The Argument from Ignorance – Why I am Against Abortion

I’m quite certain this post will upset some people.  It’s hard to say anything about abortion without upsetting someone.  All I can do is forthrightly state my views.  In this case, I do not intend to make a lengthy case (that’s not what this blog is about); but I do intend to explain an argument that I have not been able to shake.  I hope that this will at least explain why one person is pro-life.

First, some preliminaries.  For some people, abortion is an issue to which they feel a profound personal attachment, because they themselves had an abortion or they are close to spouses, significant others, and dear friends who did.  And for others abortion is a matter of deep conviction because they firmly believe it is the destruction of an innocent human person.  As a Christian, I believe that the grace of God is sufficient even for those who have done the worst of things, and our judgments on whether abortion is right or wrong should be based on a sober consideration of the issue and not on concern over whom we might offend.

I am quite certain that nothing magically changes in the passage from the womb to the world such that the baby’s life in the world is of ultimate value and its life inside the womb is not.  Late term abortions are, to my mind, unquestionably wrong, or only morally debatable in cases where the life of the mother is threatened.  Early term abortions are more difficult to judge.  Should we say that abortions are only permitted in the first six months?  But what then changes between day 180 and day 181?  Or perhaps the first three months?  But what is the difference between day 90 and day 91?  Perhaps it is better to avoid drawing distinctions altogether, and to find the sacred not in the fetus/baby’s brain waves or heart beat or etc., but simply in its creation in the imago Dei and its potentiality for life.  The fertilization of an egg begins a process that will lead to a living human person, and perhaps we should draw a bright line where a genetic human is created.

“Can you really ask a woman to make all of the extraordinary sacrifices of motherhood for a clump of cells?”

This is the response, in various forms, that I often heard throughout my years in undergraduate and graduate studies.  It is one-sided, of course; alongside the sacrifices are extraordinary blessings, and it is no mere “clump of cells.”  But the argument that I cannot shake is this — not that I know for certain that the embryo and then the fetus should count as a human life in the fullest moral and spiritual sense, but that I do not know.  In other words, I’m willing to confess that I do not know for certain how early-term fetuses should be classified; but the mere possibility that the unborn child “counts” (morally, spiritually, in the eyes of God) as a human in full is enough to make me pro-life.

Imagine that you emerge from your house one morning and find a man standing in your yard with a box and a remote control trigger.  “Inside the box,” he says, “there might be a baby.  You must tell me whether to flip the trigger, and if I flip the trigger then a gas will be released inside the box that will kill any baby that may be inside.”

Right now – Would you do it?  Of course not.

“But there’s a wrinkle,” the man goes on.  “If we flip the trigger, a baby might die.  But if we do not flip the trigger, it is a certainty that the young woman over there will have to raise a baby from birth to adulthood.”

Again – Would you do it?  What if you were told the probability of having a child in the box is only 50 percent?  Or only 25 percent?  Or only 10 percent?  Would you take a ten-percent chance that you might be killing a baby in order to spare the young woman who does not want to raise the baby?  What if she had no resources?  What if it would require her and her boyfriend to drop out of school?

For my money, you can’t flip that trigger.  You just can’t.  The possibility of destroying something of ultimate value, the possibility of committing an absolute wrong, always outweighs the less-than-absolute difficulties of child-rearing.  To be clear, Christians who oppose abortion possess an enormous responsibility – an enormous responsibility – to adopt unwanted children and support foster families and orphanages.  But the possibility that abortion may amount to the destruction of an innocent human life is enough for me.  Just the possibility.

The general liberal response would be: “You let the young woman decide.”

In the hypothetical, however, I am morally responsible not only for the young woman but also for the unborn child.  Imagine that you are told, “The young woman will flip the trigger in one minute unless you stop her.”  What would you do?  I would have to stand between her and that trigger.  And when I cast my vote, or when I confront the question of whether I should get involved in advocacy over this issue, I have to take both of those responsibilities in hand.  My responsibility to the unborn child makes me stand against abortion.  And my responsibility to the young woman makes me accountable to help provide for her.

Amidst all the polemics, it’s easy to forget that the central question in the abortion debate is whether that fetus/child is a living human person who is therefore deserving of protection.  Biblically, philosophically and scientifically, I answer in the affirmative.  But just the possibility is enough for me.  That’s why, even in settings where it was neither popular nor comfortable, I remained pro-life over the years.


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  • Tiff

    The one thing I don’t understand is people who claim they are pro-life but still support the use of the birth control pill. The back-up, back-up, method of how the birth control pill works is it aborts the fetus. If you don’t know for certain when life starts, and there’s always a possibility that the pill only worked for you because it aborted the fetus, how can people who say they are pro-life still use it when that is even a possibility (no matter how remote)?

    • Scott

      Do you mean the birth control pill or the day-after pill?

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        She does mean the birth control pill. She has an interesting take on birth control pills, which I’ve invited her to explain at greater length.

  • what if the question instead is; “if you dont flip the trigger, that young woman will die”? Or again, 90% probability she will? Or 50%?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Those are good questions. The percentage of abortions that are performed to save the life of the mother, however, is quite small (I believe it is less than 1%). And even prior to Roe v. Wade, abortions were permitted to save the life of the mother. So while those are important questions, one still has to address the question that concerns the vast majority of cases.

      • Dont get me wrong, I am not pro-abortion, I consider myself pro-life; which in some cases means I support abortion…… Puts me in an impossible position intellectually and spiritually, but I know what my answer would be if it was my wife!

      • Nathan

        Does it really matter how small the percentage is? If there are legitimate cases of real people who you feel should be entitled to an abortion, then the legal prohibition of abortion will be wrong to those people.

        Now, you might want to make a law that inserts an exception in the case where the life of the mother is in danger (or in the case of rape perhaps), but in terms of practical application, such a loophole would have very predictable results: the wealthy and well connected would find a doctor and a lawyer that will say the right things to allow them to fit that loophole, while poorer and disadvantaged women who may well need the procedure will experience unnecessary hurdles to receiving it.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          The percentage is important. The fact that it is so extremely rare tells us that the central moral question we have to confront is whether abortions are morally (and should be legally) permissible in the case where the mother’s life is not in danger. Otherwise, it would be like saying that lying is fine because, in a vashingly small amount of cases, lying might save a life. I think you have to address the basic moral and legal question first and then address the outlying cases. It does not mean that those outlying cases are not important; as philosophers, we know that hypotheticals that address very rare cases (like the Nazis asking if there is a Jew in the basement) help us define the limits and the hierarchy of our moral and legal obligations.

          I do think the solution would be to have a law – as we do with most of our laws – that addresses 99% of cases and then lays out exceptions. Prior to Roe v. Wade, there were exceptions made to save the life of the mother, and in many states there were exceptions for cases of rape and incest – and yet it was not the case that everyone could get an abortion if they wanted it. I assume, like you, that there would be discrepancies in cases of wealthy and poor individuals, even as there are many discrepancies now. But we don’t get rid of our laws just because the rich can afford better lawyers, do we? And we don’t get rid of other medical laws because the rich can pay off a doctor. Those are reasons for better enforcement, not for abandoning the laws.

          • L. Lee

            One thing no one ever mentions about abortion has to do with the genetic make up of the fetus. Having an abortion is really killing or getting rid of your own seed. This has to be a terrible thing in the eyes of God and for the person aborting their own flesh/genetic make up. God is the God of creation and having creating a fetus/child is a creative ability God gives to his people – we are made in His image. A child is special even in the womb because it is made from the parents. Parents who don’t think about what they made are belittling themselves and who they are. It is an offense to God and how he made us to pro-create from our own genetic make up. Just a thought no one has really talked about in regards to abortion.
            L.Lee

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            A very interesting point. Thank you.

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  • I know this might sound strange, but I know some women who’d object to being described as a box for incubating babies.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The “box” in the analogy is not the woman but the body of the fetus/baby.

      I used to create the hypothetical with the imagery of causing the box to explode. When I shared this with some friends, a thoughtful and passionate pro-choice young woman responded, “My body is not a box!” Of course, if the box were the woman in the analogy, then abortion (destroying the box) would amount to killing the mother! That would certainly seem to be an over-reaction to an unwanted pregnancy.

      But I think this sort of response is telling. This female friend of mine really found the unborn child quite invisible. She saw herself and her body as the only significant parts of the equation. But that presupposes the conclusion. The question is whether there is another being with the same moral and spiritual rights as the mother. My contention is that, if there is any significant possibility that there is, then that possibility alone is enough to compel (at least me) to a pro-life position.

      • wait… the box gets destroyed? I thought it got filled with poison gas… Well, in any case, I stand corrected. So your analogy doesn’t make the woman in question into a box. It makes her vanish. My point is, either way, that the problem with the analogy is that babies are not born from boxes.

        • Scott

          The point of analogies is that they use things that are not the case (boxes) to explain things that are (wombs/babies/bodies–however you want to construct it). Similarly, in the common pro-choice analogy, women don’t REALLY have a world famous violinist attached to the outside of their bodies. It’s an analogy.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Since the individual is asked to weigh the difficulties this would present for a young woman against the prospect of destroying a living human child, I don’t agree that the woman is invisible. But thanks for leaving a comment.

        • But does it make it any less true that an elective abortion could be killing a baby for the sake of preventing inconvenience? How simple is it for a woman to give her baby up for adoption? There are thousands of couples in this country who are waiting for an infant to adopt.

          • Atok

            I am pro-life and pro-choice as well, contradicting as that is. There is another caveat to the abortion debate. The argument is always explained as life-threatening to the mother. Not all pregnancies are event free, or to the point of life-threatening. What about the mother who needs incessant care or is having medical difficulties that may or may not remedy themselves leading to greater problems if not remedied? I was in such a situation. Choosing to abort the pregnancy, during which found it was not viable. That was a tough decision, but also a blessing. It shed light on a medical problem that wouldn’t have been found without more similar outcomes. I am now pregnant and having a successful pregnancy because of the abortion. The debate is not as easy as black and white, which makes it such a strong debate.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            You’re right that few pregnancies are event-free, and even fewer are life-threatening. As noted elsewhere, the percentage of abortions performed to save the life of the mother is under one percent of abortions. The great, great majority of abortions are simply because a child is not wanted at that time. I also feel compelled to point out that while we often focus on the decision-making role of the mother, men are not excused from this conversation. Many times men (husbands, boyfriends, fathers) pressure the woman to seek an abortion, or go along with it.

            Do I understand you correctly that you were having some medical problems in your pregnancy, chose to have an abortion, and the abortion process revealed a medical problem that would not have allowed you to bring a viable child to birth? And you could not have learned about the problem without the abortion? To me, the fact that the abortion revealed a medical problem does not really bear on whether or not it was right to have the abortion. We sometimes choose to do wrong things which, nonetheless, benefit us. The more relevant factor, in my mind, is that you were having medical problems. Were those problems life-threatening to you or the fetus?

      • Nathan

        You might find this interesting: the philosopher, Laura Purdy asks the question, “Are Women Fetal Containers?” and her answer is, Yes. The reason why she feels it is necessary to accept this view is that when laws are made that pertain to the well-being of a fetus necessarily imply some action to the woman. So, it might actually be helpful to push the line that the “woman is the box,” not for the rhetorically degrading implications of this idea, but to stress the fact that when you prohibit her from triggering the release of that noxious gas, you prevent her from doing something that she wants to do to herself and without which she will have to endure some measure of discomfort, difficulty, and restriction to her activities and projects.

        Along this line, it is important to remember Thomson’s classic argument that makes us aware of the fact that despite the presumed/doubted/known right to life of person A, this does not necessarily impose a corresponding (legal) obligation on person B to sustain and support the life of person A.

        To offer an example that I hope highlights the difficulty in making this claim, we might legally require everyone on the Forbes 400 list to give an extremely high percentage of their wealth to severely impoverished people because, after all, they have a right to life, and these very rich people have the capacity enable that life to continue (and without that help, they will likely die).

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          That is interesting, Nathan, thank you. You’re right that a right to life on the part of person A does not necessarily compel person B to defend that right. It does have implications, of course, for how our society ought to be organized, and how our laws should protect and not violate that right to life. And it has implications for the person who is making the decision or taking the action that leads to the violation of that right. It places ethical obligations on all of those who are involved in the decision and the action to abort the blastocyst/embryo/fetus/child.

          I also think it places obligations on voters. Voting is a complex act, of course, that involves consideration of multiple rights, however, and so some may decide that their obligation to the right-to-life of the unborn is counterbalanced by their obligation to the environment or to those affected by war (so they might vote for the pro-choice candidate because he is also pro-environment and anti-war). I cannot vote for a pro-choice candidate, but I understand those who do, especially when the pro-choice candidate promises to reduce “the need” for, and thus the number of, abortions.

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  • Galen

    The argument that Dave makes (thanks for joining in the discussion, Dave!) is often made by those who support a pro-choice position. Indeed, the HUGE majority of abortions are performed not to save the life of the woman who is pregnant, but to provide an easier life for her – it is a “choice”, not a necessity, or those in favor of abortion might be called “pro-necessity” if it were really for saving the mother’s life. It is a complicated issue, emotionally laden, yet who would take the chance of killing another human being by firing a gun across the street into the neighbor’s house? And when has the “clump of cells” inside of that woman’s body ever resulted in something that was not “human” – a dog, cat, monkey, etc.? While it might at times result in a severely handicapped person, that person is still a human – at least, unless one accepts the crazy ethics of Peter Singer.

    • The issue of a severely handicapped child really muddies the waters for me. I have an adult nephew that is moderately effected by Down’s syndrome. Lives at home and will forever, holds a job bagging groceries, is rather high functioning and happy. Major load on the parents for 27 years, but they wouldnt have it any other way (though they divorced). On the other hand, I used to work with a group of kids in a residential home that were mostly suffering from spinal meningitis and were not at all high functioning. I would have them come to the gym and do really basic gymnastics movements, and in the winter we would take them skiing (quite an exercise and nothing that resembles what you consider skiing). The parent load in these cases was unmeasurable. It chewed me up and spit me out after a couple years. I cant honestly say I would have an argument if a parent had opted for abortion in some of those cases had they known the quality of life the child would endure. It still tears me up to think about them. I feel guilty even writing my feelings. The harsh reality is that many of them had no ability to understand much of the world around them, they suffered continuously, and their families had long ago lost the ability to effectively support them at home. There are no easy, pat answers for me in this discussion. I dont argue that most abortions performed today have nothing to do with these issues, but I strongly believe that there needs to be room for some of these choices, whether they match any particular person’s belief system or not. And I could care less what anyone labels me on this issue.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I certainly agree that there are no easy, pat answers. It’s a tough, tough issue. I was trying to focus on the basic dynamics of the issue, the dynamics that hold for the great majority of cases, but these marginal cases are certainly important when it comes to defining the boundaries of any moral or legal positions.

        • I think it is far easier to be pro-life. 🙂

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            Natassia, thanks for leaving a comment. I think it depends upon your context. I spent the fifteen years of my undergraduate and graduate education in an environment where the great majority of my friends and colleagues were pro-choice, and indeed viewed pro-lifers like myself as ignorant and misogynist. In that setting, it would have been nice if I could have agreed; I prefer to avoid conflict. But I couldn’t.

            In other settings, I’m sure you’re right.

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