The abortion debate is not about when life begins. It's about when the right to life begins.
Let me explain.
Some prochoice people – though not all – will say things like:
- “We don’t know when life begins”
- “The unborn aren’t human beings”
- “The unborn are part of the woman’s body”, like an appendix or a tumour
Unfortunately, all of these arguments are false. We do know when human life begins, the unborn are definitely human beings, and the unborn are definitely separate from the woman’s body. They are nothing like an appendix or a tumour.
Human biology 101
Prolife people do not “believe” that life begins at conception. We acknowledge the scientific fact that life begins at conception. Conception, also known as ‘fertilisation’, refers to the process of sperm-egg fusion.
We know that the unborn are:
- Alive – because they are growing, reproducing through cellular division, and metabolising energy
- Human – because they have human DNA and human parents
- Complete and distinct human organisms – because they have everything they need inside themselves to grow to maturity, and they direct their own development
In other words, they are a human being.
This is the same for you reading this right now – you are alive, human, and a complete and distinct human organism. You are a human being!
This acknowledgement is usually put in brief as “life begins at conception“. However, because it’s a shorthand phrase, it’s not the most accurate phrase. In a school, for example, one astute student pointed out to me that the sperm and the egg are alive before the moment of fertilisation, so it’s technically wrong to say that life begins at conception.
The student was absolutely right. However, what prolife people mean when they say “life begins at conception” is more accurately put as “the life of a new, distinct, whole, and complete human organism – a biological human being – begins once the process of fertilisation – sperm-egg fusion – has completed.”
Where prolife and prochoice people agree
As I said, the abortion debate is not about when life begins. It’s about when the right to life begins.
While many prochoice people argue that a new, distinct, whole, and complete human organism does not begin its existence at fertilisation, leading prochoice philosophers do not generally make this argument. They know that the scientific evidence is huge, objective, and convincing that the unborn are human beings.
Case in point #1: Peter Singer
In fact, one of my hardest jobs in schools is to help people realise that prolife people and prochoice philosophers actually agree that a new biological human being comes into existence after the process of fertilisation has completed. Check out this quote by noted prochoice philosopher Peter Singer, who has also argued that infanticide is moral.
Case in point #2: David Boonin
Let’s take another example: prochoice philosopher David Boonin. In his book A Defense of Abortion, published in 2002, he makes this startling admission:
On the desk in my office where most of this book was written and revised, there are several pictures of my son, Eli. In one, he is gleefully dancing on the sand along the Gulf of Mexico, the cool ocean breeze wreaking havoc with his wispy hair … In the top drawer of my desk, I keep another picture of Eli. The picture was taken September 7, 1993, 24 weeks before he was born. The sonogram image is murky, but it reveals clearly enough a small head tilted back slightly, and an arm raised up and bent, with the hand pointing back toward the face and the thumb extended toward the mouth. There is no doubt in my mind that this picture, too, shows the same little boy at a very early stage in his physical development. And there is no question that the position I defend in this book entails that it would have been morally permissible to end his life at this point. (pp. xiii, xiv)
Take a moment to re-read the quote. Listen to what he is saying.
- His son, Eli, was a human being – a living, distinct, whole, and complete human organism – even when he was in the womb.
- In fact, Eli was just as much a human being when he was unborn and when he was born.
- David Boonin believes it would have been morally permissible to end the life of his own son in the womb at that point.
Let that sink in.
Case in point #3: Ann Furedi
Ann Furedi is a British abortion advocate currently leading a campaign to legalise abortion in the UK up to the moment of the baby’s birth. Here is what she says about the unborn:
We couldn’t allow abortion if we accepted that fetal life had the same degree of value as born human life, and I don’t believe that it does … We can accept that the embryo is a living thing in the fact that it has a beating heart, that it has its own genetic system within it. It’s clearly human in the sense that it’s not a gerbil, and we can recognize that it is human life … The point is not when does human life begin, but when does it really begin to matter?
Again, let that sink in.
- She acknowledges that the unborn are alive – it is a “living thing”.
- She acknowledges that the unborn are “clearly human”.
- She understands that the unborn is “human life”.
Everything she just argued is what a prolife person would argue. The unborn are distinct, living, whole human organisms – human beings. But then she argues that is is acceptable to destroy those human beings, because they don’t yet “matter.”
The issue: not life, but the right to life
Boonin, Singer, and Furedi argue that the unborn are human beings – just as prolife people do.
The abortion issue therefore is not just about what the unborn are. It’s not just about when life begins. It’s about when that human being has a right to life.
It might go without saying, but if we are acknowledging that the unborn are living human beings, then we are also acknowledging that abortion ends that life. It is an act of terminating someone’s life.
The prochoice assumption: you can separate human beings from their right to life
If you think that some human beings don’t have a right to life, you’ve just accepted an incredibly dangerous philosophical assumption. You’re saying that some human beings are not worthy of a right to life. And this assumption puts you in bad company.
“Life unworthy of life” – or, in German, Lebensunwertes Leben – was first used in a book appearing in Germany in the 1920s. This book advocated euthanasia for the “physically and mentally defective”. This concept formed a core part of the National Socialist Worker’s Party (Nazi) ideology and was a driving force behind their systematic destruction of millions of Jews, gypsies, disabled people, religious minorities, alcoholics, pacifists, the mentally ill, and anyone else they deemed ‘unfit’ or unworthy of life, during the Second World War.
To be very clear: I am not saying that prochoice people or prochoice philosophers are Nazis. I am not saying that Singer, Boonin, and Furedi are Nazis, have Nazi sympathies, or are in any way associated with fascist groups. However, I am saying that they have reached the same conclusion as those who perpetuated terrible human-rights atrocities – that some human beings do not have a right to life. Singer, Boonin, and Furedi are, of course, convinced that they are right, and I am sure they would say that Nazi crimes were unjustified and evil. Yet, out of compassion, I must point out the similarity in their thinking so they can see what extreme and dangerous ground they have placed themselves in, and which they are advocating every day.
The assumption that some human beings do not have a right to life is key to the prochoice movement. It is foundational. It’s not the only foundational assumption to the prochoice movement, but it is one of them. It is one reason why they call themselves the “prochoice” movement – they think that the unborn human being does not have a right to life, and therefore it is up to individual mothers to make the choice to destroy or safeguard that precious life growing inside them.
This is chilling. The first duty of any society is to protect the right to life of all human beings.
At Life, our guiding principle is that it is not enough to disagree with abortion and its philosophy; loving, positive alternatives must be provided. Society has, for 50 years, skirted its responsibility to protect the right to life and to assist those in crisis pregnancies to choose life for their babies. Therefore, Life will do this. We accept the responsibility to take effective action to save lives – babies, mothers, and fathers – from abortion.
As our co-founder, Professor Jack Scarisbrick MBE, said, “We are simply living out the principle that all human life should be equal before the law.”
It is for this reason that the “prolife” movement might be better termed “the right-to-life movement“. Again, it’s a shorthand. What it means is that we are a movement that seeks to live out the principle that all biological human beings have an intrinsic right to life. We focus on abortion because it is such a severe and widespread injustice against that right to life.
All biological human beings have an intrinsic right to life, and women should be supported to make choices that respect their own and their child’s intrinsic right to life: this is the principle that undergirds our mission. It is ethical, just, acknowledges scientific evidence, and compassionate. It is the better way. The Life way.