A secular case against abortion rights

Unborn baby scheming about being only two months old
Unborn baby scheming about being only two months old

Note: this post has a twin! Its companion post on a secular case against gay marriage is here.

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. An unborn child cannot be the woman’s own body, because then the woman would have four arms, four legs, two heads, four eyes and two different DNA signatures. When you have two different human DNA signatures, you have two different humans.

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.

The best book for beginners on the pro-life view is this book:

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

Learn about the pro-life case

And some posts motivating Christians and conservatives to take abortion seriously:

7 thoughts on “A secular case against abortion rights”

  1. As Greg Koukl gives the illustration of a kid saying to their dad, “can I kill it?” The natural question any parent would ask would be “what is it?” If it is a roach than go right ahead but if it is the the neighbor’s kid than absolutely not.

    I also think the argument that this is not a religious issue but rather a human rights/ civil rights issue is powerful. Those who support abortion tend to trumpet quite loudly human rights and civil rights causes. Therefore, why would they be against the biggest human rights issue of our time?


    1. Good point, Ryan. Civil rights issues involve making sure that human beings of all descriptions are recognized for who they are as fully human and that they are accorded the rights they deserve as humans. Those opposed to civil rights always have to try to dehumanize their victims and portray them as somehow subhuman, on the basis of some arbitrary trait such as race, gender, physical ability, etc.

      PS: Scheming unborn baby rocks! :)


  2. I believe every child has the right to be born no matter what…. I will stand firm to being Pro-Life. It don’t matter if a child is born with any problems or not, they are still God’s children that needs love and protection.


  3. Can you explain how the violinist argument is even relevant to the idea of an abortion? If having a baby will kill the mother, how is that justified? On another note, will you adopt the children born to unfit or incapable hands or will they just overfill orphanages?


  4. Establishing Personhood
    A recent publication of modern philosophical thought by two ethicists from Melbourne, Australia, both with ties to Oxford University, Dr. Alberto Guibilini and Dr. Francesca Minerva’s “Afterbirth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” published February 23, 2012 in the Journal of Medical Ethics, takes Descartes founding principle of modern philosophical thought: “I think, therefore I am,” to its logical conclusion. The authors rationally demonstrate their premise: since it is thinking that defines a human being’s existence, a human being that does not think is not a “person” and in that lack, does not exist.
    Therefore, they argue, if the philosophical term “personhood” is not conferred to a fetus, why would it be conferred to an infant after it is born?
    Of course, based on their premise, they are right. Intellectually and biologically an infant and a fetus are basically the same. So the authors use the same philosophical argument that an infant is as worthless as a fetus and the value of an infant’s life should be determined by the same parameters as that of the fetus’ life: whether it is wanted or not.
    Guibilini and Minerva’s paper opens a Pandora’s Box that segues Western society to freely confer or remove “personhood” and ergo the legal protections from any human being whose thinking may be compromised: dementia patients, the mentally ill, stroke victims, PTSD, brain injuries, autistic persons and those under 25 years of age whose pre-frontal cortex is not yet mature.
    Realizing that the argument further injects a “value” judgment that becomes the very definition of human life, should cause all thoughtful persons to remember that scientific theories underpinned laws leading to horrors in human history: the Laws of Human Slavery and Chattel; Hitler’s Operation T-4; the Lebensborn Experiment; the Nuremberg Laws which were based on the American Jim Crow Laws, and those based on the Statutes of Kilkenny.
    The obvious problem with Guibilini and Minerva’s argument is that the premise is flawed. To accept as a philosophical truth Descartes “I think, therefore I am,” defies logic. To fix the failed logic in the premise and force it to work, philosophers assigned value to function (think) and separated potential function from actual function. What wasn’t done was to focus on the agent that compels the verb “think” to action–“I”. Man is not merely function, but force as well. There is no effect without a cause. “It is not thought that determines existence, but existence, ‘esse,’ that determines thought” — St. Thomas Aquinas.
    Thinking is merely one process in the state of being. The part does not equal the whole. Rather, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No one can have any function without first existing. If a philosophical principle can be doubted prima facie intellectually, linguistically and logically, then it is not a universal truth applicable to reality. If it were, then replacing think with any other intransitive verb should not make the sentence less true, but it does: I throw, therefore I am; I eat, therefore I am; I lie, therefore I am–all are functions of a human’s nature, not the definition of it. Aquinas’ premise and that of all philosophers for thousands of years before him was and should still be: I am, therefore I think.
    Modern philosophy failed to question the validity of its premise. Our duty is to ask why ? If we don’t, as history attests, once a society freely agrees to the definition of a dehumanizing “value” for one segment of the population for the “greater good,” slowly but surely the definition of those that qualify expands.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s