What the Abortion Debate is About:
It’s about who counts as one of us. That is, are the unborn members of the human family? Everything else is a distraction. The list of distractions is lengthy.
It’s not about love or hate. What’s driving the abortion controversy is not who loves women and who hates them. Rather, it’s a serious philosophical debate about who counts as one of us. Either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life, or you don’t.
It’s not about character flaws. The fact that Margaret Sanger was a racist who promoted eugenics does nothing to prove that abortion is wrong or that the pro-life postion is true. Again, arguments stand or fall on their merits, not their origins.
It’s not about psychology. True, many women regret their abortions. However, many others do not. What follows? Nothing follows in terms of the rightness or wrongness of abortion. The swiftest rejoinder to a sign reading “I regret my abortion” is one reading “I don’t regret mine.” Both signs speak to the psychological state of the subject, not the morality of the act itself. Abortion is not wrong because a woman regrets having one. It’s wrong because it intentionally kills an innocent human being. Thus, while post-abortion experiences help us understand the personal feelings of those involved (and that is important for healing), they do not speak to the moral question of abortion. My feelings about something don’t determine whether it is right or wrong.
It’s not about lost benefits. Pro-life advocates sometimes forget their own argument! Abortion is not wrong because it kills future doctors or future artists. It’s wrong because it intentionally kills an innocent human being, regardless of his or her eventual gifting or brilliance. Put simply, it’s just as wrong to intentionally kill a homeless man with a 5th grade education as it is to intentionally kill Steve Jobs!
It’s not about middle ground. Legally, the abortion issue defies compromise. The state either recognizes the humanity of the unborn and thus protects them, or it doesn’t and thus permits killing them. Imagine it’s 1860 and the Supreme Court says, “We take no position on whether or not slaves are human beings. When scientists, philosophers, and theologians can’t agree on that question, the court is in no position to decide. Therefore, individual slave owners can choose for themselves whether to free their slaves or keep them.” A court that rules that way is not neutral. It’s taking the position that slaves do not deserve the same liberties free people do. Likewise, when the Supreme Court declared in Roe and Doe (1973) that it did not know when life began and thus, for all practical purposes, abortion was legal through all nine months of pregnacny, it took a position that the right to life begins at birth and not before! Thus, the court really did claim to know when life began! It begins at a point that excludes the unborn! That is hardly a neutral position.
It’s not about a surgical procedure. If having an abortion is morally equivalent to removing your appendix, there would be no debate. However, like slavery in the 1860s, the underlying controversy is one of philosophical anthropology — namely, who counts as one of us? That foundational question isn’t going away anytime soon. Until it’s decisively settled, you can expect more controversy.
It’s not about metaphysical neutrality. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines fundamental reality or, if you will, the ultimate grounding and nature of things. Questions like, What is human nature? and, What makes humans valuable in the first place? are metaphysical questions. Though some deny it, the abortion controversy is, in large measure, a metaphysical debate between two rival views of human value: the endowment view vs.the performance view:
- Pro-life advocates, following Lincoln and The Declaration of Independence, hold to an endowment view of human value. That is, humans are intrinsically valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are, not some function they perform. Although they differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their Maker. Their right to life comes to be when they come to be.
- Abortion-choice advocates more or less espouse a performance view of human value. Being human is nothing special. What matters is your ability to immediately exercise an acquired property like self-awareness, desires, sentience, or some other cognitive function. Humans who have yet to exercise these functions (or who can no longer do so) are human beings, but they are not persons with rights. In short, your value as a person is grounded in your performance, not your nature as a human being.
Some critics of the pro-life view seek to disqualify it from the public square due to its alleged ties to the metaphysics of religion. They insist on metaphysical neutrality, meaning the abortion debate should be decided absent any appeals to ultimate reality. But as Beckwith points out, metaphysical neutrality on abortion is impossible.
- First, notice that both positions — the endowment view and the performance view — use philosophical reflection to answer the same metaphysical question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? That question is inherently religious and defies compromise. Either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life or you don’t. Pick a side. There is no neutral ground here. That’s why abortion debates can heat up in a heartbeat.
- Second, because both sides of the abortion controversy presuppose a metaphysical starting point that is inherently religious, attempts to disqualify the pro-life view for its alleged ties to the metaphysics of religion work equally well to disqualify the abortion-choice view. Again, both sides are asking the same metaphysical question: What makes humans valuable in the first place?
- Thus, saying an embryo has value and a right to life is no more religious than saying it doesn’t. It’s also no more religious than saying a 10-year-old has a value and a right to life.
It’s not about moral neutrality. If you believe that all moral views are equally valid, you are not neutral. You are espousing moral relativism, a view that says right and wrong are either up to the individual or his or her society, not any objective truths we discover. Morality, like choosing your favorite flavor of ice cream, is strictly a matter of personal preference. Relativism is not neutral. Relativists think they are right and non-relativists are wrong. If not, why do they correct non-relativists who argue that moral truth is real and knowable?
It’s not about legal neutrality. Either the state recognizes the humanity of the unborn and thus protects them or it doesn’t and thus permits killing them. Let’s revisit an earlier example that lends itself to clarity here. Suppose it’s 1860 and the Supreme Court takes no position on the humanity of slaves, but affirms the legal right to own them. Would this be neutral?
Again, it’s about one question that trumps all others: Who counts as one of us? Can we kill the unborn? That depends: What is the unborn?
- Lesson #1: Clearing the Ground
- Lesson #2: Abortion & Worldviews
- Lesson #3: What is the Unborn?
- Lesson #4: What Makes Humans Valuable? Part 1: The Substance View of Human Beings
- Lesson #5: What Makes Humans Valuable? Part 2: Specific Academic Challenges to the Substance View
- Lesson #6: What About Those Who Bite the Bullet?