Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights
Part Three: Is the Unborn Human Less Than Human?
by Francis J. Beckwith
Realizing that many popular arguments for abortion rights -- such as some of the
ones found in the first two installments in this series -- have little logical merit,
many philosophers, ethicists, and theologians have presented more sophisticated
arguments for abortion rights. These radical and moderate pro-choice thinkers
agree with pro-life advocates that the abortion debate rests on the moral status of
the unborn: if the unborn are fully human, then nearly every abortion performed is
tantamount to murder. They argue, however, that although the unborn entity is
human, insofar as belonging to the species homo sapiens, it is not a person and
hence not fully human.
Those who argue in this fashion defend either a decisive moment or gradualist
approach to the status of the unborn. Those who defend a decisive moment view
argue that, although human life does begin at the moment of conception, it is at
some later stage in the unborn human's development that it becomes worthy of
our protection. It is at this moment that it becomes a person.
Other philosophers take a gradualist position and argue that the unborn human
gradually gains more rights as it develops. Hence, a zygote has less rights than a
6-month-old fetus, but this fetus has less rights than an adult woman.
In order to understand decisive moment and gradualist theories, it is important that
we carefully go over the biological facts of fetal development. In this third
installment of my four-part series I will cover the facts of fetal development and
some decisive moment theories. In Part Four I will critique some more decisive
moment theories and the gradualist view, concluding with responses to common
questions asked about the pro-life view that full humanness begins at conception.
LIFE BEGINNING AT CONCEPTION AND
THE FACTS OF PRE-NATAL DEVELOPMENT
While going over the facts of prenatal development I will present the case for the
pro-life view that full humanness begins at conception. I will deal with objections to
this view when I critique the decisive moment and gradualist views in both this
article and the final part of this series.
Pregnancy begins at conception, the time at which the male sperm and the female
ovum unite. What results is called a zygote, a one-celled biological entity, a stage
in human development through which each of us has passed (just as we have
passed through infancy, childhood, and adolescence). It is a misnomer to refer to
this entity as a "fertilized ovum." For both ovum and sperm, which are genetically
each a part of its owner (mother and father, respectively), cease to exist at the
moment of conception. There is no doubt that the zygote is biologically alive. It
fulfills the four criteria needed to establish biological life: (1) metabolism, (2)
growth, (3) reaction to stimuli, and (4) reproduction. (There is cell reproduction
and twinning, a form of asexual reproduction, which can occur after conception.
For more on twinning, see below.) But is this life fully human? I believe that the
facts clearly reveal that it is.
First, the human conceptus -- that which results from conception and begins as a
zygote -- is the sexual product of human parents. Hence, insofar as having
human causes, the conceptus is human.
Second, not only is the conceptus human insofar as being caused by humans, it is
a unique human individual, just as each of us is. Resulting from the union of the
female ovum (which contains 23 chromosomes) and the male sperm (which
contains 23 chromosomes), the conceptus is a new -- although tiny -- individual. It
has its own unique genetic code (with forty-six chromosomes), which is neither
the mother's nor the father's. From this point until death, no new genetic
information is needed to make the unborn entity a unique individual human. Her
(or his) genetic make-up is established at conception, determining her unique
individual physical characteristics -- gender, eye color, bone structure, hair color,
skin color, susceptibility to certain diseases, etc. That is to say, at conception, the
"genotype" -- the inherited characteristics of a unique human being -- is established
and will remain in force for the entire life of this individual. Although sharing the
same nature with all human beings, the unborn individual, like each one of us, is
unlike any that has been conceived before and unlike any that will ever be
conceived again. The only thing necessary for the growth and development of this
human organism (as with the rest of us) is oxygen, food, and water, since this
organism -- like the newborn, the infant, and the adolescent -- needs only to
develop in accordance with her already-designed nature that is present at
This is why French geneticist Jermoe L. LeJeune, while testifying before a Senate
Subcommittee, asserted: "To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place
a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The
human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a
metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence."
There is hence no doubt that the development of a unique individual human life
begins at conception. It is vital that you -- the reader -- understand that you did
not come from a zygote, you once were a zygote; you did not come from an
embryo, you once were an embryo; you did not come from a fetus, you once
were a fetus; you did not come from an adolescent, you once were an
adolescent. Consequently, each one of us has experienced these various
developmental stages of life. None of these stages, however, imparted to us our
Within one week after conception, implantation occurs -- the time at which the
conceptus "nests" or implants in her mother's uterus. During this time, and possibly
up to fourteen days after conception, a splitting of the conceptus may occur
resulting in the creation of identical twins. In some instances the two concepti may
recombine and become one conceptus. (I will respond below to the argument that
the possibility of the conceptus twinning and the subsequent concepti recombining
refutes the pro-life claim that full humanness begins at conception.) At about three
weeks, a primitive heart muscle begins to pulsate. Other organs begin to develop
during the first month, such as a liver, primitive kidneys, a digestive tract, and a
simple umbilical cord. This developing body has a head and a developing face with
primitive ears, mouth, and eyes, despite the fact that it is no larger than half the
size of a pea. Toward the end of the first month (between 26 and 28 days) the
arms and legs begin to appear as tiny buds. A whole embryo is formed by the end
of the first month.
From the eighteenth day after conception, substantial development of the brain
and nervous system occurs.
This is necessary because the nervous system integrates the action of all the
other systems. By the end of the twentieth day the foundation of the child's
brain, spinal cord, and entire nervous system will have been established. By
the sixth week, this system will have developed so well that it is controlling
movements of the baby's muscles, even though the woman may not be
aware she is pregnant. At thirty days the primary brain is seen. By the thirty-third day the cerebral cortex, the part of the central nervous system which
governs motor activity as well as intellect, may be seen.
Despite its small size, the unborn child by the beginning of the second month looks
distinctly "human" (although -- as this article maintains -- it is human from
conception). At this point it is highly likely that the mother does not even know she
is pregnant. Brain waves can be detected in the unborn at about forty to forty-three days after conception. During the second month, the eyes, ears, nose, toes,
and fingers make their appearance; the skeleton develops; the heart beats; and
the blood -- with its own type -- flows. The unborn at this time has reflexes and
her lips become sensitive to touch. By the eighth week her own unique fingerprints
start to form, along with the lines in her hands.
A vast majority of abortions are performed during this time, despite the scientific
facts which clearly show that an individual human life is developing, as it would after
birth, from infant to child to adolescent to adult.
In an important article, Professor John T. Noonan argues that it is reasonable to
infer that toward the end of the second month of pregnancy the unborn has the
ability to feel pain. It is crucial to remember that the end of the second month
(7 to 8 1/2 weeks) is in the first trimester, a time at which a great majority of
abortions are performed and at which the Supreme Court said a state may not
prohibit abortions performed by a licensed practitioner. From the facts of brain and
nerve development, the pained expressions on the faces of aborted fetuses, the
known ability to experience other sensations at this time, and the current methods
by which abortions are performed, Noonan concludes from his research that as
soon as a pain mechanism is present in the fetus -- possibly as early as day 56 --
the methods used will cause pain. The pain is more substantial and lasts longer the
later the abortion is. It is most severe and lasts the longest when the method is
Whatever the method used, the unborn are experiencing the greatest of bodily
evils, the ending of their lives. They are undergoing the death agony. However
inarticulate, however slight their cognitive powers, however rudimentary their
sensations, they are sentient creatures undergoing the disintegration of their being
and the termination of their vital capabilities. That experience is painful in itself.
Movement is what characterizes the third month of pregnancy. Although she
weighs only one ounce and is comparable in size to a goose egg, the unborn
begins to swallow, squint, and swim, grasp with her hands, and move her tongue.
She also sucks her thumb. Her organs undergo further development. The salivary
glands, taste buds, and stomach digestive glands develop -- as evidenced by her
swallowing and utilization of the amniotic fluid. She also begins to urinate.
Depending on the unborn's sex, primitive sperm or eggs form. Parental
resemblance may already be seen in the unborn's facial expressions.
Fourth and Fifth Months
Growth is characteristic of the fourth month. The weight of the unborn increases
six times -- to about one-half her birth weight. Her height is between eight and ten
inches long and she can hear her mother's voice.
In the fifth month of pregnancy the unborn becomes viable. That is, she now has
the ability, under our current technological knowledge, to live outside her mother's
womb. Some babies have survived as early as twenty weeks. The fifth month is
also the time at which the mother begins to feel the unborn's movements,
although mothers have been known to feel stirrings earlier. This first movement
was traditionally called quickening, the time at which some ancient, medieval, and
common-law scholars thought the soul entered the body. Not having access to the
biological facts we currently possess, they reasoned that prior to quickening it
could not be proven that the unborn was "alive." Current biology, by conclusively
demonstrating that a biologically living human individual is present from
conception, has decisively refuted this notion of "quickening," just as current
astronomy has refuted the geocentric solar system.
During the fifth month, the unborn's hair, skin, and nails develop. She can dream
(rapid eye movement [REM] sleep) and cry (if air is present). It is, however,
perfectly legal under Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton to kill this unborn human
being by abortion for any reason her mother so chooses.
In the remaining four months of pregnancy the unborn continues to develop. The
child's chances of survival outside the womb increase as she draws closer to her
expected birthday. During this time she responds to sounds, her mother's voice,
pain, and the taste of substances placed in the amniotic fluid. Some studies have
shown that the child can actually learn before it is born. The child is born
approximately 40 weeks after conception.
In summary, the pro-life advocate believes that full humanness begins at
conception for at least four reasons, which were evident in the above presentation
of fetal development: (1) At the moment of conception a separate unique human
individual, with its own genetic code, comes into existence -- needing only food,
water, shelter, and oxygen in order to grow and develop. (2) Like the infant, the
child, and the adolescent, the conceptus is a being who is in the process of
becoming. She is not a becoming who is striving toward being. She is not a
potential human life but a human life with great potential. (3) The conceptus is the
sexual product of human parents, and whatever is the sexual product of members
of a particular mammalian species, is itself a unique individual member of that
species. And (4) the same being that begins as a zygote continues to birth and
adulthood. There is no decisive break in the continuous development of the human
entity from conception until death that would make this entity a different individual
before birth. This is why it makes perfect sense for any one of us to say, "When I
DECISIVE MOMENT THEORIES: A CRITIQUE
Throughout the history of the abortion controversy, many have put forth criteria
by which to judge whether a human organism has reached the point in its
development at which it is fully human. Some criteria are based on so-called
"decisive" moments in fetal development. Others are based on certain conditions
any entity -- born or unborn -- must fulfill in order to be considered "fully human."
And others argue that there is no "decisive" moment but that the unborn's rights
increase as its body develops. I believe that all these views are flawed. I will argue
that the pro-life view that full humanness begins at conception is the most
coherent and is more consistent with our basic moral intuitions. In order to defend
this position adequately, I will -- both in this article and in the final installment of this
series -- critique a number of decisive moment and gradualist theories, whose
defenses contain many objections to the pro-life view.
Agnostic Approach: "No One Knows When Life Begins"
It is often claimed by abortion-rights advocates that "no one knows when life
begins." Right away it must be observed that this formulation is imprecise. For no
one who knows anything about prenatal development seriously doubts that
individual biological human life is present from conception (see above). What the
abortion-rights advocates probably mean when they say that "no one knows when
life begins" is that no one knows when full humanness is attained in the process
of human development by the individual in the womb. Thus, from a legal
perspective they are arguing: since no one knows when full humanness is attained,
abortion should remain legal. I believe, however, that there are at least four
problems with this argument.
(1) It is a two-edged sword. If no one knows when full humanness is attained,
then we cannot prevent a Satan-worshipping neighbor, who believes that full
humanness begins at the age of two, from sacrificing his one-and-a-half-year-old
son to the unholy one. After all, who knows when life begins?
(2) If it is true that we don't know when full humanness begins, this is an excellent
reason not to kill the unborn, since we may be killing a human entity who has a full
right to life. If game hunters shot at rustling bushes with this same philosophical
mind-set, the National Rifle Association's membership would become severely
depleted. Ignorance of a being's status is certainly not justification for killing it.
(3) As the above biological facts of prenatal development indicate, we have
excellent reason 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 which does not cease until death. In
other words, the unborn -- like the rest of us -- are not potential human beings,
but human beings with much potential.
(4) By permitting abortion for virtually any reason during the entire nine months of
pregnancy, abortion-rights advocates have decided, for all practical purposes,
when full humanness is attained. They have decided that this moment occurs at
birth, although some of them -- such as Peter Singer and Michael Tooley -- also
advocate infanticide. The very abortion-rights advocates who claim that "no
one knows when life begins" often act as if protectable human life begins at birth.
Since actions speak louder than words, these "pro-choicers" are not telling the
truth when they claim they "don't know when life begins."
Some abortion-rights literature, which I am certain is quite embarrassing to the
more sophisticated proponents of this cause, claims that "personhood at
conception is a religious belief, not a provable biological fact." What could
possibly be meant by this assertion? Is it claiming that religious claims are in
principle unprovable scientifically? If it is, it is incorrect -- for many religions, such as
Christianity and Islam, believe that the physical world literally exists, which is a
major assumption of contemporary science. On the other hand, some religions,
such as Christian Science and certain forms of Hinduism, deny the literal
existence of the physical world.
But maybe this "pro-choice" assertion is simply claiming that biology can tell us
nothing about values. If this is what is meant, it is right in one sense and wrong in
another. It is right if it means that the physical facts of science, without any moral
reflection on our part, cannot tell us what is right and wrong. But it is wrong if it
means that the physical facts of science cannot tell us to whom we should apply
the values of which we are already aware. For example, if I don't know whether
the object I am driving toward in my car is a living woman, a female corpse, or a
mannequin, biology is extremely important in helping me to avoid committing an
act of homicide. Running over mannequins and corpses is not homicide, but running
over a living woman is.
Maybe the "pro-choice" assertion is saying that when human life should be valued
is a philosophical belief that cannot be proven scientifically. Maybe so, but this cuts
both ways. For isn't the belief that a woman has abortion rights a philosophical
belief that cannot be proven scientifically and over which people obviously
disagree? But if the pro-life position cannot be enacted into law because it is
philosophical (or religious), then neither can the abortion-rights position. Now the
abortion-rights advocate may respond to this by saying that this fact alone is a
good reason to leave it up to each individual woman to choose whether she should
have an abortion. But this response begs the question, for this is precisely the
abortion-rights position. Furthermore, the pro-lifer could reply to this abortion-rights response by employing the pro-choicer's own logic. The pro-lifer could argue
that since the abortion-rights position is a philosophical position over which many
people disagree, we should permit each individual unborn human being to be born
and make up his or her own mind as to whether he or she should or should not
die. In sum, it seems that the appeal to ignorance is seriously flawed.
There are some pro-life advocates, such as Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who argue
that full humanness begins when the conceptus is implanted in its mother's womb,
which occurs within one week after conception. There are four basic arguments for
this position to which I will respond.
(1) Nathanson argues that at the moment of implantation the unborn "establishes
its presence to the rest of us by transmitting its own signals -- by producing
hormones -- approximately one week after fertilization and as soon as it burrows
into the alien uterine wall." For Nathanson implantation is significant because prior
to this time the unborn "has the genetic structure but is incomplete, lacking the
essential element that produces life: an interface with the human community and
communication of the fact that it is there." So, for Nathanson the unborn's
hormonal communication to its mother is essential for humanness.
I believe that this argument is flawed for at least two important reasons. First, how
is it possible that one's essence is dependent on whether others are aware of
one's existence? It seems intuitively correct to say that it is not essential to your
being whether or not anyone knows you exist, for you are who you are
regardless of whether others are aware of your existence. One interacts with a
human being, one does not make a being human by interacting with it. In
philosophical terms, Nathanson is confusing epistemology (the study of how we
know things) with ontology (the study of being or existence).
A second objection, which supports my first objection, is mentioned by Nathanson
himself. He writes, "If implantation is biologically the decisive point for alpha's [the
unborn's] existence, what do we do about the 'test-tube' conceptions? The zygote
in these cases is seen in its culture dish and could be said to announce its existence
even before it is implanted." Nathanson responds to these questions by asserting,
"It seems to me that when it is in the dish the zygote is already implanted,
philosophically and biochemically, and has established the nexus with the human
community, before it is 're'-implanted into the mother's womb." This
response, however, does not support Nathanson's position, for he is admitting that
there is no real essential difference between the implanted and the nonimplanted
zygote, just an accidental difference (the former's existence is known while the
latter's is not). Hence, just as there is no essential difference between a Donald
Trump who is an unknown hermit and a Donald Trump who is an entrepreneur and
billionaire (there are only accidental differences between the two Trumps), there is
no essential difference between an unknown conceptus and a known conceptus. In
sum, it seems counterintuitive to assert that one's essence is dependent on
another's knowledge of one's existence.
(2) There is a second argument for implantation as the decisive moment: If we say
that full humanness begins at conception, we must respond to the observation that
"some entities that stem from the union of sperm and egg are not 'human beings'
and never will develop into them," and that there may be some human beings who
come into being without the union of sperm and egg. Concerning the former,
Nathanson gives examples of nonhuman entities that result from the sperm-egg
union: the hydatidiform mole ("an entity which is usually just a degenerated
placenta and typically has a random number of chromosomes"), the
choriocarcinoma ("a 'conception-cancer' resulting from the sperm-egg union is one
of gynecology's most malignant tumors"), and the blighted ovum ("a conception
with the forty-six chromosomes but which is only a placenta, lacks an embryonic
plate, and is always aborted naturally after implantation"). Concerning the latter, a
clone is an example of a human entity that may come into being without benefit of
a sperm-egg union.
The problem with Nathanson's argument is that he confuses necessary and
sufficient conditions. One who holds that full humanness begins at conception is not
arguing that everything which results from the sperm-egg union is necessarily a
conception. That is, every conception of a unique individual human entity is the
result of a sperm-egg union, but not every sperm-egg union results in such a
conception. Hence, the sperm-egg union is a necessary condition for conception,
but not a sufficient condition.
Furthermore, Nathanson is correct in asserting that it is possible that some day
there may be human beings, such as clones, who come into existence without
benefit of conception. But this would only mean that conception is not a
necessary condition for full humanness, just as the sperm-egg union is not a
sufficient condition for conception. In sum, Nathanson's argument from both
nonhuman products of sperm-egg unions and the possibility of clones is inadequate
in overturning the pro-life position that full humanness begins at conception.
(3) It is estimated that twenty to fifty percent of all conceptions die before birth.
Thirty percent, it is estimated, die before implantation. Some people argue that
these facts make it difficult to believe that the unborn are fully human in at least
the very earliest stage of their development prior to implantation. But this is clearly
an invalid argument, for it does not logically follow from the number of unborn
entities who die that these entities are not by nature fully human. To cite an
example, it does not follow from the fact that underdeveloped countries have a
high infant mortality rate that their babies are less human than those born in
countries with a low infant mortality rate.
Suppose the pro-choice advocate responds to this by arguing that if every fertilized
ovum is human, then we are obligated to save all spontaneous abortions as well.
But if we did, it would lead to overpopulation, death by medical neglect, and
starvation. The problem with this response is that it confuses our obvious prima
facie moral obligation not to commit homicide (that is, to perform an abortion)
with the questionable moral obligation to interfere with natural death (that is, to
permit the conceptus to abort spontaneously). "Protecting life is a moral obligation,
but resisting natural death is not necessarily a moral duty...There is no
inconsistency between preserving natural life, opposing artificial abortion and
allowing natural death by spontaneous abortion."
Admittedly, the question of interference in spontaneous abortions provokes the
pro-life ethicist to think more deeply and sensitively about his or her position and to
make distinctions and nuances that may not be pleasing to all who call themselves
pro-life. But just as the difficult question of whether to pull the plug on the
irreversibly comatose who are machine-dependent does not count against the
position that murdering healthy adults is morally wrong, the question of how we
should ethically respond to spontaneous abortions does not count against the pro-life ethic which says that we should not directly kill the healthy and normally
(4) Some people argue that since both twinning (the division of a single conceptus)
and recombination (the reuniting of two concepti) occur prior to implantation,
individual human life does not begin until that time. However, a careful examination
of the nature of twinning and recombination reveals that there is no reason to
suppose that the original pre-twinned conceptus or any pre-recombined conceptus
was not fully human.
First, scientists are not agreed on many aspects of twinning. Some claim that
twinning may be a nonsexual form of parthenogenesis or "parenting." This occurs
in some animals and plants. Others claim that when twinning occurs, an existing
human being dies and gives life to two new and identical human beings like himself
or herself. Still others claim that since not all human concepti have the capacity to
twin, one could argue that there exists in some concepti a basic duality prior to the
split. Hence, it may be claimed that at least in some incipient form two individual
lives were present from the start at conception. In any event, the fact of twinning
does not seem to be a sufficient reason to give up the belief that full humanness
begins at conception.
Second, every conceptus, whether before twinning or recombination, is still a
genetically unique individual who is distinct from his or her parents. In other words,
if identical twins result from a conceptus split or one individual results from two
concepti that recombine, it does not logically follow that any of the concepti prior
to twinning or recombining were not human. To help us understand this point,
philosopher Robert Wennberg provides the following story:
Imagine that we lived in a world in which a certain small percentage of
teenagers replicated themselves by some mysterious natural means,
splitting in two upon reaching their sixteenth birthday. We would not in the
least be inclined to conclude that no human being could therefore be
considered a person prior to becoming sixteen years of age; nor would we
conclude that life could be taken with greater impunity prior to replication
than afterward. The real oddity -- to press the parallel -- would be two
teenagers becoming one. However, in all of this we still would not judge the
individual's claim to life to be undermined in any way. We might puzzle over
questions of personal identity... but we would not allow these strange
replications and fusions to influence our thinking about an individual's right to
life. Nor therefore does it seem that such considerations are relevant in
determining the point at which an individual might assume a right to life in
The Appearance of "Humanness"
Some argue that the unborn becomes fully human at the time at which it begins to
take on the appearance of a child. Professor Ernest Van Den Haag is
sympathetic to this criterion, though he combines it with the criterion of sentience
which I will deal with below. He writes that when the unborn acquires a functioning
brain and neural system soon after the first trimester (though brain waves can be
detected at 40 to 42 days after conception, which Van Den Haag does not
mention), it "starts to resemble an embryonic human being." After this point
"abortion seems justifiable only by the gravest of reasons, such as the danger to
the mother; for what is being aborted undeniably resembles a human being to an
There are several problems with this argument. First, though appearance can be
helpful in determining what is or is not fully human, it is not a sufficient or a
necessary condition for doing so. After all, mannequins in stores resemble humans
and they are not even remotely human. On the other hand, some human oddities -- such as the bearded lady or the elephant man, who more closely resemble
nonhuman primates -- are nonetheless fully human. The reason why we believe
that the bearded lady and the elephant man are fully human and the mannequin is
not is because the former are functioning individual organisms that genetically
belong to the species homo sapiens. The latter is an inanimate object.
Second, Davis points out that "this objection assumes that personhood
presupposes a postnatal form. A little reflection, however, will show that the
concept of a 'human form' is a dynamic and not a static one. Each of us, during
normal growth and development, exhibits a long succession of different outward
forms." An early embryo, though not looking like a newborn, does look exactly like
a human ought to look at this stage of his or her development. Thus, "the
appearance of an 80-year-old adult differs greatly from that of a newborn child,
and yet we speak without hesitation of both as persons. In both cases, we have
learned to recognize the physical appearances associated with those development
stages as normal expressions of human personhood."
It may be true that it is psychologically easier to kill something that does not
resemble the human beings we see in everyday life, but it does not follow from this
that the being in question is any less human or that the executioner is any more
humane. Once we recognize that human development is a process that does not
cease at the time of birth, then "to insist that the unborn at six weeks look like the
newborn infant is no more reasonable than to expect the newborn to look like a
teenager. If we acknowledge as 'human' a succession of outward forms after birth,
there is no reason not to extend that courtesy to the unborn, since human life is a
continuum from conception to natural death." Hence, Van Den Haag, by
confusing appearance with reality, may have inadvertently created a new prejudice,
"natalism." And, like other prejudices such as sexism and racism, natalism
emphasizes nonessential differences ("they have a different appearance") in order
to support a favored group ("the already born").
Some pro-choice people argue that since parents do not grieve at the death of an
embryo or fetus as they would at the death of an infant, the unborn are not fully
As a standard for moral action, this criterion rests on a very unstable foundation.
As Noonan has observed, "Feeling is notoriously an unsure guide to the humanity
of others. Many groups of humans have had difficulty in feeling that persons of
another tongue, color, religion, sex, are as human as they." One usually feels a
greater sense of loss at the sudden death of a healthy parent than one feels for the
hundreds who die daily of starvation in underdeveloped countries. Does this mean
that the latter are less human than one's parent? Certainly not. Noonan points out
that "apart from reactions to alien groups, we mourn the loss of a ten-year-old
boy more than the loss of his one-day-old brother or his 90-year-old grandfather."
The reason for this is that "the difference felt and the grief expressed vary with the
potentialities extinguished, or the experience wiped out; they do not seem to point
to any substantial difference in the humanity of baby, boy, or grandfather."
Quickening has traditionally referred to the first movement of the unborn felt by
her mother. It was at this time in fetal development that some ancient, medieval
and common-law scholars thought it could be proved that the unborn was "alive"
or that the soul had entered her body. Not having access to the biological facts we
currently possess, they reasoned that prior to quickening it could not be proved
that the unborn entity was "alive" or fully human. Current biology, which has
conclusively demonstrated that a biologically living human individual is present
from conception, has decisively refuted this notion of "quickening," just as current
astronomy has refuted the geocentric solar system.
Now, does this mean that our ancestors were not pro-life? Not at all. Legal scholar
and theologian John Warwick Montgomery notes that when our ancient, medieval,
and common-law forefathers talked about quickening as the beginning of life, "they
were just identifying the first evidence of life they could conclusively detect...They
were saying that as soon as you had life, there must be protection. Now we know
that life starts at the moment of conception with nothing superadded." Hence,
to be consistent with contemporary science, legal protection must be extended to
the unborn entity from the moment of conception.
Furthermore, we now know that the ability to feel the unborn's movement is
contingent upon the amount of the mother's body fat. It seems silly to say that
one's preborn humanness is contingent upon whether one is fortunate to have
been conceived in a body that frequents aerobics classes.
Some people argue that birth is the time the human entity becomes fully human.
They usually hold this position for two reasons: (1) our society calculates the
beginning of one's existence from one's day of birth; and (2) it is only after birth
that a child is named, baptized, and accepted into a family.
This argument is subject to several criticisms. First, that our society counts one's
beginning from one's birthday and that people name and baptize children after their
births are simply social conventions. One is not less human if one is abandoned,
unnamed, and not baptized. Some cultures, such as the Chinese, count one's
beginning from the moment of conception. Does that mean that the American
unborn are not fully human while the Chinese unborn are? Second, there is no
essential difference between an unborn entity and a newborn baby, just a
difference in location. As Wennberg writes, "surely personhood and the right to life
is not a matter of location. It should be what you are, not where you are that
determines whether you have a right to life." In fact, abortion-rights
philosophers Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse write, "The pro-life groups are right
about one thing: the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make
such a crucial moral difference. We cannot coherently hold that it is all right to kill a
fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be
done to keep it alive." Third, as Wennberg points out, a newborn chimpanzee
can be treated like a human newborn (i.e., named, baptized, accepted into a
family), but this does not mean that it is fully human.
1 The facts in this section are taken from the following: F. Beck, D. B. Moffat, and
D. P. Davies, Human Embryology, 2d ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985); Keith L.
Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 2d ed.
(Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1977); Andre E. Hellegers, "Fetal Development," in
Biomedical Ethics, ed. Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembaty (New York:
Macmillan, 1981), 405-9; and Stephen M. Krason, Abortion: Politics, Morality,
and the Constitution (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 337-49.
2 Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, report to Senate Judiciary Committee
S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981, as quoted in Norman L. Geisler,
Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 149.
3 James J. Diamond, M.D., "Abortion, Animation and Biological Hominization,"
Theological Studies 36 (June 1975): 305-42.
4 Krason, 341.
5 John T. Noonan, "The Experience of Pain by the Unborn," in The Zero People,
ed. Jeff Lane Hensley (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1983), 141-56.
6 Ibid., 151-52.
7 See Mortimer Rosen, "The Secret Brain: Learning Before Birth," Harper's, April
8 See Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1983); and Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse, "On Letting Handicapped Infants Die," in
The Right Thing to Do, ed. James Rachels (New York: Random House, 1989).
9 This is from a pamphlet distributed by the National Abortion Rights Action League,
Choice -- Legal Abortion: Abortion Pro & Con, prepared by Polly Rothstein and
Marian Williams (White Plains, NY: Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion, 1983),
10 On Christian Science, see Walter R. Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, 2d rev. ed.
(Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1977), 111-46. On the Hindu denial of the physical
world, see Elliot Miller, A Crash Course on the New Age Movement (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1989), 16-18, 22.
11 Bernard Nathanson, M.D., Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979),
12 Ibid., 216.
13 Ibid., 217.
14 Ibid., 214.
16 For a summary of the philosophical and scientific problems surrounding human
cloning, see Andrew Varga, The Main Issues in Bioethics, 2d. ed. (New York:
Paulist Press, 1984), 119-26.
17 As cited in John Jefferson Davis, Abortion and the Christian (Phillipsburg, NJ:
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984), 60. Cf. Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D., "Human
Reproduction," Theological Studies 38 (1977):136-52.
18 Geisler, Christian Ethics, 153.
19 See Varga, 64-65.
20 Ibid., 65.
21 Robert Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 71.
22 Ernest Van Den Haag, "Is There a Middle Ground?", National Review, 12
December 1989, 29-31.
23 Ibid., 30.
24 Davis, 58.
25 Ibid., 59.
26 John T. Noonan, "An Almost Absolute Value in History," in The Morality of
Abortion, ed. and intro. John T. Noonan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1970), 53.
28 John Warwick Montgomery, Slaughter of the Innocents (Westchester, IL:
Crossway, 1981), 37. For more on quickening, see ibid., 103-19; and David W.
Louisell and John T. Noonan, "Constitutional Balance," in The Morality of
29 Wennberg, Life in the Balance, 77.
30 Singer and Kuhse, 146.
31 Wennberg, 77-78.
Note from Faith & Reason Forum: Frank Beckwith is a visiting professor at
Princeton. In 2004 he will be at Baylor University as Associate Professor of
Church-State Studies, and Associate Director of the J.M. Dawson Institute for
Taken from the Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, page 8. Copyright © 1994 by the
Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller. Faith and Reason Forum would like to
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