Tag Archives: Francis J. Beckwith

If unborn babies don’t have consciousness or don’t feel pain, may we kill them?

Unborn baby scheming about pro-life apologetics
Unborn baby scheming about pro-life apologetics

Was having a conversation by e-mail yesterday with a pro-abortion atheist, and he gave two reasons why he supported abortion in the first and second trimester. First, he said that unborn babies can’t feel pain, so it’s OK to kill them. Second, he said that unborn babies don’t have consciousness, so it’s OK to kill them. I thought it might be useful to link to something that answers both of these objections.

Frank Beckwith is the author of “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice“. He wrote that book for Cambridge University Press, a top academic press. But before Cambridge University Press, Beckwith wrote four easy-to-understand essays for the Christian Research Journal. Part IV is the one that has the response to the two questions raised by my atheist friend.

Part I. The Appeal to Pity

Part II. Arguments from Pity, Tolerance, and Ad Hominem

Part III. Is The Unborn Human Less Than Human?

Part IV. When Does a Human Become a Person?

Excerpt:

Some ethicists argue that the unborn becomes fully human sometime after brain development has begun, when it becomes sentient: capable of experiencing sensations such as pain. The reason for choosing sentience as the criterion is that a being that cannot experience anything (i.e., a presentient unborn entity) cannot be harmed. Of course, if this position is correct, then the unborn becomes fully human probably during the second trimester and at least by the third trimester. Therefore, one does not violate anyone’s rights when one aborts a nonsentient unborn entity. [13]

There are several problems with this argument. First, it confuses harm with hurt and the experience of harm with the reality of harm. [14] One can be harmed without experiencing the hurt that sometimes follows from that harm, and which we often mistake for the harm itself. For example, a temporarily comatose person who is suffocated to death “experiences no harm,” but he is nevertheless harmed. Hence, one does not have to experience harm, which is sometimes manifested in hurt, in order to be truly harmed.

Second, if sentience is the criterion of full humanness, then the reversibly comatose, the momentarily unconscious, and the sleeping would all have to be declared nonpersons. Like the presentient unborn, these individuals are all at the moment nonsentient though they have the natural inherent capacity to be sentient. Yet to countenance their executions would be morally reprehensible. Therefore, one cannot countenance the execution of some unborn entities simply because they are not currently sentient.

Someone may reply that while these objections make important points, there is a problem of false analogy in the second objection: the reversibly comatose, the momentarily unconscious, and the sleeping once functioned as sentient beings, though they are now in a temporary state of nonsentience. The presentient unborn, on the other hand, were never sentient. Hence, one is fully human if one was sentient “in the past” and will probably become sentient again in the future, but this cannot be said of the presentient unborn.

There are at least three problems with this response. First, to claim that a person can be sentient, become nonsentient, and then return to sentience is to assume there is some underlying personal unity to this individual that enables us to say that the person who has returned to sentience is the same person who was sentient prior to becoming nonsentient. But this would mean that sentience is not a necessary condition for personhood. (Neither is it a sufficient condition, for that matter, since nonhuman animals are sentient.) Consequently, it does not make sense to say that a person comes into existence when sentience arises, but it does make sense to say that a fully human entity is a person who has the natural inherent capacity to give rise to sentience. A presentient unborn human entity does have this capacity. Therefore, an ordinary unborn human entity is a person, and hence, fully human.

Second, Ray points out that this attempt to exclude many of the unborn from the class of the fully human is “ad hoc and counterintuitive.” He asks us to “consider the treatment of comatose patients. We would not discriminate against one merely for rarely or never having been sentient in the past while another otherwise comparable patient had been sentient….In such cases, potential counts for everything.” [15]

Third, why should sentience “in the past” be the decisive factor in deciding whether an entity is fully human when the presentient human being “is one with a natural, inherent capacity for performing personal acts?” [16] Since we have already seen that one does not have to experience harm in order to be harmed, it seems more consistent with our moral sensibilities to assert that what makes it wrong to kill the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, the momentarily unconscious, and the presentient unborn is that they all possess the natural inherent capacity to perform personal acts. And what makes it morally right to kill plants and to pull the plug on the respirator-dependent brain dead, who were sentient “in the past,” is that their deaths cannot deprive them of their natural inherent capacity to function as persons, since they do not possess such a capacity.

These four essays are a very good introduction to common responses to pro-abortion arguments. I recommend that people get familiar with this, as once you look into it, you will see that the abortion issue can be debated with as much confidence as William Lane Craig defends Christian theism. You will have the same access to scientific evidence and rational arguments on this topic, and so you will have the upper hand. And that’s fun.

The best introductory book on the abortion / right to life issue is “The Case for Life” by pro-life debater Scott Klusendorf. The best comprehensive book is a tie between “The Ethics of Abortion” by Christopher Kaczor, and Frank Beckwith’s “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice“.

Philosopher Doug Groothuis explains the logic of the pro-life position

I'm Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this study
I’m Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this message

At Christian Post, an article by Douglas Groothuis. (H/T Mary)

Here’s the most useful bit:

When we separate personhood from humanity, we make personhood an achievement based on the possession of certain qualities. But what are these person-constituting qualities? Some say a basic level of consciousness; others assert viability outside the womb; still others say a sense of self-interest (which probably does not obtain until after birth). All of these criteria would take away humanity from those in comas or other physically compromised situations.4 Humans can lose levels of consciousness through injuries, and even infants are not viable without intense and sustained human support. Moreover, who are we to say just what qualities make for membership in the moral community of persons?5 The stakes are very high in this question. If we are wrong in our identification of what qualities are sufficient for personhood and we allow a person to be killed, we have allowed the wrongful killing of nothing less than a person. Therefore, I argue that personhood should be viewed as a substance or essence that is given at conception. The fetus is not a lifeless mechanism that only becomes what it is after several parts are put together—as is the case with a watch or an automobile. Rather, the fetus is a living human organism, whose future unfolds from within itself according to internal principles. For example, the fertilized ovum contains a complete genetic code that is distinct from that of the mother or father. But this is not a mere inert blueprint (which is separable from the building it describes); this is a living blueprint that becomes what its human nature demands.

Yet even if one is not sure when personhood becomes a reality, one should err on the side of being conservative simply because so much is at stake. That is, if one aborts a fetus who is already a person, one commits a deep moral wrong by wrongfully killing an innocent human life. Just as we do not shoot target practice when we are told there may be children playing behind the targets, we should not abortion fetuses if they may be persons with the right not to be killed. As I have argued, it cannot be disputed that abortion kills a living, human being.

Many argue that outside considerations experienced by the mother should overrule the moral value of the human embryo. If a woman does not want a pregnancy, she may abort. But these quality of life considerations always involve issues of lesser moral weight than that of the conservation and protection of a unique human life (which considers the sanctity or innate and intrinsic value of a human life).6 An unwanted pregnancy is difficult, but the answer is not to kill a human being in order to end that pregnancy.

I think that the real question in the abortion debate right now is whether a living organism with a human nature and a human genetic code that is distinct from its mother and father deserves the right to life, or whether it needs to develop some other capability in order to be worthy of protection from violence.

Consider something from philosopher Francis J. Beckwith.

Excerpt:

Some argue that personhood does not arrive until brain waves are detected (40 to 43 days).11Others, such as Mary Anne Warren,12 define a person as a being who can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept. This would put the arrival of personhood at some time after birth. Still others, such as L. W. Sumner, 13 hold a more moderate position and argue that human personhood does not arrive until the fetus is sentient, the ability to feel and sense as a conscious being. This, according to Sumner, occurs possibly as early as the middle weeks of the second trimester of pregnancy and definitely by the end of that trimester.

Although these criteria differ from each other in important ways, they all have one thing in common: each maintains that if and only if an entity functions in a certain way are we warranted in calling that entity a person. Defenders of these criteria argue that once a human being, whether born or unborn, acquires a certain function or functions–whether it is brain waves, rationality, sentience, etc.– it is then and only then that a person actually exists. Those who defend these personhood criteria typically make a distinction between “being a human” and “being a person.” They argue that although fetuses are members of the species homo sapiens, and in that sense are human, they are not truly persons until they fulfill a particular set of personhood criteria.

Although functional definitions of personhood may tell us some conditions that are sufficient to say that a being is a person, they are not adequate in revealing to us all the conditions that are sufficient for a particular being to be called a person. For example, when a human being is asleep, unconscious, and temporarily comatose, she is not functioning as a person as defined by some personhood criteria. Nevertheless, most people would reject the notion that a human being is not a person while in any of these states. In other words, while personhood criteria, such as the ones presented by Warren can tell us that a being is a person, these criteria are not adequate to declare a being a non-person: The exercise of rational thought tells us that a being is a person; when that person is sleeping, and thus is not exercising rational thought, that lack of exercise of the thought function does not make her a non-person at that time. Consequently, it seems more consistent with our moral intuitions to say that personhood is not something that arises when certain functions are in place, but rather is something that grounds these functions, whether or not they are ever actualized in the life of a human being. Thus, defining personhood strictly in terms of function is inadequate.

If you are pro-life because of your feelings, or because someone told you to be, you ought to know that being pro-life is quite rational and supported by medical evidence. People who are pro-abortion are pro-abortion because they want recreational sex without the complications of having to care for the consequences (babies!) of their own actions. Even if they do not engage in the sex and the abortions themselves, they advocate for abortion rights, and they are guilty of encouraging a culture where 57 million unborn children have died since 1973. We’re long past Stalin numbers with this thing now.

We ought to care about not hurting other people. If grown-up’ selfish pursuit of happy feelings conflicts with another person’s right to life, then maybe we need to take a step back from being happy and start trying to be good instead.

If unborn babies don’t have consciousness or don’t feel pain, may we kill them?

Unborn baby scheming about pro-life apologetics
Unborn baby scheming about pro-life apologetics

Was having a conversation by e-mail yesterday with a pro-abortion atheist, and he gave two reasons why he supported abortion in the first and second trimester. First, he said that unborn babies can’t feel pain, so it’s OK to kill them. Second, he said that unborn babies don’t have consciousness, so it’s OK to kill them. I thought it might be useful to link to something that answers both of these objections.

Frank Beckwith is the author of “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice“. He wrote that book for Cambridge University Press, a top academic press. But before Cambridge University Press, Beckwith wrote four easy-to-understand essays for the Christian Research Journal. Part IV is the one that has the response to the two questions raised by my atheist friend.

Part I. The Appeal to Pity

Part II. Arguments from Pity, Tolerance, and Ad Hominem

Part III. Is The Unborn Human Less Than Human?

Part IV. When Does a Human Become a Person?

Excerpt:

Some ethicists argue that the unborn becomes fully human sometime after brain development has begun, when it becomes sentient: capable of experiencing sensations such as pain. The reason for choosing sentience as the criterion is that a being that cannot experience anything (i.e., a presentient unborn entity) cannot be harmed. Of course, if this position is correct, then the unborn becomes fully human probably during the second trimester and at least by the third trimester. Therefore, one does not violate anyone’s rights when one aborts a nonsentient unborn entity. [13]

There are several problems with this argument. First, it confuses harm with hurt and the experience of harm with the reality of harm. [14] One can be harmed without experiencing the hurt that sometimes follows from that harm, and which we often mistake for the harm itself. For example, a temporarily comatose person who is suffocated to death “experiences no harm,” but he is nevertheless harmed. Hence, one does not have to experience harm, which is sometimes manifested in hurt, in order to be truly harmed.

Second, if sentience is the criterion of full humanness, then the reversibly comatose, the momentarily unconscious, and the sleeping would all have to be declared nonpersons. Like the presentient unborn, these individuals are all at the moment nonsentient though they have the natural inherent capacity to be sentient. Yet to countenance their executions would be morally reprehensible. Therefore, one cannot countenance the execution of some unborn entities simply because they are not currently sentient.

Someone may reply that while these objections make important points, there is a problem of false analogy in the second objection: the reversibly comatose, the momentarily unconscious, and the sleeping once functioned as sentient beings, though they are now in a temporary state of nonsentience. The presentient unborn, on the other hand, were never sentient. Hence, one is fully human if one was sentient “in the past” and will probably become sentient again in the future, but this cannot be said of the presentient unborn.

There are at least three problems with this response. First, to claim that a person can be sentient, become nonsentient, and then return to sentience is to assume there is some underlying personal unity to this individual that enables us to say that the person who has returned to sentience is the same person who was sentient prior to becoming nonsentient. But this would mean that sentience is not a necessary condition for personhood. (Neither is it a sufficient condition, for that matter, since nonhuman animals are sentient.) Consequently, it does not make sense to say that a person comes into existence when sentience arises, but it does make sense to say that a fully human entity is a person who has the natural inherent capacity to give rise to sentience. A presentient unborn human entity does have this capacity. Therefore, an ordinary unborn human entity is a person, and hence, fully human.

Second, Ray points out that this attempt to exclude many of the unborn from the class of the fully human is “ad hoc and counterintuitive.” He asks us to “consider the treatment of comatose patients. We would not discriminate against one merely for rarely or never having been sentient in the past while another otherwise comparable patient had been sentient….In such cases, potential counts for everything.” [15]

Third, why should sentience “in the past” be the decisive factor in deciding whether an entity is fully human when the presentient human being “is one with a natural, inherent capacity for performing personal acts?” [16] Since we have already seen that one does not have to experience harm in order to be harmed, it seems more consistent with our moral sensibilities to assert that what makes it wrong to kill the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, the momentarily unconscious, and the presentient unborn is that they all possess the natural inherent capacity to perform personal acts. And what makes it morally right to kill plants and to pull the plug on the respirator-dependent brain dead, who were sentient “in the past,” is that their deaths cannot deprive them of their natural inherent capacity to function as persons, since they do not possess such a capacity.

These four essays are a very good introduction to common responses to pro-abortion arguments. I recommend that people get familiar with this, as once you look into it, you will see that the abortion issue can be debated with as much confidence as William Lane Craig defends Christian theism. You will have the same access to scientific evidence and rational arguments on this topic, and so you will have the upper hand. And that’s fun.

The best introductory book on the abortion / right to life issue is “The Case for Life” by pro-life debater Scott Klusendorf. The best comprehensive book is a tie between “The Ethics of Abortion” by Christopher Kaczor, and Frank Beckwith’s “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice“.

Neil Shenvi responds to popular arguments for abortion rights

I'm Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this decision
I’m Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this message

A very good read to make sure that you can handle the obvious ones, from Neil Shenvi, Ph.D.

Here are the objections:

  • “Women have a right to do what they want with their own bodies.”
  • “The government has no right to make laws telling a woman she can’t have an abortion”
  • “The unborn is not a human being, it is just a mass of cells.”
  • “Until the fetus has a heart and brain, it is not a human being.”
  • “It is moral to kill a fetus as long as it feels no pain.”
  • “No one should be forced to carry and raise the child of their rapist.”
  • “Making abortion illegal will not decrease abortion; it will only make drive it underground and make it less safe.”
  • “Laws should not be based on religion”
  • “If you are opposed to abortion, don’t have one.”
  • “We should combat abortion by reducing poverty, not by making it illegal.”
  • “Most people (i.e., men) who are against abortion will never even become pregnant.”

And here’s the detail on one of them:

“Women have a right to do what they want with their own bodies.”

The fundamental problem with this objection is that it assumes that laws against abortion are primarily concerned with what a woman can and cannot do to her own body. But they are not. Why? Ask yourself a simple question: how many brains does a woman have? One. But how many brains does a pregnant woman have? Still one. The woman’s body is not the issue in abortion: the baby’s body is. The developing fetus has a complete set of human DNA different than the mother’s. It has its own circulatory system, its own brain, its own fingers and toes and arms and legs. If it is a male, it even has a different gender than the mother. Therefore, the fetus is clearly not just ‘part of the woman’s body’. Laws against abortion aren’t telling a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body; they are telling a woman what she can and cannot do with someone else’s body.

Read them all, and pass them along.

You can find more answers to pro-choice questions here, from Dr. Francis Beckwith. These are the early versions to some of the arguments that later ended up in his academic book on pro-life apologetics entitled “Defending Life“, published by Cambridge University Press. The best introductory book on pro-life arguments is Scott Klusendorf’s “The Case for Life“.  I really recommend that one, because he is the top pro-life debater in the world, and he speaks from that experience of dealing with pro-choice arguments in public debates.

Further study

Learn about the pro-life case:

A simple case for the pro-life position by Scott Klusendorf

Are you able to make a basic case for the pro-life view?

Here’s a short 38-lecture by Scott Klusendorf, president of the Life Training Institute.

This is a long treatment that talks about the challenge of moral relativism and the case for the pro-life view. He does show a clip of abortion in the video to the audience.

There’s also a 35-minute audio recording of Scott on the LTI web site. (H/T Apologetics 315) You can put that on your podcast player and listen to it. Listen to it a lot and soon you’ll sound like Scott.

Scott also has an article posted on the LTI web site for those who don’t have time for the video or the audio.

In the article makes three points:

  1. Clarify the issue
  2. Defend your pro-life position with science and philosophy
  3. Challenge your listeners to be intellectually honest

Here’s the second point:

Scientifically, we know that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. Leading embryology books confirm this.2 For example, Keith L. Moore & T.V.N. Persaud write, “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm … unites with a female gamete or oocyte … to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”3 Prior to his abortion advocacy, former Planned Parenthood President Dr. Alan Guttmacher was perplexed that anyone, much less a medical doctor, would question this. “This all seems so simple and evident that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn’t part of the common knowledge,” he wrote in his book Life in the Making.4

Philosophically, we can say that embryos are less developed than newborns (or, for that matter, toddlers) but this difference is not morally significant in the way abortion advocates need it to be. Consider the claim that the immediate capacity for self-awareness bestows value on human beings. Notice that this is not an argument, but an arbitrary assertion. Why is some development needed? And why is this particular degree of development (i.e., higher brain function) decisive rather than another? These are questions that abortion advocates do not adequately address.

As Stephen Schwarz points out, there is no morally significant difference between the embryo that you once were and the adult that you are today. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant such that we can say that you had no rights as an embryo but you do have rights today. Think of the acronym SLED as a helpful reminder of these non-essential differences:5

Size: True, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean that they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.

Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than the adults they’ll one day become. But again, why is this relevant? Four year-old girls are less developed than 14 year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? Some people say that self-awareness makes one human. But if that is true, newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Six-week old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing human mental functions, as do the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, and those with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Environment: Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? If not, how can a journey of eight inches down the birth-canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from non-human to human? If the unborn are not already human, merely changing their location can’t make them valuable.

Degree of Dependency: If viability makes us human, then all those who depend on insulin or kidney medication are not valuable and we may kill them. Conjoined twins who share blood type and bodily systems also have no right to life.

In short, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature.

That’s the core of the basic pro-life case right there. There’s also a good interview of Mr. Klusendorf that I blogged about.

Advanced Objections

You can learn more by reading basic pro-life apologetics… from Francis Beckwith. You might recognize Frank Beckwith as the author of “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice“. He wrote that book for Cambridge University Press, a top academic press. But before Cambridge University Press, Beckwith wrote easy-to-understand essays for the Christian Research Journal.

Here are four essays that answer common arguments in favor of legalized abortion.

Here’s an excerpt from Part II:

Excerpt:

A woman who becomes pregnant due to an act of either rape or incest is the victim of a horribly violent and morally reprehensible crime. Although pregnancy as a result of either rape or incest is extremely rare, [1] there is no getting around the fact that pregnancy does occur in some instances.

[…]Despite its forceful appeal to our sympathies, there are several problems with this argument. First, it is not relevant to the case for abortion on demand, the position defended by the popular pro-choice movement. This position states that a woman has a right to have an abortion for any reason she prefers during the entire nine months of pregnancy, whether it be for gender-selection, convenience, or rape. [3] To argue for abortion on demand from the hard cases of rape and incest is like trying to argue for the elimination of traffic laws from the fact that one might have to violate some of them in rare circumstances, such as when one’s spouse or child needs to be rushed to the hospital. Proving an exception does not establish a general rule.

[…]Fourth, this argument begs the question by assuming that the unborn is not fully human. For if the unborn is fully human, then we must weigh the relieving of the woman’s mental suffering against the right-to-life of an innocent human being. And homicide of another is never justified to relieve one of emotional distress. Although such a judgment is indeed anguishing, we must not forget that the same innocent unborn entity that the career-oriented woman will abort in order to avoid interference with a job promotion is biologically and morally indistinguishable from the unborn entity that results from an act of rape or incest. And since abortion for career advancement cannot be justified if the unborn entity is fully human, abortion cannot be justified in the cases of rape and incest. In both cases abortion results in the death of an innocent human life. As Dr. Bernard Nathanson has written, “The unwanted pregnancy flows biologically from the sexual act, but not morally from it.” [5]Hence, this argument, like the ones we have already covered in this series, is successful only if the unborn are not fully human.

Scott Klusendorf wrote the The Case for Life, which is the best book for beginners on the pro-life view. For those looking for advanced resources, Francis Beckwith, a professor at Baylor University, published the book Defending Life, with Cambridge University Press, 2007.

I found a very polished hour-long talk by Scott on Youtube. That talk was delivered to students and faculty at Furman University.

Finally, if you want to see Scott Klusendorf in a debate with a former ACLU executive, you can see it right here.

My friend Papa Georgio sent me a post that features THREE talks by Scott Klusendorf. (H/T Religio-Political Talk)

Learn about the pro-life case