 52 (Winter 1978): 113.

[22] I am indebted to Scott Klusendorf, Director of Bioethics at Stand to Reason, for this observation.

[23] Additionally, even if the unborn could be legitimately classified as “non-human,” it should still follow that abortion ought to be wrong. John Piper makes this case effectively from animal rights laws in “One Issue Politics, One-Issue Marriage, and the Humane Society,” in A Godward Life Volume I (Sisters: Multnomah, 1997).

[24] George Will has a George Will discusses the shocking inconsistency of our abortion laws in their tendency to define human life according to the preferences of the parent rather than objectively in “Life and Death and Abortion,” Minneapolis Star Tribune: October 28, 2002.

[25] Let us not think that change is impossible. The development of a consensus in the evangelical community indicates that progress in the debate is possible. See the history of the evangelical discussion in Paul Fowler, Abortion: Toward an Evangelical Consensus (Sisters: Multnomah, 1990).

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