Q. It’s my body. What right do you have to control what I do with my body?
A. Is it really “my” body? When a woman is pregnant there is another body involved—the child’s. Roughly half the time the child is male. The average person who supports abortion is uncomfortable with an abortion in the eighth month of pregnancy. If, however, one adheres to the idea that because the unborn is in the woman’s body then she can harm the child, then how can that same individual oppose abortion at eight months or even one day before delivery? Once the woman becomes pregnant, her offspring has come into existence and she should not kill her vulnerable child. Our country has laws against child neglect which force parents—men and women—to use their bodies to provide care for their children. Additionally, in cases of divorce, many men are legally forced to use their bodies to earn money in order to financially support their offspring. With these laws, society rightfully demands responsibility from parents towards their children so that they do not endure suffering and death as a result of neglect. How logical is it to then say that a woman has a right to choose to kill her child?
A. Scientists agree that life begins at conception, also referred to as fertilization. Drs. Keith Moore and T. Persaud’s embryology textbook used by medical students at the University of British Columbia confirms this:
Human development begins at fertilization [emphasis in original], the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell, the zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell is the beginning of embryonic development. The zygote, just visible to the unaided eye as a tiny speck, contains chromosomes and genes (units of genetic information) that are derived from the mother and father. The unicellular organism, or zygote, divides many times and becomes progressively transformed into a multicellular human being through cell division, migration, growth, and differentiation.[i]
Just as an adult was once a teenager, toddler, and infant, so too was she once a fetus, embryo, and zygote. These labels merely identify different stages in the development of a human being. Moore and Persaud acknowledge this:
Although human development is usually divided into prenatal (before birth) and postnatal (after birth) periods, development is a continuum that begins at fertilization (conception). Birth is a dramatic event during development, resulting in a change in environment. Development does not stop at birth; important developmental changes occur after birth—development of teeth and female breasts, for example [all emphases in original].[ii]
In 1981, French geneticist Jerome L. LeJeune asserted the following when testifying before a United States Senate Subcommittee:
To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.[iii]
Common sense supports this perspective: because it has human parents, it is clear that the unborn child is a human being and not some other kind of being. After all, dogs beget dogs, cats beget cats, and humans beget humans. Who you are today had a beginning point, and science has discovered that point to be at fertilization. Although you have changed and continue to change your appearance and abilities, your genetic makeup remains the same.
A. Unlike the humanity of the unborn, which is a scientific question, the personhood of the unborn is a philosophical question. If personhood is not recognized based on one’s human nature (which exists at the point of fertilization), then it becomes a subjective notion based on the functions of one human being or on the feelings of another. Inevitably, those in power end up withholding rights of personhood from any vulnerable group they have an interest in taking advantage of. This is not conjecture, but rather a matter of historical fact: human history is rife with examples of personhood being defined in a selfish and exclusionary fashion. You can read more about these examples in our Frequently Asked Questions for the Genocide Awareness Project.
A. Do you know what the words embryo and fetus mean? Embryo means “growing within” and fetus is a Latin term that means “unborn offspring” or “little one.” These words simply describe a human at a certain stage of development (embryo up to the end of 8 weeks post-fertilization and fetus from the end of 8 weeks to birth). In the same way, the term “teenager” identifies someone from age 13 to 19. Does referring to a 15-year-old as a “teenager” mean she is not a human? Why, then, would referring to the unborn as an “embryo” or “fetus” mean he or she isn’t human?
A. The acorn is of the oak family. It has an oak nature. It simply hasn’t yet matured into a large oak tree. Philosopher Norman Geisler observes the following:
It is a misunderstanding of botany to say an acorn is a potential oak tree. An acorn is a tiny living oak tree inside a shell. Its dormant life does not grow until properly nourished by planting and watering, but it is a tiny living oak tree nonetheless.[iv]
Your statement would be accurate if phrased like this: “An acorn has the potential to become a large oak tree but isn’t one yet. The fetus has the potential to become a 5-year-old but isn’t one yet.” The fetus is of the human family. The fetus has a human nature. It simply hasn’t matured into a child or an adult yet. So what? That statement only reveals the unborn to be less developed than born people; it does nothing to reveal that the unborn are not human.
The fetus has the potential to become an adult. It does not, however, have the potential to become a human because it already is a human. In the same way, the acorn has the potential to become a large oak tree. But it does not have the potential to be an oak because it already is an oak.
A. If the unborn aren’t alive, when do they become alive? And what magically changes to make something “not alive” to suddenly being “alive”? It is a widely accepted principle that living things do not arise from dead things. If you are alive today, for example, you couldn’t have been dead yesterday. Likewise, a living newborn child couldn’t have been dead for the nine months leading up to birth. The expanding abdomen of a pregnant woman is a clear external indication of the growth of her unborn child. And ultrasound technologies provide a “window to the womb” that reveal this fact. The child who is rapidly developing is most definitely alive.
Having said that, one may comment that sperm and egg are living too, yet they aren’t considered human beings. Although they are living, they are distinct from the unborn in an important way. Sperm and egg are parts of a human being whereas the embryo is a whole human being. Dr. Robert George elaborates on this in his “Cloning Addendum”:
A human embryo is a whole living member of the species homo sapiens [sic] in the earliest stage of his or her natural development. Unless denied a suitable environment, an embryonic human being will by directing its own integral organic functioning develop himself or herself to the next more mature developmental stage, i.e., the fetal stage. The embryonic, fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages are stages in the development of a determinate and enduring entity—a human being—who comes into existence as a single cell organism and develops, if all goes well, into adulthood many years later.
Human embryos possess the epigenetic primordia for self-directed growth into adulthood, with their determinateness and identity fully intact. The adult human being that is now you or me is the same human being who, at an earlier stage of his or her life, was an adolescent, and before that a child, an infant, a fetus, and an embryo. Even in the embryonic stage, you and I were undeniably whole, living members of the species homo sapiens. We were then, as we are now, distinct and complete (though in the beginning we were, of course, immature) human organisms; we were not mere parts of other organisms.[v]
At fertilization, the new, developing human is called a zygote. Its one cell divides into two, then four, then eight, and so on. The zygote “is genetically unique because half of its chromosomes come from the mother and half from the father. The zygote contains a new combination of chromosomes that is different from that in the cells of either of the parents.”[vi] At 22 days (3 weeks), the unborn human being (technically termed an embryo) has a heartbeat.[vii] Between 44 and 46 days (7 weeks) the unborn’s nipples are visible and its eyelids are forming.[viii] In the middle of the 8th week the unborn’s fingers are individualized and longer.[ix] At the end of eight weeks, when the embryo is called a fetus, “the beginnings of all essential structures are present.”[x] Although the unborn are small, less developed, and quite dependent compared to born people, they are most definitely alive.
A. When you’re sleeping, are you sentient as you are as you’re reading this? What about when you’re in surgery and under anesthetic? Does your current level of functioning define your importance? Isn’t your worth rooted in who you are and not in what you do?
Each human being, born and unborn, differs from one another in their functions (what they can do, how they think, how they appear). Given the inequality in abilities from one person to the next, then some of us would clearly be more important than others if our value was rooted in our ability to function.[xi] But if we believe that we should treat people equally and not discriminate unfairly, then the only basis for that equality is our common human nature.
Granted, humans are often viewed as different from other beings in that they are conscious or have complex thoughts, but by the fact that a being is human, he or she has an inherent ability for those human behaviours. The reason that an individual may not be able to currently perform such human behaviours is due to one’s level of development. That is not grounds to harm someone.
Consider this: one way in which dogs differ from cats is that they bark and cats do not. Imagine there is a dog that, due to an immature level of development, is presently unable to bark. Would it still be a dog? What if its vocal cords were malformed and it was never able to bark? Would it still be a dog? Clearly, its current level of functioning does not take away from the fact that it is still a dog.
In the same way, how a young or an old human being currently functions does not affect who he or she is. Therefore, we must decide if we are going to treat all people equally or if we are going to discriminate against some people because of what they can or cannot do.
A. What kind of a society are we creating by killing off sick or disabled human beings? If we kill the sick human being instead of attempting to cure the sickness, then what is the point of hospitals? People with limitations have a right to life just like so-called “normal” or healthy people. Prenatal tests cannot predict defects to a certainty, nor can they determine the severity of the disability. Why not let these children be born and have a chance to grow and accomplish what they can?
Even if a child is likely to die soon after birth, we should let nature take its course and give the child food, water, and comfort measures—in other words, give the child as much care as we would any person who had a greater chance of survival. Then the family would be able to hold the baby and love the baby, rather than violently end its life. As difficult as it would be for a baby to die shortly after birth, there is a world of difference between a death through natural causes and a death that results from a direct, intentional act. Do those of us who may die later have the right to kill those who may die sooner?
A. Why does the ability to feel pain matter? If someone cannot feel pain, is it okay to kill him or her? What if the Nazis had given Jews anesthetic before killing them, so that they would not feel any pain? What if parents were to kill their born children after rendering them unconscious? If we permit killing simply because the victims are unable to feel the pain of their deaths, then why not permit other acts for the same reason? Rape, assault, robbery, and many other crimes could easily be justified using the same criteria. Shouldn’t we be making it more difficult to commit violent acts rather than making them easier?
Q. Shouldn’t a woman who’s been raped have the right to an abortion?
A. Why is rape wrong? Because it violates and harms an innocent human being: the woman. Why is abortion wrong? Because it kills an innocent human being: the unborn child. The person who needs to face justice is the rapist; the unborn child, like the woman, is an innocent party. Furthermore, the trauma and memory of the rape will not be erased by an abortion. Instead, it adds “insult to injury.” As Dr. David Reardon points out, “Both the mother and child are helped by preserving life, not by perpetuating violence.”[xii] The rape victim may give the child up for adoption, but killing him or her for the crime of the father is a serious error.
Imagine this conceptually comparable scenario: A husband beats his wife for years. Eventually, he goes to jail and she gets custody of their son. As the boy becomes a young man, his features mature and he begins to look and sound like his father. When the mother is around her son, she is haunted by memories of the abuse. May she harm her son because he is a reminder of his father and the injustice he committed? If not, then why would we permit an unborn child to be harmed because she is a reminder of her father and the injustice he committed?
Here is another comparable scenario: a woman makes love with her husband on Monday and gets raped on Tuesday. She later discovers that she is pregnant and doesn’t know whether the child is her husband’s or the rapist’s. She chooses to continue with the pregnancy and has a paternity test done after the child is born. The test results reveal that the baby’s father is the rapist. May the baby be killed at this point? If a rapist’s child cannot be killed after birth, then why before birth?
One thing that people on both sides of the abortion debate can agree on is that a crisis pregnancy is just that: a crisis. It is not always easy; in fact, the challenges can be intense. But the issue is not whether difficult life circumstances exist—they do. The issue is whether one may kill innocent human beings to resolve these challenges.
A. This situation is extremely rare. Since both the woman and her child are human beings, they are equal in value. When deciding how to ethically intervene in a pregnancy where there is a life-threatening medical problem, one should be guided by this basic moral principle:
One may not commit a wrong action in order to bring about some good effect. One can only commit good actions, or neutral actions, in order to bring about a good effect. This concept is most commonly expressed in the form “the ends do not justify the means.”
To give an example, one cannot kill a 5-year-old (a wrong action) in order to obtain his heart for an ill 6-year-old, thus saving the older child’s life (a good effect).
Applying that principle to a pregnancy that, if maintained, could result in the death of the mother and/or child, one may not directly and intentionally kill the innocent child because to do so would be to commit a wrong action. One may, however, commit good or neutral actions. For example, removing a cancerous uterus is a good action. Although it has the effect of saving the mother’s life, it also has the effect of ending the child’s life. The bad effect, the child’s death, is foreseen but unintended. If the child could be saved, efforts should be made to do so. Whether or not it is moral to perform an action that can have both a good and bad effect is governed by “the principle of double effect” outlined by Hayes et al., in their medical ethics book:
Under the principle of the twofold or double effect, the science of ethics lays down certain conditions which must be fulfilled to justify performing an action that has both a good and bad effect. These are the conditions:
- The action to be performed must be morally good in itself or at least morally indifferent or neutral.
- The good effect must not come about as a result of the evil effect, but must come directly from the action itself.
- The good must be willed, and the evil merely allowed or tolerated.
- The good effect must be at least equivalent in importance to the evil effect. In other words, there must be sufficient reason for permitting the evil effect to occur.
Although the conditions may sound complicated, all of us apply them frequently. A little boy cuts his hand, and his mother puts an antiseptic on the cut. This action has two effects: it causes the boy pain and it wards off infection. Although the mother did not realize it, she actually used the four principles above. She performed an action that was good in itself, namely, putting antiseptic on the boy’s hand. The good effect did not come from the pain but rather from the use of the antiseptic.
The mother did not will to giver her child pain, but only desired to help him. Finally, the good effect of preventing infection far outweighed the evil effect of the antiseptic’s sting.
When the Principle Does Not Apply
Now let us look at a situation which would not be permitted under this principle. A pregnant woman is suffering from pernicious vomiting, a condition that can easily be solved by aborting the child. However, such a solution is not morally permissible and violates the double-effect principle in the following ways:
- The action is not morally good or even neutral; it is evil, it is an attack on innocent human life.
- The good effect, namely, the health of the mother, follows from the evil effect. The mother is cured by the death of her child.
- The evil effect is willed and not merely tolerated.
- The death of the baby is not equivalent in importance to stopping the mother’s vomiting.
It should be noted that such a condition can be treated with hospitalization, bed rest, the use of IV fluids, and antiemetic medications. There is no need for abortion, although this is still recommended in some circles. It is not morally permissible, however, because a good end never justifies an evil means. We may not do evil in order that good may come from it.
Case 2: A married woman discovers that her pregnancy is not developing normally, that it is occurring in the fallopian tube instead of in the uterus. If the doctor does nothing, the tube will swell further and finally rupture, possibly causing the death of the mother. The only cure is to remove the tube promptly, which will save the mother’s life and result in the death of the baby. Is it moral for the doctor to operate? The answer is yes.
- The purpose of the operation is good, to remove a pathological organ which is a threat to the life of the mother.
- The good effect of saving the mother’s life does not come from the evil effect of killing the baby.
- The surgeon does not will to kill the baby; his death is an unintended side effect of the operation that is merely permitted.
- The good effect of saving the mother’s life is at least equivalent to the evil effect of the baby’s death.[xiii]
If abortion became illegal, there would not need to be a clause in the law providing an exception for “when the woman’s life is in danger.” As has been described above, the measures taken to address such a crisis do not constitute abortion as we know it: directly and intentionally killing an innocent human being. That is always wrong.
A. May a parent kill his 2-year-old because he doesn’t want her and because keeping her would lead to increased child abuse? If abusing an innocent human being is wrong, how is killing an innocent human being right? Isn’t killing someone the ultimate form of abuse? Isn’t the most loving thing to care for the child (or, barring that, to place the child into a caring adoptive home) instead of killing her?
A. Giving your child up for adoption would hurt whom too much? Killing your child through abortion is the best choice for whom? Adoption hurts you in the short term because you know you’ll bond with your baby at some point in the pregnancy, only to give her up after birth for a family to love, and be loved by, her. Abortion seems like the best choice because “if I can’t have her, then no one should,” right? The selfishness in that statement is alarmingly similar to the selfishness in a man who says, “I could never let my girlfriend marry a guy other than me—it would hurt me too much to know she’s receiving someone else’s love and giving him the love that I want. If I can’t have her, no one can. Isn’t killing her the best choice?”
Furthermore, the fear that your child could be placed in a bad home is not reason to kill your child. Although some people have had bad adoption experiences, many people have had wonderful adoption experiences. Although there are some bad adoptive homes, the solution should not be to kill children but instead to be more cautious about what families are selected.
[i] Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects 5th ed. (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998) 36.
[ii] Ibid., 2.
[iii] Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Michigan: Baker Books, 1993) 42.
[iv] Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics, 147, quoted in Beckwith, 117.
[v] Robert George (joined by Alfonso Gomez-Lobo), “Cloning Addendum: A Statement on the Cloning Report Issued by the President’s Council on Bioethics,” July 15, 2002, available from http://www.nationalreview.com/document/document071602.asp, viewed March 8, 2006.
[vi] Moore and Persaud, 39.
[vii] Ibid., 5.
[viii] Ibid., 88.
[x] Ibid., 7.
[xi] Greg Koukl, Precious Unborn Human Persons (California: Stand to Reason Press, 1999) 32–34.
(For more information please visit www.unmaskingchoice.ca)
[xii] David Reardon, “Rape, Incest, and Abortion: Searching Beyond the Myths,” available from http://www.abortionfacts.com/reardon/rape_incest_and_abortion.asp, viewed August 8, 2005.
[xiii] Rev. Edward Hayes, Rev. Msgr. Paul Hayes, Dorothy Kelly, R.N, and James Drummey, Catholicism & Ethics: A Medical/Moral Handbook (Massachusetts: C.R. Publications Inc., 1997) 53-56.