But the debate surrounding the ethics of abortion goes much further back that the 1973 decision. In many ancient cultures, it was the prerogative of fathers to leave undesired children to die by exposure to the cold, hunger or wild animals, a form of after-birth abortion. The Greek philosopher Aristotle allowed for the practice of abortion “when couples have children in excess” and “before sense and life have begun” (Aristotle, Politics 7.16). The Oath of Asaph, an oath taken by Hebrew physicians, specifically prevented the administration of certain drugs that would induce an abortion. Similarly, the Hippocratic Oath prevented giving a woman “an abortive remedy.”
The modern debate on abortion largely began with a 1971 article by Judith Jarvis Thomson entitled “A Defense of Abortion.” In the text, Thomson proposes the following analogy:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. ... To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.
For Thomson, the person keeping the violinist alive has no moral duty to stay connected to the life support. Similarly, a mother keeping a child alive has no moral duty to allow the child to remain in her womb, and is justified in having an abortion. The personhood of the fetus is irrelevant.
Pro-life responders have been quick to point out that the analogy only applies in cases of rape, that disconnecting one’s self from life support is different from actively killing the child, and that we do actually possess certain duties to protect human life. In response, pro-life ethicists have advanced the following “standard argument” against abortion:
1. The killing of human beings is prohibited.
2. A fetus is a human being.
3. Therefore, the killing of fetuses is prohibited.
Encapsulated within this syllogism is a notion that killing a fetus is prohibited because it is a person, that is, a human being possessing certain moral value. This begs the question “what is a person?” which has become the focus of much of the pro-life debate today. For many Christian pro-lifers, a person is defined as a being which possesses a rational soul. Life, then, would seem to begin with ensoulment, or the point of time in which the soul enters the body. But when, exactly, does the soul enter the body? There seem to be several candidates. The most popular argument is that this ensoulment occurs at conception, when the entire DNA structure of the embryo is intact, and the embryo begins to develop as an independent life form. There have been disagreements, however. Sir Anthony Kenny has argued that because of embryo twinning, an embryo does not possess the property of ‘being one’s self’ until 14 days after conception, and cannot be considered a unique person until that point. Other thinkers, such as Marsilio Ficino, argue that personhood begins with “the breath of life” referenced in Genesis 2:7, and that the fetus is not a person until after birth.
But the dominant philosophical paradigm in higher education today, that of atheistic naturalism denies the existence of an immaterial soul all together, attempting to ground personhood in something else. D. Gareth Jones argues that personhood begins with consciousness, which occurs with the development of brain waves. Peter Singer argued that personhood requires rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness, and that “after-birth abortion” (infanticide), is morally permissible in cases where the infant is severely disabled. Ethicists at the University of Melbourne in Australia have taken the argument a step further, arguing that personhood requires an ability to set goals for and ascribe value to one’s own life. Under this criteria, until an infant is able to reflect upon his own life and declare it valuable or until he is able to form some sort of long-term goal for his life, the infant is not a person and can be aborted, whether disabled or not, at the sole discretion of the parents.
Some pro-lifers have decided to side-step the question of personhood altogether. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, and some Protestants simply believe that sex and reproduction are natural processes that should not be tampered with. Abortion and artificial birth control are considered immoral because they subvert the natural reproductive process. Others argue that personhood is irrelevant in determining whether or not the embryo possesses moral value and is worthy of protection. An article written by yours truly argues that the embryo, whether a person or not, is full of infinite mystery, beauty, and potentiality, and should still be respected as the imago dei.
This week, on the 41st anniversary on Roe v. Wade, Generation Joshua will be featuring a series of articles in defense of life. Tomorrow's article will present an alternative viewpoint to the traditional life at conception theory, arguing that Scripture’s identification of life with the blood indicates that life begins with the heartbeat (at 22 days). Wednesday's article will argues that abortion and birth control are always immoral because they subvert natural reproductive process. Finally, Friday's article will present the traditional pro-life case that life begins at conception.
By Nick Barden
By Nick Barden