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Monday, September 22, 2014

In Defense of the Womb Teleology Argument


Stephanie Gray is a pro-life advocate who makes an argument regarding the purpose and function of the uterus and its effect on the abortion discussion. It is an argument that many atheistic pro-life advocates disdain because it appears to have religious overtones; however, I believe this objection to the argument to be mistaken. Because a position is compatible with religious thought does not make it a religious argument, anymore than arguing that the unborn are human beings is a religious argument. I would like to present a defense of the argument that secular people can use, and I certainly welcome discussion on the argument in the comments.

Take the word teleology. Many people think of the Teleological Argument for God's existence (the argument from design/fine-tuning), so they believe it to be a religious term. But the word itself comes from the Greek words telos, meaning "end, purpose," and logia, meaning "a branch of learning." It traces its root all the way back to the ancient Greeks (specifically Aristotle and Plato). It's true that the ancient Greeks believed in a pantheon of gods, but we also have to remember that the Greeks believed in keeping religious out of the public sphere, such as politics, science, and the acquisition of knowledge (for more on this, see Victor Davis Hansen and John Heath's book Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, Encounter Books, New York, 2001, pp. 28-35).. In fact, teleology was also defended by Immanuel Kant, who was an agnostic. Teleology is not an inherently religious term.

In order to see design in nature, one does not have to be religious. Biologist Richard Dawkins even realizes that the universe appears to be designed, and in order to study nature design is even assumed: "[Daniel] Dennett has offered a helpful three-way classification of the 'stances' that we adopt in trying to understand and hence predict the behaviour of entities such as animals, machines or each other...For an object that really is designed, like a washing machine or a crossbow, the design stance is an economical short cut. We can guess how the object will behave by going over the head of physics and appealing directly to design...Living things are not designed, [1] but Darwinian natural selection licenses a version of the design stance for them. We get a shortcut to understanding the heart if we assume that it is 'designed' to pump blood. Karl von Frisch was led to investigate colour vision in bees (in the face of orthodox opinion that they were colour-blind) because he assumed that the bright colours of flowers were 'designed' to attract them." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Mariner Books, New York, NY, 2006, pp. 211-212). In fact, seeing teleology in nature seems to be necessary for scientific advancement. This is what accounts for the characteristic regularity of natural change.

Aristotle posited that there are four different types of causes: a material cause is that out of which something is made; a formal cause is the form of something, or "the form of what it is to be"; the efficient cause is the primary source of the change or rest; and the final cause is the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done. So if we consider Michaelangelo's David, the material cause is the marble that the statue is carved from, the formal cause is the shape that the statue takes, the efficient cause was Michaelangelo (the sculptor), and the final cause might be enjoyment, or to instill a sense of divine wonder or awe in a person (for a more concrete example, the final cause of exercise is losing weight). Teleology is concerned with the final cause of any given thing.

The Womb Teleology Argument

Stephanie's argument goes like this: the uterus is an organ that, while a part of the woman's body, was not made for the woman, herself. In Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous essay "A Defense of Abortion," she speaks of an imagined scenario in which you are forced, against your will, to be connected to an ailing violinist to use your kidneys to keep him alive. Sometimes the thought experiment is amended to argue that if the right to life trumps the right to bodily autonomy, then we should force kidney donations (blood transfusions, etc.).

The function of the uterus is to keep the unborn child alive during pregnancy. It serves no other purpose than that. Conversely, her kidneys do serve a purpose, to filter her own blood. The function of the kidneys is to work toward the good of your own body, but the purpose of the uterus is to work toward the good of another's body, the unborn child. The way she describes the argument in the linked article above is that "the kidneys exist for the health and proper functioning of the body in which they reside. In other words, kidneys exist in a body, for that body. In contrast, the uterus exists in one body, to be around -- and for -- another body." To illustrate this, we can see that the woman can survive without her uterus but the unborn child can't. This is one reason why we should not force kidney donations but it is not wrong to force a woman to remain pregnant, assuming the pregnancy is not life-threatening.

This fact of the uterus existing for the unborn child also tells us something about women: they are to be mothers. In fact, during the nine-month pregnancy the child and mother begin to bond in a way that is simply not possible for the father and child. And this mother-child relationship also necessitates that there are obligations the mother has toward the child. She may not be obligated to do extraordinary things, like take her child to Disneyland or donating kidneys, but it does obligate her to provide the basic essentials for the child's life: nourishment and a proper environment.

There is one objection to this argument that I hear often, which is that the womb teleology argument commits the naturalistic fallacy. It does not, but in the interest of space I will end my article here. In my next article, I will talk about the naturalistic fallacy and show why this argument does not commit the fallacy.

[1] As a Theist, I disagree with Dawkins' assertion that living things are not designed. However, I kept that sentence in the quote because I did not want to make it seem Dawkins was saying something that he was not.


  1. Interesting argument, thanks for sharing it.

  2. I was able to find the original article (I assume it is anyway), here ( Is there anyone else who has written on this topic.

    And why exactly is it not the naturalistic fallacy? Something about it makes me conclude it is not, but I don't think I could defend it. Any help you give is appreciated, thanks.

    1. Hi, Sean:

      I'm not sure which article would be the original. Steph actually just wrote a book. I have a copy of it but haven't read it yet, so I'm not sure if she gives a defense of it in that book. But she's written about it in various articles and presented the argument in formal debates.

      It doesn't commit the naturalistic fallacy because regarding essentialism, moral facts are woven into the fabric of reality. Human beings are rational agents and so have moral responsibility to treat themselves and their bodies in the way that facilities its flourishing and avoid things that frustrates the natural ends of their body and its parts. The naturalistic fallacy goes back, I believe, to David Hume, and Hume, as an atheist, rejected the concept of teleology in nature. So to Hume, it would be fallacious because he didn't see any moral obligation to facilitate the proper flourishing of things in nature. So it really depends on which metaphysical view you come at the issue from.

      That's, at least, how I would answer the question. I haven't yet heard Steph talk about Natural Law, or reply to objections to this argument.

    2. Hello Clinton,

      Thanks for the response.

      I would be interested in finding some of her other articles about it, so I'll have to look for those; if you could direct me to them, that would be appreciated. I have found that she has written two books and I found some videos of her speaking, so I'll listen to those and see what I find.

      Is that, for example, why it is wrong to become habitually drunk or addicted to narcotics, these things, why they may be in some sense pleasurable, go contrary to true well-being and oppose the purpose of the body?

      Take care,

    3. Would this argument have any bearing on whether an injurer could have an obligation to donate his organ?

    4. I'm not sure where else Steph would have written about it, besides what I linked to in the article. I haven't had a chance yet to read her new book, so I'm not sure if she talks about it there.

      I would say that yes, part of the reason it is wrong to get addicted to narcotics and alcohol is because of its negative effects on the body. Additionally, as we are rational agents, intentionally putting ourselves in an altered state by getting drunk or high would be seen as immoral.

      I think according to this argument, it could be seen that we do not have an obligation to donate an organ to someone who needs it, since my organs are meant to work for the good of *my* body, but I'm not sure if this argument would necessitate someone come to that conclusion. Also, even if the argument did lead to that conclusion, donating an organ might be obligated for other reasons (e.g. if my own child is in a car accident and sustains damage to her kidneys, such that she needs a transplant, as long as it's a transplant that wouldn't result in my death, I should think I have an obligation to go through with the transplant to save my child's life).