Elective abortion is one of the more contentious issues faced by society today. It inevitably implicates two distinct human beings simultaneously: a parent and child. Any ethical course of action designed to address elective abortions must take into account and attempt to balance the value, dignity, and rights of these two human beings.
Contrary to popular narratives, elective abortion isn’t merely a medical decision. It is an act of aggressive violence that, in the United States alone, claims the lives of around 2,500 individual human beings a day. Human rights violations affect all of us, and elective abortion is one of the most profound human rights violations of our time.
The scientific community has reached a consensus: life begins at conception.
At the moment of sperm-egg fusion — i.e., fertilization or conception — a new, genetically distinct, and whole living organism is produced. Because the product of reproduction between two members of a species is always a differentiated member of that same species, the product of human reproduction is always a unique and fully human organism. Uninterrupted, this human organism will grow from a zygote, to an embryo, to a fetus, to an infant, to a toddler, to an adolescent, to an adult. At no point in this process of development does a human organism become human. Human organisms are human beings from the moment that they begin to exist.
"The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote."
From The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 2016 edition:
"Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, the zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual."
More citations can be accessed here.
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Science alone is insufficient for the task of establishing the moral dimensions of elective abortion. The pivotal question surrounding the issue of elective abortion is not “when does human life begin?”; this has already been answered conclusively, as the scientific consensus is that the life of each individual human being begins at conception. Instead, the question that underlies the abortion debate is this: “which human beings deserve human rights?”
This question implicates the philosophical concept of personhood, which has been variably defined through the centuries. Traditionally, philosophers discussing personhood have explored the qualities and conditions that render a being a “person” with value, dignity, and rights. Modern pro-choice ideology, seeking to justify abortion, excludes certain human beings from personhood based on arbitrary factors such as developmental stage, level of dependency, and physical or mental capacity. Many pro-life advocates, in contrast, argue for the expansion of personhood. They seek to eliminate the baseless distinctions that separate born and unborn human beings and to broaden the definition of personhood. This expanded definition of personhood is simple: a person is a living human being.
While this comprehensive understanding of personhood is beneficial in many ways, some thinkers have reservations regarding using the framework of personhood at all. They state that, throughout history, the concept of personhood has been evoked exclusively to discriminate against entire classes of human beings. Powerful people and institutions have evaluated certain human beings as “non-persons” for capricious, expedient, and malicious reasons. Those human beings have, in turn, been oppressed, exploited, enslaved, abused, and killed due to their supposed lack of personhood. So while expanding the legal boundaries of personhood could prevent further dehumanization and aggressive violence, another possible solution is to abolish the concept of personhood altogether. As stated by Rehumanize International Executive Director Herb Geraghty, “If we are going to claim to be supporters of human rights at all, we must apply them to all humans. We should stand for human rights, not ‘person rights,’ because the definition of who can or can’t be a person is ultimately a political and ideological debate that ignores basic scientific facts. If there could ever be a category of ‘human non-persons’ then personhood is either a useless signifier at best or dangerous and deadly at worst.”
Whether we redefine personhood or do away with it altogether, we must demand human rights for all human beings.
“My body, my choice” is a common refrain among members of the pro-choice movement. But what exactly does this mean? After all, we’ve established that the human fetus is not actually a part of a pregnant person’s body, and unborn children are distinct human beings.
The implication of this argument seems to be that the right of a pregnant person to their bodily autonomy supersedes the right of an unborn person to life. This position is based on the belief that bodily autonomy is so essential that it can’t be violated even to save the life of another person; in other words, nobody should be legally obligated to take extraordinary measures in order to save another person’s life.
This is true to an extent. For example, people should not be legally compelled to donate blood or organs to save the life of another person. And yet, the major flaw in this comparison amounts to a false equivalency: it assumes that abortion and refusal of care (or “letting die”) are practically and morally equivalent. This is not the case.
Whereas a person who refuses to provide blood or organs may passively concede the death of another human being, a person who performs an elective abortion actively and deliberately inflicts harm. This harm comes in various forms: in chemical abortions, the child in the womb is starved; in surgical abortions, they are dismembered; and in later abortions, they are often administered drugs to induce cardiac arrest. In every instance, actions are taken specifically to end the life of the human being in the womb.
Medically-accurate descriptions of these abortion procedures can be accessed here.
When a human being dies due to lack of adequate medical care, their cause of death is the illness or injury that brought about their need for such care. When a human being dies during an elective abortion, their cause of death is intentional, aggressive violence. The act of “letting die” and the act of killing are not ethical equals.
Elective abortion entails the starvation, poisoning, or dismemberment of a human being, and thus directly causes their death. It is inaccurate to equate this act of aggressive violence with refusal of care. The prohibition of aggressive violence against human beings does not violate any right (to bodily autonomy or otherwise), because there is no right to commit aggressive violence.