A Rational Look at the Abortion Controversy

A Rational[1] Look at the Abortion Controversy

by Mario Derksen, M.A. cand.

International Catholic University

Presented on April 26, 2003
at the Ohio University Student Conference on Applied Ethics, Athens, Ohio

Revised and Updated: May 1, 2003

One of the most hotly contested issues inside and outside of biomedical ethics today is abortion. The discussion received a new impetus at the release of the controversial abortion drug RU-486, “a pill to increase access to abortions and let women get them privately from their own doctor instead of facing shouting protesters at clinics.”[2] As is the case with all controversial issues, there are very passionate people on both sides of the fence. Unfortunately, a heated discussion on abortion can easily and quickly turn into a battle of rhetoric rather than a dialectic of reason. But the guiding light in such a discussion must always be reason, not rhetoric or other fallacies, for only reason can solve this issue and judge which side is correct.

In this brief essay, I shall attempt to clear away some of the confusion present in typical abortion debates by cooling the rhetoric with reason enlightened by scientific facts. Specifically, I will examine two common pro-abortion arguments made by Mary Anne Warren and Judith Jarvis Thomson and demonstrate that they cannot stand up to rational scrutiny and therefore fail to justify abortion. I shall also use a
”quadrilemma” argument similar to that of Peter Kreeft’s to show that, aside from all specific argumentation, abortion cannot be morally justified.

Before even beginning to discuss the issue of abortion, it is imperative to agree upon a starting point from which to reason. The fact that some people differ even about this very point tends to render the pro-abortion and the anti-abortion paradigms somewhat “incommensurable,” and this is probably one major reason why people are tempted to arrive at different conclusions about this topic. It seems to me, however, that to start with the definition of abortion and an examination of the beings involved would be a fair move.

Abortion is the unnatural termination of a pregnancy by killing (at least) one human fetus. This definition is not contested, and I think it seems clear that it is correct. Science confirms that life begins at conception,[3] and that this life is human is a—scientific as well as logical—necessity, because it is the product of two humans, and humans can only produce humans. Ergo, the fetus involved is human. Secondly, the fetus is, at least scientifically speaking, a singular and individual organism, as evidenced by his own unique genetic make-up, which he shares with no other human being on earth (unless he have an identical twin). There is thus an essential difference between a human fetus and, say, a tumor or similar parasite. Finally, that the fetus is alive is confirmed through empirical observation, and hence forcing that life to come to an end involves at least some sort of killing. Therefore, the unavoidable conclusion is that abortion deliberately and forcibly puts to death a human being. Again, this definition is uncontested and thus I shall not dwell on it any further. Rather, I shall now turn to the moral implications necessarily connected with abortion.

The question that arises is as to whether or not abortion is morally justifiable. It cannot be wrong by definition, since sometimes thereis moral justification for forcibly putting to death another human being, in such cases as self-defense, just war, or capital punishment.[4]Hence, it is reasonable to raise the question whether abortion might be another such instance where one is justified in taking a human life.

The pro-abortion side submits that it is, and different arguments have been put forward to substantiate that claim. A very popular one is the contention that human fetuses are not persons, and that only persons have a right to life and justice against others, at least when these others’ rights are at stake. Mary Anne Warren’s essay “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion”[5] argues just that. Curiously, though, Warren does not indicate in her essay why one should accept the view that one ought to be a person in order to have moral rights in the first place; it seems that she considers it self-evident that this is so, mentioning only that she thinks “there are very good reasons fornot defining the moral community”[6] in such a way that every human being is ipso facto included. Be that as it may, she asks: “What moral characteristics entitle an entity to be considered a person?”[7] and goes on to list five “traits which are most central to the concept of personhood”[8] in her opinion. They are: (1) consciousness, (2) reasoning, (3) self-stimulated activity, (4) the capability to communicate, and (5) the presence of self-concepts and self-awareness.

It is here that reason ought to make an objection. While Warren may think that the categories she lists are sufficient for personhood, I see no reason to believe that they are necessary. In fact, the author herself admits a few lines later that we do not “need to insist that any one of these criteria is necessary for personhood.”[9] But if not “any one” of them is necessary, then none of them are, and if that’s the case, what does her argument prove? And what if one thinks that it is totally unacceptable to define personhood in terms of functional abilities at all? For Warren’s argument to be forceful, one would have to presuppose her functionalist paradigm as true, i.e. the basic idea that there even are criteria a human being must meet in order to be considered a person. But this would be an instant of question-begging—after all, one could very well adopt the view that all humans are persons in virtue of their humanity, and thus being human necessarily implies being a person. I maintain that this alternative view is not only true but also does not carry any problems with it—Warren’s own objection notwithstanding, as will be shown later.

On the other hand, Warren’s functionalism comes with plenty of problems. For one thing, even if one agrees with Warren’s position that the functionalist view of human personhood is true, the criteria proposed by her could be rejected by anyone who disagrees with them, since they are imposed rather gratuitously, and what is gratuitously asserted can be just as gratuitously denied.

Secondly, a major problem Warren’s view faces is the fact that it disregards Francis Beckwith’s argument that “personhood is not something that arises when certain functions are in place, but rather is something that grounds these functions, whether or not they are ever actualized in the life of a human being,”[10] for “to claim that a human being can be functional, become non-functional, and then return to a state of function is to assume that there is some underlying personal unity to this individual.”[11] What Beckwith means by this is that, supposing that John Doe has a car accident and becomes comatose for three months, according to the functionalist view proposed by Warren, one would have to conclude that while Doe was in the coma, he ceased to be a person since he didn’t meet any of her proposed five criteria for personhood, and that when he awoke, he became a person again.

But this is surely absurd. Therefore, Beckwith concludes, “it is intelligible for us to say that the person who has returned to functional capacity is the same person who was functional prior to being in a non-functional state and yet continued to exist while not functioning.”[12] There must be some underlying personal unity, then, unless we wish to say that John Doe before the coma was a different person from the John Doe after the coma. While this objection to Warren’s position can perhaps be elaborated upon, as it is, it does present a major obstacle to her notion that human beings must first meet certain requirements before they can be considered persons, i.e. beings with moral rights.

Earlier I mentioned that Warren does not give us any justification for embracing a functionalist paradigm as far as personhood is concerned. This statement needs qualification, however. Warren does mention that the view that personhood is intrinsic to any human being from the first moment of his existence carries with it the problem that it makes the traditional syllogism against abortion[13]question-begging. But this is false. It does not make the traditional syllogism any more question-begging than the syllogism that since Socrates is a man and all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. The fact that the conclusion follows with great clarity and ease is not because it begs the question but because it is a deductive argument—and it is the nature of deduction to render “obvious” conclusions, since all deduction does is spell out what is already contained in the premises. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the conclusion of the traditional anti-abortion syllogism follows with relative ease. And this most certainly does not disprove the validity of the syllogism or suggest that it contains a fallacy, and hence the humanity-implies-personhood view is not refuted or infringed upon.

So, what reasons does Warren have to reject the view that humanity implies personhood? None, really. So, why does she reject it? She rejects it because otherwise she would have to admit that abortion is impermissible (she agrees, after all, that the statement “it is wrong to kill innocent human beings” is “a self-evident moral truth”[14]), and this is a conclusion she does not desire. In other words, it seems to me that Warren rejects the view that humanity necessarily implies personhood (or that being human suffices to have moral rights) precisely and only because it would make abortion impermissible. She presupposes that abortion is justified and thus proceeds to select only such criteria for personhood as allow for her preconceived conclusion, i.e. criteria that are not met by human fetuses.[15]Thus, she has ruled out from the beginning the possibility that abortion is wrong. But surely this is question-begging!

Of course, not all abortion advocates base their justification of abortion on a lack of personhood on the part of the preborn human. Some, such as Judith Jarvis Thomson, argue instead that even if the fetus is a person, abortion can still be morally justified. Certainly, such a justification, if valid, would make a much more forceful case for abortion than any attempt to base it on a lack of personhood. Hence, I will now proceed to examine Judith Thomson’s main argument in her essay “A Defense of Abortion.”[16]

According to Thomson, we are to imagine a situation in which a violinist with a fatal kidney disease has been artificially hooked up to you in order to use your kidneys for nine months. This has been done by the Society of Music Lovers and without your permission. If you unplugged yourself from this violinist now, he would die, and in that sense you would be responsible for his death. Inevitably, then, the moral question arises whether you are morally obligated not to unplug yourself from the violinist for the time being, even if this causes all sorts of inconveniences for you, such as staying in bed all day; after all, all “persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons . . . [and] a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body.”[17]

This is Thomson’s main contention, and, even if somewhat bizarre, if the analogy holds which she is obviously drawing between the violinist situation and pregnancy, then the anti-abortion position would suffer a severe setback. However, it turns out that there is plenty of evidence to show that Thomson’s violinist analogy is in fact a false analogy and therefore fallacious and without rational force. To prove this, I shall now share several pieces of evidence that demonstrates that Thomson’s “Violinist” is in fact a false analogy.

First, the most obvious difference is perhaps that by unplugging the violinist, one would not engage in direct killing but in letting die. The violinist would be killed by a disease, whereas the fetus is aborted by killing him actively or at least forcibly removing him from his natural place of safety. It would not be correct, therefore, to treat the two situations as equal or analogous, because the violinist has a disease which he would die of, whereas the preborn human does not and would die of active violence done to him.

Another important consideration is that the violinist analogy, if valid, only holds true for rape cases, that is, in cases where a woman has been forcibly impregnated against her will, since in the analogy you were actually kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, and it was involuntary therefore. However, as John T. Wilcox points out, “the title of [Thomson’s] essay is ‘A Defense of Abortion,’ not ‘A Defense of Abortion in Rape Cases.’”[18] Thus, it is misleading and inconsistent to use an analogy that could only hold for rape cases to argue for a position that does not restrict itself to allowing abortion in rape cases only.[19]

Another point is that the violinist incident is artificial, bizarre, and contrived, whereas pregnancy is the exact opposite—it is most natural and occurs all the time. It is, in fact, necessary for the propagation of the human race. Says Wilcox: “In Thomson’s essay we have something as universal and necessary [for reproduction] as pregnancy compared to something so rare it has never happened and perhaps could never happen.”[20] He then goes on to make the point that it is “at least arguable . . . that the moralities we have represent some ways of dealing with the realities and regularities of human life; and they may not fit well the irregularities and impossibilities.” Given that, he concludes that it is “plausible to regard [the two cases] differently from an ethical point of view . . . [since] what is appropriate for kidnapped kidney bearers and their violinist parasites might not be appropriate for mothers and the babes in their wombs.”[21] This objection, though perhaps not necessarily conclusive by itself, is something which should definitely be seriously taken into consideration when evaluating the strength of Thomson’s violinist analogy.

A fourth objection that may be raised to Thomson’s analogy is the fact that the two cases are disanalogous inasmuch as unplugging the violinist is in no way comparable to the methods used for abortions. While the different methods vary, they all involve a very cruel killing of the fetus, whether it be through cutting, suctioning, or intoxication. Yet, at no abortion during any point of gestation is the fetus given pain relief, even though the “centers necessary for pain perception develop early in the second trimester,”[22] and so justice would require at least an attempt to relieve fetal suffering, especially in late-term abortions, where “[f]orcibly incising the cranium with a [sic] scissors and then suctioning out the intracranial contents is certainly excruciatingly painful.”[23] The point here is not to be graphic, but to point out that there is a fundamental difference between such a procedure, which is artificial, deliberate, and unnecessarily painful, and unplugging the violinist, which is nothing other than letting him die.

These are just some of the objections one can raise against Thomson’s analogy of the violinist, though multiplying them would extend the scope of this paper. I think, however, that the above objections are illustrative of some serious insufficiencies in Thomson’s argument, such that they take away from it the persuasive force that it may appear to have at first glance.

There are, without a doubt, many more arguments in favor of abortion that deserve careful analysis and critical examination but that I cannot treat here. But whatever these may be, I wish to offer one last objection to the pro-abortion position in general, an objection which looks at abortion also from an epistemological point-of-view and resembles in a way Blaise Pascal’s famous “wager.” It is an argument similar to that developed by Peter Kreeft,[24] and it can be judged on its own merits, even if one were to leave all previous argumentation aside.

The argument is simply this. In the abortion debate, there are only four possible scenarios which could obtain, namely that (1) abortion is right and we know it; (2) abortion is wrong and we know it; (3) abortion is right and we don’t know it; and (4) abortion is wrong and we don’t know it. No other option is possible.[25] So let us suppose that (1) obtains. In this instance, abortion would be morally justified, and no problem could arise. However, we know that (1) is false, for, obviously, there is serious controversy about abortion, and hence we do not “know” that abortion is morally right. If one of the other three scenarios should obtain, however, then abortion would be morally wrong, for if (2) obtains, then abortion is murder; if (3) obtains, then abortion is criminal negligence; and if (4) obtains, abortion is manslaughter.

I should perhaps elaborate on (3). Suppose you are a truck driver, and while you are driving at night, you suddenly see in front of you what looks like a man lying on the road, although you are not sure that it’s a man, for it might actually be a dummy. From your view, you simply cannot tell. Would it be morally justifiable for you to run over this “person”? Clearly, the answer is no. The very fact that youdon’t know whether it’s a human or a dummy obliges you not to run over it in order to be on the safe side, and to do otherwise would be morally reprehensible. This is how we are to understand (3), that not knowing whether abortion is right or wrong when in fact it is right is still morally inadmissible, for the uncertainty obliges us to err on the side of life. Therefore, anyone who would argue for abortion on the premise that we just don’t know whether the fetus is a human (or person) or not, is clearly wrong, as such a premise warrants the exact opposite conclusion, namely, that abortions must not be performed.

Thus, this “quadrilemma” argument establishes that even if we ignore all other rational arguments, in three out of four possible scenarios, abortion is morally wrong. But this number—namely, 75%—is sufficiently high to warrant the claim that abortions ought not to be performed.

Given all of the above, I propose that abortion, at least as far as the criticized arguments from Warren’s and Thomson’s essays are concerned, cannot be morally justified. On the contrary, the traditional anti-abortion syllogism remains as intact as ever and retains its moral force. Since abortion involves human life (on both sides), it is a very serious issue and must be very forcefully and convincingly argued for—by both sides. The principle of non-contradiction requires that only one of the two sides of the issue is right, and, necessarily, the other must be wrong, very wrong. Again, then, in order to come to a resolution of this issue, the primary requirement is that we let reason, not rhetoric, be our guide to show us what is morally right and what is morally wrong. We must go wherever reason leads us, even if the conclusion be uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Works Cited

“Abortion Pill Heads for Clinics.” USA Today, 20 November 2000. Internet edition.

Alcorn, Randy. Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments, expanded edition. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2001.

Beckwith, Francis J. “Abortion, Bioethics, and Personhood: A Philosophical Reflection.” Paper from the Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity at http://www.cbhd.org/resources/aps/beckwith-personhood.htm, n.d.

Guttmacher, Alan F. Planning Your Family: The Complete Guide to Contraception and Fertility. New York, NY: Macmillan Co., 1964.

Kreeft, Peter. Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1990.

Sprang, M. LeRoy, and Mark G. Neerhof. “Rationale for Banning Abortions Late in Pregnancy.” Journal of the American Medical Association 280, no. 8 (1998): 744-747.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion. In Tom L. Beauchamp and LeRoy Walters, eds. Contemporary Issues in Bioethics. 5thed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999, 202-211.

Warren, Mary Anne. “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” In Tom L. Beauchamp and LeRoy Walters, eds. Contemporary Issues in Bioethics. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999, 222-231.

Wilcox, John T. “Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s Defense of Abortion.” New Scholasticism 63, no. 4 (1989): 463-484.


[1] The word “rational” is to be understood in the sense of “logically coherent,” such that when I say that opponents’ arguments are irrational, I mean to suggest that they contain a logical fallacy, false premises or are otherwise not sound. I do not mean to suggest that they are simple gibberish.

[2] “Abortion Pill Heads for Clinics,” USA Today, 20 November 2000, Internet edition.

[3] Even former Planned Parenthood president Alan Guttmacher admitted as much in his book Planning Your Family: The Complete Guide to Contraception and Fertility (New York, NY: Macmillan Co., 1964), 28. Numerous quotes from scientists and physicians that testify that human life begins at conception can be found in Randy Alcorn, Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments, exp. ed. (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2001), 51-55.

[4] I realize that even this is contested, but I think it is safe to say that most people agree that sometimes killing another human being is morally justifiable.

[5] See Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” in Tom L. Beauchamp and LeRoy Walters, eds., Contemporary Issues in Bioethics, 5thed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999), 222-231.

[6] Warren, “Status of Abortion,” 227; italics added.

[7] Warren, “Status of Abortion,” 227.

[8] Warren, “Status of Abortion,” 227.

[9] Warren, “Status of Abortion,” 227f.; italics given.

[10] Francis J. Beckwith, “Abortion, Bioethics, and Personhood: A Philosophical Reflection” (paper from the Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity at http://www.cbhd.org/resources/aps/beckwith-personhood.htm, n.d.), 2.

[11] Beckwith, “Abortion,” 2.

[12] Beckwith, “Abortion,” 2.

[13] That syllogism goes something along these lines: Deliberately killing innocent human beings is wrong; a fetus is an innocent human being; hence deliberately killing fetuses is wrong.

[14] Warren, “Status of Abortion,” 226.

[15] Incidentally, Warren’s position, if correct, would justify infanticide, something she tries to deny—unsuccessfully—in a 1982 postscript to her original essay.

[16] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” in Beauchamp and Walters, Contemporary Issues in Bioethics, 202-211.

[17] Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” 203.

[18] John T. Wilcox, “Nature as Demonic in Thomson’s Defense of Abortion,” New Scholasticism 63, no. 4 (1989): 472.

[19] Thomson’s attempt to argue that an unwanted pregnancy after voluntary sexual intercourse due to contraceptive failure is equal to an unwanted pregnancy due to rape is nothing short of ridiculous. The sexual act by nature tends towards pregnancy, i.e., that is the natural purpose of the sexual act, and any woman who engages in this act voluntarily, with or without contraception, thereby willingly opens herself to pregnancy.

[20] Wilcox, “Nature as Demonic,” 468.

[21] Wilcox, “Nature as Demonic,” 468f.

[22] M. LeRoy Sprang and Mark G. Neerhof, “Rationale for Banning Abortions Late in Pregnancy,” Journal of the American Medical Association 280, no. 8 (1998): 745.

[23] Sprang and Neerhof, “Banning Abortions,” 745.

[24] Cf. Peter Kreeft, Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1990), 119-21.

[25] One might object that “abortion is morally neutral” is another possibility, but that which is morally neutral is morally permissible.

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