What is the Issue?

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  • October 31, 2018

What is the Issue?

Can we kill the unborn? Yes, IF…

The abortion controversy is not about personal perspectives. It’s not about likes and dislikes. It’s not about those who are pro-choice and those who are anti-choice. It’s not about privacy or trusting women. It’s not about those who love women and those who hate them. To the contrary, the debate turns on one key question:

What is the Unborn?

Pro-life advocates contend that abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being. This simplifies the abortion controversy by focusing on just one question: Is the unborn a member of the human family? If so, intentionally killing him or her to benefit others is a serious moral wrong. It treats a living human being as nothing more than a disposable instrument. Conversely, if the unborn are not human, abortion requires no more justification than pulling a tooth. As Gregory Koukl often says, “If the unborn are not human, no justification for abortion is necessary. But if the unborn are human, no justification for abortion is adequate.”5

This is not to say that abortion is easy for most women. To the contrary, a decision to have an abortion may be psychologically complex and perhaps even agonizing. But morally, the issue is not complex at all. We can know right and wrong even if our emotions are conflicted.

Everyone agrees that abortion kills something that’s alive. After all, dead things don’t grow! But whether it’s right to take the life of any living being depends entirely on the question “What kind of being is it?”

Some defenders of abortion ignore that question altogether. They assume the unborn are not human beings like you and me. They don’t argue for it. They simply assume it.

Here’s how to clarify things: Whenever you hear an argument for abortion, ask yourself if this particular justification would also work to justify killing toddlers. If not, the argument assumes the unborn are not human as toddlers are human. But again, that’s the issue, isn’t it?

To be clear, you are not asking the toddler question to prove the unborn are human. You’ll present your case for the humanity of the unborn later. Rather, you are asking it to frame the discussion around one question: What is the unborn?

Consider the following objections:


  • “Laws against abortion impose religious beliefs on others.”

Setting aside for the moment that claiming a fetus has a right to life is no more religious than claiming it doesn’t, would abortion-choice advocates argue this way if we were talking about killing toddlers? Never. Only by assuming the unborn are not human does their objection work. But that is precisely the point they must argue for and not merely assume.


  • “We must respect freedom of conscience that allows women a right to choose.”

Well, maybe. But choose what? Suppose the topic were locking teenagers up until age 30. (Some of you are tempted.) Would abortion-choice advocates argue for freedom of conscience for those parents who wish to unjustly incarcerate their kids? Again, only by assuming the unborn are not human can we justify intentionally killing them with an appeal to conscience. I’m willingto buy arguments for freedom and self-determination but only after abortion-choice advocates demonstrate that the unborn are not human beings. They need to answer the question “What is the unborn?” before they say it’s okay to kill the unborn.


  • “Our individual principles of morality cannot control what others choose to do. Our obligation is to liberty.”

Whenever I hear this, I ask: “Is that true or just your individual moral principle?” Again, notice the defender of abortion assumes the unborn are not human. Would he argue for individual liberty if the choice before us involved killing toddlers? Of course not. Only by assuming the unborn are not human can he argue this way. But that’s a point he must prove, not merely assume.


  • “The federal government should not enter the private realm of family life.”

Really? What if a family wants the right to rough up a toddler in the privacy of the bedroom? Should we allow this in the name of respecting the “private realm of family life?” Again, only by assuming the unborn are not human can we justify taking their lives in the name of privacy. Meanwhile, when people tell me the federal government should stay out of the abortion issue, I ask do they mean the federal courts? Truth is, Roe and Doe did not get the federal government out of abortion. Instead, one branch of the federal government, the judiciary, co-opted the issue from the other two branches of government, leaving them no say on the issue.


  • “Laws protecting the unborn are misguided. Instead, pro-lifers should work to reduce abortion by addressing its underlying causes.”

I find this an odd claim for several reasons. First, why should we worry about reducing abortion? If the unborn aren’t human, who cares how many abortions there are? But if abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being, that’s an excellent reason to legislate against it. Second, what’s wrong with a law that says you can’t intentionally kill innocent human beings and if you do, there will be consequences? Suppose I said the “underlying cause” of spousal abuse is psychological, so instead of making it illegal for husbands to beat their wives, the solution is to provide counseling for men.” There are “underlying causes” for rape, murder, theft and so on, but that in no way makes it “misguided” to pass laws against evil behavior. Why should it be any different with laws protecting the unborn?

Answer: It’s only different if you assume the victims in question are not human, an assumption no pro-lifer should let stand.

Of course, abortion-choice advocates may respond that killing a toddler and killing a fetus are two different things, like comparing apples with oranges. But that’s the issue isn’t it? Are the unborn human beings, like toddlers? That’s the one issue that matters. We can’t escape it.


  • “Many poor women cannot afford to raise another child.”

When human beings get expensive, may we kill them? Suppose a large family collectively decides to quietly dispose of its three youngest children to help ease the family budget. Would this be okay? Abortion-choice advocates agree it’s wrong to kill the children but insist that aborting a fetus is not the same as killing a child. Ah, but that’s the issue: Is unjustly killing a fetus morally the same as unjustly killing a two-year-old? So, once again, we’re back to, What is the unborn?


  • “A woman should not be forced to bring an unwanted child into the world.”

The homeless are unwanted. Can we kill them? Abortion-choice advocates sometimes reply that killing the fetus is the more humane thing to do. “Who wants to be part of a family that rejects you? Everyone has a right to be wanted.” Suppose a toddler is unwanted and we have good reason to think that by the time he’s five, he’ll be abused and neglected. Should we kill him now to spare him future trouble? The answer is obviously no, but if the unborn are human, should they be treated this way? We’re back to our primary issue: What is the unborn?


  • “Pro-lifers should not force their view of abortion on others who disagree—”

Dr. Malcom Potts argued this way during our U.C. Berkeley debate. Insisting morality was personal, he chided pro-lifers for forcing their views on others. He insisted they should follow the Ethic of Reciprocity, the Golden Rule—which simply states that we ought to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Really? Is that true or just his personal rule? At the same time, notice how his claim is question begging—it assumes the unborn are not human, the very thing he is trying to prove. He says we should treat “others” the way “we” want to be treated. Do “others” and “we” include the unborn? If not, isn’t he assuming something here?


  • “No woman should be forced to raise a child with physical disabilities.”

Suppose that you have a small boy who is mentally disabled. He’s not very bright, cannot speak or understand much of what is said, and looks strange from head to toe. Would it be morally permissible to kill him because of his disability?

Abortion-choice advocates agree that we cannot destroy him, that we should treat him with the same care we provide all disabled human beings. But again, this raises the question: If the disabled unborn are human, like the disabled toddler, should we kill them for not meeting our standard of perfection any more than we’d kill a toddler for that reason? Thus, the issue that matters most in the abortion debate isn’t disability. It’s “What is the unborn?”

Asking Good Questions

Suppose your friend Tanner justifies abortion this way: “Women have a right to make their own private decisions. What goes on in the bedroom is their business and no one else’s.”

When you hear this, don’t panic. Ask yourself a simple question: Would Tanner’s justification for abortion work for killing a toddler? If not, Tanner is assuming the unborn are not human. To help him see the problem, engage him with thoughtful questions aimed at returning the discussion back to the status of the unborn. Here is a sample conversation between you and Tanner:

You: Tanner, you say that privacy is the issue. Pretend that I have a two-year old in front of me. (Hold out your hand at knee-level to help him visualize the kid.) May I kill him as long as I do it in the privacy of the bedroom?

Tanner: That’s silly! Of course not!

You: Why not?

Tanner: Because he’s a human being.

You: Ah. If the unborn are human, like the toddler, we shouldn’t kill the unborn in the name of privacy anymore than we’d kill a toddler for that reason.

Tanner: But that’s different. You’re comparing apples with oranges, two things that are completely unrelated. Look, killing toddlers is one thing. Killing a fetus that is not a human being is quite another.

You: Ah. That’s the issue, isn’t it? Are the unborn human beings, like toddlers? That’s a question we must resolve at this point. We can’t say it’s okay to kill the unborn unless we first answer “What is the unborn?”

Tanner: But many poor women cannot afford to raise another child.

You: That’s true. Poverty is terrible. So how should we fix it? By killing dependent children or helping poor families get back on their feet?

Tanner: But what about a woman who’s been raped? Every time she looks at that kid she’s going to remember what happened to her. If that’s not painful hardship, what is?

You: That’s a fair point. She’s suffered a terrible injustice and her child may indeed provoke painful memories. She desperately needs our love and compassion. And like you, I’m saddened by pro-lifers who brush aside her pain with statistics. So what if most abortions are for other reasons? That doesn’t help her feel any better.

Tanner: So you agree abortion is okay for her?

You: Well, let’s explore that. How many humans are involved in a pregnancy that results from rape, two or three?

Tanner: Um, two…three? Ya, three.

You: I agree. You’ve got the pregnant mother, the rapist, and her unborn child. How do you think we should treat each of them? Should we kill the guilty rapist?

Tanner: No, I oppose the death penalty. It’s immoral. He should get life in prison.

You: Fair enough. How about the mother, should we kill her?

Tanner: Seriously? You’re kidding, right? That’s barbaric. Some Islamic countries do that. A woman gets raped and they kill her for bringing shame on the family. They call it honor killing.

You: I agree. It’s evil. How about her unborn offspring? Should we kill him for the sin of his father?

Tanner: Huh? Wait. I feel like you’re cornering me.

You: I’m not cornering you; the argument is. Can I make an observation? Of the three humans involved in the pregnancy resulting from rape, you won’t kill the guilty rapist. You won’t kill the mother. But you will kill the innocent child.

Tanner: But where is your compassion for the victim?

You: That’s not at issue here. We both agree she’s been terribly wronged. It’s your proposed solution I’m struggling to understand. How should a civil society treat innocent human beings that remind us of a painful event? Is it okay to kill them so we can feel better? Can we, for example, kill a toddler who reminds his mother of a rape?

Tanner: No, I wouldn’t do that.

You: Neither would I. But again, isn’t that because you and I both agree that it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings even if they do remind us of a painful event?

Tanner: But you don’t understand how much this woman has suffered. Put yourself in her shoes. How would you feel?

You: You’re right. I don’t understand her feelings. How could I? How could anyone? I’m just asking if hardship justifies homicide? Can we intentionally kill toddlers who remind us of painful events? Again, my claim here is really quite modest. If the unborn are members of the human family, like toddlers, we should not kill them to make someone else feel better.