John Messerly’s Diatribe Against the Pro-Life Position is Full of Bad Reasoning

John Messerly, an ethicist (which is a fairly ambiguous term), wrote an article in 2016 for Reason and Meaning called “Ethicists Generally Agree: The Pro-Life Arguments Are Worthless“. I just discovered this article a week or so ago, when someone on Facebook posted it in a discussion thread about abortion. Messerly touts the intellectual superiority of ethicists such as himself while ironically using fallacious arguments to make his case.

Messerly begins by asserting “it is exceedingly rare to find defenders of the view that abortion is murder” among professional ethicists. What does he mean by this? Who knows. He doesn’t tell us. What does “exceedingly rare” mean? I can think of a lot of professional ethicists who are pro-life. What does he mean by professional ethicists? Does he mean someone who does their academic work primarily on ethics? It would be nice if we had a list of ethicists somewhere, or at least a definition of what makes an ethicist an ethicist. But the reality is he doesn’t really justify this claim. He does provide an article in support, but it’s an article written by Messerly, himself, which tries to present religion as anti-intellectual (let’s just ignore the fact that some of the most brilliant minds throughout history have belonged to religious people). [1] Messerly tells us that support for the pro-life position among professional ethicists is almost exclusively religious. Of course, if Messerly thinks this is a compelling point, I’ll just draw attention to the fact Messerly is committing the genetic fallacy here. Who cares if it’s exclusively, or almost exclusively, held by religious people? That doesn’t mean it is false. And even if the majority of professional ethicists are not religious (a claim Messerly has not adequately supported), this, again, doesn’t prove anything. What is a professional ethicist? Why wouldn’t this include professional philosophers who are trained in logic and ethics but have chosen to pursue a different philosophical field, like the philosophy of religion, which a good number of religious philosophers tend to pursue as a philosophical discipline?

At any rate, support for the pro-life position may be a minority position among professional ethicists, which I will certainly grant. But to call it a consensus is to use the term incorrectly. The one piece of evidence he offers for his claim is anecdotal evidence from Don Marquis. Marquis states in his famous essay “Why Abortion is Immoral” that the pro-life position has received little support in the recent philosophical literature. But there are at least three things wrong with this: 1) This is one piece of anecdotal evidence. Messerly doesn’t provide any sort of poll showing the percentage of ethicists who hold this view. 2) This is assuming that Marquis is correct. He may be mistaken. 3) Marquis’ essay was written in 1989. Messerly wrote this article in 2016. This factoid may have been true in 1989 (again, assuming Marquis is reading the lay of the land correctly). But in 2016 it most certainly was not true. There has been a lot of engagement with the abortion issue in the academic literature, at least since 1989. [2] Messerly’s quoting of Marquis to make his point is simply dishonest. But there are even good reasons to doubt this claim, even in 1989. Michael Tooley’s book, Abortion and Infanticide, engages with a number of pro-life philosophers, such as John Finnis, Baruch Brody, and Francis Wade, who made the case for the pro-life position in the literature.

Messerly claims that secular ethicists do not care less about life or morality than religious ethicists, but this is certainly false. Christianity (or theism, more broadly) is the worldview that provides a foundation for the equal human dignity and rights of human beings. Without that foundation, an atheist cannot be consistent in his atheism and believe that all humans deserve equal respect. What Messerly fails to mention is that while support for the pro-life position is allegedly rare among professional ethicists, opposition to infanticide is just as rare. Personhood arguments are the arguments most ethicists use to support abortion, which means that in order to be consistent, the ethicists who reject the personhood of late-term fetuses also reject the personhood of infants. Since most ethicists reject the pro-life position, this also means that most ethicists support infanticide, since the late-term fetus is no morally different from the infant who was just born. Michael Tooley, in Abortion and Infanticide, argues (in chapter 10) that because he believes theological arguments regarding the immaterial soul to be false, this means that not only abortion, but also infanticide, is morally permissible. Part of his defense is appealing to the moral intuitions of many non-Christian cultures, including the ancient Greeks, who practiced infanticide as population control (among other things). Peter Singer agrees with Tooley’s assessment, writing in his book Practical Ethics, that the idea of the “sanctity of human life” is a product of Christianity and it is now time to reassess issues like abortion and infanticide without the Christian moral sense getting in the way. [3] Tooley and Singer are only being consistent in their atheism. If you believe humans are the product of random mutations over time, then they are no more intrinsically valuable than any other thing, like snails or casaba melons, produced by random mutations over time. [4] However, if we are created in God’s image and created for a purpose, then this makes all human beings intrinsically valuable and no human more or less deserving of life than any other.

I agree with Messerly when he talks about Natural Law, of which I am a proponent, regarding what is true, even in ethics, being what can be supported by reason. This is not the end of the story, but for the purpose of this article I won’t question it. So the question becomes, which position, the pro-life or pro-choice one, does the weight of the evidence support? I would say the pro-life position. But let’s see what Messerly has to say.

Messerly states, “Some [ethicists] are better at [being impartial] than others, but when a significant majority agrees, it is probably because some arguments really are stronger than others.” But this is false. Not only is it a logical fallacy to claim the argument is stronger just because a majority agrees (argumentum ad populum), there are other possible explanations for why it is that way. Suppose for a moment the pro-life argument really does rest on religious premises. If that’s true, and if Christianity is true, the majority of ethicists would be wrong because they have rejected true premises and based their argument on false ones. This would make their argument unsound even though they are in the majority. That’s why this fallacy is recognized as a fallacy. Just being the majority doesn’t make you right, nor does it make your argument stronger than the oppositions’ arguments. Of course, just raising possibilities against a view doesn’t refute that view. But Messerly doesn’t adequately justify his claim the arguments held by the majority are stronger than the ones held by the minority.

Messerly states that professional ethicists are more knowledgeable about the arguments presented in the literature and are trained in logic, meaning they are in a better position to know what the arguments are and the reasons to accept or reject them. The problem is simply being trained in logic doesn’t entail that you will always reason well, especially if you have an agenda. Human beings are flawed and as much as we like to think we can overcome our emotional biases, this is not always the case. Much of the reasoning presented in Messerly’s article, for example, betrays his claim that he is trained in logic. Now I have no reason to doubt his training, but lay people need to understand that someone who is trained in logic can just as easily fool you into accepting a bad position because of illogical arguments as he can help you think more clearly on important ethical issues. The pro-life position is strong and based on more intuitive premises than the pro-choice position. This weighs heavily in favor of the pro-life position. Basically, what we’ve heard so far in this article is “we know best; trust us.” That doesn’t fly for me because I, too, am knowledgeable about logic and I have the ability to weigh arguments and examine them for logical errors.

Now I agree with Messerly about moral relativism and its rejection by most ethicists. However then he goes off on a tangent about religion. There are good religious arguments to be made but most in the literature use science and philosophy. So I’m not going to address his claims about religion, even though they’re easily addressed (he relies on an ancient dilemma about Gods and morality that has been answered time and again by theistic philosophers and theologians). It’s only the pro-choice advocates who make it about religion. So here, Messerly engages in a red herring. It’s true that many pro-life people are religious; but if you want to make your case that there are no good arguments against abortion, instead of addressing religious claims, address Pruss’ Argument from Identity, or the Substance View held by Thomistic philosophers like Frank Beckwith, Ed Feser, and David Oderberg, or the Future of Value argument held by Don Marquis. Don’t sit there and pretend like pro-life people’s concerns are mainly religious. Amusingly, Messerly asserts there is no strong Church tradition against abortion…and then proceeds to talk about the strong Church tradition regarding abortion. How are we supposed to accept his claims to intellectual superiority when he’s not even paying attention to what he’s writing in the same paragraph?

Now let’s take a look at this paragraph. I felt it important quote this paragraph in full to respond to it:

It also clearly follows that religious believers have no right to impose their views upon the rest of us. We live in a morally pluralistic society where informed by the ethos of the Enlightenment, we should reject attempts to impose theocracy. We should allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters—you can drink alcohol—as long as others aren’t harmed—you shouldn’t drink and drive. In philosophy of law, this is known as the harm principle. Now if rational argumentation supported the view that a zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion, inasmuch as abortion would harm another person. (I say might because the fact that something is a person doesn’t necessarily imply that’s it wrong to kill it, as defenders of war, self-defense, and capital punishment claim.)

I agree that we should not attempt to impose a theocracy. But that’s not what we’re doing. No one is trying to force atheists to pray before every meal or attend church services. We’re merely arguing, from science and philosophy, mind you, that human embryos and fetuses are human beings, so it is wrong to kill them. Messerly agrees that we should allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters, as long as others aren’t harmed. But pro-life people are arguing that embryos and fetuses are harmed by abortion. So Messerly is simply begging the question by assuming human embryos and fetuses are not human. He goes on to state that if rational argumentation supported the view that a zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion. That’s exactly what we’re arguing. And by ignoring the many strong philosophical arguments (some of which I mentioned above) and simply wagging his finger at those “quaint religious hicks”, he shows that he may not understand the ethical issue of abortion as much as he thinks he does.

His next paragraph is shorter, but no less illogical: “As for American politics and abortion, no doubt much of the anti-abortion rhetoric in American society comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex. Moreover, many are hypocritical on the issue, simultaneously opposing abortion as well as the only proven ways of reducing it—good sex education and readily available birth control.” Oy vey. Where to start? Pro-life thinkers argue that the fetus is a full human person. Messerly is the one making this about religion. No pro-life person, with maybe one or two rare exceptions (I have to qualify this because some pro-choice person may find a kook on Twitter as a counterexample), wants to control women’s sex lives. And when a pro-life person opposes contraception, this is not hypocrisy. When pro-life people, especially philosophers, oppose contraception, they don’t ordinarily believe in forcing people who don’t share their views on contraception to not use them. It usually has to do with Natural Law and the flourishing vs. frustrating of the sexual organs. But these same thinkers who oppose contraception are usually also opposed to abortion and would not abort any children they conceive.

In addition to all that, Messerly is wrong when he says that good sex education and readily available birth control are the only proven ways of reducing it. The studies published by Michael New show that pro-life laws do reduce abortions (and of course, as people are generally law-abiding citizens, making abortion illegal will lower the instances of abortion based on that, alone). In addition, while it may make sense with only a surface-level look at the contraception issue, there are good reasons to believe that readily available contraception does not actually reduce the abortion rate. For one thing, readily available contraception leads people to believe having riskier sex is safe because of the contraception, so it will cause people to engage in sex more often, leading to more opportunities for unwanted pregnancies. For another, according to Guttmacher Institute, just over half of women who procure abortions reported using contraception in the month they got pregnant. [5] However, either because they didn’t use it often enough (user error) or because it failed, those pregnancies weren’t prevented. Readily available contraception increases this risk. Third, as even Ann Furedi, a pro-choice advocate in England, has said, contraception tells women they don’t have to have kids right away. They can wait until later in life. This causes a lot of people to have abortions when they wouldn’t otherwise have had them. [6]

I think I’ve clearly shown how Messerly’s intellectual superiority on this issue isn’t warranted. I’m not a “professional ethicist”, but I have studied logic and ethics, so I’ve trained myself to be able to recognize errors in reasoning, even by experts. So I would encourage you to understand the pro-life position is strong and on a firm foundation of science and philosophy. But don’t just take my word for it. Read what I’ve written on the issue regarding the pro-life position and critiques of the pro-choice position. Or leave a comment below and we can engage on the issue. Either way, Messerly has not given the pro-life position a fair shake in his criticism of it.

[1] Just a few examples of religious people who made great contributions to both philosophy and science, past and present: Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, Avicenna, Boethius, Isaac Newton, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Alex Pruss, Francis Collins, and Alisadair MacIntyre.

[2] This is just a partial list of professional ethicists who have contributed to the literature and have defended the pro-life position since 1989. I’m not including people like myself, or my colleages Daniel Rodger and Bruce Blackshaw, who make contributions but are technically not professional ethicists: Francis J. Beckwith, Christopher Kaczor, Samuel Condic, Alex Pruss, Don Marquis, Stephen Napier, Scott B. Rae, Robert P. George, David Hershenov, Matthew Lu, Anselm Muller, Christopher Tollefsen, Patrick Lee, Stephen Schwartz, and J.P. Moreland. Clearly there is substantial work being done in the academic literature by pro-life ethicists.

[3] This is from the 2nd ed. of his book, published by Cambridge University Press, p. 173

[4] Note: I am not here saying that evolution is false. I am merely making an observation about the implications regarding the value of human life from the perspective of random evolution (as opposed to guided evolution, as theistic evolutionists believe). Note also that I’m not making a statement about all atheists, either. I have a number of atheist friends and colleagues who believe human life is valuable. The concept of life being valuable is a theological point, not an epistemological one. I would argue that if you believe human life is intrinsically valuable, that gives you a great reason to believe in God. I would not say an atheist cannot believe in human value just because their atheism can’t account for it. I am glad to find atheists who are willing to oppose the killing of innocent human beings.


[6] The quote I allude to is from an interview Ann Furedi participated in. I haven’t been able to track down the source yet, but I’ve seen it quoted by several pro-life sites, which, frustratingly, don’t provide a source for it. As soon as I track it down, I’ll insert the source. So until that time, maybe treat with skepticism that it comes from Ann Furedi. But the sentiment behind it, I believe, is sound either way.