Tag Archives: Pregnancy

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“, which was published by 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?


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“.

Guest post: Joseph, did you know?

The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us
The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us

Well, I gave the reins of the blog over to my friend the senior software engineer last time, and it was one of the most popular posts of the year. So, we’re doing it again. I don’t know where he finds the time to write these things. This time, he has written a post analyzing the conduct of Joseph during the story of Mary becoming pregnant with a very special child.

If you haven’t heard it already, I encourage you to go listen to the classic holiday song “Mary Did You Know?

Not because it is filled with inspirational content. Quite the opposite. It regularly gets panned, and rightfully so, as an example of a song with a great melody but terrible theology. More can be written about that song along, but I will simply leave you with this: Yes, Mary Knew.

But this post isn’t about Mary. It’s about Joseph. What did he know?

To find out, let’s turn to Matthew 1. Skip past the genealogy. Yes, it contains useful lessons on its own. And let’s look at verses 18-25:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,

25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

After genealogies, Matthew opens not with a focus on Mary, but with the focus on Joseph. We’re likely used to reading this passage in Church and especially at Christmas time knowing what’s going to happen next. But let’s step back and look at this from Joseph’s perspective.

First, we need to understand what Joseph’s relationship was with Mary. We are told that they were betrothed but not married. While we have those same distinctions today, our emphasis on weddings is the opposite to what the emphasis would have been in Joseph and Mary’s time. And that’s because marriage has historically been viewed as a financial transaction.

Until late in the Middle Ages, marriage consisted of two ceremonies that were marked by celebrations at two separate times, with an interval between. First came the betrothal [erusin]; and later, the wedding [nissuin].

[…]Marriage, as with any type of purchase, consisted of two acts. First the price was paid and an agreement reached on the conditions of sale. Sometime later the purchaser took possession of the object. In marriage, the mohar was paid and a detailed agreement reached between the families of the bride and groom. This betrothal was followed by the wedding, when the bride was brought into the home of the groom, who took actual possession of her.

There is no prescribed duration of time between betrothal and wedding but most of the sources I’ve read say the norm (and even recommended by some Rabbis) was a year. However, the interval between betrothal and wedding could be shortened depending on circumstances. So it’s reasonable to think that Matthew’s gospel opens up somewhere in the year between when Joseph and Mary, and their families, have hammered out, signed, and celebrated their betrothal and when Joseph took Mary into the home he was preparing for her.

It was in this time of waiting and anticipation that Mary comes to Joseph and tells him she’s pregnant. We may be tempted to read that in the modern sense of Mary telling Joseph privately, just between the two of them. But the reality is that Mary’s friends and family knew she was pregnant. This wasn’t something that could easily be hidden. Mary claims divine intervention. Although we, in the 21st century, know this is true, put yourself in Joseph’s position for a minute. Nothing like that had ever happened before. There is no prior reason to expect or believe such a claim. So, Joseph is right in rejecting this explanation and instead decides to dissolve the betrothal.

This is the right decision for Joseph to make. We tend to gloss over this point but I think it’s worth considering in our time where the very suggestion that men prefer debt-free virgins without tattoos is met with shock and rage.

It was not merely Joseph but Joseph’s family that had a contract with Mary’s family. In our time we treat engagements and marriages as if they were only the concern of the individuals who fell in love. The Jewish understanding of marriage is not focused on the individual and neither should we be when reading Matthew.

Joseph had three options for dissolving his unconsummated marriage. He could publicly accuse Mary of being promiscuous. He could quietly dissolve the contract by claiming he was displeased with her. And finally, he could move the taking-home ceremony up and claim the child as his own. Each one of these paths is distinctly different and deserves to be examined.

Public accusation and divorce

Since Joseph and Mary had already signed a contract, and the only thing left to do was take her home and consummate the marriage, Joseph could have made a big deal about Mary violating the terms of their contract. Deuteronomy 22:13-30 has a lot to say here and while it’s worth reading I’ll sum it up by saying this route involved an awful lot of drama. And again, unlike modern marriage dissolutions where the state tries to cover over the ugliness of tearing a one-flesh (i.e. consummated) union apart, the law in Deuteronomy 22 was to air all the grievances.

This would necessitate that Joseph accuse not Mary but Mary’s father of not doing his job in guarding Mary’s virtue.

20 If, however, this accusation is true, and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found,

21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of her city will stone her to death. For she has committed an outrage in Israel by being promiscuous in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.

To go down this route Joseph would first have to come to the conclusion that Mary was evil.

Instead, Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary quietly not only spared Mary’s life. It also spared Mary’s father from a world of pain and shame.


For years I thought this was the only alternative to simply continuing on with the wedding and that Joseph’s decision to put Mary away quietly was a cop-out. But it turns out that a quiet divorce was allowed for exactly this in Deuteronomy 24:1-4

1 If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds some indecency in her, he may write her a certificate of divorce,a hand it to her, and send her away from his house.

2 If, after leaving his house, she goes and becomes another man’s wife,

3 and the second man hates her, writes her a certificate of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house, or if he dies,

4 the husband who divorced her first may not marry her again after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination to the LORD. You must not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

This could have been either before the wedding or after but there is a strong indication here that this is before the marriage has been consummated. I would argue that Joseph was still wisely holding this option in reserve even after the angel visited him by refusing to have sex with Mary until after the child was born. We know that Joseph eventually fully accepted Mary and the Angel’s explanation for Jesus’s conception, since he went on to have more children, that were fully his own, with Mary.

Shotgun wedding

It’s not uncommon for couples to fail in resisting the urge to come together sexually prior to their wedding night. As a response, most cultures have an acceptable way to fast-track marriages between couples who fail to wait until the wedding to consummate their union (e.g. Exodus 22:16-17). While such a situation is certainly shameful, it is not irreconcilable. It is certainly more desirable for the couple to go ahead and get married and form a family than it is for the child to be born outside of wedlock in a broken home.

I think it’s worth highlighting that Joseph’s initial decision to divorce Mary on the grounds of displeasure was counted to him as both righteous and loving. Righteous in the sense that he couldn’t simply ignore the fact that his wife had been unfaithful as far as he knew. And loving because, while the evidence of being with child wasn’t hard to deny, he didn’t have the other half of the equation needed to bring a solid charge against Mary. Presumably Mary had not acted dishonorably before and had offered him an explanation, no matter how odd or implausible, for her condition. So in light of this complicated circumstance Joseph decided not to act on the righteous fury he was no doubt feeling.

Enter into this the angel of God.

The angel that appeared to Joseph provided an additional witness and evidence to corroborate Mary’s account of her pregnancy. It’s not that Mary’s word was untrustworthy because she was a woman. Though that is certainly a factor. It’s that without evidence of divine intervention her story makes no sense. And like all miracles in Scripture, Mary’s conception of Jesus comes with God proclaiming his handiwork.

God provided the seeds of doubt in the circumstances of Jesus’s birth for anyone looking for an excuse to not believe Jesus is the promised Messiah. That’s likely why Matthew opens up with a robust genealogy. Because I imagine the #1 argument against Jesus by the Jews of the day was that he wasn’t pure enough to be what they were looking for in the promised messiah. In the New Testament, Christ regularly hides himself and invites men to seek him out. It’s incredible to think that even the circumstance surrounding his birth presents a stumbling block to the hard hearted.

What else did we expect from the promise made in Isaiah 17:14 quoted by Matthew in verse 23? The Hebrew grammar in Isaiah indicates that it will be the child’s mother who provides her son with a name. There’s no socially acceptable way for the promised sign in Isaiah to come about. From the beginning the promised messiah would be controversial.

And that controversy would start in the most intimate human relationship. Between husband and wife. Like Martha and Mary, Joseph was presented a choice. He had to decide whether to trust the angel and take the risk of accepting Mary into his house and the child he knew was not his.

And to counter the terrible song this post started with. Here’s a Christmas song featuring Joseph.

Jennifer Roback Morse lectures on sex and sexuality at Harvard University

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse

Dr. Morse delivers a talk based on her book “Smart Sex” at Harvard University.

The MP3 file is here. (21 Mb) (Link in case that doesn’t work)


  • the hook-up culture and its effects on men and women
  • cohabitation and its effect on marriage stability
  • balancing marriage, family and career
  • single motherhood by choice and IVF
  • donor-conceived children
  • modern sex: a sterile, recreation activity
  • the real purposes of sex: procreation and spousal unity
  • the hormone oxytocin: when it is secreted and what it does
  • the hormone vassopressin: when it is secreted and what it does
  • the sexual revolution and the commoditization of sex
  • the consumer view of sex vs the organic view of sex
  • fatherlessness and multi-partner fertility
  • how the “sex-without-relationship” view harms children

52 minutes of lecture, 33 minutes of Q&A from the Harvard students. The Q&A is worth listening to – the first question is from a gay student, and Dr. Morse pulls a William Lane Craig to defeat her objection. It was awesome! I never get tired of listening to her talk, and especially on the topics of marriage and family.