16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals

What would an atheist think of Christians in favor of this?I’ve argued the pro-choice position with Christians, and I’ve gotten a lot of responses to my arguments.  Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard, with my rebuttals.

1. The Bible says that abortion is wrong.  As I’ve argued before, it doesn’t and God has no problem killing people, including children.  The Bible is a poor justification for the argument that killing is wrong.

2. Abortion tinkers with the natural order.  We have cheerfully adopted medicine and technology that “tinkers with the natural order”—antibiotics, vaccines, and anesthesia, for example—to which we don’t give a second thought.  We prolong life beyond what the “natural order” would permit and allow it to happen where it otherwise wouldn’t (in vitro fertilization, for example).  Abortion might be bad, but that it changes the natural order is no argument.

3. You argue that a newborn has more cells than the zygote that it started from.  Is this just a size thing?  What about someone who’s lost a limb?  Or had tonsils, appendix, or gall bladder removed?  Are they less of a person?  The difference between an amputee and a newborn is trivial compared to that between the newborn and the single cell.  In the long list of organs, limbs, and systems, this amputee has one fewer.  Compare that with a single cell, which has none of those body parts!

We can push this thinking to the ridiculous.  Imagine technology that provides life support so that a human head could survive.  Is this less of a person?

Well, yeah—obviously.  Someone who’s been reduced to just a head isn’t as much of a person as they were.  Or consider Terry Shiavo, who was allowed to die after 15 years in a vegetative state.  Was she less of a person?  Her severe brain damage certainly made her less of something, and you can label this whatever you want.

4. Imagine that you’d been aborted!  I wouldn’t care, would I?

5. Imagine that you had two planned kids, and then you had a child after an unplanned pregnancy.  You wouldn’t want to give that child up.  But if you’d aborted it, your life would be emptier.  Of course I’d love my unplanned child as much as my other ones.  But what do we conclude from this?  That I should have not had two kids but rather three?  Or five?  Or fifteen?  Should I expect some tsk-ing behind my back as neighbors wonder why my wife and I could have been so callous to have not has as many as biology would permit?

By similar logic, is a woman’s menstrual cycle a cause for lamentation because that was a missed opportunity for a child?  It is a sign of a potential life, lost.  But in any life, there are millions of paths not taken.  C’est la vie.

I don’t think it’s immoral to limit the number of children you have, and I don’t see much difference between zero cells and one cell—it’s all part of the spectrum.  I’ll agree that the thought “Let’s have a baby” isn’t a baby … but then neither is a single cell.

6. What’s the big deal about traveling down the birth canal?  The big deal is that before that process, only the mother could support the baby.  Afterwards, it breathes and eats on its own.  The baby could then be taken away and never see its mother again and grow up quite healthy.  Before, the mother was essential; after, she’s unnecessary.

I’m not arguing that abortion should be legal up until delivery.  In fact, I’m not arguing for any definition of when abortion should become illegal.  My main point has simply been that the personhood of the fetus increases from single cell through newborn, which makes abortion arguable.

7. It’s a human from conception through adulthood!  The DNA doesn’t change.  What else would that single cell be—a sponge?  A zebra?  OK, if you don’t like “human,” let’s use “person.”  No—person means the same thing as human!

This name game is a common way to avoid the issue.  I don’t care what you call the spectrum as long as we use names that make clear what the newborn has that the single cell doesn’t.

8. What if the mother wanted to abort because the fetus had green eyes or was female or would likely be gay?  This is a red herring.  How many cases are we talking about?  Abortion to increase the fraction of male babies is done in India and China, but this isn’t a factor in the U.S.

Abortions for capricious or shallow reasons also aren’t the issue.  Mothers-to-be have plenty of noble instincts to judge what is appropriate so that society can rest assured that the right thing will usually be done.  (If you balk at the “usually,” remember that that’s how society’s laws work.  They’re not perfect, and we can only hope that they’re usually on target.)  We can certainly talk about the few special cases where a woman’s actions seem petty, but don’t let that change abortion rights for the majority.

The woman who aborts for some trivial reason would likely be a terrible mother.  Let’s let a woman who isn’t mature enough to take care of a baby opt out.

9. Abortions are dangerous!  Not really.  The chance of maternal death from delivering a baby is 12 times higher than through abortion.  This is just what you’d expect, since the fetus only gets bigger (and more dangerous to deliver) with time.  Of course, this statistic will change if abortion is made illegal and more dangerous.

There is no indication that abortion is a risk factor for cancer or women’s mental health.

Next time: Why is it Always Men Advancing the Pro-Life Position?

Part 2: 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals (part 2)

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What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much.

Novel about Christianity and atheism (and Christian apologetis)The Old Testament patriarchs would scratch their heads at the problem conservative Christians have invented and seized upon.  “That’s not what ‘Thou shalt not murder’ means!” they’d say.  “It means that you shouldn’t take a stick and beat someone over the head until he’s dead!  We kill people around here at the drop of a hat—both our own people when they transgress the Law and people of other tribes when we get into border squabbles.  And God has no hesitation in killing people.  To simply make someone not pregnant is vastly different.  People try lots of folk remedies to bring about that very thing, and our only complaint is that they’re not effective.”

All this hand-wringing about the safety of a single cell, less than one trillionth the size of an infant, would baffle them.  God is happy to slaughter (or order slaughtered) lots ’n lots of humans—men, women, and children.

If the Big Man doesn’t care, why should we?  That’s a rhetorical question—of course we should care.  It’s just that we shouldn’t imagine an argument against abortion based on what the Bible says.

About Babylon, it says, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9).  And: “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished” (Is. 13:15–16).  Whether God uses genocide against the other guys, poisonous snakes against his own people, or an old-fashioned global flood against everyone, God has a broad palette of options when it comes to death, and he makes no special provision for children, infants, or fetuses.

The Bible even describes a potion to deliberately induce a miscarriage, used by the priest when a woman is suspected of adultery.

God himself has a hand in abortions.  Roughly half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion, a far greater rate than that of clinical abortions.  If God exists, he’s the biggest abortionist of all.

Why imagine that the Bible is against abortion?  Maybe it’s that whole “thou shalt not murder” thing.

But you do know that “thou shalt not murder” isn’t in the Ten Commandments, right?  Let’s review the story.  Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and then smashes them when he sees the golden calf.  He goes back up for another set (Ex. 34), but God must’ve been stoned when he dictated them the second time because it’s quite a different set of rules.  But these rules aren’t just an addendum of some sort; these are the replacement Ten Commandments.  Exodus 34:28 makes this clear: “[Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”  In other words, if you’d been able to peek inside the Ark of the Covenant to see this Ten Commandments 2.0, nowhere would it have said, “Thou shalt not murder.”

But let’s ignore that and assume that the scripture say not to murder.  What is “murder”?  Is capital punishment murder?  It’s illegal in Europe, and many people think it’s murder in the U.S., and yet it’s legal in 34 U.S. states.  What about killing in wartime?  Or killing in self-defense?  Or killing accidentally?  Or killing animals?  Or euthanasia?  Murder is undefined, so “Thou shalt not murder” is meaningless.

You’d think that this vaguely supported legal opinion that God is against abortion would give Christians pause, but I guess the hearts of pro-life Christian soldiers are resolute.  They’re quick to argue that God’s actions are beyond our understanding when it suits them—when confronted with the Problem of Evil or the justice of hell, for example—but at other times they acknowledge no vagueness and know for certain what God wants.  In particular, they know that God is against abortion!

Why is abortion that big a deal from the Christian standpoint when abortions send souls to heaven without the risk of doing the wrong thing in adulthood?  That murdered babies go straight to heaven was one way William Lane Craig tried to wriggle out of the moral consequences of God ordering the Canaanite genocide (“Christianity Can Rot Your Brain”).

Using Craig’s logic, abortion clinics may save more souls than churches!

Next time: 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals.

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What’s Wrong with the Pro-Life Position?

Atheism and ChristianityOne commenter to this blog made the excellent point that the label “pro-life” for the anti-abortion movement is a bit odd.  In this contentious debate, I wanted to label those in each group as they prefer, but who’s not pro-life?

In the Christian view, life on earth is “the cramped and narrow foyer leading to the great hall of God’s eternity” (William Lane Craig).  What a dismal view of life—something simply to be endured as we wait for the real Life to begin.  By contrast, the atheist, certain of only the one life we all know exists, is the one who lives life to the fullest.  It can be argued that the atheist is the one who’s truly pro-life.

But let’s leave the conventional labels alone and consider the pro-life position.  If there were no downsides of carrying a fetus to term, if carrying the fetus to term were nothing more than a minor inconvenience for the mother, the abortion question wouldn’t be an interesting issue.  But of course there are downsides—big ones.  To bring a child into the world, poorly cared for in the womb, unwanted and unloved by its mother, abandoned by its father, neglected or abused, or growing up in squalor or in an abysmal home—for me, that potential harm eclipses the harm of denying a cell the chance to grow into a person.  Demanding that the state step in and declare that it knows the consequences better than the mother seems an odd position to take for typically conservative Christians.

The pro-life advocate has a quick answer: carry the child to term and give it up for adoption.  But this does nothing to address the problem of the woman unable to or uninterested in caring for herself and the baby properly during the pregnancy.  Or of the baby with identified birth defects.  Unhealthy babies are far more likely to live out their childhood in foster care.

“Just put it up for adoption” is hopeless naïve when only two percent of all births to unmarried women ended in an adoption.  For teen mothers, the rate is even less.  Let’s not pretend that if the mother’s life and home situation aren’t conducive to raising a baby until adulthood that she’ll always put the baby up for adoption.

Even if a teen mother chose to have her baby adopted, the consequences of the pregnancy are dramatic.  She’ll miss school, she’ll be ostracized, and she’ll go through an emotional meat grinder when it comes time to give up her baby.  And since the statistics say she won’t, that she will almost surely keep the baby, she’ll have no chance to get back on track for the life she had planned.

I have a mental image of an anti-abortion activist looking with satisfaction on the girl he just talked out of having an abortion, with no understanding of the shackles he may have placed on her life or the hellish environment to which he has may have consigned that child-to-be.  Infuriating.

The alternative to abortion rights is compulsory pregnancy.  My claims are simple: that (1) some lives are truly abysmal and (2) creating such a life (for the mother or the child) is a bad thing.  I doubt that my argument has convinced any pro-lifers to budge in their position, but I do demand that they acknowledge the terrible burden that making abortion illegal would place on a million women each year.

Next time: What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much.

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Five Emotional Pro-Choice Arguments

In the last post, I argued for a spectrum from a single cell (not a person) to a newborn baby (a person).  This is in response to pro-life advocates who deny this spectrum to argue that we have a “baby” from newborn all the way back to that single cell.

I’d like to make five arguments in favor of my position.  To do that, I’ll try to bypass the intellect to some extent and appeal to emotion.

1. Child vs. Embryos.  Suppose the fertility clinic were on fire, and you could save either a five-year-old child or ten frozen embryos.  Which would you pick?

Of course, everyone would save the child.

But now imagine the same situation two years later.  The ten embryos have become one-year-old babies and the child is now seven years old.  Which would you save?  Obviously, the ten babies.

As an aside, note that the decision in the second instance is much tougher.  In the first, we lost ten insensate embryos, but in the second, it’s a child.  No one equates a newborn or a child with an invisible clump of cells.

2. Different Reactions to Abortion Procedures.  Anti-abortionists focus on the horror of a late-term abortion.  Did you ever wonder why they don’t focus instead on a woman swallowing a Plan B (emergency contraceptive) pill?  Or a drug-induced abortion (the most common procedure for first-trimester abortions)?  Imagine anti-abortion activists carrying signs, not with a photo of an eight-month-old fetus but with life-size drawings of a 100-cell human blastocyst.  The signs would appear blank.

By choosing as they do, they admit that all procedures are not equal and that there is a spectrum.  Their story is more powerful the older the fetus is.  A blastocyst is very unlike a person, but an 8-month-old fetus is very much like a person.

3. Slaughtering Animals for Food.  Which would be more horrible to watch: a woman swallowing a pill of Plan B or a cow going through a slaughterhouse?  The cow can experience fear and pain, while the single cell can experience neither.  The cell’s claim to superiority is only its potential to be a person.

There’s a big difference from what is and what might be.  A blastocyst has impressive potential but has vastly fewer cells than the brain of a fly.  The only trait it shares with a person is its DNA, a vague and abstract commonality.

And there’s no guarantee that our imagined cell will develop properly during pregnancy.  A single cell might become a human baby or not, just like betting $1000 on black at the roulette table might win or not.  With half of all pregnancies ending in spontaneous (natural) abortion, the odds for each are about the same.

4. Cloning and Skin Cells.  Imagine that in ten years we are able to clone a human from a single skin cell.  Would you never scratch your skin to avoid killing a potential human being, like the Jain who wears mesh over his face to avoid accidentally breathing in a flying insect?  And if not—if “potential human being” is very different in your mind from “human being”—then why not see that same difference between a single cell and a newborn baby?

5. Saving Another Person’s Life.  If a blastocyst is a person, would you give up your life for it?  You might risk your life to save a stranger; is the same true for a stranger’s blastocyst?

What we value changes across this spectrum, and, while we might intellectually argue that a human is a human is a human, emotionally we don’t see both ends of the spectrum the same.

Let me make clear that I’m simply arguing for the existence of a spectrum.  We can agree on this and still disagree on when the okay/not-okay line is for abortion.  The status quo seems to resolve this well: society decides on the upper bounds and then allows girls and women to choose.

Show me why a single fertilized human egg cell is equivalent to a trillion-cell newborn.  It’s not equivalent in any important biological sense; why should it be equivalent morally?

Next time: What’s Wrong with the Pro-Life Position?

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A Defense of Abortion Rights: the Spectrum Argument

Christianity and atheism debateA typical pro-life position can be stated this way: (1) human life begins at conception; (2) it is murder to take a human life; therefore (3) abortion is murder and should be considered immoral.

We’ll return to that idea shortly, but first let’s look more closely at human life.  I argue that there is a spectrum of personhood during gestation.

Consider a continuous spectrum from blue to green.  Where’s the dividing line?  Where does blue end and green begin?  We can argue about this, but we agree that blue is not green!  The two ends are very different.

What age is the dividing line between child and adult?  Twelve years?  Eighteen?  Twenty-one?  It’s a spectrum, and there is no objectively correct line.  Again, the line is debatable but no one doubts that a child and an adult are quite different.

An acorn is not a tree, a silkworm is not a dress, a water molecule is not a whirlpool, a piece of hay is not a haystack, and a carton of eggs is not a henhouse of chickens.  Similarly, a single fertilized human egg cell is very different from a one-trillion-cell newborn baby.

Note that this is not simply about the number of cells.  At one end of the personhood spectrum, we have arms and legs, fingers and fingernails, liver and pancreas, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, stomach and digestive system—in fact, every body part that a healthy person has.  And at the other, we have none of this.  We have … a single cell.  In between is a smooth progression over time, with individual components developing and maturing.  That’s the spectrum we’re talking about.

Let’s approach this another way.  Consider a brain with 100 billion neurons versus a single neuron.  The single neuron doesn’t think 10–11 times as fast; it doesn’t think at all.  The differentiation of the cells into different cell types and their interconnections in the newborn may count for even more than the enormous difference in the number of cells.

Note also that the difference between a newborn and an adult is trivial compared to the difference between the cell and the 1,000,000,000,000-cell newborn.

Some pro-life advocates argue that the humans at either end of this spectrum are identical in every meaningful way and use the term “baby” for every point along the spectrum.  I’ve raised babies (with help, of course), and that makes me something of an expert in identifying babies.  As an expert, I can assure you that an invisible cell isn’t a baby.

This inept attempt to collapse the spectrum by using the term “baby” for both ends is like the slogan used by the animal rights group PETA: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”  In other words, there is no spectrum here: vermin are the same as livestock, which are the same as pets, which are the same as people.

No, a rat is not a boy, blue is not green, and a single cell is not a newborn baby.

A lot revolves around what we call this spectrum.  Do we call it Homo sapiens?  With this term, there is no spectrum, because the species is the same—the single cell is Homo sapiens, as is the newborn baby.

What about “human”?  That seems a good name for the spectrum—that is, we would call the newborn human but not the cell.  Or, we might call the cell human but not a human.  Pro-lifers typically reject this, wanting to use “human” for both ends of the spectrum.

All right, can we all agree on “person”?  I’ve heard pro-lifers reject this as well.

This game where pro-lifers deny names to the spectrum can get tiring.  I really don’t care what the spectrum is called—humanity, personhood, human development, like-me-ness, whatever—call it what you want as long as the naming acknowledges the stark difference between the newborn (with arms and legs and a circulatory system and a nervous system and eyes and ears and so on) and the single fertilized human egg cell.

Now, back to the original pro-life argument: (1) human life begins at conception; (2) it is murder to take a human life; therefore (3) abortion is murder and should be considered immoral.  This argument is invalid because it is oblivious to the spectrum.

Pro-lifers claim to be celebrating life, but equating a newborn baby with a single cell doesn’t celebrate life, it denigrates it.

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