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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Deconstructing the Arguments for Abortion


Evan Lenow


Abortion is one of the greatest tragedies that faces mankind across the globe. The Guttmacher Institute reports that 56.3 million induced abortions were performed worldwide between 2010 and 2014. That is an increase of nearly 6 million compared to 1990-1994.[1] These numbers represent 25 percent of pregnancies globally, meaning that a quarter of all children conceived have their lives ended by abortion.[2] For those who value life beginning at conception and believe that abortion is a great human tragedy, we must be prepared to confront the arguments for abortion.

Part of the task for pro-life advocates is to handle the difficult arguments of their opponents and learn how to deconstruct those arguments. While space does not permit me to address every argument for abortion, I want to focus on three different areas so that we can better understand how to engage the conversation related to abortion in the public square. We will look at the historic Christian perspective, the concept of self-ownership, and the principle of personhood. By exploring these three areas, we will be able to demonstrate that the major arguments for abortion can be deconstructed and defeated in order to promote the biblical perspective on the sanctity of life.

 

The Historic Christian Perspective on Abortion

I approach this task as a Christian, unashamed of my decidedly pro-life commitments. I stand in an ancient tradition of Christians who considered the protection of the unborn to be of the utmost importance. While many people consider abortion to be a contemporary issue focusing on the last 50 years, it has actually been a concern of Christians since the earliest days of the church. Athenagoras was a second-century theologian and apologist. In his defense of the Christian faith written to the Roman emperor, he drew upon the issue of abortion to defend the non-violence of Christians. Athenagoras wrote:

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.[3]

As we see from Athenagoras, abortion has been a cultural issue that Christians have addressed for nearly 2,000 years. I wish that we could say Christians have maintained a consistent witness on this issue for the last two millennia. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Particularly among American Protestants in the 1960s and 1970s, abortion was considered a Catholic issue. Many major Protestant denominations chose to support abortion in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s rulings in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. For nearly a decade, these denominations considered abortion to be a privilege born out of a supposed right to privacy. Thankfully, many of these denominations, including my own Southern Baptist Convention, saw the error of their ways and returned to the historic teaching of the faith and the clear teaching of Scripture that life in the womb is precious and deserves protection.[4]

One of the key texts for understanding what the Bible says about life in the womb and why the early church chose to oppose abortion is found in Psalm 139:13-16. In this text, David writes:

For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.[5]

Rather than offering a regulation from the moral codes of ancient Israel, David offers insight into how God views the child developing in the womb. While David did not have access to the medical technology we enjoy today that enables us to see inside the womb, his perceptive thoughts about God’s role in the development of the child still provide insight into what we should think about abortion.

In verse 13, David begins to tell us about God’s role in forming an unborn child. He says, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.” Even though we know the science behind the development of a child in the womb, it is still a miracle that is difficult to understand. How exactly do the organs, tissue, and limbs form from just a fertilized egg? Scripture is not attempting to give us a scientific explanation here; instead, we should stand in awe of the miraculous process that God has put in place. When we take the time to consider how marvelous the developmental process is, we can affirm with David, “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well” (v. 14).

The most interesting part about this passage is what the psalmist relates in verse 16. It is here that we truly grasp what God knows about the child in the womb. David writes, “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” This verse communicates God’s omniscience in relationship to human existence.[6] Today we have the privilege of peering inside the womb with sonograms, but we still have no way of knowing the length of that child’s life or the accomplishments he will have. Yet God knows everything. God knew the child in the womb in the same way as He knew the man who would reign as king. It was as if God had already written David’s biography while he was yet unknown to the rest of the world.

Our knowledge of how God views the child in the womb should shape our perspective on abortion. From God’s perspective, there is no distinction regarding the person in the womb and the adult into which he will develop. Therefore, the principle of personhood applies at all stages of development. Thus, when those who claim the name of Christ declare that abortion is acceptable, we can respond by stating that we stand in line with the words of Scripture and the historic teaching of our faith that life in the womb is precious and deserves full protection from those who wish to extinguish it.

 

The Concept of Self-Ownership

One of the most common arguments for abortion is derived from the concept of self-ownership. Abortion proponents generally adopt an understanding of absolute autonomy in self-ownership that would allow them to do anything they want with their own bodies. Therefore, the choice to end a pregnancy on the basis of self-ownership is the natural consequence of this absolute autonomy. No person or governing authority has the right to limit this freedom. As a result, the woman can choose to have an abortion without consulting the father, the government, or the unborn child. However, this argument for abortion from self-ownership is logically and politically inconsistent. Consider the following inconsistencies.

The argument from self-ownership is libertarian in nature and begs the question of complete autonomy in every aspect of life. For example, pro-abortion advocates desire to see abortion on demand with no questions asked of the woman involved. She should be completely free to choose abortion for herself. Yet, there are a number of other “choices” limited by government restrictions that contradict the logic of this argument. In most states in America, a young woman under the age of 18 cannot get a tattoo without parental consent. And even if she has parental consent, in states like Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, New York, and Washington, it is still a crime for her to get a tattoo.[7] In these states, parental consent cannot even trump the law to allow a minor to receive a tattoo.

By contrast, girls in over 50 public schools in New York City can gain access to Plan B One Step, the “morning-after pill,” at no charge and without parental consent.[8] Therefore, a 15-year-old girl in New York City cannot get a tattoo, but she can get an abortion-inducing drug. Is she completely autonomous? Is the government telling her that she cannot do with her body as she chooses? Why does the argument for autonomy apply to abortion, but not to tattoos?

This libertarian argument can be extended to several other areas that are restricted or outlawed by the government. A host of drugs are illegal, not only to buy or sell but even to possess. Marriage laws forbid a person from marrying his/her siblings and first cousins in most places. Government even restricts the number of people one can marry—at least for now. In each of these cases, government has said that you are not free to do with your body as you wish. If abortion rights advocates want to be consistent, they must disavow laws like these as well. However, I imagine that government officials could make a reasonable case for such laws to be on the books. Thus, their inconsistency is exposed.

The best method for engaging someone who makes the self-ownership argument for abortion is to begin asking questions. Ask the abortion advocate at what point government is allowed to intrude upon the privacy of an individual. No logically consistent abortion advocate will espouse complete and total anarchy. There will always be a stopping point for personal autonomy. At that point the conversation must turn to why abortion is a protected right but other areas of life are open to government regulation and intrusion. One should not expect total capitulation on the part of the abortion proponent, but this method starts the process of questioning the logical consistency of his or her views. If the position cannot be held consistently, then it is best not held at all.

 

The Principle of Personhood

Finally, we arrive at the principle of personhood. The crux of the abortion debate often comes down to the principle of personhood. For this principle, we must ask the question of when new biological human life becomes a person with rights to be protected. Various options have been considered, including conception, viability, birth, and self-awareness. The most common answers for pro-abortion proponents have been either birth or viability. The most common response for pro-life proponents has been conception.

The heart of this issue is finding a dividing line that separates the non-person tissue from the human person. The search for such a dividing line among abortion proponents has generated a moving target of sorts as medical technology has advanced, allowing us further insight into the development of a child in the womb. In addition, technology also makes it possible for children born at increasingly shorter periods of gestation to survive. With the medical technology available to us today, the case for personhood from the moment of conception grows stronger.

One highly unusual source to consult for deconstructing an argument for abortion is the radical proponent of abortion and infanticide, Peter Singer. Dr. Singer is the longtime professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His writings on issues of life espouse infanticide and abortion. However, he also offers great insight into the debate regarding personhood. Here is how he casts the argument over the search for a point at which new human life achieves personhood:

The central argument against abortion, put as a formal argument,

would go something like this:

 

First premise: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.

Second premise: A human fetus is an innocent human being.

Conclusion: Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

 

The usual liberal response is to deny the second premise of this argu-

ment. So it is on whether the fetus is a human being that the issue is

joined, and the dispute about abortion is often taken to be a dispute

about when a human life begins.

 

"On this issue the conservative position is difficult to shake. The con-

servative points to the continuum between the fertilized egg and child

and challenges the liberal to point to any stage in this gradual process

that marks a morally significant dividing line. Unless there is such a

line, the conservative says, we must either upgrade the status of the

earliest embryo to that of the child, or downgrade the status of the child

to that of the embryo; but no one wants to allow children to be dis-

patched on the request of their parents, and so the only tenable position

is to grant the fetus the protection we now grant the child."[9]

 

Singer notes the difficulty in determining “a morally significant dividing line” between conception and birth. He then suggests that if one cannot be found, then the embryo must be upgraded to the status of the newborn child or the newborn child must be downgraded to the status of the embryo. Singer’s logic is crucial here for understanding the proposed alternatives.

I want to evaluate just two options that are often proposed by abortion proponents: birth and viability. Although seemingly waning in popularity these days, birth has historically been a common response to the question of when personhood begins. In one respect, it had been a popular position because that was the first time one could actually see the child. However, great strides in medical technology have made this position more difficult to hold. We now have the ability to look inside the womb and see a child sucking his thumb or kicking her legs. No longer are the months inside the womb a mystery. In fact, we can see with great detail some of the features that we recognize in the child outside the womb. As a result, this position seems less tenable.

In addition, the argument for personhood beginning at birth suffers from the reality that many babies born prematurely are now able to survive thanks to the dedicated work of medical professionals. How can one say that a premature infant born at 30 weeks is more developed than a child in-utero at 39 weeks? If one is looking for a significant change along the continuum of development for Singer’s “morally significant dividing line,” then birth is simply not acceptable. Singer himself debunks this view by concluding, “It seems peculiar to hold that we may not kill the premature infant but may kill the more developed fetus. The location of a being—inside or outside the womb—should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it.”[10] Although Singer himself ultimately argues for infanticide, his logic here is sound. If taking the life of a child outside the womb is immoral, then it is also immoral to take the life of a child inside the womb.

The other option proposed by abortion proponents for the dividing line to assign personhood is viability. To a certain degree, the attempt to place personhood at viability is the result of the Roe and Doe decisions by the United States Supreme Court in 1973. Essentially, placing the moment of personhood at viability considers the potentiality of life outside the womb to be the morally significant dividing line. The main problem with viability as the point when personhood begins is that it is a moving target. Less than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court declared that viability was most commonly understood as approximately 28 weeks of gestation.[11] Now some children have survived as early as 22 weeks of gestation.[12] In many respects, the viability of an infant in the womb is dependent upon the medical technology available at that time and in that location. Since viability cannot be objectively determined, then it is not a valid option for assigning personhood.

Although these are only two of the options for assigning personhood, it is evident that a weightier option is necessary than some subjective point along the continuum of development. Singer also reaches this conclusion as he writes:

The liberal search for a morally crucial dividing line between the newborn baby and the fetus has failed to yield any event or stage of development that can bear the weight of separating those with a right to life from those who lack such a right in a way that clearly shows that, when most abortions take place, the fetus lacks a right to life. The conservative is on solid ground in insisting that the development from the embryo to the infant is a gradual process, not marked by any obvious point at which there is a change in moral status sufficient to justify the difference between regarding the killing of an infant as murder and the killing of a fetus as something that a pregnant woman should be free to choose as she wishes.[13]

As we consider how to engage the principle of personhood, we must ask proponents of abortion what makes their particular point along the developmental continuum strong enough to bear the burden of personhood. In virtually every case, we will be able to expose the inconsistencies of the option offered and point to the unbroken process of development. In my mind, there is only one option—conception. This is the point at which new biological human life begins. It is the only point in the process that demonstrates that new life exists. It is at this point that personhood should be assigned.

 

Conclusion

Despite the brevity of this article, I hope to have demonstrated a way to deconstruct arguments for abortion. The arguments for abortion are the product of a faulty worldview. Asking questions and exposing such inconsistencies is part of what Francis Schaeffer, the 20th-century American philosopher who lived in Switzerland for much of his adult life, calls “taking the roof off.”[14] Schaeffer argued that a person’s worldview is similar to a shelter built to protect someone from “the blows of the real world.” It attempts to provide answers to life’s most difficult questions. However, any worldview that argues for abortion is a faulty structure. As a result, Schaeffer argues that we must remove the roof of this structure and allow the reality of the world to come flooding in. Schaeffer notes:

It is unpleasant to be submerged by an avalanche, but we must allow the person to undergo this experience so that he may realize his system has no answer to the crucial questions of life. He must come to know that his roof is a false protection from the storm of what is; and then we can talk to him of the storm of the judgment of God.[15]

Deconstructing an argument for abortion is a worthy task, but it is not an end to itself. Instead, engaging in such work should ultimately lead us to pointing others to the gospel so that they can be partakers not only in the life we enjoy on this earth but also in the eternal life offered exclusively by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

 

Dr. Evan Lenow is the associate professor of ethics, Bobby L. and Janis Eklund Chair of Stewardship, director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement, and director of the Center for Biblical Stewardship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This paper is adapted from an address given at the World Congress of Families X in Tbilisi, Georgia.

 


[1]     “Induced Abortion Worldwide: Fact Sheet,” Guttmacher Institute (May 2016), available at https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-worldwide, accessed September 14, 2017.

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Athenagoras, “A Plea for the Christians,” trans. B.P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 147.

[4]     One can see the progression of thought among Southern Baptists in the resolutions relating to abortion beginning in 1971. The general attitude of the early 1970s was to acknowledge the sanctity of life but to allow for abortion according to the terms stated in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. By the 1980s Southern Baptists began opposing abortion through their resolutions. The text of these resolutions is available at http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/about/abortion

[5]     All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition.

[6]     Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., What Does the Lord Require?: A Guide for Preaching and Teaching Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 112.

[7]     “Tattooing and Body Piercing: State Laws, Statutes and Regulations,” National Conference of State Legislatures, available at http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/tattooing-and-body-piercing.aspx.

[8]     Anemona Hartcollis and Michaelle Bond, “Ready Access to Plan B in City Schools,” The New York Times, July 11, 2013, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/12/nyregion/in-new-york-schools-students-find-access-to-morning-after-pill.html?_r=0, accessed September 14, 2017.

[9]     Peter Singer, Practical Ethics 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 125-26.

[10]   Ibid., 126. 

[11]   Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[12]   Pam Belluck, “Premature Babies May Survive at 22 Weeks if Treated, Study Finds,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/07/health/premature-babies-22-weeks-viability-study.html?_r=0, accessed September 14, 2017.

[13]   Singer, Practical Ethics, 129.

[14]   Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Francis A Schaeffer (Wheaton: Crossway, 1982), 140.

[15]   Ibid., 141.