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Pro-Abortion Arguments: Fatal Flaws Part 3

By Stephen Napier Ph.D.

This series has considered numerous pro-abortion arguments and has shown that each argument is either logically fallacious (e.g., the twinning argument) or borrows premises that are obviously false (e.g., the embryo rescue case). This installment addresses the Holy Grail of pro-abortion arguments where both errors are committed. For this pro-abortion argument, the proponent aims to argue that embryos are not persons and that only persons (defined by the proponent) cannot be intentionally killed. In fact, the entire pro-abortion project hinges on the success of this argument for if there is a not a substantial difference between embryo and adult, then there is likely no reason for asserting a moral difference either. Asserting that adults may not be killed but fetuses can be, requires showing that an adult human and a fetal human are significantly different things. The claim that adults are persons and fetuses are not aims to seal the argument.

To assess the merits (and demerits) of this argument, one needs to see in more detail what the pro-abortion strategy is. Let us reflect on a fully functional adult human being. All would agree that adult human beings may not be intentionally killed (self-defense and just war are not exceptions simply because these are not cases of intending a person’s death). The abortion proponent will then point out that what all adult human beings share are certain higher-order mental capacities, e.g., capacity for consciousness. The next step in the argument is to point out that human embryos or fetuses differ from adult human beings in significant ways. The typical route to this conclusion is to observe that such nascent human beings do not have these higher order capacities – at least they cannot exercise these capacities at that time in their development. The proponent is satisfied that a significant difference has been identified and concludes the argument by saying that the embryo/fetus does not have the same rights as adult human beings, and in particular the right not to be killed. More clearly, the argument runs as follows,

(i) If x is a fully functional human being then x is the proper bearer of a right to life.
ii) The embryo is not a fully functional human being.
iii) Therefore the embryo is not a proper bearer of a right to life.

This argument commits several flaws, but the most pertinent one is that it commits the fallacy called denying the antecedent. Denying the antecedent refers to fallacious arguments of the following form,

If p, then q (where ‘p’ and ‘q’ are stand-ins for certain claims).
Therefore, not-q

To see why this is a fallacious argument consider the following examples:

(a) If Abraham Lincoln was killed in a plane crash then Lincoln is dead.
(b) Lincoln was not killed in a plane crash.
(c) Therefore, Lincoln is not dead.

Clearly, (c) is false and yet (a) and (b) are true. Consider another example,

(d) If Jane voted in this past election, then she is at least eighteen.
(e) Jane did not vote in this past election.
(f) Therefore, Jane is not eighteen.

Again, it is clear that (d) and (e) can be true, while (f) is false. Because someone did not vote, does not mean they are under eighteen. The problem is in the form of the argument thus any argument of that form is fallacious. Consequently, the argument (i) – (iii) is fallacious.

There may be someone reading this who thinks that I have played a trick, or somehow adjusted the proponent’s argument to fit the critique. In response, one needs to focus attention again on the aim of the pro-abortion argument. The aim is to argue that the embryo/fetus and the adult human are significantly different. This is not too hard to do, in that the embryo clearly cannot manifest or exercise the same abilities as adult humans exercise. But the proponent must go one step further and argue that such differences make a moral difference, and it is on this point that the argument falters.

A proponent may try to revise the argument so that it is at least logically valid. One could do this by replacing premise (i) with a revised version of it,

(ia) Only fully functional human beings are the proper bearers of a right to life. (Or in the language above, ‘x is a proper bearer of a right to life only if x is a fully functional human being.’)
When we add premise (ii) as above,

(ii) The embryo is not a fully functional human being,
we can validly derive the same conclusion as above,

(iii) The embryo is not a proper bearer of a right to life.
This revised argument is logically valid, but really bad nonetheless since it is not obvious that premise (ia) is true. Consider typical three-year-olds who have not developed the higher-order functional abilities characteristic of fully functional adult human beings. Clearly, such persons are the proper bearers of rights, namely the right not to be killed. They do not have the right to vote or to attend school, for they are not mature enough for that. In this sense, their abilities do determine some of their rights, but they certainly bear the right not to be killed.

Proponents at this point resort to a series of ad hoc responses. They will point out that the three-year-olds have consciousness, they can feel pain, and can form intentions and have certain interests in future activities. It is because of these abilities that three-year-olds have a right not to be killed, whereas the embryo/fetus does not. Notice the procedure. It is to pick out certain capacities or abilities and not others. No argument is given as to why these abilities (consciousness, intentionality) and not others make a moral difference. Why doesn’t the internal capacity to develop these abilities count as a capacity that confers a right not to be killed?

In any case, there are at least two problems with this procedure. First, it is entirely unclear why one’s right not to be killed is dependent upon what one can do. It would seem that our most fundamental rights conform to that which is most fundamental about us, namely our membership in the human family. What, after all, does the ability to form intentions have anything to do with the most fundamental right not to be killed? In any case, it is certainly counter-intuitive that one’s worth or right not to be killed depends on certain abilities such as the ability to form intentions, or the ability to be conscious. Consider an adult person who lapses into a coma. The patient requires a year long stem cell therapy in which the areas of his brain that shut down or became necrotic can now repair. The therapy is guaranteed to work over the course of a year during which time the patient cannot form intentions, or is not able to be conscious, since those areas of his brain that control such abilities are disabled – temporarily. Would any of us say that he loses his right not to be killed while in this coma for a year? Would any of us say that his right to life is suspended? One would hope the answer is no. But if it is, then having the ability to form intentions or to be conscious is not what we think of as grounding our right not to be killed.

Suppose the abortion advocate responds to this example by saying that the adult while receiving the stem cell therapy has a right not to be killed because the patient had possessed capacities or abilities that did confer such a right. But I doubt this response has too much mileage in it. What seems to be claimed is that a right not to be killed can be conferred in the absence of possessing immediately exercisable abilities for consciousness, or intentionality. The fact remains that the patient does not have those abilities now, when we are considering whether he has a right not to be killed. But if it is granted that human beings who do not have such abilities can still be the subjects of a right not to be killed, then human embryos absent a reason to the contrary have a right not to be killed. In perusing the literature I fail to see a plausible ‘reason to the contrary’. The abortion advocate is left needing to defend the claim that past possession of such abilities confers a right not to be killed into the future, even when those abilities are not exercisable. But what reason is there to think that past possession of such abilities morally matters whereas future possession of those abilities does not? Again, no such reason exists defending this asymmetry.

The proponent of the argument has two options at this point. (1) Accept the idea that what grounds the patient’s moral worth or right to life is simply the fact that the patient is a human being or, (2) the patient’s right to life is dependent upon the patient eventually manifesting the abilities characteristic of functional adults. Neither option, however, helps the pro-abortionists cause since the embryo/fetus satisfy both. The embryo/fetus is simply a human being in his or nascent stage of development and he or she will consistent with normal human development manifest the abilities proto-typical of functional adult human beings.

A second problem with the procedure (i.e., picking out certain abilities and not others) is that there is an important sense in which the embryo and fetus do possess the abilities which the proponent thinks are so important. In fact, the very reason why human beings develop the abilities they do is because of the kinds of things we are. We are human beings, which means that we have a rational nature that directs our development and defines what we are. We don’t mean by ‘human being’ merely a biological category. Nominating a thing homo sapien, or bipedal mammal is not itself a sufficient reason for thinking that the thing bears a right not to be killed. But that is not what we mean when we say that embryo is a human being. We mean human being to refer to an individual with a rational nature. This understanding of what we are has significant consequences. First, what we are – our nature – explains why and accounts for the specific abilities that we have. The specific abilities we have is dependent upon us being instances of a rational nature. We do not develop the ability to bark or fly, because we are not dogs or birds. So, in a very real sense the embryo and fetus possess the ability to think, feel, form interests, be conscious etc. at that very time in his or her development in virtue of being an instance of human nature. He or she has a nature that determines what abilities the thing has and will develop as he or she grows (having an ability and exercising it are two different things). It makes perfect sense, then, to say that when each of us was an embryo, we possessed the ability to think and reason in virtue of being an instance of human/rational nature. These claims may be hard to see, for some. So consider some examples like a dog embryo. Does it make sense to say that the dog embryo has the capacity to think and reason (like humans)? Certainly not. Does it make sense to say that it has the capacity to bark and chase bikers? Certainly yes. That is what dogs (eventually) do because they are dogs! Likewise for human embryos. Human embryos do not have the capacity to bark or to instinctually chase innocent bikers, but they do have the capacity to think and reason because that is the kind of thing they are. Since it makes sense to say that the human embryo has the capacity to think and reason, it makes sense to say that it possesses such capacities though, because of his or her developmental stage, cannot exercise those capacities at that time in his or her development.

To drive home the above points, consider another example.1 Suppose I am a wilderness photographer and after years of searching I have finally tracked down the rarest jaguar in the world located in the remotest parts of the Ukraine. I have my Polaroid camera with me (just suppose) and take the shot. Those who recall Polaroid’s will know that it took them a while to develop and to truly represent the image it shot. After the shot and before the image became discernable, no one would say that the photo card was merely a blank photo card. The photo card ejected from the camera was in fact a picture of the rarest jaguar, the picture being in its early stage of developing but through a causally continuous process eventually mirrors the image shot. The human embryo bears certain analogies with the Polaroid photo. The embryo develops along a causally continuous pathway culminating in a fully functional adult human being. No one should say that after conception, one does not have a human being, just as no one should say that immediately after the Polaroid is taken, one does not have a picture of a jaguar. The embryo is a human being in his or her early stage of development, just as the Polaroid shot is a picture in its early stage of development. The representation will manifest the jaguar because it is a picture of a jaguar, just as the embryo will manifest rational capacities, because the embryo is a rational being.

What the abortion proponent must argue for is that the way in which embryos possess abilities characteristic of human nature is not morally significant. That is, they have to argue that possessing such abilities in virtue of being an instance of a rational nature matters little, whereas possessing them in a way or to the extent that they are immediately exercisable is. But no argument for this claim has been made, and on its face it makes little sense. It carves up the human family into those that may be killed and those that cannot be, and the lines drawn are in virtue of differing levels of maturity or age. Discrimination on the basis of maturity or age is no less evil than any other form of discrimination, and even more so since the former discrimination yields the killing of innocent human beings.

Our most fundamental right is a right to life. It is impermissible to kill innocent human beings (understood as above), and this right to be protected from acts of killing is something we have in virtue of that which is most fundamental about us. And that which is most fundamental about us is that we are members of the human family from the moment of conception onward. From that moment, a distinct individual organizes itself along a characteristic and determined developmental course culminating in mature adulthood. This development is continuous and unbroken. Picking out a point along this developmental course where one acquires our most fundamental right is a project doomed to failure.

© 2009 The National Catholic Bioethics Center


1. The following example comes from Richard Stith, “Stith: Arguing with Pro-Choicers,” First Things (November 4, 2006), available at: