The abortion debate is largely focused on the legal question of whether or not a woman ought to have the right to terminate her pregnancy. The right to an abortion was legally validated by the 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade, but the battle continues to rage over both the methods and timeframe in which an abortion can occur. And although many (myself included) would like Roe v. Wade to be overturned, society must first answer the fundamental question of whether abortion is morally justifiable. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” Therefore, it is vitally important to show why abortion is morally wrong.
The most rational place to start is at conception. Every living human being can trace their beginnings to the moment when the chromosomes of their father’s sperm united with those of their mother’s ovum. This process leads to the formation of an entirely new organism which we call an embryo. Often an embryo is portrayed as being a mere clump of cells in the early stages, but to the contrary, according Robert P. George, a professor law at Princeton University, “As early as eight or ten weeks of gestation, the fetus has a fully formed, beating heart, a complete brain… a recognizably human form, and the fetus feels pain, cries, and even sucks his or her thumb.”
From the very start it can be firmly established that the embryo is a distinct living thing with its own unique DNA. It is not a part of the mother’s body but something separate and dependent. The question of when life begins may be an issue in philosophy, but the embryo is biologically living; that is as much beyond dispute as the reality of any adult human life. And when an abortion occurs, the life that is ended is a member of the family of Homo sapiens. It is a human being that happens to be in the earliest stages of life.
Much of the divide over this issue appears to stem from two opposing views of human life. One side views human life as intrinsically valuable, while the other sees it instrumentally valuable. If human life is intrinsically valuable, then it is an end in and of itself, while its counterview is conditional.
The instrumental perspective is posited clearly by philosopher Mary Anne Warren, who defines a human person as one who is capable of “consciousness, reasoning, communication, self motivated activity, self awareness.”
Of course a problem with this is that it excludes newborn infants and the mentally ill. We can scientifically establish that an embryo is a living member of the human species, and will never agree on the human person criteria. For something as important as human rights, it is preferable to have a basis more firm than the mind of Mary Ann Warren.
Another apologist for abortion is Judith Jarvis Thompson. She argues from a bodily autonomy angle in her famous violinist example. She describes a situation where a man is attached to a violinist who needs to borrow his kidneys to survive. He can detach himself at any point, but it would mean the death of the violinist. She concludes that a Good Samaritan would keep himself attached, but that nobody is expected to give up bodily autonomy and do whatever it takes to allow another person to survive.
There are several problems with this analogy. The most obvious is that abortion is not at all the same as the story she describes. It is not the act of disconnecting oneself, but an active attempt to end the life of someone else. It would be more accurate to describe the man having to kill the violinist by violent force.
The picture she paints seems to be similar to the situation of conjoined twins. Often, their organs are intertwined and the survival of one is dependent on the other. Could we justify one killing the other order to achieve bodily autonomy?
It is true that a fetus is dependent on the body of its mother for survival, but the vulnerability of its life does not change much after birth. Consider the fact that no infant could survive on its own. An infant is extraordinarily dependent on others for food, shelter, and protection. Since she believes that nobody is entitled to the beneficence of others, in her view, it is morally justifiable to pass by an abandoned infant on the sidewalk.
Even five and six year olds would not likely survive on their own without the consideration of adults; therefore, caring for infants is actually a basic societal duty, and is not going above and beyond the call.
The two most prevalent arguments justifying abortion fail because one leads to an amoral society that arbitrarily deems many of its own unworthy of rights, while the other supports the abdication of the duty to care for infants.
Because a fetus is a living breathing member of the human race, it has the right to life, which makes the choice to have an abortion morally wrong. And despite the Roe v. Wade, perhaps the increasing moral conscience on this issue will “turn the worst laws to advantage,” as Tocqueville once noted.