Abortion is the second most common surgical procedure in the United States—second only to circumcision. This subject has generated no small amount of controversy and moral discussion, and most discussions involve more heat than light. Where should we stand on such an important issue? We hope to provide ethical thinking that offers both clarity and charity to this issue.
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.
Premise 1 is not contested. Almost everyone—besides perhaps the psychologically insane—would agree that it is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. The real question centers on what the unborn are. Are the unborn distinctly human, or are they just a collection of cells in the mother’s womb? Even strong advocates of abortion like Dr. Henry Morgenthaler 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.” The question is simple: Is it a human in the womb or just a collection of cells?
Human life begins at conception, because once the sperm fertilizes the egg, it begins to replicate. Biologically—not spiritually or religiously—a self-replicating human zygote is alive. The zygote consists of human DNA—not pig or canine DNA. Of course, a sperm or egg by itself is not human, because it is incomplete DNA, which would not grow into an adult on its own.
While the zygote needs time to develop, it is still human at every stage of development. The concept of trimesters is just a verbal marker to determine certain stages of development. Nothing magical happens between trimesters. We can call the unborn person a “fetus,” but this too is just a verbal marker to label the unborn person. In fact, the term “fetus” comes from Latin which just means “little one.” Thus even under the history of the term, a fetus is just a word for a tiny human being.
The science of embryology
The status of what the unborn are should really not be contested. Here, we are not making a religious argument, but a scientific case. Virtually all embryologists agree that the unborn are decidedly human:
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 being… A 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
The science of embryology is clear: the unborn are distinctly human from the moment of fertilization. By Day 43, the fetus produces brain waves. If an EEG (electroencephalograph) can determine when a person is dead, why can’t it determine when a person is alive? Anderson writes, “Using brain wave activity to define life would outlaw at least a majority of abortions.” The biology of human fetal development has been clearly documented. To summarize this process, consider a few of the hallmarks of human fetal development.
-Five to nine days after conception, the sex of the baby can be identified.
-By Day 24, the heart begins to beat.
-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.
-By Week 8, the baby has all organs present.
-By Week 10, the baby is sensitive to touch.
-By the end of the first trimester (13 weeks), the baby has vocal cords.
Abortion is not just a medical procedure on a collection of cells within a woman’s body. The unborn can feel the pain of being aborted. 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.”
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? Francis Crick writes, “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.” Likewise, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer said that even “a three-year-old is a gray case.” Other ethicists have been arguing along these lines for after-birth abortion based on this same logic.
Are there important features of the unborn that make them less than human?
Certainly the human fetus changes from conception to birth. But all humans change from month to month—even day to day. We are an entirely different collection of cells from birth to old age, and yet, we are still the same person (see “The Mind and the Brain”). Scott Klusendorf gives a memorable acronym to explain the similarity of all humans—from conception to old age: S.L.E.D. He writes:
Size: True, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean that they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.
Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than the adults they’ll one day become. But again, why is this relevant? Four year-old girls are less developed than 14 year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? Some people say that self-awareness makes one human. But if that is true, newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Six-week old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing human mental functions, as do the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, and those with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Environment: Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? If not, how can a journey of eight inches down the birth-canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from non-human to human? If the unborn are not already human, merely changing their location can’t make them valuable.
Dependency: If viability makes us human, then all those who depend on insulin or kidney medication are not valuable and we may kill them. Conjoined twins who share blood type and bodily systems also have no right to life. [We would add that formula or breast milk is “life support” for a baby, too, but we are not free to withhold this from a newborn. Geisler adds, “Embryos are no more a part of the mother’s body than a nursing baby is a part of her mother’s breast or a test-tube baby is part of a Petri dish. So distinct is an embryo from a mother’s womb that if a fertilized ovum from a black couple is transplanted into a white mother, she will have a black baby.”]
We appreciate Klusendorf’s ability to articulate the similarity between the unborn and the born. When shed in this light, we see that the unborn are persons—just as we are. Geisler states, “An embryo is not a potential human life; it is a human life with great potential.” To support this point, according to the National Conference of State Legislature, 38 states have fetal homicide laws. That is, if a man kills a pregnant woman, he is charged with double homicide—not single homicide. This seems odd, however, because if a mother decides to take the life of the unborn, this is not thought to be “murder;” it is thought to be merely a “medical decision.” Geisler notes, “This contradiction 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.”
Sadly, the famous Roe v. Wade decision (1973) occurred before ultrasound was popularly used in the United States. Today, being able to see the unborn baby in the womb has led many to change their position on the subject of abortion.
Norma McCorvey—who went under the legal pseudonym “Jane Roe”—was the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade (1973). McCorvey later converted to Roman Catholicism, and became a pro-life advocate for the rest of her life. She considered her involvement in Roe v. Wade to be “the biggest mistake of [her] life.”
Observing the procedure
One of the premier ways to discern if something is immoral is simply to view it directly. 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:
Suction Aspiration: This is used 80% of the time in first trimester abortions. Laney explains, “A suction force 28 times stronger than a vacuum cleaner literally tears the developing baby to pieces and sucks the remains into a container.”
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.”
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.
Abby Johnson was the director of Planned Parenthood, who assisted in abortion procedures. 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.’” She later left the organization and became an outspoken critic of abortion. She has recounted this story in her 2010 book Unplanned.
Effects on the mother
Abortion has serious effects on the mothers. In a sense, the mothers of aborted babies are the victims of abortion as well. Feinberg and Feinberg write, “David Reardon’s book, Aborted Women: Silent No More, is the most extensive study of the long term effects on women of their decision to have an abortion. This book is the result of extensive research and of a detailed survey of 252 women who had abortions and are now members of WEBA (Women Exploited by Abortion). From this research Reardon found that over 95 percent 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.”
Other Ethical Questions
While the above is the main argument against abortion, we should consider a number of other ethical questions which surround the topic of abortion:
“Terminating a pregnancy is different than taking a life, because the fetus isn’t self-conscious.”
If we applied this criterion to other people, the results would be horrific. This could just as easily apply to newborn babies, as it does to unborn ones. It would also apply to those in comas or even those who are currently asleep! A person still is a person, even if they don’t always function as a person.
“Thirty percent of embryos are flushed out of the woman before birth. Are these souls that are perishing?”
The infant mortality rate in pre-modern times was incredibly high—some say 70%. But of course, we would agree that babies are human beings. If this is really an argument against the unborn, then it would work just as much against the born. Moreover, Geisler argues, “[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.”
“Twins are formed after conception. How can the zygote be one person, if it can turn into two later on?”
The zygote is still species specific—namely, human. The number of persons it creates is not as important as the fact that the zygote is truly human. Put another way, what a zygote is should be more important than how many persons a zygote becomes.
“Women shouldn’t be forced to give birth to an unwanted baby.”
First, the right to choice doesn’t supersede the right to life. While I have the right to choose in general, this isn’t a universal moral right that supersedes all others. It is hemmed in by someone’s right to life. Furthermore, this claim assumes that only one body is involved in the mother’s decision to abort her child—not two.
Second, many couples desperately want a child. The unborn baby will be wanted by someone—even if not by the biological mother or father.
Third, the fact that the child is unwanted is not the child’s fault, but the parent’s fault. Why punish the child for what is an issue with the parent? Furthermore, what parents of a six-month old no longer wanted their baby? Would they have the moral right to take the life of the child? Of course not.
“Is abortion permissible in the case of the mentally handicapped?”
Of course not! To argue our case, we should begin by asking how much of a handicap does someone need to have in order to be killed? Do we stop with the mentally handicapped? The physically handicapped? Those with cleft lips or clubbed feet? And again, under this thinking, what would prevent us from killing handicapped children after they are born? Geisler writes, “At last count, there was not a single organization for parents of handicapped children on record as favoring abortion of the handicapped. In short, it is not the handicapped or their parents who want abortions of babies who may be handicapped; it is those who are not handicapped. Let us allow the handicapped to speak for themselves.”
“What if the mother’s life is in danger during pregnancy?”
In some cases of ectopic pregnancy, the baby is developing outside of the womb. In these cases, the baby’s life must be taken; otherwise, both the mother and baby will die. In such cases or in cases of cancer, Feinberg and Feinberg write, “We think commencement of treatment for the mother is morally permissible.” In other cases, it is more difficult to discern. A number of principles should be applied before making such a difficult decision:
First, every effort should be made to save both lives. By choosing elective abortion, this doesn’t simply make death possible; it makes it certain for the unborn baby. This should be weighed when making our decision.
Second, we need to be sure that the danger to the mother is real and objective—not just a complication or difficulty. Sadly, many doctors encourage mothers to choose elective abortion for just about any complication. We might ask the mother how much she would risk to preserve the life of her two year old. Most mothers would do anything—even risk death—to save their child’s life.
Third, one option is to choose to have the baby prematurely. This option protects the mother, and it still gives good chances for the baby to survive.
“Is it wrong to abort a baby if the mother was raped?”
This is surely a sensitive moral issue. A woman who has been raped has gone through one of the most violent crimes imaginable, so we need to be careful in making glib or insensitive answers to such complex moral questions. The reason that this question is difficult to answer is based on the fact that a serious moral evil has occurred: a woman has been raped. The question is, What should we do in such a horrible situation?
This is certainly a very difficult decision, but this is because this is a tragic situation. No alternative is going to fix the fact that the woman was brutally raped. Even if the woman gets an abortion, she will still suffer heartache, because that is the nature of her painful circumstances. No solution will make her feel better—either abortion or carrying the child to term. We also need to remember that the morally right choice is often very difficult and very painful to the person.
While the mother might endure more trauma and heartache by carrying the baby to term, what is the alternative? While it might make the victim feel better to abort the baby, how can this be a justification for taking an innocent life? Put another way, how is it right to kill a person in order to make the mother feel better about this crime which was done to her? Moreover, it’s also possible that aborting the baby could cause more trauma to a woman in this tragic situation.
We also need to remember that adoption is a viable option. Many couples would be happy to nurture and care for a newborn in exactly this situation. So even if the mother could not bring herself to raise the child, others would be willing to do so.
One thing we should not do is begin with complex moral questions like this to apply to all cases of abortion. Some argue that it is right to abort in cases of rape, and others would consider it wrong. But this is certainly a mistaken way to begin moral reasoning. Even if we agreed that abortion was permissible in a difficult or complex circumstance like this, it wouldn’t follow that it would be permissible in all situations for any reason.
Some people ask this question because they are genuinely concerned for the victims of rape. However, others raise this objection because they are trying to make abortion morally permissible for all circumstances, and they are high jacking a woman’s tragedy to do so. One way to discern the difference between the two is by asking, “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 the person is unwilling to concede, then this really shows that this example is only being offered to exploit a difficult and painful situation in order to allow abortion for all.
We also need to point out that these cases are shockingly rare compared to all abortions that occur. Feinberg and Feinberg write, “Conception in cases of rape is very rare. The reasons are many. 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.”
Moreover, estrogen treatment after intercourse and before conception is a way to prevent conception in cases of rape. Feinberg and Feinberg write, “There is a period of time between intercourse and conception, and, if estrogen treatment is given, conception can be prevented. In a Minnesota hospital 3,500 rape victims received treatment without one becoming pregnant. In Buffalo, New York, there was not one pregnancy from rape in thirty years, and in Washington, D.C., a study of over three hundred rapes showed only one pregnancy.”
“The Bible doesn’t mention abortion.”
So far, we haven’t appealed to Scriptural teaching on this subject. We have made an ethical argument for the unborn based on reason—not revelation. However, if we appeal to the Bible, the case is overwhelmingly in favor of preserving the unborn. Francis Beckwith shows convincingly that the Bible does speak to this issue in a variety of ways. He notes that the Bible 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). In Judges 13:7, Samson’s Nazarite Vow lasted from conception to death (“the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death”). Both the unborn (Lk. 1:41, 44) and the born (Lk. 2:12, 16) are called babies (brepos). John the Baptist even had the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb in Luke 1:15 (“He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb”). The Bible speaks of the unborn as known by God in a personal way (Ps. 139:13-16; Isa. 49:1; Jer. 1:5). Additionally, Dolores Dunnett cites a number of early church documents that considered abortion to be taking the life of an innocent person.
As we have argued elsewhere (see “Social Ethics”), we feel that it is wise to make our case for the unborn based on natural law—not biblical teaching. Secular or postmodern people do not believe in the Bible, so appealing to it as an authority is misguided. However, even by basing our case on natural law, it is clear that taking the life of an innocent person is wrong, and the unborn are innocent persons. Therefore, taking the life of an unborn person is wrong.
Craig, William Lane. Hard Questions, Real Answers. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003. Chapter Six. Found here.
Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993.
Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989.
 Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 46-47.
 Henry Morgentaler, Abortion and Contraception (New York: Beaufort, 1982), 143. Cited in Craig, William Lane. Hard Questions, Real Answers. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003. 115.
 Keith Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, and Mark Torchia, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 10th Edition, (Philadelphia: Saunders, 2015), 7, 11.
 Keith L. Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, and Mark Torchia, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, 9th Edition, (Philadelphia: Saunders, 2015), 339.
 T.W. Sadler, Langman’s Medical Embryology, 14th Edition, (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2018), 14.
 O’Rahilly, Ronand and Muller, Pabiola, Human Embryology and Teratology, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996) pp. 8, 29.
 Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd Edition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 85-86.
 Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 53-56.
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 Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989. 140.
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 Laney, Carl. “The Abortion Epidemic: America’s Silent Holocaust.” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December) 1982. 343-345.
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 Laney, Carl. “The Abortion Epidemic: America’s Silent Holocaust.” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December) 1982. 344.
 Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 79.
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 Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 74.
 Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 78.
 Feinberg, John. Feinberg, Paul. Ethics for a Brave New World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 1993. 79.
 Beckwith, Francis. “A Critical Appraisal of Theological Arguments for Abortion Rights.” Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September) 1991.
 Dunnett, Dolores. “Evangelicals and Abortion.” JETS 33/2 (June 1990). 1990. 218-220.