There’s a faulty notion that the abortion issue is inherently religious: that one must be a Christian (or at least possess particular subjective beliefs about when life begins) in order to be against abortion. In fact, the pro-life view is founded squarely on modern science.
I wrote about this a couple weeks ago, regarding the scientific consensus that life begins at conception. One of the responses to that post was that the question of when life begins “is only HALF of the abortion debate.” This is certainly true. So let’s lay out both halves of the argument against abortion.
|An AAA-1, or “Modus Barbara” Syllogism,
of which this is one.
Properly understood, the pro-life argument can be reduced to a simple syllogism:
- Major premise (moral / ethical): It is immoral, and should be illegal, to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
- Minor Premise (scientific): An innocent human being is formed at conception / fertilization. This being is distinct from either the mother or the father. In other words, conception creates a new member of the species Homo Sapiens.*
- Conclusion: Abortion is immoral, and should be illegal.
*Now, there may be other moments at which a unique human being is (or could also be) created, whether at the moment of twinning or in an artificial environment. But the fact that human beings might be formed at moments besides conception doesn’t rebut the claim that “a human being is formed at conception / fertilization.”
One advantage to this framework is that you need not be a Christian, or even religious, to hold to these two views, anymore than one needs to be religious to think that murder is always and everywhere wrong.
As I pointed out in the earlier post, there is no legitimate debate over the minor premise. We can say, objectively, that a unique human life begins at conception. In virtually every case, people who claim to be attacking the minor premise (debating when human life begins) are really debating the major premise (whether they think it’s wrong to kill a human being prior to a certain point in human development).
Even the arguments about sentience aren’t really attacking the minor premise. They’re attacking the major premise by redefining what we mean by “human life.” So the only question remaining in the abortion debate is whether it’s ever moral to intentionally kill human beings.
It’s true that this doesn’t end the debate, but it does clarify it. It clarifies that the defenders of abortion aren’t confused over the science (or at least, shouldn’t be). Rather, they’re defending the rather astonishingly claims that not all human lives are worthy of moral or legal protection. At this point, the pro-life side just needs to show that murder is always and everywhere wrong.
I think that is particularly important to use terms which are both clear and objective, as I have found that the defenders of abortion run from both clarity and objectivity in terminology. In this way, the defenders of abortion are behaving like the defenders of any other atrocity: by perverting language to obscure the reality of what they’re defending. George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, railed against this tendency in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. [….]The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
What Orwell describes is precisely what we’ve seen in the debate over abortion, particularly regarding the use of medical jargon and technical scientific terminology, in place of clear English. Let me use a grisly example. A particular abortion procedure involves delivering a child partway, but in the breech position, so that his feet come out first. The abortionist stops the child from being fully delivered by slitting open the back of his skull, and using a suction catheter to suck out his brains, killing him, and crushing his skull.
This mode of execution is called, by pro-lifers, “partial-birth abortion,” a term which is both accurate and clear. But those defending this horrendous practice have hidden themselves behind a wall of euphemisms, referring to it by obscure medical terms like “intact dilation and evacuation,” “dilation and extraction (D&X, or DNX),” and “intrauterine cranial decompression,” terms which no ordinary person understands. Like defending the “elimination of unreliable elements,” it’s easy to justify “intrauterine cranial decompression,” until you realize that what they mean by “cranial decompression” is “sucking out a baby’s brain mid-birth.”
And here, you’ll find defenders of abortion (ironically) running away from objective scientific terminology. Instead of “human organism,” they’ll use terms which are either less descriptive (like “clump of cells,” which could refer to either a human organism or any other organic matter), or meaningless. That is, one typical tactic is to redefine words like “person” to mean whatever one wants it to mean. That’s not an exaggeration: defenders of abortion will say what “personhood” means to them. I am reminded of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
So be on the watch for attempts to retreat into “sheer cloudy vagueness,” to turn the discussion from whether abortion kills a human being, to when a human being is really a “person.” If you find yourself debating someone who insists on making up their own definitions to words like “person,” you might at least call them to have the intellectual integrity to at least make up their own words to describe the realities they are defining. If nothing else, it shows the utter absurdity of redefining terms arbitrarily.