Abortion debate: a secular case against legalized abortion

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. Is there such a justification for abortion? One of the best known attempts to justify abortion 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:

8 thoughts on “Abortion debate: a secular case against legalized abortion”

  1. First, I would like to say from the start that I do not like abortion. I disagree with the practice in nearly all cases. And yet, despite this, I remain actively pro-choice. Why? I think it has to do with two separate issues, although whether you could consider them to be morally based is entirely a function of social perspective.

    These issues, in order, would be rape and medical necessity. No woman, after suffering through such a heinous crime as rape, should then be forced to carry an unwanted child to term. It is absolutely unconscionable. Should she choose to, I applaud her choice but cannot condone making that choice for her, particularly given that I am a man and cannot possibly understand the trauma she has already experienced in discovering she carries her rapist’s offspring (not to mention the original rape to begin with).

    As to medical necessity, if you remove religion entirely from the picture and focus solely on secular morals, the legally approved termination of human life through an act of self-defense must be considered. This is allowable in the legal system of most civilized societies, without question. Since you do not differentiate between the unborn and its mother vis-à-vis their respective right to life,or any other human being for that matter, I must then treat them equally for the purposes of this discussion. If carrying the child to term will result in the mother’s loss of life she is well within her rights, in an act of self-preservation, to terminate the life of that individual which threatens hers. It does not matter if the life in question is an unborn child or a thug with a gun intent on homicide. The principal remains the same.


    1. William, aborting the baby in an ectopic pregnancy is the pro-life position, and I’m being presumptuous but I think WK would agree.

      Second, I’d entertain capital punishment for the rapist, but not an innocent human being. I’m not sure how carrying a baby to term is ‘unconscionable’ but child-sacrifice is. Because that’s really what it is – sacrificing the child to somehow eliminate the bad memories of the rape. Which is incoherent.


      1. Personally, I don’t agree with capital punishment in any circumstance but I certainly can see your point in this instance. I also don’t agree with your conclusion that my argument is incoherent but then again, I’m obviously biased toward my own perspective. It is more likely that I simply did not convey a full and complete understanding of my line of thinking in my response. While I certainly don’t mind people disagreeing with me I would prefer the disagreement flow from a position of substance rather than a debate on semantics.

        If you see my position as advocating child sacrifice for the purpose of eliminating a bad memory then you most assuredly do not understand my position. I am assuming of course that you actually desire to understand, but I will forge ahead anyway with my clarification despite your potential ambivalence. It is my understanding that WK is logically arguing for a pro-life position from a secular perspective and when considering the legal ramifications of enacting a comprehensive anti-abortion law that doesn’t include rape one must also consider the civil rights of all parties concerned. Innocence or guilt of the party or parties really doesn’t factor into the equation when addressing the principle in question.

        We are discussing secular law in this case, not faith based morality, so the question is really this: Do you believe that the government can force you to undergo any potentially life threatening procedure in an attempt to enforce morality? Any doctor will tell you that every pregnancy has the potential to be fatal to the mother and the process also includes a host or other potential complications, some of which can be permanent. Even though the risk of fatality may be slight given modern medical advancement, is it allowable for government to require any citizen to risk their life for a moral code they do not agree with?

        I tend to think about a woman’s mental health first when pondering a rape based scenario as it is certainly the most prominent issue, at least for the woman in question, but I would not want you to think that it is the only thing I consider when I formulate a response. To approve of setting a legal precedent by enacting an anti-abortion law that doesn’t adequately account for the rights of the rape victim is, to my mind, an example of fascist behavior which I find politically unacceptable.


  2. I was looking forward to reading the reply to Thompson’s argument you linked, but sadly, it missed the point. Thompson’s violinist argument only applies to rape cases. The reply in the blog addressed the responsibility in consensual sex, which does not apply to this case.

    Thompson has a different (much weaker) argument, the “people seeds” argument to address the question of abortion in cases of consensual sex.

    Given that the link does not provide an answer to the rape case, I am curious how you would respond to Thompson’s argument, or if you agree that for a “secular argument” this may have to be conceded? The violinist argument really turns on the question how far we are required to be “inconvenienced” to preserve the life of someone who is dependent on us for reasons for which we are not at all responsible.


    1. No her argument is not only for cases of rape. She offers the violinist argument as a justification for all legalized abortion. What critics of her argument have said is that the argument at most will only WORK for cases of rape. But her argument is intended to justify ALL abortion.


  3. I think the violinist argument is almost as bad as the argument that some pro-life people are inconsistent; “It is okay to let a person die, therefore, it is okay to kill a person,”? That makes no sense. Am I missing something?
    Let’s take Thomas Aquinas’ Principle of Double Effect: it is virtuous to save the violinist’s life, but it is also virtuous to save one’s own life. Therefore, a person cannot be held called ‘wrong’ for choosing to save their life, rather than the violinist’s. In contrast, almost ALL instances of abortion involve the needless taking of a life, and are therefore not virtuous. The person CAN be held at fault in such a case. The argument assumes that because we don’t “like” an option (being strapped to a violinist for nine months) means that choosing a contrary option is okay. Once we see this, the argument falls apart, and the question is whether killing the unborn saves the lives of others.


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