I don’t wanna do my paper right now, so I am going to do this instead!
I always thought the atheist justifications for being pro-life were stronger than the religious ones. I formulate it thus:
- This is the only life we have.
- As the only life we have, this life is worth more than anything and should never be risked for anything but the most drastic of circumstances. (We have a great duty to protect this life since it is the only one we will ever possess)
- Scientific data proves that a new human being is created at conception, distinct from its mother in both material and life.
- Therefore, abortion is wrong.
It seems Christopher Hitchens agrees with me.
Funny how he seems to have so much philosophically correct except belief in God. Then again, that has always seemed emotional to me…
ToTheSource.org had a great article summarizing the same this week:
In one of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 speeches there is a passage that pours cool scorn on those who claim to think that slavery is wrong, but “denounce all attempts to restrain it”: “You will not let us do a single thing as if it was wrong; there is no place where you will allow it to be even called wrong! . . . We must not call it wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics, and we must not call it wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion. . . . And there is no single place, according to you, where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong.”
It is not my intention to argue for any view about whether abortion and slavery are precise moral equivalents; but Lincoln’s words do powerfully suggest, I think, certain parallels in the debates over the issues. As Lincoln’s comment suggests, it is the nexus of religion and politics that most clouds our thinking. In an effort to let in some sunlight I will sketch the case against abortion—more precisely, for a prohibition on abortion and other attacks on nascent human life. I will respond to some common objections to this case. And then I will make arguments about the arguments I will just have finished making: that they do not imply theological commitments; that accepting and acting on them neither violates anyone’s religious freedom nor undermines the separation of church and state, in any sense of that phrase worth worrying about.
The case against abortion—and also against research that destroys human embryos—begins with our beginnings: Each of us was once an embryo. When we were at that stage of development, we were living human organisms. The formation of the embryo marks the beginning of a new human life: a new and complete organism that belongs to the human species. Embryology textbooks say so, with no glimmer of uncertainty or ambiguity.
That new organism is alive rather than dead or inanimate. It is human rather than a member of some other species. It is an organism distinct from all others rather than a functional part of a larger organism, the way a kidney is part of a larger organism. It maintains its own organic unity over time. It directs its own development, according to its genetic template, through the embryonic, fetal, and subsequent stages. Such terms as “blastocyst,” “adolescent,” and “newborn” denote different stages of development in a being of the same type, not different types of beings—even if the parents of adolescents are sometimes tempted to disagree. At each of our earlier stages of life, we have been, as we are now, whole living members of the species Homo sapiens.
So the question that we need to answer is: Do all beings of this type—that is, whole living members of the human species—have a right not to be killed, simply because they are human beings? The answer, I believe, is yes. If human beings have intrinsic dignity and worth, then they have this dignity and worth simply because they are human beings (and as such, possessors of a rational nature). It follows that all human beings have this dignity and worth. They are equal in the fundamental rights that attach to being human. These rights—and to have any rights at all must be to have the right not to be killed—cannot depend on particular qualities that some human beings have and others do not. They cannot depend on race, or age, or sex; nor can they depend on stage of development, or location, or condition of dependency.
Most people believe these things, although they may not accept all their implications. But there is a contrary view. This view holds that there are no “human rights” in the sense of rights that come simply from being human. Rather, some human organisms have basic rights because of qualities that they, in particular, happen to have; and those human beings who do not have these qualities are not persons with rights.
So, for example, some people take the view that human beings become “persons,” and acquire rights, only when they acquire the capacity for abstract mental functioning, and cease to be persons with rights when they lose this capacity. If “capacity” is taken to mean immediately exercisable capacity (as it usually is on this view), then abortion is permissible.
There are, however, difficulties with this view. I will list three.
First: The capacity for abstract mental functioning varies continuously. But it is impossible to identify, without arbitrariness, the minimum level one must have to enjoy rights. It is also impossible to explain why people who have more of the quality should not be regarded as greater in worth, dignity, and rights than people who have less of it. (This is true, and necessarily true, of any of the qualities generally proposed as the conditions of worth: self-awareness, rich interactions with others, the ability to experience pain and pleasure, etc.) The notion that all human beings are created equal becomes a self-evident lie.
Second: This arbitrariness makes it impossible to confine the category of lives deemed unworthy of protection to the unborn and the persistently vegetative. Newborns, for example, do not have the ability to perform abstract mental functions, either, as Peter Singer never tires of reminding us. People who are asleep or in a coma, even a reversible one, lack the immediately exercisable capacity for abstract mental functioning.
Third: Treating a difference of quantity as morally decisive requires treating a difference of kind as irrelevant. There is a radical difference that separates both an adult human being and a human fetus, on the one hand, from both a kitten and a sperm cell on the other. The first two are complete, living human organisms and the second two are not. To allow the deliberate killing of a human fetus ignores that basic difference while making a difference of degree—the adult’s greater age and development of his capacities—the basis of a radical difference in treatment. To draw distinctions in this way is to violate the most basic canons of justice.
Abortion is thus not just wrong and immoral; it is unjust and a violation of rights. For that reason it is untenable to hold that it is wrong but should not be proscribed by law but merely, at most, discouraged. The only ground for considering abortion immoral is that it is the unjust taking of a human life; and to prevent such grave injustices is one of the principal justifications for the existence of governments. Indeed, for the law to allow abortion is itself an injustice, in just the same way that it would be unjust for the law to allow homicide to be committed against redheads.
I cannot improve on the treatment of this question by Princeton professor of politics Robert George. Commenting on former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s defense of the “personally opposed” position, he writes:
Of course, it is possible for a person wielding public power to use that power to establish or preserve a legal right to abortion and even to provide public money for it while at the same time not wanting or willing anyone to exercise that right. But this does not get Cuomo off the hook. For someone who acts to protect legal abortion necessarily wills that abortion’s unborn victims be denied the elementary legal protections against deliberate homicide that one favors for oneself and those whom one considers to be worthy of the law’s protection. Thus one violates the most basic precept of normative social and political theory, the Golden Rule. One divides humanity into two classes: those whom one is willing to admit to the community of the commonly protected and those whom one wills to be excluded from it. By exposing members of the disfavored class to lethal violence, one deeply implicates oneself in the injustice of killing them—even if one sincerely hopes that no woman will act on her right to choose abortion. The goodness of what one hopes for does not redeem the evil of what one wills.
I would add that the injustice of the law would persist even if nobody actually took advantage of it, just as in my example legal impunity for killing redheads would be gravely unjust even if nobody hunted them down. The pro-life movement’s slogan that every life should be welcomed in life and protected in law is a response to its recognition of a dual injustice. To effectuate that response requires not only cultural change but government action, and indeed requires both of them to reinforce each other.
To be continued…