The pro-life position on abortion explained in plain English

Now, you may think that the view that the unborn deserve protection during pregnancy is something that you either take on faith or not. But I want to explain how you can make a case for the right to life of the unborn, just by using reason and evidence.

To defend the pro-life position, I think you need to sustain 3 arguments:

  1. The unborn is a living being with human DNA, and is therefore human.
  2. There is no morally-relevant difference between an unborn baby, and one already born.
  3. None of the justifications given for terminating an unborn baby are morally adequate.

Now, the pro-abortion debater may object to point 1, perhaps by claiming that the unborn baby is either not living, or not human, or not distinct from the mother.

Defending point 1: Well, it is pretty obvious that the unborn child is not inanimate matter. It is definitely living and growing through all 9 months of pregnancy. (Click here for a video that shows what a baby looks like through all 9 months of pregnancy). Since it has human DNA, that makes it a human. And its DNA is different from either its mother or father, so it clearly not just a tissue growth of the father or the mother. More on this point at Christian Cadre, here.

Secondly, the pro-abortion debater may try to identify a characteristic of the unborn that is not yet present or developed while it is still in the womb, and then argue that because the unborn does not have that characteristic, it does not deserve the protection of the law.

Defending point 2: You need to show that the unborn are not different from the already-born in any meaningful way. The main differences between them are: size, level of development, environment and degree of dependence. Once these characteristics are identified, you can explain that none of these differences provide moral justification for terminating a life. For example, babies inside and outside the womb have the same value, because location does not change a human’s intrinsic value. More at Stand to Reason, here.

Additionally, the pro-abortion debater may try to identify a characteristic of the already-born that is not yet present or developed in the unborn, and then argue that because the unborn does not have that characteristic, that it does not deserve protection, (e.g. – sentience). Most of the these objections that you may encounter are refuted in this essay by Francis Beckwith. Usually these objections fall apart because they assume the thing they are trying to prove, namely, that the unborn deserves less protection than the already born.

Finally, the pro-abortion debater may conceded your points 1 and 2, and admit that the unborn is fully human. But they may then try to provide a moral justification for terminating the life of the unborn, regardless.

Defending point 3: I fully grant that it is sometimes justifiable to terminate an innocent human life, if there is a moral justification. One of the best known justifications is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist” argument. This argument is summarized by Paul Manata, one of the experts over at Triablogue:

Briefly, this argument goes like this: Say a world-famous violinist developed a fatal kidney ailment and the Society of Music Lovers found that only you had the right blood-type to help. So, they therefore have you kidnapped and then attach you to the violinist’s circulatory system so that your kidneys can be used to extract the poison from his. To unplug yourself from the violinist would be to kill him; therefore, pro-lifers would say a person has to stay attached against her will to the violinist for 9 months. Thompson says that it would be morally virtuous to stay plugged-in. But she asks, “Do you have to?” She appeals to our intuitions and answers, “No.”

Manata then goes on to defeat Thomson’s proposal here, with a short, memorable illustration, which I highly recommend that you check out. More info on how to respond to similar arguments is here.

For those looking for advanced resources, Francis Beckwith, a professor at Baylor University, published the book Defending Life, with Cambridge University Press, 2007.

UPDATE: I found a neat video over at Tough Questions Answered of a 12-year old girl making the case for protecting the unborn. This is better than I can do!

14 thoughts on “The pro-life position on abortion explained in plain English”

  1. I think the pro-life from conception position is morally obtuse. Rejecting revelation as a source of “objective” moral laws, I see the goal here is a utilitarian one of reducing suffering.

    The fact tha the embryo has different DNA from the mother is of little consequence to me. Mutated cancer cells may have different DNA, and we would favor removing them.

    The relevant argument is, when is the fetus capable of suffering? How cognizant is it of its suffering? How does its suffering compare to the suffering of other sentient beings?

    I suspect that the fetus before birth is less cognizant of suffering that is an adult chicken. I do eat chicken, so I can’t say I’m unwilling to allow a chicken to suffer. But terminatin of life can be done quickly. I’m more concerned about the quality of life during the duration of life.

    I also make an effort to buy cage-free eggs, because I think that as long as the chickens are a live, they should be resonably comfortable.

    Now, I recognize my argument could be used to justify mercy killing of non-sentient humans–e.g. patients in a coma. I don’t think that that would necessarily be a bad thing, but I’m afraid it would create a slippery slope to abuses. Therefore, I would say it’s reasonable to place a firewall around all born human life, and say it can never be terminated.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to place such a firewall around the fetus. However, it’s reasonable to use viability as a standard. If the mother no longer wants to carry the fetus, and the fetus is possibly viable, why not induce labor and allow nature to take its course? (with the babies that survive being put up for adoption?)


    1. “The fact tha the embryo has different DNA from the mother is of little consequence to me. Mutated cancer cells may have different DNA, and we would favor removing them.”

      The different DNA argument is really to show that the unborn is a separate individual, e.g.: fetus is not like the mother’s tonsil.

      Cancer DNA is a broken DNA, if an unborn has a cancer DNA, you don’t need to abort, it will die naturally.

      And there are documented cases of abortion survivors … is there any documented case of cancer who survived and grown into human? I thought so

      Apart from that, I’m really speechless about all other arguments you have there.


    2. On what basis do you say we should place a firewall around all born human life and not around pre-born human life? The distinction appears arbitrary.


  2. TransparentEye, if you go into a bar, and get really drunk, and insult the bartender, then fall unconscious on the floor, can the bartender then terminate you?

    Or if you fall into a deep sleep on the couch, and your wife is annoyed by your laziness, so she injects you with a poison that doesn’t hurt, but the poison kills you, is that morally permissible?

    Should these be against the law? Do you deserve protection from termination, even if you cannot feel pain?

    Please take a good look at the Francis Beckwith essay before you respond. Read all 4 parts. This is the precursor to his recent book with Cambridge University Press.


  3. You’ll need to summarize Beckwith.

    If my death is unexpected and painless, that’s probably as good as it gets. But from a societal point of view, we certainly need to limit arbitrary killings for the sake of the surivors, who feel emotional pain even when the deceased is spared physical pain.

    You might apply the same argument to the fetus, and argue that abortion should be banned because it causes emotional pain to pro-life people like yourself. I think that’s a serious point, but I estimate the suffering of the women with an undesired pregnancy to be higher.


    1. So if nobody gave a hoot whether you lived or died, it would be ok to “terminate” you under sedation? Does that mean that those who are liked or cared for are of more worth than those who are not?


  4. There’s different between a human and egg. I had never seen a man with feather, yet, until Transparenteye existed.


  5. Transparenteye, the Beckwith article is really an easy and worthwhile read. It addresses that argument (and others) clearly. I may summarize part of the argument later when I have time, but it would probably save time just to read the Beckwith, because he also addresses the “yes, but…” arguments that are likely to follow.

    Thanks for the Beckwith link, Wintery! It’s excellent.


  6. Also, you make your case in this post made solely from the perspective of the fetus. Which obviously is absolutely sufficient, but I was also wondering about it harming women themselves. Do you know where i can find up-to-date statistics and arguments based on the the premise that abortion seriously harms women themselves, either emotionally, psychologically or physically?


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