Abortion, Souls, and the Atheist Conundrum

Do You Need God to Know That Abortion is Wrong? That’s a question that I asked recently here and over at Strange Notions. I was prompted by two things: on the one hand, a series of articles defending the idea that we can be moral without God; and on the other, articles like this one, suggesting that opposition to abortion can only be “because God.” Those two positions don’t work together. As I explained in the post,

The pro-life argument is simple: (1) human beings are alive from the moment of fertilization, and (2) it is morally wrong (and ought to be illegal) to intentionally kill innocent human beings. The first point is a scientific one. The second is a moral and legal one, one that science can’t answer. You don’t find human rights under a microscope, and there’s no experiment capable of proving that murder is wrong.

Since the scientific point is clear-cut and settled (it’s inescapable that unique human beings are created at the moment of fertilization), everything turns on point (2). But the intentional killing of innocent human beings is what the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe calls the “hard core” of the definition of murder. So to frame the question slightly differently, to say that abortion is okay, you have to say that (a) murder is at least sometimes okay, and that (b) abortion falls within this class of exceptions.

This has sparked a lively debate, as well as a rebuttal from Steven Dillon, in which he suggested that the unborn were biologically human, but not metaphysically human (and therefore, that abortion was at least sometimes okay). Here’s my response to his argument, showing that the pro-life side doesn’t depend upon metaphysics, and that fetuses are metaphysically human, anyways.

If you’ve heard that “fetuses are just potential humans” argument, you might want to check it out.


  1. Joe (if I may),

    The following argument against abortion may be of some use to you and others. It is sound, provided the interlocutor accepts three uncontroversial assumptions.

    Assumption 1: It is not morally permissible to intentionally kill a one-week-old, human infant (hereafter, “OWOHI”).
    Assumption 2: It is morally permissible to intentionally kill an adult cow.
    Assumption 3: The psychological abilities of an adult cow are more developed than those of an OWOHI.

    Assumptions 1 & 2 are accepted by the vast majority of Americans. Assumption 3 is undeniable. Adult cows have memory, can feel a range of emotions, etc., but OWOHIs cannot.

    The argument has the form modus tollens: If P then Q; not Q; therefore, not P. For example, If it is raining outside, then the ground is wet; the ground is not wet; therefore, it is not raining outside. Arguments of this form are always valid, i.e. if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true.

    Here is the argument: (Premise 1) If it is morally permissible to intentionally kill a human zygote, then it is morally permissible to intentionally kill an OWOHI; (Premise 2) it is not morally permissible to intentionally kill an OWOHI; therefore (Conclusion) it is not morally permissible to intentionally kill a human zygote.

    Because this argument is valid, the conclusion is true just in case the premises are true. Premise 1 is Assumption 1. So, the truth of the conclusion depends on the truth of Premise 2.

    Now, Premise 2 is true unless there is a morally significant difference between a human zygote and an OWOHI. There are, of course, differences between a human zygote and an OWOHI. The latter has toes, but the former does not. However, that difference is not morally significant. (No one would argue that having toes confers a right to life.) Are there any morally relevant differences between a human zygote and an OWOHI? We can answer this question with the help of Assumptions 2 and 3. Given Assumption 2, no attribute possessed by an adult cow can be morally significant. Hence, having a functioning heart or brain, or the ability to feel pain or emotions, are not morally significant attributes. We can call this the “Cow Test.” Given Assumption 3, an OWOHI does not possess any attributes, physical or psychological, that would distinguish it in a morally significant way from a human zygote. It follows that Premise 2 is true, and therefore, so is the conclusion.

    It should be noted that most of the philosophical defenders of abortion accept Premise 2 but reject Premise 1 (Assumption 1). That is, they condone infanticide. To properly deal with that monstrous position requires an examination of personhood and the role it plays in the right to life. And that is a much longer discussion.

    1. Good evening, i’ve lurked this site for a long time and i decided to comment now because this debate is among the most important our civilization is having at the moment so i allways feel compelled to partecipate when i see it referenced. I apologize in advance for any problems anyone might have understanding my English since it’s not my first language.

      If i might ,Tristan, this is a dangerous argument because people like Peter Singer (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer) would then argue that it would be more ethical to spare the cow and kill the infant: he’s perfectly fine with murdering Two year olds and forcing everyone to be vegan, since most adult animals are more “aware” of themselves than two year old humans.
      If i might be perfectly honest, abortion proponents in my experience aren’t people with whom you can have an honest conversation based on reason, for all their arrogance in assuring us that they’ve got science and reason on their side and that everyone else is a stupid analphabet bigot, they seem to be talking from a purely emotive platform based on second hand emotions sold to them by ruthless “intellectuals” still influenced by Gramsci, the Stratsburg’s School and other cutting edge thinkers that were old and dead before i was born.
      The Lord of Hosts will undoubtly smash their illusions in His time, if He plans to save the West like he did at Poitiers in 732. Let’s Pray He’ll give us the Arthur Pendragons, the Friedrich I Barbarossa and the Savonarolas that we need (but not really deserve) to win the physical and Spiritual wars we’re called to fight this generation.
      Yet, telling the Truth allways helps; if only to have proof, years after the fact, that people absolutely expected the horrible things that’ll come to pass by then (in this case outright infanticide legalized in the name of population control, perhaps pedophilia legalized in the name of free expression of one.’a sexuality, and other outright abominations people like Singer allready advocate: the impossible dreams of a generation of “progressist” are allways the Just Fights of the next generation) and further debase the World’s position.
      Another Argument is by logical steps:
      You simply ask at what point in its development, in your interlocutor’s opinion, a “blob of cells” (and how many Times did i hear the Poor Innocents being called like this) effectively becomes an Infant in Development. Your interlocutor will say something to the effect “when the nervous system starts working” (or the heart, or the moment of birth, or the second birthday when the children becomes self aware, some argued to me).
      Then you ask them if such development can happen a couple of days before or after in the embriogenetic process. This might indeed happen in physiological conditions ( i should know having studied these things extensively) and its a widely know medical fact (link anyone that doesn’t believe so to wikipedia, it’s all they deserve). Since then the exact date of each development milestone of the embryo happens within a certain variation of days since conception, each such milestone is an arbitrary point of reference to extabilish the human nature or otherwise of the embryo. The One date that’s not arbitrary and on wich we can talk with 100% certainty is the date of conception. Each and all abortions are then homicides and not the act of “removing a blob of cell” like prochoicers argue.
      Nota Bene: i met once on 4chan someone that, faced with this argument, would tell me that he didn’t really care if abortion was homicide: if convenient, he’d still do it.
      When asked if he would have killed me if he found it convenient, he answered yes, and so did the other free thinking liberal progressive in the thread.
      They probably were just trying to scare me off the thread, but, verily, we fight not against flesh and blood.

      Yours in Christ and through the Holy Ghost in this Day of Pentecost, Lorenzo.

  2. Lorenzo,

    There is no doubt that many defenders of abortion are irrational. And I agree that the argument above cannot be the whole story (hence, my final note). However, for someone who supposes that they are rational and also holds the assumptions above (i.e. most people), the argument can be effective. At the very least, it shows that opposition to abortion need not be religious.

    In order to answer philosophical defenders of abortion (almost all of which make some argument based on a Lockean notion of personhood), we must show that the right to life does not depend on being an actual person.

    1. Tristan, of course your argument is logical and valid. In Truth it’s really well written and would be effective on those that value logic more than their second hand emotions. All i wanted to point out was that, among the proponents of Genocide of today, There’s a precious few of those and a whole lot still following the KGB’s Weapons of Social Mass Destruction.
      As i Also said in my post that’s not to say arguments against this abominations aren’t to be written and shown, just that it is to be done Rosary in hand, that they might reach at least someone willing to listen.

      On “we must show that the right to life does not depend on being an actual person.” I agree conceptually that its a good way to do it, but i took the different approach of demonstrating the futility of imposing an hard boundary moment between personhood and non-personhood in the development of the child. I did so mainly because i studied Embriology extensively in the course of my carreer and i’m sick and tired of the abuse that noble field of study has to suffer.

      “It is interesting how quickly non-theist morality descends into the sort of Malthusian nonsense that led Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to kill millions. Of course, there is nothing scientific about their view of morals.”
      Indeed. Not even Malthus believed Malthusianism and logically refuted it in the latter part of his life.
      There are those that,to preserve poor Gaia of course!, would say that the US constitution could be bent up to sustain compulsory abortions (http://zombietime.com/john_holdren/ ). Some Times i ask myself how thin exactly is the line that Separates our beloved democratically elected politicians from Kim Jong Un.

  3. “This has sparked a lively debate, as well as a rebuttal from Steven Dillon, in which he suggested that the unborn were biologically human, but not metaphysically human (and therefore, that abortion was at least sometimes okay).”

    It is interesting how quickly non-theist morality descends into the sort of Malthusian nonsense that led Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to kill millions. Of course, there is nothing scientific about their view of morals.

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