By James M. Rochford

The subject of abortion has generated no small amount of controversy, and most ethical discussions involve more heat than light. Where should we stand on such an important ethical issue? We hope to provide ethical thinking that offers both clarity and charity to this issue.

An ethical argument against abortion

We can form an ethical argument against abortion in this way:

  1. It is morally wrong to take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. The unborn are innocent human beings.
  3. Therefore, it is morally wrong to take the life of the unborn.

The first premise is virtually uncontested: Almost everyone would agree that it is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. The real question centers on the second premise: What are the unborn? Are the unborn human beings or merely a collection of cells located in a woman’s womb? If the unborn aren’t human, then we see no reason to discuss the matter at all. Women should have the freedom to have an abortion for any and every reason. In fact, if the unborn are not human, then “elective abortion requires no more justification than having a tooth pulled.”[1]

On the other hand, if the unborn are human beings, then we would need a very strong justification for taking their innocent lives. Indeed, even strong advocates of abortion write, “If indeed there were a human being present from conception, then interfering with its growth or removing it from its human support system would be tantamount to killing a human being.”[2] Therefore, we can simplify this difficult ethical discussion with a simple question: What are the unborn?

The science of embryology

The unborn are human beings. This is not a religious assertion. Rather, the science of embryology overwhelmingly supports this claim. The zygote in the womb consists of human DNA—not feline or canine DNA. Moreover, the zygote is alive. Otherwise, abortion wouldn’t seek to terminate it. Thus, a zygote is a living human being. This is why experts in the science of embryology agree that the unborn are living human beings:

Keith Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, and Mark Torchia: “It was soon realized that the zygote contains all the genetic information necessary for directing the development of a new human beingA zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization… This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”[3]

Keith Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, and Mark Torchia: “There are different opinions of when an embryo becomes a human being because opinions are often affected by religious and personal views. The scientific answer is that the embryo is a human being from the time of fertilization because of its human chromosomal constitution. The zygote is the beginning of a developing human.[4]

T.W. Sadler:Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.”[5]

O’Rahilly & Müller: “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.[6]

Peter Singer: “It is possible to give ‘human being’ a precise meaning. We can use it as equivalent to ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’. Whether a being is a member of a given species is something that can be determined scientifically, by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms. In this sense there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence, an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being.[7]

The science of embryology is clear: The unborn are distinctly human from the moment of conception. Indeed, even proponents of abortion (like Peter Singer) agree on this basic biological fact. Furthermore, consider a few of the hallmarks of human fetal development.[8]

  • By Day 24, the heart begins to beat. If an EKG (electrocardiogram) can determine clinical death, why can’t it determine life?
  • By Day 30, the child has a separate blood supply flowing through its veins.
  • By Day 43, we can detect brain waves in the child. Again, if an EEG (electroencephalograph) can determine when a person is clinically dead, why can’t it determine that a person is alive?
  • By Week 8, the baby has all of its organs present. The mother doesn’t possess two sets of organs during pregnancy—two hearts, two stomachs, two sets of sexual organs, etc. Instead, she is carrying a separate person with distinct bodily organs.
  • By Week 10, the baby is sensitive to touch.
  • By the end of the first trimester (13 weeks), the baby has vocal cords.

Furthermore, the unborn can feel pain. Feinberg and Feinberg write, “A. W. Liley, a respected professor of fetal psychology at the National Women’s Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand, has demonstrated that an eleven-week-old fetus can experience pain and responds to touch, light, heat and noise. Liley has shown through the use of closed-circuit television cameras that such a child will feel pain when pricked with a needle. Moreover, if a beep is used before the prick several times, the baby will recoil at the beep alone.”[9] Simply looking at the unborn demonstrates that these little persons are human.

Do the unborn lack features that make them non-human?[10]

Does the SIZE of the unborn show that they are not fully human? Not at all. Humans come in all shapes and sizes, but our size doesn’t confer moral value. Big and tall people are no more or less human than short and skinny people.

Some argue that something as miniscule as a zygote cannot be considered a human being because it doesn’t look like a human. But this is simply not true. A zygote looks exactly the way that a human being should look at that stage in its development. Similarly, newborns often look wrinkled and discolored when they exit the womb. But does the color of their skin disqualify them from being human? Of course not.

Does the LEVEL OF DEVELOPMENT of the unborn show that they are not fully human? The unborn change from conception to birth. But then again, all humans change throughout their lives. We are an entirely different collection of cells from birth to old age, and yet, we are still fully human in each stage of development.

The unborn lack the development of newborns. But then again, newborns lack the development of toddlers, and toddlers lack the development of teenagers. What does this prove? Nothing. The unborn are less functional than more mature humans, but this doesn’t make them any less human. Our value doesn’t come in degrees. Humans either possess inherent value, or they don’t. And the unborn are either human beings, or they aren’t. Consequently, we shouldn’t exclude anyone from the human family simply because they are unable to perform certain functions.

Furthermore, nothing magical happens between trimesters. These are conceptual labels used to mark the progress in the child’s development. Likewise, we can label the unborn as a “fetus” if we want, but this too is just a label. In this case, the term has Latin origins, and it simply means “little one.” So, we can call the organism a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus. But at the end of the day, what sort of being is it? Is it a human being or not?

Does the ENVIRONMENT of the unborn show that they are not fully human? Why could the location of an organism change it into a human being? Moreover, how could the location make it gain or lose moral value? When the baby travels seven inches down the birth-canal, it doesn’t transform into a human being.

Does the DEPENDENCY of the unborn on the mother show that they are not fully human? We all depend on one another to one degree or another. Many depend on insulin, kidney dialysis, ventilators, pacemakers, or other various medical treatments. Newborns depend on their mothers for formula or breast milk. Surely our dependency doesn’t strip us of our humanity—not does it take away our moral value.

All of these moral criteria are faulty, and they lead to serious inconsistencies. For example, 38 states have fetal homicide laws.[11] That is, if a man kills a pregnant woman, he is charged with double homicide—not single homicide. Yet, if the mother decided to take the life of the unborn, this wouldn’t be considered “homicide,” but merely a “medical decision.” This inconsistency is “often dramatized in a modern hospital where staff members in one room rush to save a five-month-old preemie, while in another room others may be killing (by abortion) a baby.”[12]

If the unborn are not human, when do they become human?

This is a valid slippery slope argument. If we strip the unborn of their humanity, then who decides when a person attains moral significance? Four minutes after birth? Four months? Four years? One scientist argued, “No newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment and if it fails these tests, it forfeits the right to life.”[13] Princeton ethicist Peter Singer said that even “a three-year-old is a gray case.”[14] Other ethicists have been arguing for the legitimacy of “after-birth abortion,” or what we have traditionally called “infanticide.”[15]

Observing the procedure

One of the premier ways to discern if something is immoral is simply to view it directly. Abby Johnson was the director of Planned Parenthood, who assisted in many abortion procedures. However, as she watched the ultrasound, she later recounted, “I could see the whole profile of the baby… I could see the whole side profile. I could see the probe. I could see the baby try to move away from the probe…. I just thought, ‘What am I doing?’…And then I thought, ‘Never again.’”[16] She later left the organization and became an outspoken critic of abortion. She has recounted this story in her book Unplanned (2010).

When people have studied the process of aborting a baby, they repeatedly perceive that this is an immoral act. There are several ways to perform the surgical procedure of abortion:[17]

  • Suction Aspiration: This is used 80% of the time in first trimester abortions. In this method, a “suction force 28 times stronger than a vacuum cleaner literally tears the developing baby to pieces and sucks the remains into a container.”[18]
  • Dilation and Curettage: A “curette” is a looped knife that cuts the babies to pieces. Afterwards, the “tiny body must then be reassembled by an attending nurse to make sure no parts remain in the womb to cause infection.”[19]
  • Saline Injection: This involves removing some of the amniotic fluid and replacing it with a toxic saline solution. The mother gives birth 24 hours later to a dead baby.

New chemical methods have been used to take the lives of the unborn—some of which are relatively painless (e.g. RU-486). But does this justify taking the life of the unborn? Not at all. While the unborn are in less pain, they aren’t any less dead.

Does abortion harm women?

Let’s not forget the many others who silently suffer from abortions: the mothers of aborted children. In the book Aborted Women: Silent No More, author David Reardon found that “over 95 percent [of women who had abortions] would not now have chosen abortion, and that 66 percent feel they are now worse off than they would have been had they not had an abortion.”[20]


Are the unborn human beings? Of course they are. What else could they be? The embryo never develops into a dog, a cat, or a chimpanzee. The organism in the womb has a full complement of human DNA, and unless it is terminated, it will continue to grow through all of the various stages of human development. As one philosopher writes, “An embryo is not a potential human life; it is a human life with great potential.”[21]

Further Reading

Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).

John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993).

Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989).

APPENDIX A: Common ethical questions and objections

The center of the debate over the ethics of abortion is the question, “What is the unborn?” Once we answer that question, many of the common objections lose their force. However, in addition, we should consider a number of other ethical questions which surround the topic of abortion:

“Men shouldn’t argue against abortion because this is a women’s issue.” The gender of a person shouldn’t change the merits of his or her views. Think about it like this. If you discovered that a woman actually wrote this article under the pseudonym “James Rochford,” in what ways would this change the validity of its content? Furthermore, in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was a constitutional right. Yet, all nine of the Supreme Court justices were men—not women.

“Women shouldn’t be forced to have a baby.” It would be deeply unethical to force a woman to have a baby. But what if a baby already exists? This objection assumes that a human being doesn’t already exist in the mother’s womb. But if the unborn are human, then our right to personal choice doesn’t supersede the right to life. To demonstrate this inconsistency, suppose that we asserted this same statement for a newborn: “Women shouldn’t be forced to keep their newborn baby alive.” Since the newborn already exists, the parent doesn’t have the right to take the life of the child.

“If you don’t want abortion, then don’t get one.” This reduces morality to personal preference. If this is the case, then anything goes. Indeed, imagine if we used this same rationale to say, “If you don’t want slavery, then don’t own a slave.”

“What if the mother’s life is in danger during pregnancy?” If the mother is going to die, then abortion seems justifiable. After all, it’s better to take one life than to lose both lives.[22]

That being the case, every effort should be made to save both lives. Parents need to make sure that the danger to the mother is both objective and severe. Sadly, some doctors will encourage mothers to choose elective abortion for just about any complication. So, parents would be wise to seek multiple medical opinions. If the risk to the mother’s health is low, then the mother may elect to take the risk. After all, most mothers would risk their lives for a child who is born, and so, they might choose to do the same for their child who is unborn.

Finally, one option is to elect for a premature birth and hope for the best. This option protects the mother, and it still gives the baby a fighting chance for survival. When parents choose to abort the child to save the mother, this is morally justifiable. However, it makes the death of the child certain—not possible. So, electing for a premature birth makes a certain amount of sense.

“The unborn are human beings, but they are not human persons.” This is the most popular argument given in favor of elective abortion. However, in response, we should ask, “What’s the difference between a human being and a human person?” Be very careful how you answer this question. After all, your answer will effectively exclude some people from the human family.

Think of the infamous Dred Scott decision as a case in point (1857). The Supreme Court stated that people of African descent “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution.” That is, these slaves were human beings, but they weren’t human persons. Consequently, African slaves could “claim none of the rights and privileges… [as] citizens of the United States.” This is the way that humans justify horrors against various classes or groups of people: They strip them of their humanity.

Ethically, we simply reject this arbitrary bifurcation of human beings and human persons. We are still human beings even if we lack certain functions. Our humanity doesn’t come in degrees.

Some argue that intelligence, rationality, self-consciousness, and sentience are essential to being human persons. However, all of these criteria could just as easily apply to newborn babies, to people in comas, or to people who passed out from having too much to drink. Imagine, for example, if you lost consciousness because someone gave you Chloroform or Rohypnol: No dreams, no thoughts, nothing. According to this definition of personhood, during your black out, you would’ve ceased being a human person! Someone might say that this isn’t a good analogy, because we all know that you would regain all of these qualities when the drugs wore off. However, the same is true for the unborn: Given enough time, they will gain intelligence and sentience. We shouldn’t strip them of their personhood during the intervening time period.

To illustrate this concept further, consider if someone was in a coma, but we knew that the person would recover after a set amount of time. Let’s say, in nine months. Would it be permissible to take that person’s life, knowing that the person would soon develop consciousness and sentience? Surely not.

“The unborn are human beings, but we don’t know if they have souls yet.” Does God give human beings a soul at conception? We have no reason to doubt it. However, even if human beings do not immediately receive a soul, we should err on the side of caution.

To illustrate, imagine if you awoke in the middle of the night to noises from inside your home. Someone definitely entered your house downstairs. But you can’t tell if the person is a murderer seeking to kill you, or if it’s your teenage son who is coming home late. If you had a gun, what would you do if you saw the shadowy figure in the dark? Would you shoot first and ask questions later? Surely this would be wildly irresponsible. The stakes are way too high to risk taking an innocent life—especially your own flesh and blood. The same reasoning applies here: If we are unsure if the unborn have souls, we should err on the side of caution. Simply too much is at stake.

“Roughly 30% of embryos are miscarried. How can we claim that these are human beings?” This objection “fails to make the crucial distinction between spontaneous death and homicide. We are not morally culpable for the former, but we are for the latter.”[23] Furthermore, the infant mortality rate in pre-modern times was incredibly high—some say as high as 70%. Does this prove that these babies weren’t human beings, simply because they had a high percentage of death by natural causes?

“Twins are formed after conception. How can the zygote be a human being if it can actually transform into two human beings during its development?” This objection commits a category error. It confuses what the zygote is (a human being) with how many it becomes (twins). Moreover, how does this in anyway subtract from the value of the zygote? If anything, it shows that the zygote is twice as valuable because it results in two human beings.

“Is it wrong to abort a baby if the mother was raped?” This is surely a sensitive moral issue, and we need to be careful in offering glib or insensitive answers. The reason this is such a difficult decision is because it is such a tragic situation. No solution is going to take back the rape of an innocent woman. That being said, several ethical principles should be kept in mind.

For one, these cases are very rare. Feinberg and Feinberg write, “The emotional trauma of the act may prevent ovulation, the offender may experience impotence, or the woman may use contraceptives or be in her infertile period of the month. It is estimated that .06 of 1 percent of all abortions are for rape. Undoubtedly, the numbers are low because some who become pregnant from rape decide not to abort. Still, it is safe to say that the main reason figures are low is that most rape victims don’t get pregnant.”[24]

Second, abortion is not going to heal the trauma of sexual assault. If the woman chooses to abort the baby, nothing will take away the trauma of being raped. No solution will make her feel better—either abortion or carrying the child to term.

Third, even if the mother might endure more trauma by carrying the baby to term, does this justify taking an innocent life? Put another way, how is it right to take the life of an innocent person—even if this somehow helped the woman with her recovery? Furthermore, is it possible that aborting could actually cause more trauma to a woman in this tragic situation?

Fourth, adoption is a viable option. Many couples would be happy to nurture and care for a newborn in exactly this situation.

Finally, complex ethical cases shouldn’t override clear ethical cases. Even if we agree that abortion is permissible in a complex case like rape or incest, this doesn’t mean that it should be permissible in all other situations. In other words, we might ask, “If we allow abortion in the case of rape, would you agree that we should consider it immoral in the 99% of other circumstances?” If a person is unwilling to agree, this seems to demonstrate that this example is being offered to exploit the pain and suffering of victims in order to justify abortion on demand.

“You don’t believe that an embryo is a human being. Imagine if you were in a burning building, and you could either save a newborn baby or five frozen embryos. Which would you save?” This thought experiment doesn’t demonstrate that an embryo is non-human. Rather, it shows what a person would instinctually do in a difficult situation. For instance, if my nine-year-old son was in a burning building, I would save him rather than five strangers who were in comas. But this doesn’t mean that I believe people in comas are not human. It merely shows what I would do in a given circumstance.

“People shouldn’t be forced to donate blood, bone marrow, or organs. This is because we believe that nobody has the right to use your body against your will.” In order for an analogical argument to be valid, it needs to be analogous in relevant ways. However, this argument is disanalogous in several key respects.

For one, the relationship between a mother and a child is different than the relationship between two strangers. Mothers have special moral obligations to their children that they do not have toward strangers. It is an extraordinary act to save the life of a stranger, but it is an ordinary act to not kill one’s child.

Second, in these cases above, the person is not actively taking the life of anyone. Instead, they are choosing not to help. Abortion, however, is the active taking of a human life—not the withdrawal of treatment. This is a key difference: The former is actively taking a life, while the latter is letting someone die.

Third, in these cases above, someone can possibly step forward to donate blood, bone marrow, or an organ. For this to be analogous, we would need to be able to allow the mother to transplant the unborn into the womb of another woman.

APPENDIX B: What does the Bible say about abortion?

We haven’t appealed to the Bible to generate an ethical case against abortion. We appealed to reason—not revelation. However, the Bible strongly speaks in favor of preserving the lives of the unborn in a number of ways.[25]

  • Scripture connects conception with birth. Job says that he was called “a boy” even at conception (Job 3:3; cf. Gen. 4:1; Ps. 51:5).
  • Samson’s Nazarite Vow lasted from conception to his death. We read that “the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death” (Judg. 13:7).
  • Both the unborn (Lk. 1:41, 44) and the born (Lk. 2:12, 16) are called babies (brephos).
  • John the Baptist even had the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb” (Lk. 1:15).
  • The Bible speaks of the unborn as known by God in a personal way (Ps. 139:13-16; Isa. 49:1; Jer. 1:5).

In addition to this positive case for the rights of the unborn, we should also consider biblical arguments raised against the unborn:

Does Genesis 2:7 teach that life begins when a person starts to breathe? No. For one, this is an odd text to choose for identifying prenatal life because Adam was never in the womb! Second, this text describes how God made the first human—not how natural processes create every other human. Third, God did the breathing in this text—not Adam. Fourth, if we classify “breathing” as taking in oxygen and dispensing carbon dioxide, then the unborn do breathe—through the mechanisms of the placenta and umbilical cord.

Does Exodus 21:22-23 teach that the unborn are less valuable than others? Advocates of abortion argue that a man is only fined for striking a pregnant woman and causing a miscarriage. However, the term “miscarriage” (NRSV) is a poor translation. The words translated “gave birth prematurely” (NASB, weyāseʾú yelādeyāh) literally mean “to come out” or “to fall out.” This word typically refers to a live birth (Job 1:21; Jer. 1:5). Indeed, the text states that the young baby is unharmed, and “there is no injury” (welōʾ yihyeh ʾāsôn). Furthermore, this case law describes an accidental injury to a pregnant woman—not the intentional termination of a pregnancy.

If the unborn go to heaven, does this justify abortion? If it does, then it would also justify infanticide, as well as taking the lives of toddlers (who are also under the age of accountability). Furthermore, this would justify killing Christians of any age, because they are going to heaven which is “better by far” (cf. Phil. 1:23-24). The absurdity of this position shows that it isn’t a good argument. God’s mercy toward unborn persons doesn’t justify us taking their lives.

[1] Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 27.

[2] Henry Morgentaler, Abortion and Contraception (New York: Beaufort, 1982), 143.

[3] Keith Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, and Mark Torchia, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 10th Edition, (Philadelphia: Saunders, 2015), 7, 11.

[4] Keith L. Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, and Mark Torchia, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, 9th Edition, (Philadelphia: Saunders, 2015), 339.

[5] T.W. Sadler, Langman’s Medical Embryology, 14th Edition, (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2018), 14.

[6] O’Rahilly, Ronand and Muller, Pabiola, Human Embryology and Teratology, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996) pp. 8, 29.

[7] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd Edition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 85-86.

[8] John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 53-56.

[9] John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 55-56.

[10] I am indebted to Scott Klusendorf for this helpful “SLED” acronym.

[11] http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/fetal-homicide-state-laws.aspx

[12] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 151.

[13] James Watson, “ChildPrism: The Socioeconomic Magazine of the American Medical Association from the Laboratory,” 1, no. 2 (1973): 12-14, 33-34.

[14] Mark Oppenheimer, “Who Lives? Who Dies?—The Utility of Peter Singer,” Christian Century (July 3, 2002), 24-29.

[15] Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” Journal of Medical Ethics 39 (2013): 261-63.

[16] http://www.breakpoint.org/commentaries/14105-miracle-at-planned-parenthood

[17] Laney, Carl. “The Abortion Epidemic: America’s Silent Holocaust.” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December) 1982. 343-345.

[18] Laney, Carl. “The Abortion Epidemic: America’s Silent Holocaust.” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December) 1982. 343.

[19] Laney, Carl. “The Abortion Epidemic: America’s Silent Holocaust.” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December) 1982. 344.

[20] John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 79.

[21] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 147.

[22] John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 74.

[23] Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 153.

[24] John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 78.

[25] Beckwith, Francis. “A Critical Appraisal of Theological Arguments for Abortion Rights.” Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September) 1991.