Answering the Theological Case for Abortion Rights
My local newspaper had a headline last week that read, "President Clinton Says Bible ‘Ambiguous’ on Abortion."
The President alleges that Scripture and church history are largely silent on the issue. Hence, pro-life Christians should pause before condemning a practice the Bible does not expressly mention, let alone forbid. A liberal cleric quoted in the article agrees, arguing that no where in church history is abortion condemned until the religious right began forcing its views on the public around 1980. When abortion was proscribed, it was only to ward off pressing social problems like under population. The moral question of abortion, the cleric insists, was never at issue. (See Abortion and Exodus 21:22)
Does Silence Equal Permission?
What are we to make of the President’s remarks and those of the cleric? Does the alleged silence of Scripture and church history give license to elective abortion? The short answer is no. While the President is correct to say the word abortion does not appear in Scripture, he is wrong to suppose that this in anyway justifies abortion on demand. In fact, just the opposite is true, as I will argue below. The cleric, meanwhile, is wrong about the motive behind church teaching on abortion. From the beginning, abortion restrictions had nothing to do with practical concerns such as under population, but moral concerns for what is arguably the taking of human life.
Let me begin with a general observation. The Biblical documents (as well as the writings of the church fathers and the reformers) do not expressly condemn many things, including drive by shootings and the lynching of homosexuals. But that hardly proves we are morally justified doing these things. Hence, my question for abortion advocates is this: "Are you saying that whenever the Bible does not specifically condemn something, it condones it?" When they say "no" (and they must), I ask, "Then what is your point?"
Clearly, if the Bible treats the unborn as human persons, commands forbidding unjustified killing of other humans would apply to fetus as well. The issue, then, is not "Does the Bible expressly condemn abortion?" but, "Does Scripture teach that the unborn are human?" I will take up that question in a moment.
For now, my purpose is to argue that the theological case for abortion rights, a case based almost exclusively on the alleged silence of Scripture (and church history), is flawed for at least three reasons:
1) Even if the Bible says nothing about abortion, it does not follow that it's authors approved of the practice.
2) Those few Biblical texts that are cited by abortion advocates to discredit the humanity of the unborn do not support their case.
3) Church teaching on abortion throughout history is clear and incontrovertible: abortion is a serious moral wrong.
Can "E.T." Give Us a Clue?
The Bible's alleged silence on abortion does not mean that its authors condoned the practice, but that prohibitions against it were unnecessary. Here is why I know.
If a visitor from another planet were asked to examine the Biblical documents for clues on abortion, he would have to admit that the word does not appear. But a visitor with a sense of history might say, "Tell me what the laws, beliefs and customs were when the Bible was written and from these I shall infer whether or not its authors ever intended to condone abortion."
Turning first to the Old Testament, our visitor would find:
» that the concept of "life" was regarded as the highest good, while "death" was seen as the worst evil. Hence the challenge found in Deuteronomy 30:19--"Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursings. Now choose Life, so that you and your children may live"
» that man was not a chance or a mere assemblage of cells, but that he was created in the image of God. Hence, the shedding of innocent blood was strictly forbidden (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 23:7, Proverbs 6:16-17)
» that children were never seen as "unwanted" or as a nuisance (unless later in life they became wicked), but as a gift from God--the highest possible blessing (Psalms 127:3-5, 113:9, Gen. 17:6, 33:5, etc.)
» that immortality was achieved through one’s descendants. God's "promise" to Abraham to make of him a great nation was passed on to Isaac, Jacob, etc. "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from Him," writes the Psalmist (127:3; See also Gen. 48:16)
» that sterility and barrenness were seen as a curse, a source of great shame and sorrow. Hence, Peninnah's harsh ridicule of Hannah, the prophet Samuel's mother, because of the latter's initial barrenness (1 Samuel 1:6; see also Gen. 20:17-18, 30:1, 22-23,etc.)
» that God was at work in the womb fashioning a human for His purposes (Ps.139:13-16, Isa. 49:1,5 , Jer.1:5)
Among a people who saw life as the highest good and death the worst of evils, who saw man as being created in the image of God, who saw children as the highest possible blessing, who saw immortality as being achieved through one's descendants, who saw sterility and barrenness as a curse, who saw God at work in the womb--among such a people, the concept of induced abortion was extremely unlikely to find a foothold. Hence, the Old Testament's silence on abortion indicates that prohibitions against it were completely unnecessary, not that the practice was tacitly approved. (See Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments, Corpus Books, 1970, pp.123-127 for a lengthy discussion of this point.)
In short, liberals who argue for abortion rights from the alleged silence of the Old Testament are committing a gross hermeneutical fallacy. Basic to good Biblical interpretation is the rule that "a text can never mean [to us] what it never could have meant to its authors or his readers. " See Gordon Fee, How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth, Zondervan 1982, p. 60.) In other words, it is important to interpret Scripture within its own intellectual and cultural framework without reading into it a foreign world-view. The idea that the absence of a direct prohibition meant that women had a God-given right to kill their offspring would have been utterly foreign to the Hebrew culture of that day for the reasons cited above.
Turning to the New Testament, our visitor would quickly observe:
» that the first Christians, including all but one of the New Testament authors, were Jewish Christians with an essentially Jewish morality. Hence, if there was a Jewish consensus on abortion at the time, the early Christians most certainly would have shared that consensus.
» that early Judaism was, in fact, quite firmly opposed to abortion. As Michael Gorman points out in his excellent article "Why Is the New Testament Silent About Abortion?" (Christianity Today, Jan. 11, 1993), Jewish documents from the period condemn the practice unequivocally, demonstrating a clear anti-abortion consensus among first century Jews:
-- The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (written between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50) says, "A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures."
-- The Sibyline Oracles includes among the wicked those who "produce abortions and unlawfully cast their offspring away" as well as sorcerers who dispense abortifacients.
-- 1 Enoch (first or second century B.C.) says that an evil angel taught humans how to "smash the embryo in the womb."
-- Philo of Alexandria (Jewish philosopher, 25 B.C. to A.D.41) rejected the notion that the fetus is merely part of the mother's body.
-- Josephus (first-century Jewish historian) wrote, "The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus." A woman who did so was considered to have committed infanticide because she destroyed a "soul" and hence diminished the race.
As Gorman points out, no contradictory texts exist! Given this consensus, the most logical conclusion is that the Jewish Christian writers of the New Testament shared the anti-abortion views of their Jewish heritage--even if they never expressly mention the word "abortion" in their writings.
» that the theology of the New Testament is primarily task theology written to address specific issues in specific churches. In other words, the New Testament as a whole does not constitute a comprehensive code of ethics (although we certainly can derive many principles of right and wrong from what's written), but rather each document deals only with those moral and theological issues which had become problems. Two examples will help here. First, the Apostle Paul does not mention infanticide, a practice common among Romans and other pagans of the time. Why? Because the Christians to whom he was writing were not killing their children. Nor does Paul provide direct teaching on the historical career of Christ (he mentions it only indirectly for the purpose of underscoring the importance of the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15), but this does not mean that he questioned its truth. Rather, it means that a discussion of this sort never became necessary. Writes theologian George Eldon Ladd:
"Many studies in Paul have worked with the implicit assumption that his letters record all his ideas, and when some important matter was not discussed, they have assumed it was because it had no place in Paul's thought. This is a dangerous procedure; the argument from silence should be employed only with the greatest of caution. Paul discusses many subjects only because a particular need in a given church required his instruction.…We would never know much about Paul's thought on the resurrection had it not been questioned in Corinth. We might conclude that Paul knew no tradition about the Lord's supper had not abuses occurred in the Corinthian congregation. In other words, we may say that we owe whatever understanding we have of Paul's thought to the "accidents of history" which required him to deal with various problems, doctrinal and practical, in the life of the churches." (A Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1974, pp.377-8.)
Hence, the New Testament's silence on abortion does not mean that its authors approved of or tolerated the practice, but that a discussion of the issue never became necessary. In other words, there was no deviation from the norm inherited from Judaism. The early Christians simply were not tempted to kill their children before or after birth.
» that many of the texts used by early Christians did condemn abortion. Although these early Christian works eventually lost their bid for canonicity, they do express how the first Christians felt on a variety of issues--including abortion. As Gorman points out, these early writings were read and preached in many congregations throughout the Roman Empire up until the fourth century. Examples include:
-- The Didache : "You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn."
-- The Epistle of Barnabas: "You shall love your neighbor more than your own life. You shall not murder a child by abortion nor shall you kill a newborn."
-- Apocalypse of Peter [describing a vision of Hell]: "I saw women who produced children out of wedlock and who procured abortions."
These texts, writes Gorman, "bear witness to the general Jewish and Jewish-Christian attitude of the first and second centuries, thus confirming that the earliest Christians shared the anti-abortion position of their Jewish forebears." (Christianity Today, January 11, 1993)
Given this overwhelming consensus against abortion by early Jewish Christians, our "visitor" would reason that what Jewish morality condemned, the writers of the New Testament never intended to legitimize.
What Did Moses Really Teach?
Some abortion advocates recognize the folly of arguing from the alleged silence of Scripture to justify abortion. Instead, they appeal to Scripture directly in order to prove 1) that fetuses are not human persons, and 2) that abortion is not a serious moral wrong.
The text most often cited is Exodus 21: 22-25.
The passage reads in the NASB as follows: "And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no [further] injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges demand of him. But if there is any [further] injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." Liberals argue that this Scripture proves the unborn are not fully human because the penalty for accidentally killing a fetus is less than that for killing its mother. But this argument is flawed on several counts.
First, assuming the pro-abortion interpretation of this passage is correct (i.e. that the unborn's death is treated differently than the mother's), it does not follow that the unborn are not fully human. The preceding passage presents a situation where a master unintentionally kill his slave and escapes with no penalty at all (the lack of intent being proven by the interval between the blow and the death.). Yet few liberals would argue that Scripture considers the slave to be less than human. Likewise, it does not follow that the unborn entity is non-human simply because the penalty for its death is less than that given were its mother to die. It might be argued that both the slave and the unborn child had a lesser social status in Hebrew society, but it cannot be demonstrated from this that a lesser social status meant that one was less than fully human.
Second, even if abortion advocates are correct about this passage, it cannot be used to support abortion on demand. Liberals argue that any woman should be able to kill any baby at any point in the pregnancy for any reason or no reason. This passage, however, does not even remotely suggest that a woman can willfully kill her unborn child without justification. At best, it only shows that there is a lesser penalty for accidentally killing her unborn offspring than there is for accidentally killing her. "To move from this truth to the conclusion that abortion-on-demand is justified is a nonsequitor," writes Dr. Frank Beckwith in Politically Correct Death. (Baker, 1993, p.143)
Third, the pro-abortion interpretation of this passage (that a person who kills an unborn child only incurs a fine) has come under heavy fire from many Biblical scholars. In fact, it may be more reasonable view the passage as affirming the humanity of the unborn rather then denying it, as abortion advocates suppose. R.C. Sproul points out that the crux of the debate centers around the phrase, "no serious injury." The question is "No serious injury to whom?" Liberals, of course, argue that the phrase only applies to the mother. But only a few translations, such as the Jerusalem Bible, actually interpret the verse in this way.
When read in the original Hebrew, the passage seems to convey that both the mother and the child are covered by the lex talionis --the law of retribution. The Hebrew term 'ason' (harm/injury) is clearly indefinite in its reference, and the expression 'lah' (to her), which would restrict the word "injury" only to the mother, is missing. Hence, the phrase, "no serious injury" seems to apply equally to both mother and child and if either is harmed, the penalty is "life for life, tooth for tooth, hand for hand," etc. According to Hebrew scholar Dr. Gleason Archer, "There is no second class status attached to the fetus under this rule. The fetus is just as valuable as the mother." (Cited in J. Ankerberg and J. Weldon, "When Does Life Begin," Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989 pp.195-6. See also, Meredith Kline, "Lex Talionis & the Human Fetus," Simon Greenleaf Law Review 5 [1985-1986] pp.73-89)
Furthermore, we should not presume that the miscarriage of Exodus 21 produces a dead child, as does abortion. Greg Koukl makes an excellent point: the Hebrew word for "miscarriage" in this context is 'yasa’--which almost always refers to the emergence of a living thing. (See, for example, Gen. 1:24, 8:17, 15:4, 25:26, 1 Kings 8:19,2 Kings 20:18.) In this case, the passage can be translated "the child comes forth."
See Abortion and Exodus 21:22
The point is simply this. If the miscarried child is not injured, the penalty is merely a fine. But if it is harmed, the penalty is life for life, tooth for tooth, etc. Read this way, the passage treats the unborn with the same value it does the mother. The penalty for harming either is the same. (Note also the text calls the expelled fetus a "child"—a fact abortion advocates cannot easily get around.)
The assertion that prohibitions against abortion are relatively recent is utterly false. In addition to the non-canonical documents cited above, the following sources underscore the consistent teaching of the church on abortion.
The Witness of the early church fathers:
-- Athenagoras (A.D. 177--while defending Christians against murder charges): "What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? For the same person would not regard the fetus in the womb as a living thing and therefore an object of God's care [and then kill it]." (A Plea for the Christians, 35.6)
-- Tertullian (A.D. 197--while defending Christianity against charges of child sacrifice): "In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed." (Apology, 9.6)
-- Clement of Alexandria (A.D.150-215). "But women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion kill not only the embryos but, along with it, all human kindness." (Paedagogus, 2.10. 96.1.)
-- Basil the Great (374 A.D.). "Moreover, those, too, who give drugs causing abortion are [deliberate murderers] themselves, as well as those receiving the poison which kills the fetus." (Letter, 188.2)
The witness of the Protestant reformers:
-- John Calvin (1509-64). "The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being and it is a most monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light" (Commentarius in Exodum, 21,22)
-- Martin Luther (1483-1546). "Even if all the world were to combine forces, they could not bring about the conception of a single child in any woman's womb nor cause it to be born; that is wholly the work of God." (Luther's Works, VII, 21)
-- John Donne (English poet and preacher). "The sin of Er, and Onan, in married men; the sin of procured abortions, in married women, does in many cases equal, in some exceed, the sin of adultery." (Sermon preached Easter, 1625)
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German pastor and theologian hung by the Nazis in 1945): "Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to life which God has bestowed on this nascent life...And that is nothing but murder. (Ethics, pp.175-176.)
-- Pope John Paul II: "No word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence." (Evangelium Vitae, Section 58)
To sum up, a survey of Scripture and church history does nothing to support the case for unrestricted abortion. Biblically and historically, the message is clear: the unborn are human persons, hence, abortion is a serious moral wrong.
For further study, see:
Michael Gorman, Abortion & the Early Church, Intervarsity Press, 1982, "Why Is the New Testament is Silent on Abortion," Christianity Today, January 11, 1993, and Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments, Corpus Books, 1970.
Five Bad Ways to Argue About Abortion|
by Scott Klusendorf
Pro-life advocates argue that elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being. In support of this conclusion, pro-lifers cite both scientific and philosophic evidence. Nonetheless, some people ignore the evidence pro-life advocates present and argue for abortion based on self-interest. That is the lazy way out. If we care about truth, we will courageously follow the facts wherever they lead. But there are pitfalls. Here are five common mistakes people make arguing for abortion.
Mistake #1: Confuse objective claims with subjective ones (or confuse claims about ice cream with claims about truth).
When pro-life advocates say that abortion is morally wrong because it takes the life of a defenseless child, they are making a particular type of claim. Specifically, they are making a moral claim about the rightness or wrongness of abortion.
Many people, however, misconstrue the kind of claim the pro-lifer is making in order to respond to one they like better. Consider the following responses to the statement, Abortion is morally wrong.
• "That's just your view."
On a recent edition of the television show Politically Incorrect, super model Kathy Ireland gave a carefully reasoned scientific and philosophic defense of the pro-life position. The show's host, Bill Maher, shot back with, "Kathy, that's just your view."
What's wrong with this response? Maher was confusing a moral claim with a preference claim. But there is a difference between disliking something (say, for example, a particular flavor of ice cream) and thinking it is morally wrong. Put simply, when pro-life advocates say that abortion is morally wrong, they are not saying they personally dislike abortion or would prefer that people not have one. Rather, they are saying that elective abortion is objectively wrong for everyone, regardless of how one feels about it. This is why the popular bumper sticker "Don't like abortion? Don't have one!" misses the point entirely. It confuses the two types of claims. Try this: "Don't like slavery? Don't own one!"
Now it may be the case that pro-life advocates like Kathy Ireland are mistaken about their claim. Perhaps their evidence that abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless child is weak and inconclusive. But instead of proving this with facts and arguments, abortion advocates like Bill Maher ignore the evidence altogether. "Well, that's just your view." This not only relativizes the pro-lifers claim, it is intellectually lazy. It attempts to dismiss evidence rather than refute it.
Imagine if I were to say, "There is a pink elephant in the corner of the room just beneath the window." How should you respond to my claim? Perhaps I'm mistaken (and chances are I would be), but it would do no good to say, "That's just your view." The problem is I was not offering an opinion, I was claiming to be right. To refute me, you must show that my claim is false. The correct response is to say, "Your evidence is lousy. We looked in the corner and there is no elephant."
But again, Maher did not do that. At no point did he challenge her facts and arguments. What he said in effect was "Go away Kathy. You have your views and I have mine." This was very condescending because he did not even entertain the possibility that she had good evidence for her claim. Nor did he acknowledge the type of claim she was making.
To sum up, Maher was confusing a preference claim with a distinctly moral one. Preference claims cannot be evaluated as true or false because they are matters of personal taste. You cannot reasonably argue that vanilla ice cream is objectively better than chocolate.
But moral claims are different. They can be evaluated as true or false based on the evidence. They do not say, This is better tasting, they say, This is right. Kathy Ireland's claim was, Abortion is wrong because it takes the life of a defenseless child, and I think I'm right. Maher's glib response did nothing to refute this.
In fact, one could stop Maher dead in his tracks by saying, Bill, it's just your view that it's just my view.
• "Don't force your morality on me."
A student at a Southern California college said this to me after I made a case for the pro-life position in her sociology class. She was in effect saying, Morality is relative; it's up to me to decide what is right and wrong. We call this moral relativism, the belief that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only personal preferences. Therefore, we should tolerate other views as being equal to our own.
Relativism, however, is seriously flawed for at least three reasons. First, it is self-refuting. That is to say, it cannot live by its own rules. Second, relativists cannot reasonably say that anything is wrong, including intolerance. Third, it is impossible to live as a relativist.
1) Relativism is self-refuting--it commits intellectual suicide. The student said it was wrong for me to force my views on others, but she could not live with her own rule. Although our dialogue was pleasant, she clearly tried to force her views on me.
- Student: You made some good points in your talk, but you shouldn't force your morality on me or anyone else who wants an abortion. It's our choice, isn’t it?
- Me: Are you saying I'm wrong?
- Student: I’m not sure. What do you mean?
- Me: Well, you think I'm wrong, don't you? If not, why are you correcting me? And if so, then you're forcing your morality on me, aren't you?
- Student: No, I just want to know why you are telling people what they can and cannot do with their lives.
- Me: Are you saying I shouldn't do that? That it’s wrong? If so, then why are you telling me what I can and cannot do? Why are you forcing your morality on me?
- Student (regrouping): I’m confused. Look, the simple fact is that pro-choicers are not forcing women to have abortions, but you want to force women to be mothers. If you don't like abortion, don't have one. But you shouldn’t force your beliefs on others. All I am saying is that pro-life people should be tolerant of other views.
- Me: Is that your view?
- Student: Yes.
- Me: Why are you forcing it on me? That’s not very tolerant, is it?
- Student: What do you mean? I think women should have a choice and you don't. It’s your view that’s intolerant, wouldn’t you say?
- Me: Okay, so you think I'm wrong. What is it you want pro-lifers like me to do?
- Student: You should let women decide for themselves and tolerate other views.
- Me: Tell me, what exactly do pro-choicers believe?
- Student: We believe everyone should decide for themselves and tolerate other views.
- Me: So you are demanding that pro-lifers become pro-choicers.
- Student: What?
- Me: With all due respect, here’s what I hear you saying. Unless I agree with you, you will not tolerate my view. Privately, you'll let me think whatever I want, but you don't want me to act as if my view is true. It seems you think tolerance is a virtue if and only if people agree with you.
Put succinctly, her argument for tolerance was in fact a patronizing form of intolerance. She spoke of moral neutrality, but tried to force her views on me.
A recent editorial in the Toronto Star was similarly intolerant of pro-life advocates. While decrying the "single-minded moral supremacism" of those who call abortion killing, journalist Michele Landsberg writes:
Will no priest or minister publicly resolve to stop the indoctrination of youth to view abortion as murder? Is none ashamed of the blood-drenched holocaust vocabulary used so cynically (and anti-semitically) to whip up fervor for the crusade? Where are the outspoken cries of conscience by bishops and cardinals who should be appalled by the evidence of links between anti-abortion fanatics and far-right militias, neo Nazis, and white supremacists? Is there no religious leader who regrets his church's role in feeding this blind frenzy? Will none of them repent of their excesses, will none call a halt to their sickeningly manipulative campaigns of "precious little feet," their fake "documentaries" about screaming fetuses? You'd think that the world had enough lessons in the dangers of hate speech.
Like hers? It doesn't seem to trouble Ms. Landsberg that her own vitriolic rhetoric could incite pro-choicers to commit acts of violence against pro-lifers. She continues:
It was the unbridled hate speech of fundamentalist fanatics in Israel who spurred on the "devout" murder of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin....We've seen how homophobic rantings from right-wing American leaders, notably the Senate republican leader, led to escalating gay bashings, culminating in the heart- wrenching death of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming....Denominational schools [should] begin to teach respect for the laws of our pluralistic society, rather than preaching single-minded moral supremacism.
Again, like her own?
Notice what is going on here. She decries "moral supremacism," but says that anyone who disagrees with her view on abortion is an indoctrinator of youth, a fanatic, an anti-Semite, a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist, a manipulator of facts, a purveyor of hate speech, homophobic, a gay-basher, a religious bully, responsible for the death of Matthew Shepherd, and finally, a fundamentalist fanatic like those who murdered Yitzhak Rabin.
One can hardly imagine a finer piece of self-refuting rhetoric. All, of course, in the name of tolerance.
While driving my sons to a recent baseball game at Dodger Stadium, a young woman in a white pickup truck began tailgating me. Visibly angered by a pro-life sticker on my rear window, she stayed on my bumper for a mile or so. Finally, she pulled beside me and extended a certain part of her anatomy skyward as she passed. She then cut in front of me.
At that moment, I noticed a bumper sticker on her truck. It said, "Celebrate Diversity." The message was clear: In a pluralistic society, we should tolerate the views of others. Ironically, the driver saw no contradiction between her unwillingness to tolerate (or celebrate) my point of view and her bumper sticker that said we should tolerate all points of view. That is what I mean when I say that relativism is self-refuting.
2) It is impossible for a moral relativist to say that anything is wrong, including intolerance. If morals are relative, then who are you to say that I should be tolerant? Perhaps my individual morality says intolerance is just fine. Why, then, should I allow anyone to force tolerance on me as a virtue if my preference is intolerance?
The truth is, a moral relativist cannot legitimately say that anything is wrong or truly evil. My colleague Greg Koukl once challenged a relativist with this question. "Do you think it is wrong to torture babies for fun?" She paused, then replied, "Well, I wouldn't want to do that to my baby." Greg responded, "That's not what I asked you. I didn't ask if you liked torturing babies for fun, I asked if it was wrong to torture babies for fun." The relativist was caught and she knew it. She chuckled and went on to another subject.
If it is up to us to decide (rather than discover) right and wrong, then there is no difference between Mother Theresa's morality and Adolf Hitler's morality. Hitler was not evil, he just had preferences different from our own.
3) It is impossible to live as a moral relativist. As C.S. Lewis points out, a person who claims there is no objective morality will complain if you break a promise or cut in line. And if you steal his stereo, he will protest loudly. If I were a crook, I would reply to the relativist, Do you think stealing stereos is wrong? Well, that's just your view. My morality says it's perfectly acceptable. Who are you to force your views on me? Simply put, moral relativists espouse a view they cannot live with.
• "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I still think it should be legal."
When people say this, I ask a simple question to clarify things. I ask why they personally oppose abortion. Invariably, they reply, We oppose it because it kills a human baby. At that point, I merely repeat back their words. "Let me see if I got this straight. You oppose abortion because it kills babies, but you think it should be legal to kill babies?"
Would these same people argue that while they personally opposed slavery, they would not protest if a neighbor wanted to own one? This was precisely what Stephen Douglas did during his debates with Abraham Lincoln. That argument did not work with slavery and it will not work with abortion. Either elective abortion kills a defenseless child or not. If it does, we should not tolerate it. Period.
Mistake #2: Attack the person rather than refute the argument. (Ad hominem fallacy)
Instead of defending the abortion act itself, some "pro-choice" advocates personally attack those who do not share their views. At a 1995 "Rock for Choice" concert in Pensacola Florida, vocalist Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam shrieked from the stage: "I'm usually good about my temper, but all these men trying to control women's bodies really piss me off. They're talking from a bubble. They're not talking from the street, and they're not in touch with what's real. Well, I'm f----ing mean, and I'm ugly, and my name is reality. Music--that is my religion. I would never force my beliefs on anyone--that's the thing."
During an HBO special, comedian Rosanne Barr told the audience: "You know who else I can't stand is them people that are antiabortion....I hate them. They're ugly, old, geeky, hideous men. They just don't want nobody to have an abortion, cause they want you to keep spitting out kids so they can molest them."
Do you see what is happening here? Instead of defending their views with facts and arguments, Rosanne Barr and Eddie Vedder are attacking the character of pro-lifers. We call this the ad hominem fallacy. It is fallacious reasoning because even if the personal attack is true, it does nothing to refute the pro-lifer's argument.
Let's grant, for the sake of discussion, that pro-life advocates are hideous old men who molest children, as Roseanne Barr contends is true. How does this in any way refute the pro-life claim that abortion takes the life of a defenseless child? Clearly, it does not. The attack is therefore irrelevant to the argument the pro-life advocate is making.
Consider also the claim that pro-lifers are hypocritical to protest abortion unless they adopt babies they do not want aborted. For the moment, let's assume there are not two million American families willing to do this, as is the case. How would the alleged reluctance of pro-lifers to adopt babies justify the act of abortion? While it is true that pro-life advocates should help those facing crisis pregnancies, it is not true that abortion is justified whenever that obligation is left unmet.
Imagine a bigot arguing, Unless you agree to marry my wife, you have no right to oppose me beating her. Or, Unless you are willing to adopt my three sons by noon today, I shall execute them. If you reject his ultimatum, is he morally justified performing acts of violence on innocent victims?
Sometimes people are attacked for their gender. Men are told, "You can't get pregnant, so leave the abortion issue to women." Besides its obvious sexism, the statement is seriously flawed for several reasons.
First, arguments do not have genders, people do. Since many pro-life women use the same arguments offered by pro-life men, it behooves the abortion advocate to answer these arguments without fallaciously attacking a person's gender.
Second, to be consistent with their own reasoning, abortion advocates would have to concede that Roe v. Wade was bad law--after all, it was decided by nine men. They must also call for the dismissal of all male lawyers working for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, etc., on abortion related issues. Since abortion advocates are unwilling to do this, we can restate their argument as follows: "No man can speak on abortion--unless he agrees with us." Once again, this is a classic case of intolerance.
Third, lesbians and post-menopausal women cannot naturally get pregnant; must they be silent on the issue?
Finally, think of the bizarre rules we could derive from this argument:
• "Since only generals understand battle, only they should discuss the morality of war."
• "Because female sportscasters have never experienced a groin injury, they have no right to broadcast football games on national television."
• "Only Jewish people have a right to condemn the holocaust."
Again, abortion advocates must offer facts and arguments in support of their position. Attacking people personally, even if those attacks are true, will not make their case or refute ours.
Mistake #3: Assume what you are trying to prove.
Advocates of elective abortion must show that the unborn are not fully human or their case crumbles. But instead of proving this conclusion with facts and arguments, many people simply assume it within the course of their rhetoric. We call this "begging the question" and it is a logical fallacy that lurks behind many arguments for abortion.
A person begs the question when he assumes what he is trying to prove. Imagine you are undergoing an IRS audit. If federal prosecutors were to ask, Have you stopped cheating on your taxes?, your defense lawyer would strongly object. The reason is simple: The question assumes you have broken the law, the very point prosecutors are trying to prove. Your attorney would rightly demand they prove guilt with facts and evidence, rather than assume it with rhetoric.
Arguing that abortion is justified because a woman has a right to control her own body assumes there is only one body involved--that of the woman. But this is precisely the point abortion advocates try to prove. Hence, they beg the question.
Or, take the claim that no one knows when life begins, therefore abortion should remain legal. But to argue that no one knows when life begins, and that abortion must remain legal through all nine months of pregnancy, assumes that life does not begin until birth--the exact point abortion advocates try to prove. This is hardly a neutral position. It is a clear case of begging the question.
So is the coat hanger argument, which states that women will die from illegal abortions if laws are passed protecting the unborn. But unless you begin with the assumption that the unborn are not human, you are making the highly questionable claim that because some people die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so. Should we legalize bank robbery so it is safer for felons?
If you think a particular argument begs the question regarding the status of the unborn, simply ask, Would this justification for abortion also work as a justification for killing toddlers or other humans? If not, the argument assumes the unborn are not fully human.
Again, it may be the case that the unborn are not fully human and abortion is therefore justified. But this must be proven with facts and evidence, not merely assumed by one's rhetoric.
Mistake #4: Confuse functioning as a person with being a person.
Abortion advocates like Mary Anne Warren claim that a "person" is a living entity with feelings, self-awareness, and the ability to interact with his or her environment. Because
the fetus, she alleges, can do none of these things, it cannot be fully human. Warren is espousing a doctrine known as functionalism, the belief that human beings are defined by what they can and cannot do. Functionalism, however, is seriously flawed because it fails to make a number of critical distinctions.
First, one can fail to function as a person and yet still be a person. People under anesthesia or in a deep sleep cannot feel pain, are not self-aware, and cannot reason. Neither can those in reversible comas. But we do not call into question their humanity because we recognize that although they cannot function as persons, they still have the being of persons, which is the essential thing.
Here is the key question: How many functions can I lose and still be myself? If I lose my sight, am I still me? If my legs and arms are lost, am I still me? If I cannot speak or hear, am I still me? What if I can no longer play chess or think critically? What if my IQ is less than 50? Wouldn't I still be a person with value?
Do I, as a person, become disposable simply because I cannot do everything you can? Do I lose the right to live because I am helpless and dependent? Do stronger, more capable people have more rights than others?
The answer is obviously no. No physical change or loss of function will cause you to cease being you unless that change ends your life. When a living thing like the unborn human comes into being, it remains what it is regardless of the shape of its body or present capabilities.
Second, one must be a person in order to function as one. Non-sentient frogs do not become persons simply by acquiring sentience (the ability to feel pain, etc.). Nor do robots become persons by assembling cars or loading freight. Rather, a person is one with the natural, inherent capacity to perform personal acts, even if that capacity is currently unrealized. One grows in the ability to perform personal acts only because one already is the kind of thing that grows into the ability to perform personal acts, i.e., a person.
Third, the rights of individuals in our society are not based on their current (actual) capacities, but on their inherent capacities. This sounds complex, but we make this distinction all the time. For example, no one doubts that newborn humans have fewer actual capacities than do day-old calves. Baby humans are rather unimpressive in terms of environmental awareness, mobility, etc. Yet this does not lead us to believe that the calf belongs in the nursery while the infant can be left in the barn. To the contrary, we understand that although the infant currently lacks many functional abilities, it nonetheless has the inherent capacity to function as a person. But if individual rights are grounded in one's current capacities, calves should enjoy a greater moral status than do newborns.
People who are unconscious cannot presently function as persons, but they still have the inherent capacity to perform personal acts. That is why we do not kill them. From the moment of conception, the unborn human has the natural, inherent capacity to function as a person. What he lacks is the current capacity to do so. That he cannot yet speak, reason, or perform personal acts means only that he cannot yet function as a person, not that he lacks the essential being of a person.
This same emphasis on inherent (as opposed to actual) capacity is underscored in the accepted bio-ethical criteria for brain death. Say, for example, you have an automobile accident that leaves you in a coma. Some of your friends think your quality of life is gone and want to unplug life support. Others, like your parents, rally to stop them. What should be done?
The law in this case is very specific. According to the Uniform Determination of Death Act written into the health and safety codes of each state, the deciding factor is not your current state of brain function, but your inherent state of brain function. For death to occur, there must be an "irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem." Hence, the reversibly comatose are never classified as "non-persons" under our existing legal system despite their current lack of brain function.
Again, from the moment of conception the unborn entity has the inherent capacity to have a functioning brain. What it lacks is the current capacity. Hence, there is no ethical difference between it and the reversibly comatose, the momentarily unconscious, etc., who enjoy the protection of law despite their current inability to function as persons.
Finally, functionalism dehumanizes not only the unborn, but also many people outside of the womb.
Last month, an attorney friend I was debating argued that until the 32nd week of pregnancy, the unborn's brain resembles a fish or amphibian in its evolutionary development. Therefore, the unborn are not fully human until the final stages of pregnancy.
This argument is dangerous. Darwin and his followers used it a century ago to dehumanize women. Their contention was that women were biologically and intellectually inferior because their brains were less developed than a man's. In The Descent of Man in Relation to Sex, Darwin wrote:
[Man] attains a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women--whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, history, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive of both composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages...[that] the average mental power in man must be above that of women.
Ladies, it gets worse. In his book The Mismeasure of Man, prominent paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould quotes Darwin disciple Gustave Le Bon as follows:
[Even in] the most intelligent races [there] are large numbers of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion.…Women represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and...are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Without a doubt, there exists some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as for example, of a gorilla with two heads. Consequently, we may neglect them entirely.
Ladies and gentlemen, what will it be? Will we acknowledge the truth found in The Declaration of Independence that human beings have value simply because they are human? Or will we join Darwin in saying only the achievers, intelligent, and powerful count as full human persons? Be careful how you decide. The results could one day disqualify you as human.
Mistake #5: Disguise your true position by appealing to the hard cases.
Some people argue that legal abortion protects rape victims from compulsory motherhood. They castigate pro-lifers as cruel and insensitive toward women suffering assault.
This seems like a powerful objection. Rape is profoundly evil. Victims deserve our best care. But there’s a moral consideration as well. Does rape involve two victims or just one? And if the unborn entity involved is human, why should she be forced to give up her life so that her mother can feel better?
Put differently, can you think of any other case where, having been victimized yourself, you can justly turn around and victimize another completely innocent person? Say, for example, a drunk driver plows into your parked car, destroying it. To ease the pain of your loss, you take a sledgehammer to your neighbor’s sedan. Is this morally permissible? If a friend protests your actions, is he insensitive? Hardly. So again, the issue is not, Are pro-lifers cruel?, but, What is the unborn? If the unborn is human, it should not be killed to benefit its mother. There is no moral complexity here.
But the appeal to hard cases is flawed in another way that has nothing to do with one's attitude toward women or the morality of abortion. It is flawed because it is not entirely truthful.
Here's why. The "pro-choice" position is not that abortion should be legal only when a woman is raped, but that abortion is a fundamental right she can exercise for any reason she wants during all nine months of pregnancy. Instead of defending this position with facts and arguments, many disguise it with an emotional appeal to rape.
But this will not make their case. The argument from rape, if successful at all, would only justify abortion in cases of sexual assault, not for any reason the woman deems fit. In fact, arguing for abortion-on-demand from the hard case of rape is like trying to argue for the elimination of all traffic laws because a person might have to break one rushing a loved one to the hospital. Proving an exception does not prove a rule.
To expose their smokescreen, I ask abortion advocates the following: "Okay, I'm going to grant for the sake of discussion that we keep abortion legal in cases of rape. Will you join me in supporting legal restrictions on those abortions done for convenience which, as your own studies show, make up the overwhelming percentage of abortions?"
The answer is almost always no, to which I reply, "Then why did you bring rape up except to mislead us into thinking you support abortion only in the hard cases?"
Again, if pro-choicers think abortion should be legal for all nine months of pregnancy for any reason whatsoever, including sex-selection and convenience, they should defend that view with facts and arguments. Cashing in on the tragedy of rape victims is intellectually dishonest.
VI. Summary and Conclusion:
To sum up, one must show that the unborn are not fully human or the case for elective abortion crumbles. Scaring people over illegal abortions or alleged invasions of privacy will not make the case. No privacy argument is a legitimate cover for a conspiracy to do serious harm to an innocent human being.
The fact that some people controvert a position does not make that position intrinsically controversial. People argued for both sides about slavery, racism and genocide, but that did not make them complex issues.
No, we can do better than that. Abortion is complex only for those who, because of their own self-interest, want to make it complex. To paraphrase what Abraham Lincoln said to Stephen Douglas, You do not have a right to do what is wrong.
Scott Klusendorf is Director of Bio-Ethics at Stand to Reason.
The preceding excerpt "Five Bad Ways to Argue About Abortion" 1997, is from Scott Klusendorf's book "Pro-Life 101: a User Friendly Guide to Making Your Case on Campus". Permission granted to copy for personal use only.