I used to be very agnostic about abortion. If someone asked my opinion on that issue, I’d say I was pro-choice and anti-abortion, which, in my mind, meant something along the lines of, “I would prefer not to see abortions happen, but ultimately the mother’s ‘right to privacy’ and her decision should be respected”. More than that, I thought the whole thing was just a convenient political distraction that conservatives could use to rile up their base and keep people from focusing on more important issues, such as the economy or foreign policy. If anyone claimed that abortion was a “holocaust of the unborn”, I would automatically dismiss their views as a form of reckless extremism.
Despite all of the politics and the abundance of ulterior motives surrounding this controversial abortion issue, the underlying question still remains and must be answered – are we a dealing with a modern holocaust? Such a word cannot be used lightly. I believe the best way to answer this question is to set up a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that the U.S. Constitution was amended and state legislatures began establishing a regulatory system that allowed women the right to justifiably kill their infant children who are less than a week old, under certain circumstances. One such circumstance would be if the child was a result of rape or incest, for example. Another circumstance would be if the child was born with severe mental retardation or another debilitating condition.
I’m sure everyone agrees that this system would be a gross perversion of morality. So the question becomes, is there any reason to assign a different measure of protection to the unborn child than we would to the day or week-old child? In terms of Christian theism, I believe it is very clear that they must be afforded equal protection, as they are both made in the image of God and derive full human status from conception. Scripture repeatedly reminds us of this status for the conceived yet unborn. Job rhetorically asks, “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same form us both within our mothers” (Job 31:15). God speaks to the prophet Jeremiah saying, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you“.
As we approach the incarnation, an angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah and tells him that his son, John the Baptist, will be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Elizabeth later tells Mary that “the baby in my womb leaped for joy” at the sound of her greeting (Luke 1:44). Above all, we are reminded that we “do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child” (Ecclesiastes 11:5). Considering all of the above, the scriptures portray the sanctity of the unborn child’s life as being equal to that of a born child, and warns us not to arbitrarily decide when a human soul or spirit is imparted to an unborn child, because that is solely within the purview of our Creator. Yet, we may still ask whether science or philosophical reasoning confirms this perspective of Biblical scripture.
Is their any scientific reason to treat an unborn child as being any less human, or any less deserving of protection, than a day or week-old child? I believe the clear answer to that question is no. It turns out that science supports the Biblical notion that an unborn child becomes a distinct, living and whole human organism from conception. Scott Klusendorf is an outspoken pro-life advocate who presents compelling scientific and philosophical arguments in his book, The Case for Life.
In its 1859 Report on Criminal Abortion, the American Medical Association (AMA) understood that “the independent and actual existence of the child before birth as a living being” was a scientific truth. Nothing has changed since that time. For the past 150 years doctors have known that life begins at conception.
Nonetheless, Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine insists that we gain no real knowledge from these scientific facts. Bailey argues that embryonic human beings are biologically human only in the sense that every cell in the body carries the full genetic code, meaning that each of our somatic (bodily) cells has as much potential for development as any human embryo. Put simply, Bailey would have us believe that there is no difference in kind between a human embryo and each of our cells.
This is bad biology. Bailey is making the rather elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes. The difference in kind between each of our cells and a human embryo is clear: An individual cell’s functions are subordinated to the survival of the larger organism of which it is merely a part. The human embryo, however, is already a whole human entity. Robert George and Patrick Lee say it well. It makes no sense to say that you were once a sperm or somatic cell. However, the facts of science make clear that you were once a human embryo. “Somatic cells are not, and embryonic human beings are, distinct, self-integrating organisms capable of directing their own maturation as members of the human species.”
Dr. Maureen Condic points out that embryos are living human beings “precisely because they possess the single defining feature of human life that is lost in the moment of death – the ability to function as a coordinated organism rather than merely as a group of living cells.” Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, explains the important distinction between individual parts and whole human embryos overlooked by Bailey:
“The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner.”
From conception forward, human embryos clearly function as whole organisms. “Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.”
(pictures of aborted humans excluded due to graphic nature – found here)
We can also ask whether there are any philosophical differences of moral significance between the unborn and the born, i.e. should the size, level of growth/development, level of dependency, surrounding environment, etc. of a being have any impact on its human status? Most of these philosophical objections are easily dealt with by comparing the unborn child with a day-old child or a born child with debilitating conditions, or by comparing two born human beings with different characteristics. It then becomes clear that any such differences are superficial and cannot possibly justify treating the unborn as anything less than human, subject to legally sanctioned termination.
Philosophically, there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. As Stephen Schwarz points out using the acronym SLED, differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant in the way that abortion advocates need them to be.
Size: Yes, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more valuable than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean that they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.
Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than you and I. But again, why is this relevant? Four year-old girls are less developed than 14 year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? Some people say that self-awareness makes one valuable. But if that is true, newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Six-week old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing human mental functions, as do the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, and those with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Environment: Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? If not, how can a journey of eight inches down the birth-canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from non-valuable tissue mass to valuable human being? If the unborn are not already human and valuable, merely changing their location can’t make them so.
Degree of Dependency: If viability bestows human value, then all those who depend on insulin or kidney medication are not valuable and we may kill them. Conjoined twins who share blood type and bodily systems also have no right to life.
In short, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal (and valuable) because they share a common human nature. Humans have value simply because of the kind of thing they are, not because of some acquired property they may gain or lose during their lifetimes.
Abraham Lincoln raised a similar point with slavery, noting that any argument used to disqualify blacks as subjects of rights works equally well to disqualify many whites.
“You say ‘A’ is white and ‘B’ is black. It is color, then: the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are a slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own.
Most other objections to legislating against abortion are also superficial in nature. If economic, physical or emotional distress cannot justify the killing of an infant child by the parents, then it cannot justify the killing of an unborn child. Avoiding the creation of a black market also does not justify murder. From the time of conception, we are dealing with a full human being that must be afforded the protections fitting of God’s image. Economic and foreign policy are certainly important, but the issue of abortion cannot possibly be called a distraction – it is a mass slaughter that is happening each and every day, all around the world. Since the 1973 legalization of abortion in the U.S. alone, about 50 million abortions have been performed, with about 1.2 million occurring each year.
Only the word “holocaust” can be used to describe such a slaughter of innocent and defenseless human beings. Even if we were to assume that murder via abortion is justified in certain cases, such as when there are severe physical risks to the mother, that in no way explains why women are allowed to terminate their pregnancies within the first trimester for just about any reason – abortion on demand. It is truly abhorrent to think about the sacred human potential that is legally being destroyed every day in this world. As the prophet Jeremiah told us – “For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” (Jeremiah 20:8).
Jeremiah was constantly protesting against the extreme iniquity and injustice of his day, forcing those around him to confront the reality of their depraved actions or indifference, and they hated him for it. So too have Americans and others around the world become indifferent to the reality of our holocaust of the unborn, pretending that it can be justified or that it’s not such a big deal to begin with. We are confronted with God’s word to hold ALL human life sacred and we respond with political agendas, personal attacks and derision, while the unborn continue to be massacred. Yet it is clear that the U.S. Constitution does not protect anyone’s right to slaughter innocent human beings, and neither does God.