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Monday, September 9, 2013

A Critique of Paul D. Simmons' Biblical Case for Abortion, Part I

I'd like to now turn my attention to an essay written by Paul D. Simmons, called Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate. Nothing saddens me more than when a self-professed Christian calls him- or herself pro-choice and actually defends the abominable practice of abortion. I'm not actually sure whether or not Dr. Simmons considers himself a Christian. I couldn't find a decent biography of him on-line. But an honest perusal of the Scriptures will show that God loves children, and would consider abortion nothing less than child sacrifice. Simmons' article is rather lengthy, so I'll be splitting it up into parts.

1. Introduction

There's nothing much to respond to here, except for his ridiculous assertion that the pro-life effort to ban America is an evil plot by religious fundamentalists (he even names several: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Randall Terry, Tim LaHaye, and James Dobson) to spread their social agenda to the masses. He conveniently forgets that there were genuine academic intellectuals, not just Christian fundamentalists, that have been trying to end abortion as well. These include (but are not limited to) Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Thomas Hilgers, and Hadley Arkes, as well as modern academics like Frank Beckwith, Christopher Kaczor, and Scott Klusendorf. It's just a red herring to paint the pro-life movement as a social agenda from religious fundamentalists. It's also patently untrue.

2. The Fetus as Person

Simmons' entire argument seems to be that the pro-life position only makes religious arguments. That is certainly not the case, for there have been atheistic pro-life advocates (e.g. Don Marquis), as well as religious pro-life advocates (like John T. Noonan, Jr.) who made secular as well as religious arguments for their position. Simmons quotes Harold Brown from his book Death Before Birth to make his point: "The Bible prohibits the taking of innocent human life. If the developing fetus is shown to be a human being...[or] if human life has begun, then abortion is homicide and not permissible." This is a valid argument. Religious arguments can still be true, even if they are unpersuasive to the non-religious.

Simmons goes on to reference the late Francis Shaeffer and the late former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who co-wrote a book entitled Whatever Happened to the Human Race? He notes that on top of their theological arguments, they rely on rational and "scientific" (quotes were added by Simmons) arguments. Shaeffer and Everett argued that all humans, even the unborn, are created in God's image. Simmons equates the word "image" in Shaeffer's and Everett's arguments as "genotype," as the two argued that the unborn should be considered persons from the time of conception, since "No additional factor is necessary for a later time. All that makes up the adult is present as the ovum and the sperm are united -- the whole genetic code!"

Simmons begins by making a really bad argument, one I have responded to before. In fact, it's the pro-choice argument that will not die. He argues that even though no one can deny there is a continuity of existence from fertilization to maturity, it does not follow that every step on that development constitutes the same entity or means that every stage has the same value. And what does he use to support this argument? A hen egg. He claims that given the proper incubation environment, the egg becomes a chick and the chick grows to become a hen or rooster. This is just a basic ignorance of chicken biology. The egg does not become a chick, the chick embryo and fetus develop inside the egg, and the chick inside the egg hatches at the right time. The continuity of existence is evidence for, and not against, the pro-life position. As there is a continuity of existence, it actually does follow that the same entity exists at all points along the entity's development.

Next, Simmons attempts to tackle the "potentiality" argument. It's true that something that is only potentially human or potentially a person is not as valuable as an actual human or an actual person, but the unborn are not potential humans or potential persons. They are human persons with potential. Simmons, here, is failing to note the distinction between passive potentiality and active potentiality. Sperm and egg are potential humans, in the same way that flour and sugar are potentially a cake. They have the passive potential to become a cake because they are only ingredients; they do not have it in themselves to develop into a cake. In fact, it makes no sense to call them a cake because the flour and sugar can be used to make anything. Sperm and egg only have passive potentiality. But the unborn from the zygote stage have an active potentiality; everything they will ever be and develop is already present from the earliest stage, they just have to develop it. Human zygotes are human persons because they have the active potentiality to develop human and personal properties.

Simmons tries to use an argumentum ad absurdum by arguing that if we take the pro-life position to its natural conclusion, that would mean that all cells in the human body should be protected. This would have dire consequences on surgery or removing cancer cells. The problem is that he is really making a strawman argument against the pro-life position. Our argument is that the unborn are not valuable simply because they are alive, or simply because they are living and human. Our argument is that the unborn are living human organisms. They are separate, individual organisms of the human species, no fundamentally different than you or me, with the same human nature that you and I have. Our individual cells are just parts of a larger organism, but the unborn are a separate organism, themselves. As pro-life philosopher Scott Klusendorf would note, Simmons makes an elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes.

So Simmons considers the fatal weakness to be that the fetus is a "simple" entity, not "complex" or "developed enough" to be persons. They are just a cluster of cells. A person, or human being, has capacities of reflective choice, relational response, social experience, moral perception, and self-awareness. First, a glaring problem with this is that infants also don't qualify as persons, under this view. But second, even under this view, there's no reason to disqualify the unborn. Even though they begin as a single cell that quickly starts dividing and don't look like we do, they do, in fact, look like human beings should at that point in their development. Plus, the unborn do, in fact, have capacities for reflective choice, relational response, etc. They have these inherently. They just have to develop enough to presently exercise these capacities (and they don't presently exercise the capacities that Simmons lays out until after the infant stage). Like most pro-choice advocates, Simmons doesn't argue for why these capacities are necessary to bestow personhood, he just asserts them.

Simmons asserts (again, without evidence) that Sissela Bok is correct in that we have introduced "a premature ultimate." But he makes no attempt to go into detail as to what he means by that. He argues that in Western morality, persons have value but fetuses do not. But this is irrelevant to their value. Many people in America, because of American values, don't value the homeless. But that doesn't mean we have the right to kill them. If fetuses are human persons, then they have value, regardless of how many people value them.

Simmons is not off to a very good start. His argument from the chicken egg is just ridiculous. It shouldn't have been made. His argument from potentiality was better, but still fatally flawed. In the next part, I'll respond to Simmons' Biblical arguments against fetal personhood.


  1. It also betrays a lack of scientific knowledge to think that the embryo at any point is not complex. The zygote or embryo might appear to be simple, a blob of inert cells, but transformations taking place inside the embryo are stunningly complex.