Arguing the Pro-Life Case (Such as It Is)

Arguing the Pro-Life Case (Such as It Is) September 7, 2020

Let’s critique three points often made by pro-life Christians.

This is a continuation of our analysis of the question, “Does Pro-life Logic Mean Women Who Get Abortions Should Be Punished?” addressed by Greg Koukl of the Stand to Reason podcast. (Start with part 1 here.)

I’ve responded in detail to the case against abortion here, but let me respond to the pro-life argument given in this podcast. To quote Sherlock Holmes, “Elementary as [the argument is], there [are] points of interest and novelty about it which may excuse my placing it upon record.”

The pro-life case point 1: abortion is killing a child

Koukl said:

We spend our time helping people see clearly that taking the life of an innocent human child in the womb is just wrong. What surprises me is that we have to continue to make this point because it strikes me that the point is so obvious. (@26:25)

You think your point is obvious? If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve heard the obvious response: a fetus is not a child, a baby, or a person—it’s just a fetus. In the same way, a cake that’s not done cooking isn’t a cake—it’s just batter.

The pro-life case point 2: the SLED test shows that the fetus is a child

SLED is an acronym for Size, Level of development, Environment, and Degree of dependency. The argument attempts to show that, while the fetus is different than a newborn on each of these categories, none disqualify it from being a child (I use “child” because Koukl used it above, though other pro-life advocates might use “human being” or “person”). I’ll respond to the SLED argument as laid out in the Cold Case Christianity blog, since Koukl didn’t discuss it thoroughly.

  • Size: A fetus is much smaller than a newborn, but is size important? An adult might weigh 300 pounds while a newborn might weigh 5 pounds, but is the adult any more human? Any more a person?

Response: An adult being 60 times heavier than a newborn doesn’t begin to illustrate the difference between the newborn and the single cell that it started out as. The newborn has a trillion cells, and the single cell has just one. I expand on this thinking with the spectrum argument here and here.

  • Level of development: A fetus is less developed than a newborn, but so what? A newborn is less developed than an adult—does that make the newborn less a human?

Response: Here again, this childish approach doesn’t begin to acknowledge the differences. Yes, a 30-year-old adult (say) is far stronger, smarter, and more agile than the newborn, but these are mostly changes of degree. Both the newborn and the adult have arms; the adult’s arms are just better developed. Both the newborn and the adult have a brain; the adult’s is just better developed. And so on.

By contrast, the difference between the newborn and the single cell is one of kind. The newborn and the adult have pretty much the same parts—arms, legs, eyes, ears, skin, brain, and so on, while the single cell doesn’t have any of these parts. It doesn’t even have a single cell of any of these parts.

  • Environment: The fetus is in the womb and the newborn isn’t, but so what? Is the location of the child important?

Response: Abortion laws must have a simple, unambiguous criterion for drawing the line after which the fetus is too much a person to abort. Once a baby is born, it has crossed that line. That doesn’t change the fact that a growing fetus becomes more a person with time and that a single cell is not a person or a child.

  • Degree of dependency: The fetus is totally dependent on the mother, but then the newborn is also dependent on caregivers. Even as adults, we might not be completely independent—perhaps we need heart or thyroid medicine, a pacemaker, dialysis, or a wheelchair. We might be bedridden or even comatose. Just because we’re dependent on others doesn’t make us not a person.

Response: Dependency isn’t the issue. There’s a spectrum of personhood through gestation. A newborn is a person, and the single cell nine months earlier wasn’t.

The pro-life case point 3: ignore the facts and change definitions to suit yourself

Koukl again:

People say, “Well, the unborn doesn’t look like a human being.” To which I respond: of course it does; he or she looks like any human being ought to look like at that stage of development! (@27:30)

This is simply the Argument from Potential: the fetus isn’t a human being (or a person) . . . but it will be!

Ignoring the possibility of miscarriage, I agree. That there is a spectrum of personhood that increases through the nine months of gestation is my main point.

Koukl takes what it will be (a human being) and applies that definition retroactively. The fetus is a potential human being, so Koukl simply drops the unwanted word “potential” and declares victory. Taken to an extreme, the thought, “It might be fun to have a baby” is also a potential human being. Is it immoral to deny that one life as well?

Seen properly, babies aren’t killed with abortion; they’re prevented.

The only thing that changes is how they look at any given point in time, and that should not change the value, because if it did, it won’t be long before ugly people are going to be on the chopping block, right? (@28:00)

Once again, Koukl is either confusing himself or deliberately confusing his audience about the kind of development we’re talking about. The differences between a child, teenager, or adult on one hand and a newborn on the other (or the difference between an ugly person and a beautiful one) are trivial compared to the difference between that newborn and the single cell it started as. In the first case, we’re talking about the set of persons (with eyes and ears, arms and legs, stomach and digestive system, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, and so on) who have trillions of cells each precisely interconnected into a whole. And in the second case, we’re talking about a single unindividuated cell.

See the difference?

There’s one final post in this series on abortion: Do Pro-Life Advocates Want to Reduce Abortion? Sure Doesn’t Look Like It.

The consensus in a well-informed field of expertise
is not the same thing as a show of hands from ignoramuses
who can’t be bothered to learn about the subject.
— commenter Susan

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/2/16.)

Image from Hartwig HKD (license CC BY-ND 2.0)

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