The pro-life moral argument against abortion is no secret; it is made in a multitude of ways, by advocates from very diverse backgrounds, every time there is an abortion-related debate in the media.
This moral argument is valid and sound, yet somehow the vast majority of debates on the topic seem to end with its vehement rejection (and usually name-calling) by pro-abortion critics.
If we ever want to make any progress on this front, we must bolster this argument and present it in a way that does not leave the audience with a subjective out, at least without a penalty. By further defining the relevant terms, by employing logic, and by better explaining the concept of natural law with an objective morality as its basis, we can create a situation that will either force the audience to admit the argument is valid and sound, or will land them in an inherent contradiction. If they choose to remain in this state of inherent contradiction, it comes with a price; the concession that their preferences are no better or authoritative than those of anyone else. If this is the case, it destroys any claim they have against permitting differing legal jurisdictions the ability to create the laws regulating or banning abortion that they see fit to match the Will of their electorate. This is what the Supreme Court just indicated is proper, given the Constitution, when they overturned the horrendous Roe v. Wade precedent.
How do we get there? We must start by considering the general moral argument, considering the common rebuttals, and defining the relevant terms.
The General Moral Argument
The general moral argument goes like this: A new individual human life starts at conception; all human beings have fundamental, inalienable rights (including the right to life) due to the rational nature of the species that makes moral equality, moral reciprocity, and the concept of rights possible; therefore, pre-born human beings have such rights from conception. Since pre-born human beings have such rights, they cannot be infringed by the willful act of abortion, just as born humans cannot willfully infringe upon the fundamental rights of other born humans.
Basic Counterpoints to the Moral Argument Against Abortion
What are the main counter-points abortion advocates make to this general moral argument? They either reject the notion that the pre-born child is yet “human,” or they find refuge in denying the pre-born the unnecessary additional man-created qualification of a ‘personhood.’ “Only persons have rights,” they contend, “and only born humans are persons.” This ambiguity of terms allows for the set up of the “My body, my choice” bodily autonomy argument (which is incomplete in the context of abortion, given the body of the pre-born human is also at stake). When exactly one achieves ‘personhood’ of course then becomes the question; it is in this subjective idea that their counter-argument falls apart. More on this later.
Important Definitions and Concepts
For quite a while most of the definitions and concepts necessary for proper understanding of the moral argument described above were considered “self-evident.” Obviously, that is no longer true. So let’s better define the relevant terms and concepts (**All definitions are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
**Being: The quality or state of having existence, the qualities that constitute an existent thing, a living thing.
**Human: A person, Man, (in the sense of) a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens) that is anatomically related to the great apes but distinguished especially by notable development of the brain with a resultant capacity for articulate speech and abstract reasoning, and is the sole living representative of the hominid family.
**Conception: The process of becoming pregnant involving fertilization or implantation or both.
**Fertilization: An act or process of making fertile: such as the process of union of two gametes whereby the somatic chromosome number is restored and the development of a new individual is initiated.
At this point we have established that the pre-born being in question, from conception, is an individual, and is of the hominid species via fertilization by two human parents. The distinguishing feature of human beings is our “capacity for articulate speech and abstract reasoning.” It is from this fact that we proceed into definitions and concepts important to the moral aspect of the argument.
**Reasoning: The use of reason, especially the drawing of inferences or conclusions through the use of reason.
**Reason: The power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways.
From this natural ability to reason we can logically derive moral maxims and principles for conduct without relying on experience, personal opinion, or regard for desired ends. We can control for bias. We can recognize concepts like the inherent equality and worth of all the members of the community. We can recognize the need to mutually respect each other. These concepts are true in themselves and based on logical necessity inherent in the concept. To not recognize and abide by this contradicts the concepts and makes morality unworkable. This is in itself contrary to our rational nature and returns us to the irrational realm of the instinctive and selfish animals. From these realizations, we derive the concept of natural law and fundamental, inalienable, natural rights.
**Fundamental: Serving as a basis supporting existence or determining essential structure or function, serving as an original or generating source, of or dealing with general principles rather than practical application, belonging to one’s innate or ingrained characteristics.
**Inalienable: Incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred
**Rights: Something that one may properly claim as due.
**Natural Rights: A right considered to be conferred by natural law.
**Natural Law: A body of law or a specific principle held to be derived from nature and binding upon human society in the absence of or in addition to positive law.
From this, we can see that it is indisputably true an individual being, from conception, genetically of the hominid species, is a “human being” according to science. We can also conclude that given the definitions relevant to the concept of “fundamental, inalienable, natural rights” that pre-born human beings also possess them due to the rational nature of the species and their membership in the moral community.
Why Membership of the Pre-born in the Moral Community, and Their Fundamental Rights, Cannot be Delayed or Denied
If some members of the rationally-defined moral community (born humans) deny the existence of these rights to other members of the same mutual moral community (pre-born humans), it presents a bias and an inherent contradiction to the concept of fundamental, inalienable, natural rights. This bias has a maxim at its center that cannot be universalized. It requires the violation of the rights of some for the preferred benefit of others. Physical characteristics or abilities along the natural development path of a human being cannot be a factor for determining said rights, only an objective, natural starting point will suffice and that is the conception/creation of a new individual human being. In other words, humans far enough along the natural development path to be able to use reason can merely recognize the objective nature of these fundamental, inalienable, rights and work to protect them for those that cannot yet protect them themselves. They cannot subjectively define or deny them.
The Choice an Abortion Advocate Must Make When Confronted with the Pro-Life Moral Argument
An abortion advocate at this point can continue to deny the scientifically provable humanity of the pre-born or the existence of inalienable, fundamental human rights (or both) but they must concede that in doing so they are denying the objectivity of the determination. They are placing the judgment solely into the subjective realm of experience and the opinion of Man. When they do this, they forfeit the ability to argue that any given political jurisdiction cannot decide for itself, as they wish to do, that abortion is wrong, should be banned or heavily regulated, etc. They destroy their ability to claim the reasoning of the US Supreme Court in the Dobbs majority opinion is flawed (for example). They can of course (from this viewpoint) continue to argue that any given political entity should permit abortion, but they forfeit the ability to tell them they must.
Another common contention by abortion advocates and pragmatists alike is that there must be some point in the pregnancy at which we can determine a switch in interests. That is, when the pre-born has physically developed enough that a State has an interest and duty to recognize and protect their rights contrasted with the time before this in which the pregnant mother’s right to bodily autonomy is supreme and she may at her discretion abort the baby. This seems to have been the “middle ground” sought by many important decision-makers in the past, including in the courts. While this technically may be a way to settle legal and practical disputes, and has obviously been able to be implemented (and abused), it has no place in our moral argument. This is because to compromise on objectively-derived, fundamental, inalienable rights is to destroy them and relegate rational beings to the subjective judgment of potentially irrational man-made authority.
It is clear from our long history of mistakes that just because something can/has been done, it is not necessarily true that it should be/continue to be done. We ought to recognize and remedy mistakes in our thinking and practice – both big and small. The value of embracing objectively-derived morality is that it gives us an unbiased, universal guide for judgment. This guide points to the immorality of abortion. As moral beings by nature, we must act from duty in accord with the universal moral law. Choose to support and defend life.