The agnostic approach to abortion

I tend to get a little bit testy when discussing or opining on the issue of abortion because most of the arguments for it are so illogical and/or self-serving and we’re talking about killing babies here. Like a mother bear I want to maul (figuratively speaking, of course) anyone who claims that innocent, developing, sensing, unborn children have no right to protection from being mauled and dismembered themselves. The very thought of it makes me angry…and rightly so, I would say…but when I calm down I’m able to recognize that some pro-abortion arguments are more reasonable and deserve consideration. I still reject them, but at least I can respect…and feel no urge to physically assault…the ones who hold them.

I’m in Chapter 6 now of Francis J. Beckwith’s book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1) which he has titled Arguments from Decisive Moments and Gradualism. These are a range of claims about the status of the unborn that generally acknowledge it as a living entity of the human species but deny that it has the rights of full personhood. The criteria for those rights “are based on so-called decisive moments in prenatal and neonatal development…[or] on certain conditions any entity, born or unborn, must fulfill in order to be considered fully human.” The first argument he critiques, however, claims ignorance of a decisive moment.

Agnostic Approach: “No One Knows When Life Begins”

This argument is essentially claiming that since we can’t really know when that decisive moment distinguishing full personhood is, abortion should remain legal. Beckwith highlights four problems with this approach.

  1. If we can’t know when a human being attains full personhood, by what standard do we afford born infants legal protection? Do we have a decisive criterion to justly condemn and punish the satanist who sacrifices his 3-month-old to his unholy god?
  2. If we can’t know when full humanness begins, it follows that abortion at any moment during pregnancy may be an act of homicide. So the moral choice would be to give the unborn the benefit of the doubt and not kill it. Just as it would be irresponsible for a hunter to shoot at movement in the bushes because it might be a deer and he would be morally culpable if it turned out to be another hunter, so it is for those willing to take a chance with the unborn.
  3. Contrary to this claim, we do have good reasons to believe “that full humanness is present from the moment of conception, and that the nature of prenatal and postuterine existence is merely the unfolding of human growth and development that does not cease until death.”
  4. By supporting the right to abortion throughout the whole nine months of pregnancy, abortion-rights advocates are essentially deciding that full, protected personhood begins at birth. So this argument is decidedly disingenuous.

The first actually decisive moment Beckwith addresses has four different arguments in support of it, a few of which involve really unique and difficult situations. So I’ll save all that for my next post.

(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)