Monday, March 4, 2013

Why We Need A Secular Argument Against Abortion

Many pro-life advocates use the Bible in making their arguments. While the Bible does have a lot to say about the unborn and about the value of human life in general, the use of Biblical arguments in the discussion of abortion’s legality is often well-intentioned, but misguided.

You see, laws in this country are not based on religion. In fact, our Founding Fathers specifically planned to create a nation where religious freedom was protected. In order to do that, one must have a secular country based on logical principles, not a theocracy. 

History has shown that government based upon religion inevitably persecutes those who disagree with the religion in power. Many, if not most, of those who came to America and founded this nation came to escape religious persecution. They knew firsthand the dangers of living in a church state. They wanted to ensure freedom for all, so they set up a secular government and laid out basic principles to limit the government’s power and prevent oppression of the people. Their principles were based on the concept of inalienable rights – rights that are innate in every human being and which government cannot grant or take away. These rights include the right to life, liberty, ownership of property, religion, a fair trial, and many others – all developed from basic logical principles. And, in this country, laws are to be made by the people, but only in accordance with these principles so that no one's rights will be violated.

Of course, these logical principles are quite consistent with a Biblical worldview – and not by accident. The concept of inalienable rights, for example, comes from the view that mankind is the product of a Creator who has endowed them with these rights. Religious freedom is also consistent with the Bible. After all, even God Himself does not force Himself upon anyone, but gives all people the free choice to choose Him or not. But one cannot enforce every doctrine from the Bible in a secular society. There are things that are wrong, according to the Bible, which cannot be made law. How would one, for example, make lust or coveting illegal? And while the Bible commands us to remember the Sabbath day, one cannot enforce this on all people within a society without violating their freedom of religion. Thus, not everything that is wrong should be illegal.
How does one decide, then, what should and should not be legal in a secular society? The answer lies in applying these basic logical principles and in protecting the human rights of all the people. Thus, murder should be illegal – not because the Bible says it is wrong, but because such a behavior violates the inalienable right to live of the victim and because allowing such behavior is bad for society. Similarly, theft should be illegal – not because the Bible says it is wrong, but because theft violates the right to own property of the victim, and because theft is bad for society.
If we hope to make abortion illegal we must use these same basic principles and develop a secular argument for the rights of the unborn. It is this secular argument we MUST be making if we are to succeed. Many of us who are pro-life are Christians and have religious reasons to believe that abortion is morally wrong according to the Bible. However, that does not mean that abortion should be illegal in a secular society. We have to make the right argument if we are going to produce change.

So here is a secular argument that abortion should be illegal.

To begin our argument we must first show that the unborn are living human beings. After all, only humans have human rights. To do that, we use science.  

Science uses criteria such as growth, responsiveness to the environment, movement, and metabolism (using food for energy) in order to distinguish life from non-life. Living things, including a single-celled human zygote, show these characteristics and non-living things do not.

So, it’s quite obvious from science that the unborn are living things. What kind of living thing depends on what the parents are. Obviously, the offspring of human parents is human. This is confirmed by the presence of distinctly human DNA and a human pattern of development. Thus, it is clear from science that the product of human sperm and egg is alive and human.

Of course, even sperm and egg cells show characteristics of being alive and they have human DNA, but they are not separate organisms. A sperm or egg cell is simply a piece of an adult human’s body that is essentially broken off and on its own (just like a skin cell can be removed from the body and stay alive for a little while). So sperm and eggs are alive, but not capable by themselves of being anything more than a piece of the body they came from. But once a sperm and egg meet, a radical event takes place that forms a completely new entity. This new cell, a zygote, has a complete and unique set of human DNA that lays out the entire plan for its whole body.

Individual cells that are part of a larger body work to grow and preserve the larger body and are not important in themselves. All that matters is that the body survives, even at the expense of some of the cells. Thus, each cell works for the goal of supporting the body, not preserving itself. Once a zygote is formed, however, this new individual now works as a separate unit toward the goal of growing, preserving, and developing himself. He no longer functions as a part of another body, but forms a new body all his own. The zygote is in fact a new individual, different from both parents, that is already either male or female and which follows the distinct pattern of human development. It just takes time for him or her to grow. But all the information for building the adult body is there from the beginning. The development of the organs and organ systems is just a matter of time, but the instructions are already in place in the zygote, as is the ability to function as a separate entity. This is all well-understood science and can be found in any introductory biology textbook.

So, it is very clear from science that a zygote is a separate, living human individual. The argument that a human zygote is not alive or is not human has already been thoroughly debunked by science.

The newer argument put forth by the pro-choice bunch is that a zygote or embryo isn’t a person (which is a question of value, not science, and thus can’t be answered by science). Basically, the pro-choicers are trying to claim that not all humans are people, which is a very dangerous thing to claim.

The million-dollar question is, if not all humans are persons, then how do we know who is a person? When does personhood begin? Some say at birth. Some say at viability. Some say when the heart begins to beat. Some say when they’re self-conscious. So who gets to decide which definition of personhood is right? And what if they’re wrong? What if they’re allowing real persons to be killed? History says that’s what happens when you try to separate personhood and humanity. We’ve used other definitions of personhood in the past – definitions that excluded some members of the human race. But every time we have claimed that some human beings were not persons, we have been wrong.

At one time, our country claimed that blacks were not persons. Thus they were enslaved and mistreated as their inalienable rights were ignored and denied. The same thing has been done throughout history. Certain groups have been denied legal personhood in order to ignore their innate rights. In Nazi Germany, for example, the Jews were not legal persons, and thus the Holocaust, in which 6 million were slaughtered, was completely legal. It’s very convenient to claim that those you wish to kill or exploit are not persons. Thus, it’s a very common rationalization when one wishes to ignore the rights of others.

Every time we have claimed that some human beings were not persons, we have been wrong. Every time. And it led to horrific results. What is happening now is that we are saying that the unborn are not persons. And, not surprisingly, their rights are being ignored and they are being slaughtered.

But it’s not logical or right to claim that a human being must be born in order to be a person any more than it is to claim that a human being must be white or male or non-Jewish in order to be a person. Logically, all humans must be persons. To deny that is to use some arbitrary criteria for what constitutes a person and thus exclude some humans from that definition. Historically, that has always been wrong and has led to terrible tragedies of justice. What needs to happen is that we recognize and protect the inalienable rights of ALL human beings, born and unborn.

In claiming that the unborn are not persons, what the pro-choice side is really arguing is that we, as a society, decide who has rights. But rights don't come from society or from government. If government grants them, then government can decide, arbitrarily, to take them away from anyone they please. This country was founded on a different proposition – a radical idea that people have innate rights that are not dependent on government. That it is fundamentally wrong for anyone, even government, to violate these rights. These are known as inalienable rights – innate rights of all humans that cannot be taken away for any reason. It is on this fact – this higher law – that our case for the rights of the unborn rests. And it was this higher law on which our Constitution was built.


The truth is, the unborn do have inalienable rights. They are human beings with the same rights as all other human beings. And those rights should be protected in a secular society just as the rights of all other humans should be. This can be demonstrated with science and logic and can convince even those who do not believe the Bible. More importantly, this is WHY abortion should be illegal – not because the Bible says it is wrong, but because abortion is a violation of basic human rights. All people should be in favor of protecting the rights of all human beings, regardless of their religion.

Linked up with Time-Warp Wife, NOBH, WLWW, and WFMW.


  1. As time goes by and more and more is revealed I believe Science can be help certain causes, but as the society travels further and further from absolutes it is difficult to use any argument that can compel someone who believes that truth is relevant.
    Great points however. Everytime I see statements of what a fetus can do, feel, experience, I wonder how the "life" argument can stay in place?
    Keep up the God work.

  2. You are very right that it is crucial to use secular arguments when advocating changes in the law.

    The particular argument you laid out here is fine as far as it goes. The flaw is that it does not acknowledge the rights, needs, or desires of the woman who wants to have an abortion. While the embryo or fetus is indeed human and unique, it is not a SEPARATE person: It will not survive if separated from its mother. (It's true that some abortions are done so late in pregnancy that the fetus might be able to survive--with medical care that would be quite expensive to the taxpayers and/or insurance policy holders--but the majority of abortions are much earlier.) Your argument will not convince many pro-choice people unless you can explain in secular terms why the embryo's right to grow and be born is more important than the woman's right to decide whether or not to spend many months hosting someone inside her own body who is draining her strength, increasing her health care needs and food budget, and in many cases making her sick; and then to devote at least a full day to getting this person out of her body via a difficult, usually painful, and sometimes life-threatening process from which she'll need several weeks to recover. You've got to address the rights of that person, too.

    1. The question of whether or not someone is a separate person and whether or not they can survive on their own are totally unrelated. For example, a person on life-support cannot survive on their own, but they are still a separate individual, not part of someone else's body or a part of the machine that keeps them alive. Conjoined twins are still separate people with different personalities, even though they are attached to someone else's body (and in many cases could not survive if they were separated). In the same way, an unborn child is a separate individual even though he is attached to his mother and relies on her for survival. He is his own person, not a part of his mother's body.

      And of course dependency is not reason to kill someone. The fact that a child is dependent on his parents (both before and after birth) does not give them license to kill him. Since he is a living human being and has the right to live, the parents cannot kill him simply because he is needy and vulnerable.

      As for speaking of the woman's rights, I am all for the rights of women. Of course, their rights are already being protected, which is why I speak up for the rights of the unborn, which are not being protected. But I will never advocate ignoring or violating the rights of women. However, no one has a right to kill another innocent human being and a woman does not gain that right when she becomes pregnant.

      We all have rights, but those rights end where the rights of others begin. We have a right to make free choices, for example, as long as our free choices do not infringe on the rights of others. And we must take responsibility for the consequences of our free choices. With freedom comes responsibility. We don't have the right to saddle others with the negative results of our choices in order to get out of our responsibilities. Thus, when a woman consents to sex, she implicitly consents to the natural consequences of her actions, which include pregnancy. She doesn't have a right to kill her unborn child in order to get out of the responsibility to care for him.

      As for your question about "why the embryo's right to grow and be born is more important than the woman's right to decide," that's very simple. First of all, the woman already decided when she chose to have sex. But, more importantly, whenever there is a conflict of rights, the right to life always trumps all other rights. You can't have rights if you're dead, so violating someone's right to life also violates all their other rights as well. So if it's a question of violating a woman's right to choose versus violating the right to life (and all other rights) of her child, the right to life should win.

      What it really comes down to is that a woman's right to choose is limited by the rights of others around her, including the rights of her unborn child. This is the way all rights work for all people. Your right to choose anything is limited by the rights of those around you. You only have a right to choose things that do not harm others.

    2. If anyone attempts to use the Violinist argument, here's a simple refutation:

      "The strength of this argument is that it grants the full humanity of the fetus and therefore sidesteps the rather poor arguments we saw above. The weakness of this argument is that it is an argument from analogy. Arguments from analogy destruct if they rest on fatal disanalogies.

      Besides many of the other problems pro-lifers have pointed out, here's a big one. Thompson seems to make a distinction between consent to pregnancy and consent to sex (as Beckwith and others point out). But it seems that pregnancy is the designed result of sex, even though it may not be the desired result. It would seem that our sex organs have the purpose of being ordered towards procreation. Applying this to the violinist then: What if I engaged in an activity, say, spelunking, that regularly created rare kidney diseases in violinists? Say that every time I dropped 50 ft into the cave, a violinist was almost sure to develop the disease that only I had the blood type to correct or fix. If I did so, should I not be hooked up to him, voluntarily or not? Say that there was protection, some kind of spelunking helmet. Say that it was not 100% effective. If my helmet ripped, should I be attached to the violinist? Or say I tried to "pull up" before I hit 50 ft. Unfortunately, it felt so good to decend that I pulled up a little too late and my right foot passed the 50 ft mark. Should I be attached to the violinist? I don’t see why not. Indeed, say that the statistical evidence was that the first two people that ever spelunked together would eventually cause 6 billion violinists to come down with rare kidney diseases, I dare say the Society of Music Lovers, and almost everyone else for that matter, would call for abstaining from spelunking unless you agreed to take care of the violinists until they got better. This seems fatal to Thompson’s argument."

  3. Lindsay is exactly right. The right to life argument does not rest on any religious doctrine or text. Rather, there is a completely secular argument (based completely upon science and logic) to be made for the right to life of unborn human beings. This argument is a rational one - not a religious one, and therefore, makes a better foundation upon which to make law.

    First, one must recognize that science has conclusively proven that conception results in a complete, unique and distinct human individual who has a body of his very own (i.e. his body is not simply an extension of his mother's body). Every bit of that statement is completely accurate and is not debated by any educated biologist. At the point of conception, a new, complete, unique and distinct human being comes into existence (i.e. begins to live). Of course, one's life can be divided into various arbitrary stages - beginning with the single-celled zygote and ending with elderly adult (passing continuously through such stages as embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, child, adolescent, adult, etc.). However, in each and all of these stages the individual is a complete human being, and there is no qualitative difference between an individual in one stage and one in another stage - they are all equally human. This is all based on observational science, not on opinion or anything religious.

    Second, science has yet to discover any sort of magic that happens during birth which makes the individual being born any more human. Aside from being born, there is nothing special that happens to a human being during the birth process. The body of the human being is exactly the same shortly before birth as it is shortly after birth. The birth itself does not make any fundamental changes to his body. Of course, his body changes over time, but that process begins at conception and does not end until the individual becomes an adult. (Actually, it continues to change slowly after that, as well.) The point is that birth is just one event in one's life, and most certainly does not mark the beginning of one's life. Once again, this is based entirely upon science. It is not based upon any religious doctrine or text.

  4. So let me review, according to observational science, conception results in a new human being who is just as human as any other human being, and birth is nothing more than one event in that person's life and is not the beginning of that person's life.

    Therefore, since science has shown that nothing happens in the life of a human being (from the point of conception onward) which makes the individual any more human, it is only logical to conclude that all human beings (from the point of conception onward) possess the exact same inalienable right to life, regardless of value that other humans place on them. In other words, unborn human babies must possess the exact same right to life that the rest of us possess, and should therefore have the exact same legal protection.

    Now, without using some religious doctrine, one may have a hard time showing that there is any such thing as an "inalienable" right to live. However, this argument is based solely on the logical conclusion that all human beings must have the exact same right to live as all other humans, regardless of age, gender, race, etc., and should logically therefore have the exact same legal protection. In other words, if we are going to make it illegal to kill someone who is old enough to be born, we are logically bound to provide the same legal protection to those other human beings who are not yet old enough to be born.

    By the way, this does not diminish the rights of women when they become pregnant because no one (including women) have the right to kill another innocent human being, anyway. They do not have that right when they are not pregnant, and they do not acquire that right when they become pregnant. It is simply logical to conclude that their rights do not change (diminish or increase) when they become pregnant.

    Moreover, the argument that the law should be changed does not mean that we wish to remove some rights that women currently have over their body. As I have already shown logically, the right to abort does not actually exist. Thus, the argument is simply that the law currently allows women to do things that they currently do not have a right to do, and so changing the law would not remove or limit any rights that actually exist now.

    As you can see, it is not necessary to use religion or religious doctrine to defend the right to life position, nor to argue for the abolition of human abortion. This secular argument is based solely on observational science and rational thinking. That said, I am not maligning religion in any way. We all have certain religious beliefs. However, one does not need to resort to one's religion in order to make the right to life argument, nor to make law accordingly.

  5. Actually, Becca, you don't have to address those things at all because in America, we have declared inalienable rights. So all we really need to do is prove the fetus is a person to make abortion illegal again. But you brought up some valid points. Here are a few more. How many abortions is too many abortions? Do we need to limit the number of abortions a woman is legally allowed to get, basing this law on the idea that they are being reckless with human life? And if we are going to address the right of a woman not to be pregnant, do we not also need to address the right of an unborn woman to be born, no matter how small she is currently? Maybe what we need is a new design for birth control. Suppose all men who want to be sexually active are required to get on male birth control (there's a pill -- I just heard about it and am delighted that they can finally share the hormonal burden with us). Suppose all women who want to be sexually active are required to purchase or are eligible for a reversible tubal ligation or men a reversible vasectomy. This is the 21st century. Can we not figure out a medical way to eliminate the need for abortion altogether and thus end this ethical struggle once and for all? If we can alter the gender of a human being, why can't we fix this??? And it would be highly profitable for pharma companies and the medical profession, too. Win-win (but for the insurance companies). I'd just really like to see larger thoughts on this issue rather than the same banter. I'm a Christian woman, but I rarely use Christian arguments to support my pro-life views. I use real life examples. My daughter got pregnant at 17. I know what this looks like. We were in the process of losing our home at the time. I know how tough it can be financially, emotionally, physically, etc. Yet her son is the joy of all our lives now. What seems like a crisis at those early gestational stages can quickly become exciting. Women are wired to mother their offspring. But that wiring doesn't always kick in immediately. We're in a very real sense denying women the ability to get to the stage where they want their unborn baby by offering them a way out early. There are all sorts of reasons to abort -- for the woman, I mean. But the baby has zero reasons to want it. We've decided arbitrarily that adult and teenaged women's decisions bear more weight than those of a gestating human. We've also decided that the elderly matter less in our society. Again arbitrarily. Using logic, there's no real basis for these decisions. They get to decide because the baby resides within their bodies? So they bear no responsibility for creating that life within them then? None at all? They can make it and bake it or make it and destroy it? Either way is okay? That doesn't sound very logical or ethical. I could go on... Lots to think through. But Becca, calling a mother a host to an unwanted guest who is draining her strength, increasing her healthcare needs and food budget, making her sick, etc., removes completely her responsibility for creating that human person within. The child didn't ask to be hosted. She was put there by a mom and a dad. I understand all the statements you made. I've had four children. Pregnancy is no picnic. Neither is childbirth, although I've ad a couple that were easy. But the decision to parent or not to parent CAN be made prior to coitus. And should be if we're to avoid ethical issues. And why not? I mean, are we that lazy or horny or whatever that we can't at least TRY to use birth control or abstain? Even reducing the number of abortions to those where birth control failed would take the numbers WAY down. Could we shoot for that, at least? Education. Birth Control. Abstinence. Self-control. These things can save a life.

  6. Doug, I completely agree. Where it gets sticky, though, is in vitro fertilization and frozen embryos and such. We might have to chuck all that if we're truly going to equalize things. That would be difficult for the barren woman. But if she wants to adopt, they may be more babies available. :)

    1. In-vitro fertilization would definitely have to be done differently if the laws were to change and make abortion illegal. The way it is done now is very irresponsible with human life. However, there are ways to make in-vitro more responsible so that it doesn't destroy human life. For one thing, doctors can produce fewer embryos and implant all of them. Or couples undergoing in-vitro could have other couples lined up to adopt and gestate their unused embryos. Or unused embryos could be implanted and gestated by the same couple later on. In all of these scenarios, no embryos are created and then discarded. If my husband and I were ever to try in-vitro, we would only create embryos that were going to be implanted and have a chance to live. There is no excuse for creating and then discarding human life because it isn't convenient. That goes for in-vitro and for normal pregnancies as well.

  7. and how many of you are going to help the people you have force to give birth afterward? how many of you go out at night to help these people whether they kept the child you have force on them and need help at 3am, or who will get off their computers when they are in need of emotional support after they gave it up for adoption. which one of you will adopt the 6 other children aged between 1 and 15 after their mother dies in childbirth? I'm guessing none of you so called christians would step away from your computers and do any of it.

    1. Even IF you were right (though you aren't) and none of us pro-life people ever helped or plan to help a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, that doesn't mean the unborn child should be killed. He has a right to live, regardless of who does or doesn't help his mother.

  8. There is no argument within this at all. It's is nobody else's choice but the woman who is carrying the unborn fetus. It is nobody else's right to decide what she can or cannot do. My mom had an abortion because of financial issues where that child would have put the family into a financial hardship. Both my mom and dad agreed that the abortion was the best route at that time (mind you this was in the late 60's). Do I think any less of her (or my dad) for this decision...absolutely not. Do I worry about what other people think....I honestly could care less. It's the woman's decision and ONLY the woman carrying the unborn fetus. Nobody else....especially a man can make that decision for her.

    1. Why should a mother get to decide if her child will continue to live or not? We don't allow her that power after birth. That child in her womb is just as much of a human being as any child that has already been born. He isn't the property of his mother. He's her responsibility, but not her property - just like any other child.

  9. You might like Secular Pro-life. They have some useful material, including a great take-down of a religious abortion-lover at Don't Impose Your Science on Me!.

    The main weakness is that science can prove the humanity of the unborn. It can't prove that murder is wrong. See Abortion ‘after birth’? Medical ‘ethicists’ promote infanticide.

    1. You're right that science cannot address the morality of abortion. For that reason, I tend to avoid making the argument that abortion is wrong and say that abortion should be illegal because all humans have equal rights that should be protected equally by government or that, in the interest of fairness, we should extend to all humans the same legal protections we wish for ourselves. To argue that some humans (ourselves among them) should receive legal protections that we wish to deny to others is discrimination.

      In a lot of cases, appealing to fairness can work where an argument from morality doesn't because many people who don't accept a moral authority often do hold some morals (usually including fairness as good and discrimination as bad). So this is more a practical approach that uses the morals people already hold in order to show them that abortion violates what they believe.