Craig is a top scholar and debater, and in this chapter presents a clear, crisp and powerful pro-life and anti-abortion argument.
We heartily recommend this highly readable book to all Christians and others interested in defending the pro-life position.
Other chapters include: Doubt, Unanswered Prayer, Failure, Suffering and Evil, Homosexuality, and Christ, the Only Way.
In recent U. S. presidential elections, the question of abortion has typically been one of the issues separating the candidates. In an effort to persuade people at the church we were attending at the time of an election to vote for the candidate who opposed abortion on demand, I put a newspaper ad on the bulletin board downstairs. It pictured a group of several little babies with the headline: “One out of every three babies conceived in the U.S. is aborted.” This tragic statistic is accurate. But a week later as I passed through the hall, I noticed that someone had written these words across the ad: “Right-wing religious propaganda.”
I was surprised at those words. Is that all there is to concern about 33 percent of conceptions ending in abortion: right-wing religious propaganda? Well, a lot of people certainly seem to think so. And that includes Christians. A friend recently showed me a letter written by a woman from our church who has since moved away. She gave six reasons for her supporting abortion:
- Murder must have a malicious motive.
- There are too many unwanted children in the world, and white couples don’t like to adopt minority children.
- The world’s population is exploding too rapidly.
- Most childless couples don’t want to have children or adopt.
- A woman’s body is her own business; it should not be a political issue.
- If people in underdeveloped nations are urged to have birth control or abortion, the same policies should apply in developed nations.
What about these arguments? Do they suffice to justify abortion on demand? Are people who oppose abortion little more than right-wing religious propagandists?
It seems to me that amid the mass of arguments pro and con about abortion, there are two central questions that will determine all the others. How you answer these two fundamental questions will determine how you assess everything else. By focusing on these two central concerns, we can greatly clarify our thinking about the issue of abortion. Here are the questions: (1) Do human beings possess intrinsic moral value? and (2) Is the developing fetus a human being?
Let’s think about that first question: Do human beings have intrinsic moral value? Something has intrinsic value if it is an end in itself, rather than a means to some end. Things that are valuable merely as means to some end have only extrinsic value. For example, money has no intrinsic value, in and of itself. Rather it has extrinsic value insofar as it’s a useful means of commerce for human beings and so is valuable to us for the ends it helps us achieve. But in and of itself money is worthless. It’s just paper.
Now the question is, are human beings like that, or are they intrinsically valuable? I’m certain that most people, once they think about it, recognize that human beings are intrinsically valuable. People aren’t valuable merely as a means to some end; rather people are ends in themselves. That’s why, as Augustine said, we should love people and use things, not vice versa. Those who use people and love things are doing something profoundly immoral, because they are not recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of other persons, who are not mere things to be used.
The international community recognizes the intrinsic moral value of human beings, as expressed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The notion that people have inherent rights just in virtue of the fact that they are human beings, regardless of their race, class, religion, caste, or station in life, is based in the inherent moral value of human beings. This truth is recognized as well in the Declaration of Independence, which affirms that all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, such as the right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. Most of us, when we reflect upon it, would come to a similar conclusion: Yes, human beings do possess intrinsic moral value.
Now what this implies is that if the developing fetus is a human being, then he or she is endowed with intrinsic moral worth and therefore possesses inherent human rights, including the right to life. As the Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler concedes, “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.”1 Abortion would be a form of homicide, and against such attacks the innocent and defenseless fetus would have every right to the protection of the law.
So we now come to the second question we must address: Is the developing fetus a human being? Here it seems to me that it is virtually undeniable scientifically and medically that the fetus is at every stage of its development a human being. After all, the fetus is not canine, or feline, or bovine; it is a human fetus. From the moment of conception on, there exists a living organism which is a genetically complete human being and which, if left to develop naturally, will grow into an adult member of its species. Contrast the complete human embryo with a sperm or an unfertilized egg. Neither the sperm nor the egg alone constitutes a human being: each is genetically incomplete, having only one-half the chromosomes necessary to make a complete human being. If left alone, they don’t develop into anything: the sperm dies in a couple of days, and the unfertilized egg is expelled in a woman’s monthly cycle. But if they unite, they combine into a single living cell to form a unique individual which has never before existed. Already in that moment of conception, that individual is either male or female, depending on whether he or she received an X or a Y chromosome from the sperm. The later development of sexual organs and other secondary sexual characteristics is only evidence of a difference in sexuality that has been there from the very beginning. Moreover, all of the individual’s traits, such as body type, eye and hair color, facial characteristics, and so forth, are determined at the moment of conception and are just waiting to unfold. From the moment of conception we have a genetically complete and unique human being; in effect, you began at the moment of your conception.
Moreover, the development of this individual is a smooth and unbroken continuum throughout. There is no nonarbitrary point in the process before which you can say the fetus is not human but after which he or she is. The traditional division of pregnancy into three trimesters has no scientific or medical basis: it is a purely arbitrary reckoning device for the sake of convenience. It is probably due to the fact that pregnancy lasts nine months and 9 is 3×3. If human beings had a gestation time of 8 months, nobody would talk about trimesters! We would probably divide it into quarters. The fact is that any attempt to draw a line and say “not human before this point, but human afterwards” is wholly arbitrary and without biological foundation.
Thus, as I say, it seems virtually undeniable that the fetus—which is just Latin for “little one”—is a human being in the early stages of his development. Whether a “little one,” a newborn, an adolescent, or an adult, he is at every point a human being at a different stage of his development.
Those who deny that the little one in the womb is a human being typically confuse being human with being at some later stage of development. For example, Morgentaler thinks that because an embryo is not a baby, it’s not a human being, and therefore abortion is morally acceptable.
This argument seems to me completely fallacious. On this reasoning, we could with equal justice say that because a child is not an adult, he is not a human being; or because a baby is not a child, he is not a human being. Of course, an embryo is not a baby, but that doesn’t mean that an embryo is not a human being. All of these are the various stages in a human being’s development, and it is com pletely arbitrary to cut off one stage and say that because it is not a later stage, it is not a human being.
Moreover, it is simply false that abortions are performed on embryos. By the time most pregnancies are detected (about eight weeks into the pregnancy), the embryo has already become a fetus, a “little one.” We’re not dealing at this point with a cluster of cells, but with—the word is unavoidable—a baby, a very tiny baby with a face and features, with little arms and legs, with tiny feet and hands. All the organs of the body are already present, and the muscle and circulatory systems are complete. Even brain wave activity is present. By the twelfth week, the baby’s fingers and toes are fully developed, complete with delicate fingerprints and with little fingernails and toenails forming. The baby is already quite mobile, kicking and moving about, clenching and opening his little fists and curling his toes. Behind his closed eyelids his eyes are almost fully developed. Incredibly, already at this point, the baby’s facial features begin to resemble those of his parents!
Fiber-optic photographs of these little ones have disclosed to us what exquisitely beautiful and delicate marvels of creation they are. One physician describes his experience of seeing firsthand one of these eight-week-old little ones:
Years ago, while giving an anesthetic for a ruptured tubal pregnancy (at two months), I was handed what I believed to be the smallest human being ever seen. The embryo sac was intact and transparent. Within the sac was a tiny human male swimming extremely vigorously in the amniotic fluid, while attached to the wall by the umbilical cord. This tiny human was perfectly developed with long, tapering fingers, feet and toes. It was almost transparent as regards the skin, and the delicate arteries and veins were prominent to the end of the fingers. The baby was extremely alive and did not look at all like the photos and drawings of “embryos” which I have seen. When the sac was opened, the tiny human immediately lost its life and took on the appearance of what is accepted as the appearance of an embryo at this stage, blunt extremities, etc.
No one who has seen photographs of infants in the womb between eight and twelve weeks old can honestly deny that here we have a human baby.
The vast majority of abortions occur at this time, between the tenth and twelfth weeks of pregnancy, and are thus clearly destroying a human baby. I will not even speak of the horror of second- and third-trimester abortions, 150,000 of which occur annually in the United States alone, or of partial birth abortions, in which a baby is actually partially delivered before it is brutally killed. Make no mistake about it: abortion is killing babies. The only way this can go on is because these unlucky little ones are normally hidden from view. As my former pastor once said, “If wombs had windows, there would be no abortions.”
In light of these facts, much of the abortion rights rhetoric is seen to be simply absurd. For example, in an interview with World magazine, the late Barbara Jordan of the University of Texas recited the abortion rights mantra: “Abortion is a personal choice because you are talking about what a woman does with her body.” The incredulous interviewer asked, “Do you reject the understanding that there are actually two bodies involved in an abortion—the mother and the child?” Jordan bit the bullet: “I certainly do. Yes, I do reject the notion.”2
Now this is just scientific and medical poppycock. The idea that a developing fetus is part of the woman’s body is so biologically ignorant that I would call it medieval, except that would be to insult the medievals! The fetus is not like an appendix or a gall bladder. From the moment of its conception and implantation in the wall of the mother’s uterus, the fetus is never a part of her body, but is a biologically distinct and complete living being which is, in effect, “hooked up” to the mother as a life-support system. To say a fetus is part of a woman’s body is like saying that a person on life support is part of the iron lung or the intravenous equipment. Having an abortion is not like having an appendectomy. It is killing a separate human being, and to try to justify that on the grounds that a woman can do what she wants with her own body is just politically correct ignorance.
The absurd consequences of denying that the little one is a human being were dramatically illustrated by a Connecticut court case reported by the New York Times. The case concerned a drug-addicted mother who, just hours before her delivery and after her water had broken, shot up with cocaine while waiting to go to the hospital. This woman had already had one older child removed from her custody by the state because of her drug addiction. But when the state attempted to take custody of the newborn as well, the court intervened to block it because under Connecticut’s extremely liberal abortion rights law, the fetus prior to birth was not “a child” and therefore there was nothing illegal about injecting cocaine into its bloodstream. Since the fetus was not a child, the court also declared, neither was the woman a “parent,” and therefore her actions could not constitute child abuse. Now I don’t need to tell you that this is absolutely insane. How does being expelled through the birth canal magically transform an inhuman entity into a human child? How can we be so blind? The article reported that even the staunchest advocates of abortion rights were uncomfortable about “seeing their philosophy writ so large, with all the implications exposed.” Nevertheless, they supported the verdict because, in the words of a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman, the alternative would be to start down the road to denying abortion rights.
She was correct in her logic. What she saw was that if you concede that a fetus is a human being prior to birth, even in the ninth month of pregnancy, then there is no nonarbitrary point in the process where in the human development you can say that before this point the fetus is not human but afterwards it is. And so the cruel logic of the abortion rights position must deny the humanity of these little ones right up to the moment of birth. For that reason abortion rights advocates have been unyielding in their defense of partial birth abortion, in which the baby is delivered feet first until only his head remains inside the birth canal. The doctor then pierces the back of the baby’s skull with a pair of surgical scissors and suctions out the baby’s brain, causing the skull to collapse before delivery is completed. Because the baby’s head remains inside the cervix when he is killed, he is not a human child and so killing him is not homicide.
In fact, the logic of the abortion rights position has driven the hardiest of the abortion activists to oppose legislation protecting babies who have survived botched attempts at abortion. What they have clearly seen is that the geographical displacement of the infant from the mother’s uterus to the operating table has absolutely no effect upon the human status of the baby, so that if abortion is morally justifiable moments before delivery, infanticide must be justifiable in the time following expulsion. Those congressional supporters of abortion rights who caved on partial birth abortion have permitted the crack in the dike of the abortion rights position.
The fact is that from conception to old age we have the various stages of development in the life of a human being. It seems therefore that the medical and scientific facts make it virtually undeniable that the developing fetus is a human being.
If we thus answer “Yes” to both of the questions we’ve set ourselves, it follows that abortion is a moral outrage, the destruction of an innocent and defenseless human life.
Confronted with the undeniable scientific facts about fetal development, some abortion rights proponents suddenly begin to backpedal at this point. “Wait a minute,” they say, “we didn’t really mean that all human beings have intrinsic moral value. Rather persons do, where ‘person’ means a self-conscious individual. Since the fetus is not a person in this sense, it has no intrinsic moral value and so there’s nothing wrong with killing it.”
But it seems to me that this proposed escape route will not work and even has sinister consequences. First, even if the little one in the womb were not a person, he or she is still a potential person and in that respect differs crucially from, say, the fetus of a dog or a cat. The little one will eventually become a self-conscious individual, and it’s not at all clear that we have the right to prevent this potentiality from being actualized by killing him.
Second, more fundamentally, the proposed view fails to distinguish between being a person and functioning as a person. If self-consciousness is necessary to being a person, then someone who is asleep or in a coma is not a person, which is absurd. If you cease to be a person when you fall asleep, then there’s nothing wrong with someone’s killing you in your sleep. (They just have to be real quick about it, or they might wake you up and then you would become a person again and killing you would be murder!) This makes it clear that there is a difference between being a person andfunctioning as a person. When you’re asleep you’re still a person; you’re just not, at that moment, functioning as a person. But then on what grounds do we know that a little one in the womb is not also a person, but is just not yet functioning as a person? I can think of no way of proving that babies in utero are not already persons, who in time will begin to function as self-conscious individuals. If this is so, they are not potential persons; rather they are persons with potential.
Third, the decisive refutation of the proposed view is that it also serves to justify infanticide. For newborn babies are not self-conscious individuals either, and so, under the proposed definition, are not persons. Thus, if abortion is justified, so is infanticide. Some proponents of abortion rights, again forced by the cruel logic of their position, have publicly endorsed infanticide. The Nobel laureate James D. Watson wrote in 1973,
If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice only few are given under the present system. The doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so choose and save a lot of misery and suffering. I believe this view is the only rational, compassionate attitude to have.3
But, of course, three days is not long enough for a newborn to develop self-consciousness. A year, maybe two, will be necessary. All during this time, the child is not a person and so can be killed off, like putting an unwanted pet to sleep. Surely anyone whose heart has not been utterly hardened by an obsessive commitment to abortion on demand will recognize the terrible immorality and hence unacceptability of this proposed escape route!
Now you’ll notice that I haven’t appealed at any point to the Bible in all this. That’s because, contrary to popular impression, abortion is not as such a religious question. The first question we asked is philosophical: do human beings posses intrinsic moral value? The second question is scientific and medical: is the developing fetus a human being? Neither of these is a religious question. That’s why among the strongest opponents of abortion are humanists, like the late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortionist himself. As a humanist he believed that human beings are intrinsically valuable and as a doctor he could no longer deny the evident humanity of his victims. So he renounced his practice and came to oppose abortion as a terrible evil.
But why do the vast majority of the opponents of abortion seem to be Christians? The answer is because Christians also have biblical reasons for answering “Yes” to both of the questions I raised. With respect to the first question, the Bible declares that man—both male and female—is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Because of this, human beings are intrinsically valuable and possess certain God-given rights. The biblical prohibition of murder is based specifically in the fact that man is created in God’s image (Gen. 9:6). The second greatest commandment is that we should love our neighbor, and this is a universal command extending to every human being. Not only this, but every human being is a person for whom Christ died, which gives each person unspeakable value. On the Christian worldview, then, one single human being is worth more than the entire material universe. Because of their exalted view of man, Christians are deeply committed to the cause of human rights.
With respect to the second question, the Bible also suggests that human life begins not at birth but in the womb. There are a surprising number of biblical references to life in the womb. Some forty times the Scripture refers to conception as the start of new life in the womb. Moreover, God is represented as caring about and even calling people while they are in the womb. For example, look at Psalm 139:13-16 (ESV):
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there were none of them.
Here the psalmist describes how God knew and created him in his mother’s womb. Especially noteworthy is his declaration that even in the womb God had a plan for his life, which included the entire course of his life until the day of his death. As God beheld this “little one” in his mother’s womb, He already had in mind plans and purposes and projects to be accomplished through that life.
A similar theme is sounded by the prophet Jeremiah:
Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (1:4-5, ESV).
Here again we see God’s involvement in the life of the unborn and His plan for this person’s life.
When we read such passages, it is hardly surprising that abortion was never practiced among the Jews. There was no need for a specific commandment against killing the unborn, just as there was no need for a commandment against killing one’s wife; both were implicitly comprised under the single commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Thus, Christians have biblical grounds, as well as philosophical and scientific grounds, for affirming the value of human life and the humanity of the unborn, and therefore—thank God—they have been in the forefront of opposition to this terrible slaughter of the innocents. But abortion isn’t a religious issue per se. For that reason, when we Christians try to affect public policy on this issue, we would be wise not to base our argument on biblical grounds, which in our postChristian culture have no force for non-Christians who reject the Bible, but on general humanitarian grounds that appeal to all people.
In the same way, I think it is clear from what I’ve said that neither is abortion a gender issue. Radical feminists have latched on to abortion on demand as a symbol of all that women’s rights embodies. Hence, some feminists have an obsessive, even fanatical, commitment to abortion. But such an equation of abortion rights with women’s rights is wholly mistaken. Abortion is not a gender issue; it’s an ethical issue: Does anyone have the right to take an innocent human life? One can and should be committed to equal opportunity for women in the marketplace, to equal pay for equal work, and so forth, without illogically inferring from that that one has the right to destroy innocent human life.
The mention of women’s issues raises a further point: a consistent pro-life position is not just anti-abortion. It is also pro-mother and pro-child and advocates that there be available to women a range of social services which make carrying pregnancy to term practicable—things like pregnancy counseling, day care, medical benefits, adoption services, and so forth. We need to help women see that they are not forced to have an abortion, but that alternatives are available.
Now, as I say, how you answer the two fundamental questions I’ve addressed will pretty much determine everything else in the abortion debate. For once you see that human life is intrinsically valuable and that we are dealing here with human lives, then virtually all of the arguments in favor of abortion on demand become obviously unsound. Take, for example, the arguments which the former member of my church offered in her letter:
- Murder must have a malicious motive. We may grant the premise if we wish, but that doesn’t imply that abortion is justified. Even if abortion is not murder-so-defined, it is still homicide, and the killing of innocent human beings is wrong.
There are too many unwanted children in the world, and white couples don’t like to adopt minority children. Suppose we grant the premise just for the sake of argument. What follows? That we should kill off the children before they’re born? Is it morally justified to kill an innocent human being because he’s not wanted? That’s crazy. What we should do is to expand availability of and education about methods of contraception which do not involve the destruction of a fertilized egg, and foster programs to make adoption easier.
This argument also contains a subtle undertone of racism that I find very disturbing: abortion is needed, the argument seems to be saying, to control all those Asians and black Africans whose populations are growing too fast. Let them kill off their unborn babies and keep themselves in check! Needless to say, such an attitude should be anathema to any Christian.
Finally, let me say that the argument is really naive: families in many Third World countries are large, not because children are unwanted, but precisely because they are wanted to take care of the parents when they’re old. With high infant mortality rates, poverty, and disease, one’s chances of having someone to care for you when you’re old are better if you have lots of children. Abortion on demand solves nothing. What has to be done is to attack the poverty and disease that lie at the root of the problem.
- The world’s population is exploding too rapidly. Again, this doesn’t justify killing off innocent human beings. The logical implication of this objection is population control in which the weak and the unwanted are killed off to make room for the strong. The morally appropriate response to population growth is better birth control, not killing innocent people.
- Most childless couples don’t want to have children or adopt. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t justify killing innocent human beings. Besides, I suspect that this is sheer opinion with no basis in fact. In our own family, my two brothers-in-law and their wives are just two examples of couples who went through agony trying to have children of their own. In any case, the objection is irrelevant. Many families who already have children choose to adopt. Our neighbors down the street have just done this. The fact is that there are millions of people waiting to adopt children and no shortage of loving families for the would-be victims of abortion.
- A woman’s body is her own business; it should not be a political issue. We’ve already seen that in abortion two bodies, two human beings, are involved. As to whose business it is, Abraham Lincoln once described the purpose of government as being “to help those who cannot help themselves.” There is no one more helpless and defenseless than an unborn child; they deserve the protection of the law. So whose business is it? Here I recall the words of Marley’s ghost in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge assures him, “You were always a good man at business, Jacob,” the ghost cries, “Business! Mankind was my business!” The same is true today. The blood of millions of innocent children cries out to God, and Christians, of all people, cannot dare to turn a deaf and callous ear toward their cry.
- If people in underdeveloped nations are urged to have birth control or abortion, the same policies should apply in developed nations. The answer, of course, is that no nation should be urged to carry out abortions. Abortion is a moral abomination that is a disgrace to any people.
Do you see what I mean? Once you grant that human beings have intrinsic moral value and that the unborn are human beings, the rest falls into place. There is simply no justification for the undeclared war being waged against the unborn.
Now what practical application does all this have for us? What should and can we do?
First of all, if you should have an unwanted pregnancy, do not have an abortion. It may be hard to accommodate yourself to bearing an unexpected child, but think of what you are doing. If you choose abortion, you are killing your son or your daughter. Do not do such a heinous thing. If you have already had an abortion and perhaps are struggling with secret guilt, then know that there is forgiveness and cleansing with the Lord if you confess your sin and turn to Him in repentance and faith.
Similarly, if your unmarried daughter should—God forbid—become pregnant, do not encourage her to seek an abortion. Two wrongs will not make a right. One mistake is bad enough; do not compound it further by having her commit homicide against her own daughter or son.
Second, if you know of someone who is contemplating abortion, do all you can to persuade that person not to kill her own baby. Get some pamphlets for expectant mothers showing pictures of fetal development and help her to see clearly what abortion does to her baby. Offer her emotional support and help to make the right decision. In so doing you will not only help her but you will save a human life.
Finally, become politically involved to change abortion laws where possible. Familiarize yourself with the issues, for example, by receiving the National Right to Life newspaper. Vote for elected officials based on their pro-life stance. Speak out against the promotion of abortion in your children’s schools or wherever the issue is raised.
Every year millions of babies are destroyed through abortion. Let us raise our voices in protest against this slaughter of the unborn. Is this “right wing religious propaganda”? Hardly. It is a philosophically and scientifically informed ethical concern. But there’s a better word for it: it’s called compassion. God help us if our hearts have grown so cold that we cannot weep for these little ones who perish daily by the thousands.