The Faith-Based Politics of Abortion

A recent spat between Barack Obama and James Dobson offers a good opportunity to further reply to Colorado Right to Life and Bob Kyffin on abortion.

Here’s what Barack Obama said on June 28, 2006, in his “Call to Renewal” address:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

I have expressed the same view on this web page. Note that Obama in fact holds a “pro-choice position.”

The problem is that nobody has made an effective, non-religious argument for banning abortion. Instead, Colorado Right to Life (and the Republican candidates who signed its questionnaire) explicitly invoke God’s will as the foundation of their position.

Now Dobson of Focus on the Family has attacked Obama’s stance, saying, according to the AP, “Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies? What he’s trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.”

Notably, Dobson is misrepresenting Obama’s position. Obama did not claim that people must conform their views to what “everybody agrees” is correct; instead, he said people should make “universal” arguments “subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”

Dobson’s dilemma is that no reasonable argument supports the definition of a fertilized egg as a person or the prohibition of abortion. Thus, his only option is to “evoke God’s will.”

As if to further illustrate the point, Bob Kyffin sent in a reply to my criticism of his statements (stemming from my critique of Colorado Right to Life). Kyffin attempts to make a universal, reasonable argument in favor of banning abortion, but his argument completely fails.

Kyffin argues that an embryo, and even a feritlized egg, is a person because, first, “life begins at conception,” and, second, a fertilized egg has “its own DNA” that dictates many of the egg’s future traits, if brought to term.

Life not only begins at conception but precedes conception. Both the sperm and egg are living human entities. But not all living human entities are people. As I’ve mentioned, every cell in our bodies is a living human entity. Every cell is alive, and every cell contains human DNA. Yet Kyffin would hardly argue that we’re committing mass murder every time we take a shower and exfoliate thousands of living, human cells.

Obviously, the mere fact that a fertilized egg contains human DNA does not qualify it for personhood for the same basic reason.

The difference that Kyffin seems to be going for, then, is that a fertilized egg, unlike a lone sperm or egg cell or a skin cell, has the capacity, if attached in a specific way to a healthy female uterus, to develop into an embryo, then a fetus, and finally into a born human being (a person). (We’ll leave aside the complication that it’s now possible to develop a new, independent human being from the DNA of any living human cell.)

But the fact that a fertilized egg has the capacity (in a certain environment) to develop into a person does not imply that the fertilized egg is itself a person. A fertilized egg has none of the relevant features of personhood, other than human DNA. It has no organs, cannot survive independently, etc. It is utter lunacy to call a fertilized egg a person. Kyffin might as well argue that an oak tree is a house, a field of grass a beef steak, or a silk worm a fine suit, because in each case the first thing has the capacity to develop into the second.

A necessary condition for personhood is the ability to survive independently, without any direct nourishment from the body of another. A newborn baby obviously needs a caregiver to provide food, warmth, etc. But a newborn baby is dramatically different than a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, in that the newborn baby is an independent entity that will continue to live on its own if left by itself. A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus physically cannot leave the mother without physical removal, and, until lates stages, if left on its own it will quickly die. A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus is radically dependent on its mother’s physical body, whereas a newborn is not.

This radical, physical dependency is a large part of the reason why a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have the rights of personhood. One implication of this is that a pregnant woman has the right to get an abortion. As I’ve said, a woman who has decided to get an abortion is morally bound to get it in the early term whenever feasible. However, even in very-late term pregnancies, in any conflict between the safety of the mother and the safety of the fetus, the mother has every moral right to protect her own life. (She is also properly free to accept increased risk to herself in order to protect the fetus.)

Those who oppose abortion typically invoke the horrors of gratuitous, late-term abortions in order to advocate the prohibition of abortion even of a fertilized egg. But gratuitous, late-term abortions are practically non-existent. Practically all abortions occur in the early terms.

For what it’s worth, here’s what Roe v. Wade has to say on the matter: “State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”

Generally, I oppose restrictions even for late-term abortions, because the practical effect would be to intimidate doctors with zealous prosecution, thereby interfering with their considerations of the “life or health of the mother.”

The essential debate, though, is over abortion in the early terms. Kyffin and Colorado Right to Life (CRTL) hold that a fertilized egg is a person and therefore should be granted full rights.

As I have argued, one obvious implication of the view that a fertilized egg is a person is that doctors would be legally required (or at least bullied) into sacrificing the lives of some women. CRTL’s position is thus morally abhorrent.

At some level, CRTL seems to be aware that its position is horrific, or at least at odds with the common decency of most people. And so CRTL has tried to create an escape clause. As I’ve explained:

CRTL uses the same sleight of rhetoric. Recall that the position of CRTL is that “It is… wrong… to kill the baby to save the mother.” CRTL opposes “the intentional killing of the unborn child, for the life of the mother.” CRTL states, “When the mother’s life is seriously threatened by a pregnancy, of course it is morally justified to deliver the baby but not if the intention is to kill the baby. … If the baby dies, it is a tragedy; if the baby is intentionally killed, it is murder.”

CRTL’s position doesn’t hold up for early-term pregnancies. “Delivering” an unformed embryo will kill it. Yet the only way that CRTL can preserve its stance that a fertilized egg is a person and still allow doctors to save the life of the mother is to pretend that “delivery” of an unformed embryo to death is somehow different than intentionally killing it. …

So long as CRTL clings to the faith-based fantasy that a fertilized egg is a person, the group has only two paths. Either it can openly acknowledge that it would sometimes sacrifice the lives of women, or it can allow women to get abortions whenever they see any risk to their lives. This second path, however, is inconsistent with CRTL’s position that “It is… wrong… to kill the baby to save the mother.”

CRTL’s escape clause doesn’t work. If a doctor removes an embryo, the embryo will certainly die. (I’m leaving aside test-tube scenarios.) Any early-term abortion, for whatever reason, is an intentional act that necessarily results in the death of the embryo.

Yet Kyffin tries to exploit the same absurd escape clause:

…CRTL says, “if the baby dies, it is a tragedy; if the baby is intentionally killed, it is murder.” The result may be the same. The intent is clearly different. There is a distinct and critical difference between the unfortunate death of a baby whose life could not be saved, in the course of protecting the mother, and the situation where a doctor goes in and intentionally kills the baby when it is not necessary. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, there is a (presumably) 0% chance of the baby surviving, and that is unfortunate. And yet, CRTL would support a surgery to protect the mother, so long as there is no malicious intent in the doctor’s mind to intentionally kill the baby. … Since the baby needs the mother to survive, then of course CRTL would support taking such actions to preserve her life, even if it may mean the death of the baby…

I note my objection to referring to a fertilized egg or undeveloped embryo as a “baby,” as the term wrongly implies personhood. Also, Kyffin is not, so far as I am aware, an authorized spokesperson for CRTL, so I will treat his comments as one possible interpretation of CRTL’s stated positions.

Kyffin’s intentionality argument is absurd (and could be taken as a reductio ad absurdum of his premise that a fertilized egg is a person). True, intention is an element of a criminal act. For example, one who intentionally fires a bullet into an innocent person is a murderer, while one who thoughtlessly fires a bullet over a crowd and strikes an innocent party has committed manslaughter but not (intentional) murder. But the idea that a doctor might remove a fertilized egg “to protect the mother,” without having the intention to kill the fertilized egg, is laughable.

Here’s an analogy. Let’s say one of the Inquisition’s torturers were brought up on charges according to modern law. If the torturer said, “Look, I didn’t have the intention of inflicting pain on the victim; I had only the intention of saving the victim’s soul, as well as the souls of observers,” that obviously wouldn’t fly. The pain was an obvious and necessary result of the torture; it was intentional. According to CRTL’s premise that a fertilized egg is a person, a doctor who removes a fertilized egg, causing its death but not “intending” its death, should be just as guilty as the torturer. Given that CRTL’s premise is ridiculous, the doctor is morally blameless.

I wish to stress that my case for legal abortion does not rest upon the fact that, if a fertilized egg were legally defined as a person and given full legal protection as such, the result would be the deaths of innocent women. It is true that CRTL’s policies, if fully enforced, would kill women. However, even if by some stroke of a magic wand this were not the case, abortion should still remain legal, based on a woman’s right to control her body. However, the fact that CRTL’s policy would kill women, coupled with the fact that CRTL attempts to evade this fact, helps to demonstrate the weakness of CRTL’s case.

There is no reason, no argument, no universal moral case that supports the notion that a fertilized egg is a person. The contrary claim can come only from faith, the belief that God said so. Such faith-based legal policies have no place in a free society.

9 thoughts on “The Faith-Based Politics of Abortion”

  1. This kind of disingenuous lie is well beneath your general level of integrity, Ari:

    The problem is that nobody has made an effective, non-religious argument for banning abortion.

    I doubt you are ignorant of the record of Dr. Ron Paul, or of his many writings and comments on the subject.

    Stated simply, there is no rational basis for a law that makes abortion “legal” at 1 minute before birth, and “murder” at one minute after.

    Finally (and this is my own simple, non-statist, non-religious argument) –

    if I don’t trust Adolf Hitler to define “personhood” — given that I can read history and see where that ended up — it is entirely logical that I don’t trust ANY government ANYWHERE to define who is entitled to life, and who is not.

    Show me a line – Constitutional or otherwise – that our own former Republic has not YET violated!

    If I KNOW that they cannot be trusted to honor clear prohibitions like “shall not be infringed” or “Congress shall make NO law” – why in hell would I want to let them define “who” (or “what”) is human and what is not?

    There IS no fallback position in the absence of FAITH in Big Brother that does not ultimately end up in a gas chamber or gulag.

    There’s your “non-religious argument”!

    Show me why I should trust in THEM, rather than in God? And if God does not exist, I STILL prefer Him to the government that, unfortunately, certainly does. And it has not changed.

  2. Ari, thank you for casting the position that a woman, as a human being with rights, should have the authority over her own body. She is not a vessel with no will or choice of her own, even when pregnant.

    As far as when independent human life begins, we can argue that it does so when a fetus is developed to the point where, when it takes its first breath, the foramen ovule closes and fetal circulation ceases; the infant’s heart and lungs then supply oxygen and the infant’s feeding supplies nourishment. We can support pre-term births before this point with modern technology, but the earlier the birth, the greater the risk of death and damage to the fetus.

    With respect to early pregnancy, we now have the ability to detect pregnancy in the first days,and thus we know that mother nature is incredibly wasteful of human conceptii. We conceive readily sans birth control but between 30% and 50% of these conceptions are lost prior to the 10th week, and usually around week 7,when important nervous system development happens. These numbers are probably low, as we do not know how many non-implanted fertilized eggs merely fail to implant and are lost that way. Many of the losses we do know about are due to grave genetic or developmental problems.
    The biology tells us that early pregnancy is very expendible, which makes sense considering the amazingly precise development that must happen to get a functioning human being at the end of pregnancy.

    If the fertilized egg is to be considered a legal human being, with all of the rights and priveleges thereof, then are we to investigate every early pregnancy loss as possible manslaughter? This would entail crimilizing most fertile women merely for being women.

    The argument that a fetilized egg is equivalent to a developed, full term baby is biologically absurd.
    Any rationallegal discussion ought to begin with reality. This is the reality of our nature as members of the mammalian order.

    The morality–which you so eloquently state–must rise from the biological reality and attendant evolutionary considerations, which I do not have space to discuss here.

    Finally, and even more insane is Dobson’s contention that Mr. Obama has somehow misinterpreted the Bible. This discussion has nothing to do with the Bible or Dobson’s religious belief. It has to do with Dobson’s desire for power over others.

  3. There is, I believe, a fact that needs to be acknowledged by those of us who believe that abortion should be legal. A credible case requires all facts to be taken into account. Bob Kyffin writes:

    “Eggs and sperm are clearly not human beings. They’re not potential, because they could never turn into a human being by themselves.

    “However, a ‘fertilized egg’ (what science refers to as a zygote or an embryo – only politicians refer to them as ‘fertilized eggs’) is actually a developing human being.”

    Mr. Kyffin is right on this point. While agreeing with Ari in most of the essentials, I disagree with him that the cells of a fertilized egg or embryo equate to any other cell in the body. They do not. While technically true that “every cell in our bodies is a living human entity. Every cell is alive, and every cell contains human DNA”, none have the unique identity of the cells that, together, make up the embryo. The embryo is not, of course, a person. The facts bear this out. But it is a potential (or developing, in Mr. Kyffin’s term) person, which sets it apart from any other organ, cell, or cluster of cells in the human body. If an individual human being is the supreme value, then the cluster of cells that is a potential human being must be considered in that light.

    The moral seriousness of the issue should not be downplayed (I don’t think that is Ari’s intention). Considering an abortion should be taken as the profoundly important and moral decision that it is. After all, a potential life is at stake. A woman facing an unwanted pregnancy should not see an abortion as the equivalent of the mere termination of some inconsequential skin cells. She should consider the fact that she is carrying what could become a child… her child. She should weigh the abortion option against the possibility of carrying the pregnancy to term followed by adoption. She should seriously consider the unique attributes and potential of the embryo she is carrying, then rationally determine where the potential child fits in on her hierarchy of values, and act accordingly.

    The case for legal abortion does not rest on the idea that a fertilized egg has no value. That position is untenable. The unique attributes of an embryo, its identity, as a “developing human being” cannot be refuted, in my judgement. While life itself doesn’t begin at conception, the beginning of an independent human being does. This indisputable fact, however, does not unravel the case against granting personhood status to the unborn at conception.

    The “pro-choice” case rests on three interlocking points….the nature of the pro-creative process, the nature of inalienable rights, and the role of government as protector of those rights. Rights cannot conflict, because they are inalienable and thus possessed equally by all people. The fetus, then, has no natural rights precisely because it is dependent on the bodily functions of the mother. The mother can, of course, “grant” rights to her unborn by, for example, instructing a doctor to save the life of her baby in an emergency situation rather than her own. But as a matter of law, the state cannot recognize any rights attributable to the unborn, because that would transfer control of the body of the mother that the fetus depends on to the state, violating her rights. This negates the government’s proper function as protector of all rights.

    I have thought long and hard on this subject, because of the fact that in an abortion a potential life is taken. There can indeed be valid and moral reasons for elective abortions. After all, a woman’s entire life is wrapped up in the decision to bear a child. I would never begrudge a woman who, after serious reflection, makes the difficult choice to abort. But all to often, abortion is treated as the termination of just another meaningless clump of cells. Never-the-less, loyalty to the principle of individual rights demands the protection of all peoples’ rights, responsible and moral or not. Those rights cannot and do not extend to the unborn. As we are learning by tragic experience in other areas such as property rights, the preservation of inalienable individual rights allows no exceptions or compromises.

    Mr. Kyffin, then, does not make his case. The big flaw is that he dances around the crucial issue of individual rights. A right to life entails more than just eating and breathing. A person held captive in a dungeon could do that. Despite references to the “right to life,” he ignores the fact that the right to life includes the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The value of the potential person that is the embryo is to be determined by the woman carrying it, within the context of her overall set of values and goals in life…i.e., of her happiness and her liberty to pursue it. The woman whose body is carrying that embryo, and only that woman, is the determinant of those choices, based on her right to life. If, as Mr. Kyffin says, she is not entitled to make those decisions so crucial to her happiness, then who does? As I have argued before, the “right-to-life” case is based on faulty logic, is contradictory, and is self-defeating. If the unborn have rights that supercede the rights of the mother to control her own body (her property), then her rights are not inalienable. If her rights are not inalienable, then that whole concept is invalid, which means no one has rights, including the unborn.

  4. According to Mike Zemack, I claimed “that the cells of a fertilized egg or embryo equate to any other cell in the body.” I did no such thing. Instead, I pointed out that a fertilized egg has two important features in common with any other living human cell: both are alive, and both contain human DNA. I added, “[A] fertilized egg, unlike a lone sperm or egg cell or a skin cell, has the capacity, if attached in a specific way to a healthy female uterus, to develop into an embryo, then a fetus, and finally into a born human being (a person).”

  5. I considered Ari’s quote stated above in the context of his essay. I was somewhat conflicted, but I went with what I thought to be his essential point. I did not intend to misrepresent his position.

  6. “A necessary condition for personhood is the ability to survive independently, without any direct nourishment from the body of another.”

    Independently, or without direct sustenance of another human? Make up your mind. How about a person who is on life support, they cannot live independently. Or a paraplegic who must rely on the help of others to live day to day?

    But if sustenance of the mother is your criteria, then what of a baby that may be sustained outside the womb? Babies as young as 21 weeks old have been able to survive. What will happen when medicine is able to keep a fetus as young as a few weeks old alive outside of the mother? Will you continue to allow the wanton destruction of that life or instead of killing it require the mother to remove it, and pay for the medical care to raise it outside of her body (thus devoiding your argument of “it’s a womans body”). Or does that human life still mean nothing to you since the woman might have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the child they do not want physically inside of them alive.

  7. Notice: I reject comments containing gratuitous ad hominem attacks (e.g., “such stupid,” “feminazi”) out of hand. I moderate comments for a reason; I don’t wish to waste readers’ time (or my own). Make a real argument, or don’t bother.

  8. Ari –

    Anonymous’ comments are important. He’s saying there is a point where human life and human rights begin (as Kyffin was saying too, if I read him right). Where is that point? You say it’s not up to the moment of birth. If not then, where is it? Or is it at birth? How does that affect premies?

    Plus, do you realize you’re making the exact same points Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg? Whose side are you on, Ari? What other rulings of hers do you agree with? Any? Why this one?

  9. I let through the above anonymous posting by accident, as I could not detect an actual argument in it. Nevertheless…

    Human life is not the same thing as personhood. Human life precedes conception; personhood does not. A prematurely born baby, notably, has been born. Where’s the problem? Finally, it’s just silly to suggest that, because Person A seems to agree on some point with Person B, therefore Person A must hold other fundamental views in common with Person B.

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