A Brief Defence of the Unborn Child

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Criticising her government’s stance on abortion, Irish politician Lucinda Creighton warned of the corrosive power of “group-think”

It seems that if you do not succumb to the accepted view that abortion is a “liberal issue”, a “women’s rights issue”, a cornerstone of the “progressive agenda”, then you are deemed to be a backward, illiberal, Neanderthal fundamentalist who belongs to a different era. The distinct irony of this prevailing view, is that it is so illiberal in its intolerance of any alternative outlook.”

It is true that arguments made against abortion are framed in ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’ terms; i.e. that because human beings are made in the image of God (Imago Dei) they possess inherent value regardless of anything they do or achieve; that, and Scripture informs us that life begins at conception. While fully supportive of this understanding of human life, it is an approach to the debate which can result in the pro-life position either being pre-judged and dismissed entirely. We propose to present a brief pro-life argument which isn’t dependent on Christian theology.

The pro-abortion position frequently assumes that the foetus/embryo cannot be regarded as a person who should be granted human rights. We must ask, then, if a foetus can have the moral status of human being. We are often told that the existence of a complex cerebral cortex is critical in determining personhood. The reason given is that individual human personality is dependent on a complex cerebral cortex. If no neurological activity takes place prior to about 20 weeks, then prior to that stage of development, no individual personality exists. Abortion, therefore, violates no one’s rights, for there is no one to be violated.

However, even if we allow this point, that a foetus does not have a personality prior to 20 weeks, it still is not at all clear why this position justifies abortion. First, we should not lazily equate personality with personhood. A human can lose their personality – while in a coma, say – yet remain a person (a personal being). All humans require, at various times and for various reasons, care, nurture and protection, being on occasion unable to fend for themselves. These needs ground universally acknowledged rights which can be applied to all: all, that is, except the unborn. Why should they be excluded?

Second, even if the pre-twenty-week foetus is incapable of exhibiting a particular personality it is in the process of developing one. Each stage of that human’s development is essential to the next. If personality is dependent on a cerebral cortex then it is dependent on each prior stage of development too. Without each of the prior building blocks, the cerebral cortex is incapable of forming, and so on – each step of development being essential to the formation of a personality.

Third, every worldview can agree that the human personality is inextricably linked to the human body. The body shapes the way we experience the world and the way in which our characters continue to be formed. Even if there is no human soul; no external divine source to carve its image on the human foetus; no god to author the human personality; then we must still acknowledge that all the information required for the on-going development and formation of the human person is already contained in the fertilised human egg.

The question which arises then is this: by what moral right can we terminate a process which will lead to a rational, moral and independent human being? A fertilised human egg, can, under normal circumstances, do no other than grow to become a person. If termination is unacceptable once the personality of the body is manifest, then we must ask why termination is deemed acceptable simply because certain features of the human being have not had sufficient time to develop.

Fourth, consider this thought experiment: imagine a strange and exotic virus ravages a human’s nervous system, paralysing the limbs and leaving the subject with no conscious awareness. Cells in the higher brain cease to function properly; there is no response to external stimuli. Only those brain functions essential for life (respiration, heat-beat) continue. However, further suppose this disease only lasts for a few hours. With nothing more than nine hour’s bed rest, the patient usually heals and makes a full recovery.

Presumably, no-one would deny that a human suffering the effects of this disease would lose their right to life. They would lose all conscious awareness and their capacity for rational thought, but not their human dignity. With a little patience and care, the potential of the human being will manifest itself once more. The person is on a path to full consciousness; they have all the capacities that give a human being inherent value. Now, change the thought experiment a little, and imagine the time it takes for recovery is nine weeks or nine months. Again, it seems we could not kill a human being simply because he is not conscious.

But the human embryo would also normally develop human capacities over nine months, so it also must be worthy of care and protection. It is a human being with a right to life. Peered at in a petri-dish, to the untrained eye the embryo just seems to be tissue, a collection of biological parts. But when we consider an embryo growing in a mother’s womb, we realise its true nature. Given time and care, it will develop the power to look out at the world, to reach out and experience sensation and emotion, to reflect on what it has experienced and to share all that it has thought and felt with others.

Fifth, these arguments all cohere with an argument made famous by mathematician, philosopher and ethicist Alexander Pruss in his paper I Was Once a Fetus: That is Why Abortion is Wrong” He begins with the observation  “if an organism that once existed has never died, then this organism still exists.” Now, an organism came into existence at the moment of your conception: you. The cells of the embryo divided and differentiated, but the organism survived and thrived. (If not, what happened to that organism?) Or, to put that another way, you survived and thrived.

You are a human organism now, and you were a human organism then. To murder you now would be to deprive you of your human dignity and your right to life. To kill you now would be to rob you of your future life.  We would have deprived you of the same rights if we had killed you when you were a child, or a neo-nate, or a fetus or an embryo. How could it be otherwise? You were the same individual human being at every stage. To have killed you before your birth would have been to deprive you of a greater part of your future. So, before you were born you had at least the same right to life as your adult self. Of course, you have no more inherent dignity than the next human; so every human has exactly the same right to life at each stage of their life.

Sixth, suppose that we do not have rights until we become conscious and self-aware, or until we begin to think in a rational way. Or suppose that we can only obtain rights when other humans gain an emotional attachment to us. But these views have absurd consequences. A new born child is less rational than a dog or a pig; are we to infer that it has less moral value? Or could we seriously suggest that a newborn child only obtains human dignity once it is accepted by its family? Furthermore, the doctrine of equal human worth is called into question if our rights depend on how far our capacities have developed. Some of us are more reflective and rational than others. And, if our rights depend on the degree of rationality or self-awareness that we have obtained, it would seem that some of us have a greater claim to fundamental human rights than others.

Seventh,  legal scholar Erika Bachiochi warns that we should not uncritically view the advance of the pro-choice movement as a net gain for feminism.

The feminist hope that liberalized abortion would usher in a new era in which women would enjoy sexual and reproductive autonomy akin to that enjoyed by men is simply illusory. While abortion has freed men further from the consequences of the potentially procreative sexual act, women must act affirmatively—and destructively—if they are to imitate male reproductive autonomy… It’s time for women to recognize that self-respect requires that they disentangle themselves from the culture’s current male-centered mode of sexuality.”

Holy Scripture, of course, leaves little room for talk of an ‘impersonal foetus’. Indeed, Christian theology provides us with a more robust defence of the unborn child. Every human child can be recipient of love. It will develop a human form and face, and so call out for care and understanding. It will demand that we make sacrifices to nurture and protect it. Each new human life calls out for love, and human beings are not fulfilled in the absence of love. Indeed, the child calls with greatest power to those who brought it into existence; each new human life must be protected as sacred.

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