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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Response to a Logical Argument for Abortion

This is a response to a video on YouTube I came across entitled Is Abortion Murder? The Logical Answer! by video blogger DixonRants.

The answer to this question is actually no, abortion is not technically murder. Any educated pro-life advocate will tell you that. When a pro-life advocate says that abortion is murder, what they really mean is they believe that abortion is murder because it is taking the life of an innocent human being. Murder is essentially the unlawful taking of an innocent human life. Abortion is, unfortunately, legal. So under the definition of murder, abortion does not fit the bill. Abortion is, however, unjustified homicide.

So case closed, right? We agree on this, so what more is there to say? Well, I'd like to respond to the other points in his video.

Dixon gives six basic criteria for murder, and they are as follows:

1. The involvement of killing
2. The killing of life
3. The killing of human life
4. The intentional killing of human life
5. The intentional killing of innocent human life
6. The intentional killing of innocent human life that is a person.

Ironically, abortion fits the bill of the first five criteria, and also the sixth if we can make an adequate case for the personhood of the unborn. So by Dixon's own criteria, he would have to admit that abortion is, in fact, murder (even though by the most common definition, an unlawful killing, it is not). Abortion is certainly the intentional killing of innocent human life. Dixon may not agree with the fifth premise, but it is certainly true. I'll explain.

Dixon says that the unborn are not innocent because they can threaten a woman's life. Well, in the vast majority of pregnancies, this is not the case. Women have less than a 1% chance of dying in childbirth or from pregnancy-related issues. [1] Pregnancy is simply not dangerous.

Now, there are rare cases in which a woman will die from her pregnancy (such as during ectopic pregnancy). Life-saving abortions are morally justifiable, if the child is not yet viable (otherwise the child should be delivered so that both lives can be saved). Life-saving abortions can be justified by three separate lines of reasoning (and I will write an article in the future talking about life-saving abortions), but the relevant line of reasoning here is that the unborn, in this instance, is an innocent aggressor. The unborn is only doing what it does naturally, that is, moving down the fallopian tube into the woman's uterus. If something goes horribly awry (such as the unborn implanting in the fallopian tube), this was certainly not the intent of the embryo. The embryo has not developed the capacity to intend anything yet. The unborn is innocent, but an innocent aggressor. Since the woman's life is at risk, it is morally justifiable to go through with an abortion. But this doesn't make the embryo guilty. So under this criterion, abortion would be considered murder since the embryo/fetus certainly is innocent of any wrongdoing.

But now let's look at his sixth criterion. I fully intend to write a post defending the personhood of the unborn (and I will link there in the video when I create the video for it). Pro-life advocates make the case that personhood should be established at fertilization because the unborn have the inherent capacity as rational, moral agents (which is what makes all of us valuable). Plus, the substance view (as given by Francis Beckwith) shows that since we are essentially the same being (that is, the same substance) as the embryo in the womb we once were, if a morally justifiable reason is required to kill us outside the womb, a morally justifiable reason is required to kill us inside the womb.

Dixon actually gives three criteria for personhood:

1. The entity must have consciousness
2. The entity must be self-aware
3. The entity must have a memory

However, Dixon has committed a logical fallacy called begging the question. He is assuming what he is trying to prove. He assumes that a person must be conscious, must be self-aware, and must have a memory, but gives no reasons to support why these criteria must be met for personhood, or whether any can be met for personhood even if all three are not met. Therefore, we can reject his criteria until he decides to give us actual reasons for why these qualities must be there before personhood can be established.

But I'll respond to them anyway. It is undeniable that embryos contain the inherent capacity for these functions. They have simply not developed the capacity yet. So I contend that the inherent capacity is enough for basic human rights, which would include embryos from fertilization.

But is a present capacity to fulfill them what should be required? Let's look at that for a moment. These are all acquired properties. If personhood is attached to acquired properties, then your personhood would come and go whenever you lose these properties. Also, this just means that embryos are less developed than we are, but why does being less developed mean that they are less deserving of basic human rights?

So is consciousness enough? Well, if the present capacity for consciousness is required for personhood, that means we would lose our personhood whenever we fall asleep, get knocked out, receive anesthesia when undergoing surgery, or if we enter a reversible coma. That means that if we enter any of these states, it would be morally permissible to kill us for any reason because we would no longer be a person. A doctor could put us under, then kill us because he doesn't like us and this would be permissible. Could we honestly trust doctors if this was the case?

What about self-awareness? If this is your argument, then it proves too much. You would have to also support infanticide, because humans don't actually become self-aware until probably sometime in the second year of her life. [2] So you would have to support killing children until after their first birthday if this is your view. Additionally, people are not self-aware when they lose consciousness, so the same criticisms for consciousness are also applicable here.

And how about memory? Well, studies have shown that children don't start building memories until their second year of life. [3] So the same criticisms for self-awareness apply here (which means you would have to support killing children until after their first birthday). Also, people do not have the present capacity to utilize their memory when they lose consciousness, so you are, again, subject to the same criticisms as the view that consciousness is an acceptable criterion for establishing personhood.

Also, what about someone who is in a car accident and suffers severe brain damage, so that all of their memories are erased and essentially have to begin again as a blank slate? This would mean that it would be morally permissible to kill this human since he does not have any memories.

So clearly, these three criteria, on their own, fail. But what about all three together? Well, if you took all three together, you would have to support killing children until after their first birthday, when memories and self-awareness become established. However, adding three bad arguments does not a good argument make.

Say I come across a burning building. I find a bucket to fill up with water, but it's full of holes. I find four other buckets, but they're all full of holes. I can't put the four other buckets inside the fifth bucket and expect to be able to fill the buckets up with water. All three criteria have failed, so together they fail to be acceptable criteria for establishing personhood.

Additionally, as Francis Beckwith writes, "...if you are an intrinsically valuable human person now, then you were an intrinsically valuable human person at every moment in your past including when you were in your mother's womb, for you are identical to yourself throughout the changes you undergo from the moment you come into existence. But if this were not the case, that is is only one's present ability to exercise certain human functions, such as rationality, awareness of one's interests, and consciousness, that makes one a person, then it is not the organism that is intrinsically valuable, but merely one's states or functions." [4] "It would follow" from this, writes Patrick Lee, "that the basic moral rule would be simply to maximize valuable states or functions." For example, "it would not be morally wrong to kill a child, no matter what age, if doing so enabled one to have two children in the future, and thus to bring it about that there were two vehicles of intrinsic value rather than one. On the contrary, we are aware that persons themselves, which are things enduring through time, are intrinsically valuable." [5]

A couple of last points, Dixon claims that the brain doesn't fully develop until the end of the third trimester (and even gives a conservative estimate at the end of the first trimester). But this is clearly false. Your brain doesn't actually fully develop until you're 25. [6] So if a fully developed brain is what is required, then it would be morally permissible to kill children, teenagers, and adults until they're 25, for any reason.

Finally, Dixon does mention that losing one of these properties would downgrade your personhood status, such as becoming a vegetable. But as I have shown, there are other reversible states that you would also lose your personhood during (such as sleep, under anesthesia, or in a reversible coma). So you would not only lose your personhood permanently if you were a vegetable, but you would also lose it temporarily in these other reversible states.

[1] 8.8 out of 100,000 women die from pregnancy-related issues or in childbirth. This is less than 1% of pregnant women.
[2] Kagan, Jerome, The Second Year: The Emergence of Self-Awareness, 1981.
[3] For example,
[4] Beckwith, Francis J., Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, 2007), p. 50. Emphasis author's.
[5] Lee, Patrick, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), p. 55, as cited in Francis Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, pp. 50-51.


  1. Pregnancy is a life threatening and life changing condition. Many women develop conditions during pregnancy that stay permanently after giving birth. Complications in pregnancy are more common, so you are incorrect, pregnancy is life threatening for many women.

    1. Life-threatening in the sense of "immediate jeopardy to her life." In that sense, I am not wrong, as even Guttmacher Institute has shown that less than 1% of abortions are due to the mother's life in jeopardy.

      Alan Guttmacher, himself, has written:

      "Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal illness such as cancer or leukemia, and, if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save, life."
      --Alan F. Guttmacher, “Abortion—Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” in The Case for Legalized Abortion Now (Berkeley, Calif.: Diablo Press, 1967).

      There's no doubt that pregnancy is also life changing, but these changes are not severe enough to warrant killing her unborn children. You are equivocating on the term "life-threatening."