One might be forgiven for thinking that the ‘pro-life’ position on abortion is an exclusively religious position. It is true that the most vocal and consistent voices in opposition to pre-birth infanticide are those in the Catholic Church and other Christian churches, but to describe the anti-abortion position as one exclusively religious in nature doesn’t do it justice. If considered honestly and rationally, even cold, scientific logic requires us to be pro-life.
Consider, if you will, that the purpose of science (properly applied) is to increase knowledge and support the well-being of all humanity. Obviously, there have been ‘scientists’ who didn’t subscribe to this, but I think most of us can agree—whether religious or atheist—that science and medicine ought to be serving people, not killing them. If we accept this obvious argument, the question then becomes one of how we define humanity. Is an embryo in a woman’s womb a person, or is it a lump of tissue that is just a part of a woman’s body?
Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, science and religion are rarely (if ever) in true conflict with one another. The Catholic Church has, for example, claimed since antiquity that human life begins at the moment of conception. At the time, there was little direct scientific evidence to support this argument; it was an argument purely from faith. Science did not ever disprove, or even shake, this faith position. On the contrary, at every step the increase in scientific knowledge has bolstered the argument that life begins at conception.
We now know that a human zygote—a fertilized egg cell—has its own DNA, unique from that of either mother or father. Scientifically speaking, it is its own organism. It immediately begins to divide itself. This is the first developmental phase of a human being. If you performed a DNA test on a zygote—a single celled organism, formed by sperm and egg—you would find that it matches with the DNA of that human organism at birth, at its tenth birthday, at its twentieth birthday, and at its hundredth birthday. That this is life, albeit in its most rudimentary form, is indisputable . . . even from the atheistic, scientific, irreligious position.
One may, of course, argue that while the zygote—and the blastocyst, embryo, and fetus that follow—is life, it is life that is completely dependent on another for its sustenance. It cannot survive except through the provisions of the mother’s body. This is true. But children are similarly dependent at the very last stages of their gestation in the womb, and still for years after their birth. People who suffer from certain mental disorders are still dependent for their basic sustenance into their adulthood. The elderly are often dependent, especially if they suffer from senility or Alzheimer’s. If it is acceptable to kill a child in the womb—and science has clearly established that it is, indeed, killing—then why would it not be acceptable to kill post-birth children, the mentally ill, and the elderly? Moral consistency demands that we accept the right to kill either in all of these cases, or in none of them.
Accepting that pre- and post-birth children, the mentally ill, and the elderly may be killed at the discretion of those who provide for their sustenance is a consistent moral position, but it is one that even the most ardent ‘pro-choice’ believer would probably be unwilling to subscribe to. Defense of abortion rights, in large part, demands that one take an inconsistent moral position with regard to other human lives that rely entirely on the support of others. In this view, some dependent lives are to be protected, while others live or die based on somebody else’s ‘choice.’
All of the discussion thus-far relies on the predicate position that an un-born child is, indeed, a form of human life indistinguishable from any other human life that relies on another for its sustenance. While I would argue that this position is essentially undeniable, and becomes even more-so as scientific study of human development continues, many take a different position. The battle-cry of the pro-choice movement is, ‘her body, her choice’—an implicit argument that an un-born child is not human life at all, but merely a part of a woman’s body.
Let us accept this argument for the purpose of discussion. Let us imagine that, despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, human life begins at the moment a child emerges from a woman’s birth canal (or through a Caesarean section). Before birth, the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, or fetus is merely a part of a woman’s body. Even if we start from this scientifically and morally incorrect position, one must still take an essentially pro-life position.
Consider, for a moment, what reaction a woman would receive if she decided to ‘terminate’ her perfectly functional left arm. Responsible doctors would unequivocally refuse to perform the surgery. Doctors don’t remove parts of a woman’s body when those parts are healthy and functioning properly; it would be a violation of basic medical ethics to do so. How curious, then, that many doctors have no problem removing a perfectly functional embryo when they would refuse without-discussion the removal of a perfectly functional arm, eye, toe, or nose. Why is one functional, healthy part of a woman’s body sacrosanct and protected while another can be removed by ‘choice?’
Consider, also, that a woman who wishes to remove her left arm would very-likely be considered mentally ill, and would be subsequently referred to psychological counseling to try and convince her not to mutilate herself. It is even possible that she would be committed to an institution as self-destructive and dangerous, depending on how desperately she tries to have the arm removed. If a woman trying to remove one part of her body is likely mentally ill, how come a woman trying to remove another part of her body is simply exercising a ‘choice?’ Where is the moral consistency in that?
Once again, one can take a consistent moral position that people should be able to do whatever they want to their bodies, whether it be removing a fetus or removing an arm. However, it seems that most would prefer to have some basic legal and professional protections against people mutilating themselves. If we don’t think a woman has the right to choose to remove her arm, then why should she have a right to choose to remove a fetus?
The ‘part of a woman’s body’ position still allows for killing of the child in cases of rape and incest, or in cases where the child is not healthy (e.g., suffering from serious illness) . . . but it would not allow for ‘convenience’ abortions, which make up the overwhelming majority of abortions in the United States. If we demand moral consistency, even the most ‘abortion-friendly’ position (that doesn’t permit the killing of other dependents like young children and the elderly or destructive self-mutilation) would still only permit abortion in cases of rape, incest, serious illness, and to protect the life of the mother.
Lastly, the media tries to pigeonhole the abortion argument as being between civil libertarians and hyper-religious, theistic Nazis. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As demonstrated here, even when you exclude the religious argument there are still strong, scientific, logical arguments in favor of the pro-life position. Furthermore, the basic pro-life position is enshrined in the foundational political documents of our country.
Thomas Jefferson—applauded by many atheists and humanists for his essentially irreligious approach to life and morality—wrote in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The U.S. Constitution declares in the Fifth Amendment that “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property. . . . ” These aren’t the quaint ideas of the religious right; they are the declarations of some of the most influential liberal thinkers in the development of democratic political theory. They, like anybody who analyses it rationally, recognized that a protected right to life was a prerequisite for all other civil liberties.
In truth, the idea that there is a fundamental right to life is a liberal idea. It is an idea that demands adherence to scientific reality in opposition to the societal status-quo. It is an idea that expects those who ‘have’ (i.e., parents) to be willing to sacrifice something of themselves to provide for the well-being of the ‘have-nots’ (i.e., their unborn children). It is an idea that compassionately sees humanity in people who might seem un-human. It is an idea that won’t let you forget or ignore somebody just because they are hidden from view, or imperfect.
In other words, the pro-life position is the position of the enlightened, scientific, liberal, atheistic humanist—if he analyses the matter honestly—just as much as it is the position of the devout, conservative, Catholic Christian. Science and faith are in perfect accord when properly considered and studied . . . and both demand that we be pro-life.