Is abortion a “religious” issue? Do opponents of abortion want to impose their religious values on society? Every year on January twenty-second, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade supreme court decision, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims brave the bitter cold to walk in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. 2014 marks the fortieth anniversary for the March and similar walks have cropped up in cities around the world, from San Diego to Paris to Warsaw to Rome. Pope Francis even joined the Roman March, putting the lie to the media narrative that he doesn’t think it necessary to speak out against abortion.
The Walk for Life West Coast will take place in San Francisco this year on Saturday, January twenty-fifth. In only its tenth year, the Walk has grown from around five-thousand in 2005 to close to fifty-thousand. It’s a diverse group, but is mostly made up of families and young people. It is true that Catholics and other Christian groups are well represented. Very well represented. So well represented in fact, that an outside observer might conclude that this was a religious event. On the sidelines of the Walk is always a small crowd of anti-Walk for Life protestors making their voices heard. Indeed, ensuring their voices are heard by shouting profanity and slogans at the walkers.
The protesters certainly seem to think the Walk for Life is solely religiously motivated. Their signs make this clear and include classics such as:
“Religious bigots unwelcome in San Francisco”
“Life begins when Christian fascism ends”
“Keep your ideology off my biology”
And my personal favorite,
“Get your rosaries off my ovaries”
See what they did there, making it rhyme? Clever. And those are the cute slogans. I will not reprint some of the others.
Certainly, theology informs and elevates the Christian view of the dignity of the human person. The human person is valuable, revelation tells us, not because we have some special utility or because we’re the smartest animal, but because the human person is the Imago Dei, the living Image of the invisible God. As Blessed John Paul the Great put it, “The dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of him.” We are made by God, to know and love Him forever. The Christian view of the human person can not be outdone as a motivation to speak against abortion.
But does this mean that there is no good non-religious motivation or reason to do so? Don’t tell that to Monica Snyder, one of the Walk for Life West Coast’s headlining speakers. Monica represents Secular Pro-Life, a non-religious organization dedicated to advocating for the unborn. Their website states, “We believe that science and reason are on the side of life.” Christian anthropology certainly seems to be on the side of life. Is sound philosophy? What of science?
The Supreme Court did not seem to think reason or medicine helpful in deciding the issue. The majority opinion in the Roe decision infamously argued, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” The Supreme Court says it’s a difficult question. Secular Pro-Life says otherwise. So who’s right?
Before looking briefly at the contribution philosophy and science offer to the case against abortion, it should be said that theologically motivated Walkers should not feel uncomfortable standing side-by-side with those offering non-religious reasons to stand for life. After all, does not Christian theology profess that God, Creator of the cosmos and everything in it, is also the ground of reason? Biological science can offer some of the data about the human person while philosophy can provide the sound thinking to carry the argument through, all without appeal to theology. Pro-abortion slogans range from vulgar, to clever (as in the examples offered above), from rhyming to grammatically incorrect. Choice? Choice of what? “Choose” is a transitive verb that needs an object. While pro-abortion slogans and arguments take various forms, most can be reduced to two principal categories: those that deny the humanity of the unborn and those that deny the value of the unborn. Biology can correct the former mistake, while philosophy can clarify the latter.
What do the biological sciences tell us about the identity of the unborn? What is it? This is actually the easy part, which makes the Roe decision so bewildering. Indeed, many pro-abortion slogans are marked by a stunning ignorance or avoidance of basic biology. Consider some basic biological facts regarding the unborn. From conception, even as a single-celled organism, the unborn is a living, whole, and distinct human being. It clearly fits the biological definition of “life”; it grows, metabolizes nutrients, and will be able to reproduce in about thirteen years. If left to grow like other living things, it has a life-span of about 75 years. Abortion directly ends the life of the unborn.
Some will argue here that while the unborn may be alive, it is only so in the same way that any of the other cells in a woman’s body are alive. But while the unborn may be at an early stage of development, it is whole. It has all the parts it needs at that particular stage of development and is not itself a part of another organism. Pro-abortion terminology will sometimes focus on stage of development terminology such as “embryo” or “fetus.” This is misleading because stage of development is not an indicator of being or essence. It does not help answer the question “what is the unborn?” To say that the unborn is not human because it is a fetus is like saying one’s grandmother is not human, she’s a senior citizen. We can also speak about other mammals in this way: ie. fetal pig, feline embryo, etc. Whatever the unborn is–“fetus” or “embryo”–does not answer the question.
The unborn is a distinct individual. Here is where the “my body, my choice” argument fails. The unborn, while inside the mother, is not a part of the woman. This is what distinguishes it from all the other cells in the mother’s body. They bear her genetic code. They are her parts. The unborn bears its own complete genetic code, whole and entire. Even as a single-celled zygote, it is, biologically speaking, diploid, meaning it carries a complete and unique genetic profile. To contrast, a woman’s eggs are haploid, carrying half a genetic profile–hers. This is also why terminology that refers to the early unborn as a “fertilized egg” is biologically incorrect. In addition, the unborn can be a different sex than the mother and have a different blood type. It is a distinct individual.
Finally and most obviously, the unborn inside a human mother is a human being. It is not a giraffe or a cat or a dog. It is not even correct to say it is a potential human being. It already is a human being–a human being with potential. Biology makes clear the full humanity of the unborn.
Philosophy can help us answer the question of the value of the unborn. There are three options here. All human beings have value, some human beings have value, or no human beings have value. Almost no one takes the latter view, but many take the middle view, that only some human life is valuable. This is a view that has not historically turned out well for certain groups of human beings–persons with certain shades of skin color or gender, for example. Indeed, every injustice against the human person is a failure to treat human beings for what they are, substituting this essential value-giving criterion for some other accidental and superficial quality. The differences between the unborn and every other human being we see walking around is not a difference in kind but in quality–place, age, appearance–basically Aristotle’s categories two through ten. Any attempt to glean metaphysical value apart from metaphysics, apart from addressing what a thing is, will ultimately fail. The pro-abort knows this, which is why they tend to misuse language to disguise the nature of the unborn.
In presenting a compelling argument against abortion, Christian theology seals the deal to be sure. But this does not mean that abortion is a “religious” issue. On the contrary, we should welcome arguments that use the other gifts God has given us, such as the natural sciences and reason. For, as Secular Pro-Life avers, they are on the side of life.
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