Pro-life Christians, take heart: the pro-life message can compete in the marketplace of ideas-provided Christians properly understand and articulate that message. Too many Christians do not understand the essential truths of the pro-life position, making it difficult for them to articulate a biblical worldview on issues like abortion, cloning, and embryo research.
The Case for Life provides intellectual grounding for the pro-life convictions that most evangelicals hold. Author Scott Klusendorf first simplifies the debate: the sanctity of life is not a morally complex issue. It’s not about choice, privacy, or scientific progress. To the contrary, the debate turns on one key question: What is the unborn? From there readers learn how to engage the great bio-tech debate of the twenty-first century, how to answer objections persuasively, and what the role of the pro-life pastor should be.
Abortion discussions can get ugly really fast. Two minutes into the exchange, the participants are no longer talking about abortion; they’re talking about each other! Pro-life advocates accuse abortion-choice advocates of hating babies. Abortion-choice advocates accuse pro-life advocates of hating women.
Both are missing the point entirely. We need to keep the main thing the main thing.
I Agree, If…
As a pro-life advocate, I think abortion-choice advocates are on to something. They’re right that abortion is a personal, private matter that should not be restricted in any way. They ’re right that laws restricting abortion are unjust. They’re right that pro-lifers should not impose their views on others. They’re right that everyone but the woman should stay out of this decision.
Yes, they are right about all of that—if. If What?
If the unborn are not human beings.
Contrary to what some may think, the issue that divides me from abortion-choice advocates is not that they are pro-choice and I am anti-choice. Truth is, I am vigorously “pro-choice” when it comes to women choosing a number of moral goods. I support a woman’s right to choose her own healthcare provider, to choose her own school, to choose her own husband, to choose her own job, to choose her own religion, and to choose her own career—to name a few. These are among the many choices I fully support for the women of our country. But some choices are wrong, like intentionally killing innocent human beings simply because they are in the way of something we want. No, we shouldn’t be allowed to choose that.
I’m not yet arguing the unborn are human beings. I’ll make that case later. Rather, it’s clarity I’m after. As we shall see, the abortion issue is not about forcing morality; it’s not about privacy; it’s not about who hates women and who loves them.
It’s about one question: What is the unborn?
Men and women have an equal right to weigh in on that question. Religious and non-religious people do as well. A tolerant society will welcome a free exchange of ideas and judge arguments according to their merits, not the gender or religion of those advancing them.
One-Minute Summary of the Essential Pro-Life Argument
Premise #1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
Premise #2: Abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings.
Conclusion: Abortion is morally wrong.
Pro-life advocates defend their essential argument with science and philosophy. They argue from science that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. You didn’t come from an embryo; you once were an embryo. They argue from philosophy that there is no relevant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today that justifies killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not good reasons for saying you could be killed then but not now.1
Should I read on?
Yes. However, you may want to hear both sides of the abortion issue before going further. If so, you can watch a thoughtful debate on the topic at the link below. Why not take a look to clarify your own thinking? While the speakers disagree on abortion, they treat each other with respect. They challenge arguments rather than attack each other personally.
Wayne State Abortion Debate
It’s possible to think clearly about abortion.
You just need to ask the right questions:
Are you deeply interested in doing what is right or are you committed to a point of view?
Rule #1: Do Not Assume the Worst About Your Opponent
Defenders of abortion do not hate babies; many have them. And pro-lifers do not hate women; their ranks are filled with them. Instead, we are divided on a fundamental question: Is the unborn a member of the human family? Pro-lifers say yes. Abortion-choice advocates by and large say no. We should focus on that fundamental question without second guessing the motives of those answering it.
If you support abortion, I hope you don’t believe pro-lifers hate women. But if you do, I think you are right about one thing: If the unborn are not human, choosing abortion is no different than choosing vanilla ice cream over chocolate. Both are mere preferences. If that’s the case, I am indeed unfairly imposing my views on women based solely on my personal tastes. You’re right about that. However, if the unborn are part of the human family, can you see things my way? That is, if you shared my position that abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being, wouldn’t you do everything you could to stop it? Wouldn’t you want unborn humans protected by law just like everyone else? Of course, I realize you don’t share my position, so my point here is really quite modest: The issue that separates us is not that I hate women and you love them. What separates us is that I believe the unborn are human beings and you don’t. That’s the issue we need to discuss.
Rule #2: Judge Arguments, Not People
Stay focused on the argument, not the person making it. Test your arguments and theirs, for validity and soundness. Validity test: Does the conclusion follow logically from the premises? Soundness test: Are the premises true?
You’ll go off the rails if you personalize the discussion.
For example, to assert that only women can speak on abortion attacks the person rather than his or her argument. It also raises a troubling question: Which women get to speak? As Christopher Kaczor writes in The Ethics of Abortion, there is no such thing as a “woman’s perspective” on abortion anymore than there is a male perspective or a brown-eyed person’s perspective.2 Indeed, feminists, let alone women in general, do not share a single perspective on the issue. This is true even for feminists who support abortion. For example, feminist Naomi Wolf calls abortion “a real death” while feminist Katha Pollitt thinks it no different than vacuuming out your house.3 In short, while gender perspectives on abortion help us understand personal experience, they are no substitute for rational inquiry. Rather, it is arguments that must be advanced and defended and those arguments stand or fall on their merits, not the gender of those espousing them. After all, pro-life women make the same arguments as pro-life men.
Rule #3: Dismiss Labels, Not Arguments
Pro-life arguments are sometimes dismissed as “religious,” as if the pro-life advocate is trying to impose his religious beliefs on a pluralistic society.
However, the “religion” objection is a dodge, not a refutation. As Francis J. Beckwith points out, arguments are either true or false, valid or invalid. Calling an argument “religious” is a category mistake like asking, “How tall is the number three?” Pro-lifers argue that 1) it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings, 2) abortion does that, therefore, 3) abortion is wrong. If critics can refute that argument with evidence, go for it. But it won’t do to dismiss it with a label.
Moreover, pro-life advocates aren’t imposing their views any more than abolitionist Christians were imposing theirs or the Reverend King was imposing his. Rather, they’re proposing them in hopes they can persuade their fellow citizens to vote them into law. That’s how a constitutional republic like ours works. Pro-life advocates are not looking to establish a theocracy they impose on non-Christians, only a more just society for the weakest members of the human family.
Indeed, it is no more religious to claim a human embryo has value than to claim it doesn’t. Both claims answer the same exact question: What makes humans valuable in the first place?
Rule #4: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
Pro-life advocates sometimes forget their own argument! Abortion is not wrong because it kills a potential doctor who cures cancer or a potential Mozart who dazzles the music scene. It’s wrong because it unjustly kills an actual human being, regardless of his or her stage of development, gifting, or brilliance. Put simply, it’s just as wrong to intentionally kill a beach bum as it is Steve Jobs!
Abortion-choice advocates sometimes forget to engage the essential pro-life case. Here’s the thing: If you support abortion, you may be right. It’s possible there’s nothing wrong with intentionally killing a human fetus and therefore pro-life advocates are mistaken. But you must argue for that by refuting the essential pro-life argument. You can do that by showing the argument is invalid or that it’s unsound (or both). Attacking pro-lifers personally won’t do.
Rule #5: Don’t Make Unfair Demands on Your Opponent
As we will see, the abortion issue is about one question: Is the unborn one of us? And yet, advocates on both sides of the debate sometimes change the subject and redefine their opponents in ways that are less than charitable.
Pro-lifers may tell abortion-choice advocates that if they were truly “pro-choice,” they’d support school choice, religious liberty choice and tax choice—to name a few. But many abortion-choice advocates do not support these other issues. Therefore, so the argument goes, abortion-choice advocates are not “pro-choice.” They are “pro-death!”
This is unfair. Anyone with a working knowledge of the abortion debate knows that “pro-choice” refers to a specific choice—the choice of a woman to abort her unborn offspring. True, that choice must be defended morally, but to demand that abortion-choice advocates prove their credentials by taking on additional causes is unfair. What matters are the arguments they advance, not the additional causes they embrace.
Likewise, abortion-choice advocates may insist that if pro-life advocates were truly “pro-life,” they’d be “whole-life” and take on other “life” issues like poverty, immigration reform, support for refugees, foster care advocacy, better wages for the poor, gun control, and the list goes on and on. However, most pro-lifers (so the argument goes) don’t really care about these other issues. Thus, they are not “pro-life,” only “pro-birth” or “anti-abortion.”
This, too, is unfair. Why should anyone believe that because you oppose the intentional killing of an innocent human being, you must therefore take responsibility for all societal ills?
Pro-life advocates, as individuals, will care about many issues, not just a few. However, it does not follow that the operational objectives of the pro-life movement must be broad and inclusive as well. Imagine saying to the American Cancer Society, “If you were truly against disease, you’d fight other illnesses as vigorously, as passionately, as loudly as you do cancer!” Or, consider the gall of telling Black Lives Matter, “You don’t care about all black lives, only those killed by police brutality.”
Indeed, why is the “whole-life” argument never used against other groups who target specific forms of injustice? If an inner-city daycare program only receives kids after school, do we blast them for not operating 24/7?
Of course, abortion isn’t the only issue, any more than slavery was the only issue in 1860 or killing Jews the only issue in 1940. But both were the dominant issues of their day. Pro-lifers are not wrong to give greater moral weight to the greater moral issue. Imagine telling an abolitionist in 1860, “You can’t be against slavery unless you address its underlying causes.”
Rule #6: Don’t Pretend All Views Are Equally Valid
A popular bumper sticker reads, “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.”
Notice what the sticker does. Instead of refuting the essential pro-life argument, it changes the subject. It treats the pro-lifer’s moral claim (abortion is wrong) as a mere preference one (abortion is about likes and dislikes). This is intellectually dishonest. It’s possible to like something and still say it’s wrong. Maybe I like driving my father-in-law’s new Corvette without permission. That doesn’t make it right.
Morality is about what’s right and wrong, not what we prefer. Try this: “Don’t like slavery? Don’t own a slave.” Anyone who would say that does not understand the nature of moral reasoning.
Nevertheless, many people want it both ways. They condemn abortion with words but want it to be legally available. They say things like, “I personally oppose abortion, but don’t want to impose my beliefs on others who disagree.”
The obvious question is, Why do you personally oppose abortion? If abortion does not intentionally kill an innocent human being, why be opposed at all? Imagine if I said, “I personally oppose spousal abuse, but I won’t impose my personal beliefs on you. After all, your moral beliefs are just as valid as my own.” If I said that, you would not say I was neutral. You’d say my moral compass was broken.
Moral neutrality on abortion is impossible. If you believe that all moral views are equally valid, you are not neutral. You are espousing relativism, a worldview that says right and wrong are either up to the individual or his or her society, not any objective truths we discover. Morality, like choosing your favorite flavor of ice cream, is strictly a matter of personal preference. Relativism is not neutral. Relativists think they are right and non-relativists are wrong. If not,why do they correct non-relativists who argue that moral truth is real and knowable?
Applied to abortion, moral neutrality is impossible. Either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life or you don’t. The pro-life view is that humans are intrinsically valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are. The abortion-choice view is that humans have value only because of an acquired property like self-awareness or sentience. Notice that both positions—pro-life and abortion-choice—use philosophical reflection to answer the same question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Pick a side. There is no neutral ground.
State neutrality is also impossible. Either the state recognizes the humanity of the unborn and thus protects them or it doesn’t and thus permits killing them. Imagine it’s 1860 and the Supreme Court says, “We take no position on whether or not slaves are human beings. When scientists, philosophers, and theologians can’t agree on that question, the Court is in no position to decide. Therefore, individual slave owners can choose for themselves whether to free their slaves or keep them.” A court that rules that way is not neutral. It’s taking the position that slaves do not deserve the same liberties free people do.
Watch out for phony appeals to tolerance. The classical view of tolerance, which I support, goes like this: I think your idea is mistaken, but I will tolerate you expressing your view and making your case. The classical view tolerates humans as being equally valuable but rejects the claim that all ideas are so. Indeed, the very concept of tolerance presupposes I think you are wrong. Otherwise, I’m not tolerating you; I’m agreeing with you!
The new (phony) tolerance really isn’t tolerant. It insists that all ideas are equally valid (except those that claim to be true with a capital T) and if you say differently, we won’t tolerate you. The new tolerance does not seek understanding and dialogue, only censoring of opposing views.
At the end of the day, if disagreement means there are no moral truths, then slavery, genocide, and rape are mere matters of personal preference.4
Rule #7: Don’t Assume Arguments Won’t Work
Both sides may overstate their case. I’ve heard abortion-choice advocates say abortion “is a settled issue,” one fully integrated into American culture. “It’s not going away. You can forget about changing minds.”
I’ve heard pro-life Christians say the only way to end abortion is to preach the gospel–that outside Jesus, pro-life arguments make no sense to unbelievers.
Why should we believe either claim? Both sides unnecessarily complicate the persuasion process. Slavery and racial segregation were settled for generations, yet abolitionists in the 19th century and civil rights activists in the 20th turned public opinion against both practices. If slavery and segregation weren’t settled, neither is abortion.
Meanwhile, former abortionist Bernard Nathanson switched from being pro-choice to being pro-life while still an atheist. Only later did he embrace theism. Amherst philosopher Hadley Arkes, a recent convert to theism, wrote brilliant defenses of the pro-life view and devastating critiques of moral relativism as an agnostic Jew. Meanwhile, syndicated columnist and atheist Nat Hentoff courageously defended the pro-life view his entire life but never converted to Christianity.
This shouldn’t surprise us. If arguments against sex trafficking and spousal abuse resonate with non-Christians, why can’t arguments against abortion resonate as well?
True, atheists have difficulty grounding their moral claims. After all, in a universe that came from nothing and was caused by nothing, human beings are cosmic accidents and right and wrong are up to us to decide. However, just because an atheist has trouble grounding moral claims does not mean he can’t recognize them.
At Life Training Institute, we include the gospel in virtually every pro-life presentation, but not because it’s a necessary condition for understanding pro-life arguments. We do it because post-abortive men and women have but one fix for their sinful choices: Jesus, their perfect substitute, who bore the wrath of God in their place. Instead of saying that outside Jesus, pro-life arguments make no sense, Christians should say, “outside of Jesus, forgiveness of sin makes no sense.”
In short, the case we present is accessible to anyone with an open mind, Christian or not.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
How can two human parents create offspring that isn’t human, but later becomes so?
To review, the pro-life argument is formally stated as follows:
Premise #1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
Premise #2: Abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings.
Conclusion: Abortion is morally wrong.
The science of embryology establishes that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. True, they have yet to grow and mature, but they are whole human beings nonetheless. Leading embryology textbooks affirm this.
For example, in The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, Keith L. Moore & T.V.N. Persaud write: “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm…unites with a female gamete or oocyte…to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” T.W. Sadler’s Langman’s Embryology states: “The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.” Embryologists Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller write, “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.”6
We’ve known these truths since the mid 19th century:
Objections and Replies
Objection #1— “There is no consensus on the humanity of the unborn. We have no facts, only judgment calls.”
During our debate at U.C. Berkeley, Dr. Malcom Potts replied to my pro-life argument with an appeal to skepticism. He asserted that no one has the truth on the humanity of the embryo, that people disagree. “There are no absolutes in embryology, only judgment calls.”
Including that one? If nobody has the truth, why listen to Dr. Potts?
His reply is deeply problematic for many reasons.
First, if it’s true we don’t know if the embryo is human, that’s an excellent reason not to kill the embryo since we may be taking a human life. As former President Ronald Reagan once observed, if you are out hunting and you see bushes rustling in front of you and you’re not sure if that’s the deer you’ve been after or your best friend, are you going to open fire?
Second, how does it follow that because people disagree, nobody is right? People once disagreed on whether the earth was flat or round, but that didn’t mean there were no right answers. They once disagreed on slavery, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a right way to think. As Hadley Arkes points out, the absence of consensus does not mean an absence of truth.11 Moreover, if disagreement means that nobody is right, then Potts’ own position is falsified. After all, pro-lifers disagree with it. So do many embryologists—like those cited above.12 And if there are no facts about the embryo’s humanity, only judgment calls, one can’t help but ask if that statement about embryology is a fact or just a judgment call? Even worse, if the truth about embryology is merely subjective, why study it in the first place? Indeed, if everything is a judgment call, there is nothing in principle that would prevent two embryologists from holding completely contradictory positions on the subject, yet both positions being equally valid. Absurd!13
Third, on this particular question—is the embryo a distinct, living, and whole human being? —we do indeed have a consensus: Embryology textbooks, like those I cited earlier, uniformly state that each of us began as an embryo. First, the embryo is alive, having all the characteristics of a living thing. Second, it’s distinct from both parents, having its own genetic fingerprint. Third, it functions as a whole living organism rather than a mere assemblage of cells. Since these facts are obvious to everyone paying attention, it explains why embryologists describe (not define) the beginning of life as happening at conception. Peter Singer, an ethicist at Princeton University, defends abortion and infanticide. Yet he recognizes that skepticism on the humanity of the unborn is unwarranted:
“It is possible to give ‘human being’ a precise meaning. We can use it as the equivalent to ‘member of the species homo sapiens.’ Whether a being is a member of a given species is something that can be determined scientifically, by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms. In this sense, there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being.”14
Philosopher David Boonin, author of A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge, 2002), argues that we are identical to the embryos and fetuses we once were. He writes, “A human fetus, after all, is simply a human being at a very early stage in his or her development.”15
Critics of the pro-life position may reply that biological life is continuous (an “unbroken tree” as some put it), thus, we can’t say when the embryo’s life begins. This is demonstrably false. Just because life is continuous between generations does not mean we can’t tell when an individual human begins to exist. As my colleague Jay Watts points out, we certainly don’t seem to struggle distinguishing the mother from her aborted offspring. When was the last time you heard an abortionist say that due to the complexity of when life begins and the indistinguishable nature of the whole life process, he accidentally killed the mother instead of the fetus?
Of course, it’s possible pro-life advocates are wrong. Maybe the science of embryology doesn’t say what they think it does regarding the humanity of the unborn. However, an appeal to relativism just won’t do. Critics must show why the pro-life advocate is mistaken.
It won’t be easy. Since we are, as a matter of objective fact, separate human beings from our parents, that distinction must take place at some point in time. At some time in the past, there was only sperm and only egg. Then some time after that there was something completely new—both genetically new and ontologically new. What events are candidates for that decisive moment? Only one—the one embryologists routinely cite: fertilization.
Objection #2— “Any Ol’ Cell Will Do.”
Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine insists that we gain no real knowledge from the science of embryology. Bailey argues that embryonic human beings are biologically human only in the sense that every cell in the body carries the full genetic code, meaning that each of our somatic (bodily) cells has as much potential for development as any human embryo. Put simply, Bailey would have us believe that there is no difference in kind between a human embryo and each of our individual cells.16
This is bad biology. Bailey is making the rather elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes. The difference in kind between each of our cells and a human embryo is clear: An individual cell’s functions are subordinated to the survival of the larger organism of which it is merely a part. The human embryo, however, is already a whole human entity. Robert George and Patrick Lee say it well. It makes no sense to say that you were once a sperm or somatic cell. However, the facts of science make clear that you were once a human embryo. “Somatic cells are not, and embryonic human beings are, distinct, self-integrating organisms capable of directing their own maturation as members of the human species.”17
Dr. Maureen Condic points out that embryos are living human beings “precisely because they possess the single defining feature of human life that is lost in the moment of death – the ability to function as a coordinated organism rather than merely as a group of living cells.” Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, explains the important distinction between individual parts and whole human embryos overlooked by Bailey:
“The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner.”18
From conception forward, human embryos clearly function as whole organisms. “Embryos are not merely collections of human cells,” writes Condic, “but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.”19
In short, embryos are not clumps of cells. Nor are they fertilized eggs. Sperm and egg die in the act of fertilization. That is, each surrenders its constituents into the make up of a new living organism, the human embryo. Sperm and egg, like somatic cells, are parts of larger human beings while the embryo is a whole (albeit immature) member of the human family.
Because an early embryo can split into two, some defenders of abortion claim it’s not an individual human before day 18 post-conception. Now this is s a very odd claim given it does nothing to establish abortion as a fundamental right throughout pregnancy. At best, it justifies abortion only until day 18, which rules out nearly all abortions.
Nevertheless, the claim that twinning refutes the pro-life position is not persuasive. First, how does it follow that because an entity may split that it wasn’t a whole living entity prior to the split? As Patrick Lee points out, if you cut a flatworm in half, you get two flatworms! Does it follow there was no flatworm prior to the split?20 Second, if an early embryo does not have a right to life because a twin can be formed from it, and a twin can be formed from any of us through cloning, then none of us has a right to life.21 Third, if the early embryo prior to twinning is merely a hunk of cells and not a unitary organism, why doesn’t each cell develop individually into a new living entity? Instead, just the opposite is true. Robert George writes, “These allegedly independent, non-communicating cells regularly function together to develop into a single, more mature member of the human species.” This fact shows that the cells are interacting from the very beginning, “restraining them from individually developing as whole organisms.”22
Abortion-choice advocates sometimes point to the high number of miscarriages as proof the early embryo is not a unitary being. But this does not justify abortion or call into question the humanity of the unborn. How does it follow that because nature spontaneously aborts high numbers of embryos that a) they are not living human beings or b) I may intentionally kill them? Many third-world countries have high infant mortality rates. Are we to conclude that those infants who die sooner rather than later were never whole human beings? Admittedly, these miscarriages are tragic. But as journalist Andrew Sullivan points out, earthquakes kill thousands in 3rd world countries, but that does not justify mass murder.23
Objection #5—Hydatidiform moles
At a recent debate, my opponent disputed my case that human life begins at conception. “Not so fast,” he argued. “Not all acts of fertilization result in a human organism. Hydatidiform moles can form from an early embryo. Therefore, you cannot say that conception results in a human life. You may get a molar pregnancy.” Here my opponent confuses necessary and sufficient conditions. I’m not claiming that everything that results from a sperm-egg union is human, only that every human conceived through natural reproduction begins that way. Regarding hydatidiform moles in particular, they do not result from normal, biologically complete conceptions; rather, they arise from flawed or deficient fertilizations. As Dr. Maureen Condic points out, “despite an initial (superficial) similarity to embryos, hydatidiform moles do not start out as embryos and later transform into tumors.” Rather, “they are intrinsically tumors from their initiation.” Thus, “they have no intrinsically directed capacity to develop into a human being.”24
To help understand Condic’s point, consider “The Alphabet Song” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Both sound alike in the first five measures, but they are different songs from the beginning. One does not morph into the other.25
Objection #6—Soul Confusion
Dr. Malcom Potts claims that “an embryologist cannot say when life begins any more than an astronomer can say what happens to the soul after death.” Well, Dr. Potts has many colleagues in the field of embryology who say he is flat wrong on the empirical question of when life begins. True, science can’t tell us if humans have souls—that’s a philosophical question. But the science of embryology can tell us when individual humans come to be, and the evidence there is clear and to the point: From the earliest stages, you were a distinct, living, and whole human being. Moreover, we don’t need to decide if embryos have souls to determine if they are worthy of protection. For example, the law doesn’t take position on whether 35-year-olds have souls, but it still forbids intentionally killing them.26 Likewise, we don’t need to posit a soul to say that embryos are distinct, living, and whole human beings.
Objection #7—Religion can’t tell us when life begins and thus can’t say abortion is wrong.
Dr. Potts says no one can say when life begins, that it’s a judgment call religious in nature. His argument is a non-starter. First, the question of when human life begins is an empirical question, not a philosophical or religious one. To get our answer, we don’t consult the Bible or the teachings of any religious sect. We consult the science of embryology. True, science can’t tell us how to treat any living thing—we use philosophy to determine that—but it can tell us what the unborn are, that is, whether or not they are living human beings. Second, Dr Potts makes a category error. As mentioned earlier, arguments are either true or false, valid or invalid. The fact that a given argument has religious underpinnings does not de facto mean that it’s bad. The Declaration of Independence (US 1776), Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” all have their metaphysical roots in the concept of man bearing the image of God. Are these documents cut off from rational inquiry simply because they are rooted in religion? As Robert P George and Christopher Tollefsen point out, “Human embryo ethics is, in this regard, no different from the ethics of our treatment of minorities or dependents. Human beings are capable of understanding, through reason, that it is morally wrong and unjust to discriminate against someone because he is of a different race or has a different ethnic heritage. And we are capable of understanding that it is wrong and unjust to discriminate against someone because of his age, size, stage of development, location, or condition of dependency. Human beings are perfectly capable of understanding that it is morally wrong and unjust to treat embryonic human beings as less than fully human. We need religion to support such claims in this domain no more than we need religion to support claims of racial justice or the rights of the disabled.”27
Objection #8—The burning fertility clinic
Comedian Patrick S. Tomlinson thinks he’s got a slam-dunk defense of abortion. Actually, it’s not his; it’s a rehash of a thought experiment first put forward by Michael Sandel, Dean Stretton, George Annas, and Ellen Goodman—to name a few. Nevertheless, Tomlinson thinks he’s destroyed the pro-life case for the humanity of the unborn and the inhumanity of abortion. In a series of tweets, he writes:
Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the “Life begins at Conception” crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly. It’s a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument…Here it is. You’re in a [burning] fertility clinic. Why isn’t important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help. They’re [sic] in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 Viable Human Embryos.” The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one. Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no “C.” “C” means you all die. In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will. They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.” A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically. This question absolutely eviscerates their arguments, and their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true. No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child.
Right away, Tomlinson is off the rails. The abortion controversy is about who we may intentionally kill. His thought experiment is about who we should intentionally save.
See the problem?
Put simply, how does it follow that because you save one human over others, the ones left behind are not fully human and we may kill them? Suppose I’m in a burning lecture hall with those reading this essay. I can either save all of you, my gentle readers, or my 17-year-old daughter Emily Rose. Who gets left behind? You’re toast. I’m saving her first. Does it follow that you are not human or that I may shoot you on the way out?
Let’s review the pro-life syllogism:
P1: It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
P2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
C: Abortion is morally wrong.
Suppose pro-lifers save the five-year-old instead of the embryos. How does Tomlinson’s analogy refute the pro-life syllogism? It doesn’t. At best, it shows pro-lifers inconsistently apply their ethic, not that they are mistaken about the science of embryology or the immorality of intentionally killing an innocent human being. Consider the reverse: Instead of saving the five-year-old, you save 10 of your own frozen embryos. Do your actions call into question the humanity of the child left behind?
Now, I don’t think pro-lifers are inconsistent, for reasons I discuss below. But let’s play along. Suppose pro-lifers say the unborn are human but, when called to act on their stated beliefs, shrink from doing so. What follows?
Nothing that changes the essential nature of the unborn. An abolitionist in the 1860s might save the family dog over a transient slave, thus exposing the abolitionist’s real beliefs about slaves. How would that in any way change the essential nature of the slave or, worse still, justify killing him? Let’s go further: Suppose no whites in 1860 believe slaves are human. How does their belief about the slave determine what he is?
In short, our intuitions are not infallible. Richard Topolski and his colleagues at George Regents University surveyed 500 people with a hypothetical scenario in which a bus is hurtling out of control, bearing down on a dog and a human. “Which do you save?” The startling answer was, “that depends.” Respondents asked, “What kind of human and what kind of dog?” Nearly everyone would save a sibling, grandparent or close friend rather than a strange dog. But when people considered their own dog versus strangers, votes for the dog skyrocketed. An astonishing 40 percent of respondents, including 46 percent of women, voted to save their dog over a foreign tourist.28 Are we to conclude the stranger is less human than a pet dog?
Imagine a medical complex is on fire. I can save 100 frozen embryos or 1,000 terminally-ill cancer patients lying unconscious in their final hours of life. If I save the embryos, are the cancer patients less human and less valuable than embryos? Not at all. Rather, additional considerations guide my actions. While embryos and cancer patients are equally valuable, the embryos stand a better chance of getting out alive. A few will make it to birth. Thus, given the triage situation confronting me, I save the embryos.
Similar considerations guide me to save the five-year-old over the frozen embryos. Once again, both are equal in fundamental dignity. However, the five-year-old has a much greater chance at survival. Frozen embryos face challenging odds going from canister to womb to birth. Even when successfully thawed, many embryos spontaneously abort after implantation. Moreover, a five-year-old can feel pain while embryos cannot. Given a choice between letting a human being die in profound agony and letting others die with no agony at all, you save the former. Finally, there are social concerns. The five-year-old is known by family, extended family, and the local community. If he perishes, dozens—if not hundreds—are impacted by the loss. Not so with embryos, where painful grief is largely restricted to immediate family.
Of course, none of these considerations diminish the humanity of the embryo or justify intentionally killing him. Rather, they are tiebreakers when deciding to save one human being over others. A Secret Service agent will take a bullet for the president of the United States but not an ordinary citizen. And if Washington DC is attacked, he will save the president over an entire city. What does that say about the intrinsic value of those left behind?
Nothing. While all human life is sacred, the consequences of losing the president are catastrophic. The Secret Service knows this and acts accordingly. In sum, Tomlinson’s thought experiment misses the point entirely. Ramesh Ponnuru writes, “The moral question posed by the burning-building scenarios is the extent to which you can show favoritism without being unjust.” In these scenarios, he writes, “we might reasonably take account of all kinds of things—family ties, the life prospects of potential rescuees, the suffering they would undergo if not rescued, etc—that aren’t relevant to the question: Can we kill them?”29
Objection #9—Women don’t grieve miscarriages.
Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. How does this prove the unborn are not human or that intentionally killing them is okay? Put simply, my feelings about something don’t change what it is. I would grieve the death of my own child far worse than the thousands of kids who die daily in developing countries, but it doesn’t follow my own child is more human than those kids. It just means I’m emotionally attached to my own offspring.
Objection #10—The embryo doesn’t look human.
Perhaps so. But this is completely beside the point. Mannequins may look human but aren’t remotely so while the Elephant Man did not look human but was. The question is not what an entity looks like, but what it is.
Admittedly, our intuitions may not immediately identify an early embryo as one of us. After all, it doesn’t look like a cute newborn, but it does look exactly as a developing human should look at that stage of development. Philosopher Richard Stith suggests a thought experiment for rethinking our intuitions about the early embryo. Imagine you are on a Mexican safari in pre-digital days and you’ve got a Polaroid Camera. The early Polaroid was an awkward looking device with a major advantage: Instead of waiting weeks for photo processing, it spit out your picture on the spot, allowing you to watch it develop before your eyes in about 90 seconds. While on the safari, at just the right moment, you capture a Polaroid picture of a black jaguar leaping across the trail in front of you. Black jags are almost never photographed, but you got it! National Geographic will pay you big bucks for that pic! While you are breathlessly waiting for the image to emerge, I rip the Polaroid camera from your hands and tear up the emerging picture. You would be furious! Suppose I replied, “There’s no jaguar in that picture. It’s just a brown smudge on a white piece of paper!” Will that satisfy you? Never! You’d rightly point out, “The jaguar in the picture was already there. We just couldn’t see him because he was still developing.” Likewise, from the one cell stage, you were already there. We just couldn’t see you because you were still developing. That’s the science of embryology!30
To review, the following objections do not refute the pro-life advocate’s case from science:
Pro-life advocates are not the only ones who call abortion intentional killing.
Visual evidence of abortion can be found here: https://vimeo.com/37025422
That abortion intentionally kills a living human being is conceded by many who perform and defend the practice:
If it’s wrong to hurt people because of their skin color or gender, why is it okay to hurt them because of their size, level of development, location, or dependency?
Does each and every human being have an equal right to life or do only some have it in virtue of some characteristic that none of us share equally and that may come and go in the course of our lifetimes?
There are two rival views that answer the question of human equality. Which one best explains human dignity and equality?
Our understanding of pathology assumes human exceptionalism. A dog that can’t read isn’t a tragedy. A beach bum who can’t is one. Sometimes we fail to flourish due to illness, injury, or other factors outside our control. Other times, it’s due to character issues, self-inflicted wounds if you will. Either way, the endowment view contends that all humans have intrinsic dignity and equally bear the image of their Maker. That we all fall short of flourishing according to that image speaks only of our inability to live up to it, not that the image of God itself is marred or only present in degrees. Put simply, the beach bum and the scholar equally bear the image of God and thus have intrinsic value. However, the latter does a better job living up to that image.
Problems with performance views
The worldview idling behind performance accounts of human value is body-self dualism. According to body-self dualism, you are not your body. Rather, “you” are your thoughts, aims, desires, and awareness. A human organism was conceived, but only later, after significant neurological development, did “you” show up as a “person.” Body-self dualism is problematic. If true, your mother has never hugged you since one cannot hug desires, thoughts, and aims. You end up saying things like, “My body showed up before I did” or “I once was an embryo before my conscious self showed up.” Moreover, “you” pop in and out of existence anytime you temporarily lose awareness, desires, thoughts, or aims (as, for example, when under anesthesia). Indeed, curing multiple personality disorders would entail mass killing, given multiple personalities—each with separate aims, desires, and thoughts—are destroyed. Finally, body-self dualism cannot explain simple statements like “you see.” Sensory acts like seeing involve bodily acts (via the eyes) and intellectual acts (via the mind).42 Better explanation: Humans are a dynamic union of a physical body and an immaterial nature.
Other problems with performance accounts of human value:
“You say ‘A’ is white and ‘B’ is black. It is color, then: the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are a slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again: By this rule you are to be a slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own.
But you say it is a question of interest, and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”45
For David Boonin, desires rather than human nature ground the right to life. Only present desires, not future ones, are value-giving. And since a fetus cannot have “present” desires prior to organized cortical brain function—which occurs sometime between 25 and 32 weeks after fertilization—it has no right to life prior to that point.46 However, Boonin’s argument proves too much. As Kaczor points out, having “desires” presupposes belief and judgement, which newborns lack until several weeks (if not months) after birth.47
Endowment view applied to abortion
Pro-life advocates contend there is no morally significant difference between you the embryo and you the adult that would justify killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not good reasons for saying you had no right to life then but you do now. Stephen Schwarz suggests the acronym SLED as a helpful reminder of these non-essential differences:50
Size: You were smaller as an embryo, but since when does your body size determine value?
Level of Development: True, you were less developed as an embryo, but six-month-olds are less developed than teenagers both physically and mentally, but we don’t think we can kill them.
Environment: Where you are has no bearing on what you are. How does a journey of eight inches down the birth canal change the essential nature of the unborn from a being we can kill to one we can’t?
Degree of Dependency: Sure, you depended on your mother for survival, but since when does dependence on another human mean we can kill you? (Consider conjoined twins, for example.)
In the past, we used to discriminate on the basis of skin color and gender, but now, with abortion, we discriminate on the basis of size, level of development, location, and degree of dependency. We’ve simply swapped one form of bigotry for another. In sharp contrast, pro-life advocates contend that no human being regardless of size, level of development, environment, degree of dependency, race, gender, or place of residence should be excluded from the human family. In other words, our view of humanity is inclusive, indeed wide open, to all, especially those that are small, vulnerable, and defenseless.51
You don’t need to memorize answers to every objection to the pro-life case. Stay focused on five bad ways people typically respond.
To review, the essential pro-life argument can be put formally in the following syllogism:
Premise #1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
Premise #2: Abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings.
Conclusion: Abortion is morally wrong.
Pro-life apologists defend that syllogism with science and philosophy. We argue from science that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. We argue from philosophy that there is no relevant difference between you the embryo and you the adult that justifies killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency (SLED) are not good reasons for saying you could be killed then but not now.
Of course, even with a clear case, your critics may object. But here’s the good news: You don’t need to memorize responses to every possible objection. Just ask yourself one key question: Does the objection refute my essential pro-life argument? That is, does it prove the unborn are not human or that intentionally killing them is okay?
Nearly always, the answer is no on both counts. Your critic is changing the subject rather than engaging your syllogism. Don’t let him get away with it. Stick to your syllogism while graciously pointing out five bad ways people respond to it.
“We blowed out a cylinder head.”
“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Notice it’s simply assumed the black man is not one of us. President Obama was no better with the unborn. On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he said: “Today, as we reflect on the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, we recommit ourselves to the decision’s guiding principle: that every woman should be able to make her own choices about her body and her health. We reaffirm our steadfast commitment to protecting a woman’s access to safe, affordable health care and her constitutional right to privacy, including the right to reproductive freedom. And we resolve to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, support maternal and child health, and continue to build safe and healthy communities for all our children. Because this is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams” (emphasis added).52 The President’s statement was question-begging. He never told us if “everyone” includes the unborn. He just assumed it did not. Our job, as pro-life Christians, is to expose that assumption and focus the debate on the status of the unborn. Consider the back-alley argument: “The law can’t stop all abortions. Women will be forced to get dangerous illegal ones.” Note how the objection assumes the unborn are not human. Otherwise, the argument is saying that because some people die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal to do so. But why should the law be faulted for making it riskier for one human to intentionally take the life of another completely innocent one? True, laws can’t stop all illegal behavior, but they stop most. Laws against rape don’t stop all rape, but we still legislate to protect women. In The Case for Life, I refute the myth that thousands of women died annually from illegal abortion. But your first step is to expose the faulty assumption. It won’t work to say we should be a society that supports “choice” when the very question of who is part of that society, that is, whether or not it includes the unborn, is itself under dispute in the abortion debate.
Memorize the pro-life syllogism. Practice it out loud. It will keep you on message when critics change the subject.
Putting it All Together
Suppose you have one minute to summarize the pro-life case with an aggressive reporter. What should you say?
“I am pro-life because it’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. The science of embryology establishes that from the earliest stages of development, you were a distinct, living, and whole human being. You weren’t part of another human being like skin cells on the back of my hand; you were already a whole living member of the human family even though you had yet to mature. And there is no essential difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today that justifies killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not good reasons for saying you could be killed then but not now.”
Post-abortive men and women have the same problem I do: They’re rebels. And there’s nothing we can do to fix that. Someone else has to take the rap for us. Thankfully, someone has.
Let’s start with good news. Post-abortive men and women can experience healing. Like all forgiven sinners, they can live each day assured that God accepts them on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not their own.
But that assurance is not found on the cheap. We need to see it in its biblical context—against the backdrop of God’s holiness and hatred of sin. We need to see it in light of the gospel.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be summarized as follows: God designs a good world where the humans He made to worship Him and enjoy communion with Him willfully rebel against Him. Although these rebel humans deserve God’s wrath, He holds back His righteous judgment and sends Jesus to take the punishment they deserve. By God’s design, Jesus—the sinless one—is killed on a cross by the very people he came to save. Yet the story doesn’t end there. Three days later, God affirms Christ’s sin-bearing sacrifice by raising Him from the dead. As a result of Christ’s sin-bearing work on their behalf, God’s people—all of them unworthy of anything but death if judged by their own merits—are declared justified by God the Father, who then adopts them as His own sons and daughters.
Like all sinners, post-abortive men and women need this gospel. With it, they live assured their past, present, and future sins are not counted against them. Yes, the Gospel is good news, but only if we understand the bad news.
The Bad News (and it’s very bad)
The Bible is clear: We don’t start off innocent and break bad. We begin bad and stay that way. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” laments the prophet Jeremiah (17:9).
The testimony of Scripture is that everyone reading this sentence deserves only judgment. In a thousand different ways, every last one of us has rebelled against our Creator who made us for His glory. That any of us are breathing right now is a sheer act of His grace.
Think back to the dark western Unforgiven, starring Clint Eastwood as Will Munny. Will’s young sidekick, the Schofield Kid, kills his first man and is shaken by second thoughts. Munny’s response is devastating:
Munny: It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man…
Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Munny: We all got it coming, kid.
When Christ spoke of a tower that fell on unsuspecting people, he did not say the victims deserved to die while everyone else did not. Instead, He gave this stunning response: “If you don’t repent, all of you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-9). Jesus said that everyone has it coming. And if we don’t repent, we, too, will perish.
Our problem is this: God’s holy and righteous character cannot wink at sin. He must punish it. Though we don’t like to talk about it, we’re in big trouble with God.
But the bad news is even worse than we first imagine. The problem is not only that we do bad things; it’s that we are bad by nature. We are bent toward rebellion and disobedience against God and we are powerless to fix things. In fact, Paul tells us that like the rest of humankind, we’re dead in our sins and objects of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3). Left to ourselves, we want nothing to do with God. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). In short, God would be perfectly just to do away with us entirely.
But There is Good News (and it’s infinitely good)!
After leaving no doubt about man’s true condition, Paul sets forth the fix. Though we were dead in our transgressions and sins and justly objects of His wrath, God did what we could not do for ourselves: made us alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5). “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
What? Christ died for the ungodly?
Precisely. “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor.5:21). As a result, we’re saved from the wrath we justly deserve (Romans 5:6, 9). As our substitute, He was forsaken so we wouldn’t be. That’s great news for the repentant sinner, but it’s not the message most people want to hear. The secular culture considers it a sin to tell people, “You are wrong. What you believe is wrong. Turn to the only one that can save you.” And yet, there’s no fix for our guilt until we renounce all hope of justifying ourselves.
We have a terrible problem and there is only one way out: “Salvation is found in no one else” but Jesus (Acts 4:12). All other options, including our own attempts to please God through good works leave us dead in our sins.
Not by Our Own Deeds
Theologian Desmond Ford puts it well: “God is better than we have ever hoped, though we’re worse than we ever suspected.”54
A gifted friend and colleague responsible for saving many unborn lives once explained his motivation for pro-life activism this way (paraphrase). “Jesus was clear when asked by the Rich Young Ruler, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus told him to obey the Commandments–Don’t murder, love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor, care for the defenseless, and so on. Jesus then says in the Sermon on the Mount that ‘everyone who hears these words and does them’ will be saved in the day of destruction. I’m doing my very best to make the grade.”
By that standard my friend doesn’t stand a chance. Yes, Jesus did point the Rich Young Ruler to the Ten Commandments, but He did it to expose the young man’s utter inability to keep them. The same is true of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): No one can live up to the demands Christ presents here. Am I pure in heart? Do I hunger and thirst after righteousness? Show mercy when I ought? Love my enemies? There’s no wiggle room here: to please God in these matters, my righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. It must be perfect.
Problem is, I’m nowhere close. Look how tough Christ is on us (paraphrase): “Think you’re free of adultery? Guess again. Every time you lust after a woman you commit adultery in your heart. Think you don’t murder? Each time you are angry with your brother you do that in your heart,” and so on. Couple that with Paul’s teaching in Romans that “no one is righteous, no not one” and you start to get the picture of how desperate our situation truly is. There really is nothing we can do to turn away the righteous wrath of a holy God. People who are “dead” in their sins can’t possibly help themselves before the bar of God’s justice. Someone else has to take the punishment for us and provide the righteousness we don’t have.
Someone did. The righteousness that God demands is the righteousness that He alone provides through Jesus Christ. Paul is clear: It is God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5; 8:30, 33) and He both initiates and completes the salvation process for His people. No wonder Paul writes, “no man can boast”–for it’s by grace we’ve been saved through faith (Ephesians 2: 8-9).
Here’s where my friend has it backwards: I don’t engage in good deeds to earn God’s favor or to work my way to heaven. Truth is, my good deeds will never make up for my bad ones. Thankfully, Jesus bore the punishment for my sin so I wouldn’t have to. The only thing that removes my guilt before God is the righteousness of Christ applied to my account. With that in mind, I approach Christian service not from a sense of guilt, but gratitude.
Biblically speaking, justification is a legal declaration by God the Father whereby my sins are pardoned, and Christ’s righteousness is applied to my account. Justified sinners are not made righteous with an infusion of holiness; they’re declared righteous solely because of the sin-bearing work of Christ on their behalf. Justification is about my status before God: I am no longer condemned because Jesus both paid the penalty for sin in my place and lived the life of perfect obedience God requires. Put differently, justification is a matter of imputation: My guilt is imputed to Christ; His righteousness is imputed to me.
Who, then, can bring a charge against God’s elect? The Apostle Paul’s answer is clear: No one. For it is God who justifies (Romans 4:5; 8:33). It is His gift, completely undeserved, so that no one can boast. After all, God is under no obligation to save anyone. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
But You Have No Idea What I’ve Done!
We can’t add to our justification. It’s already a finished work. Confusion about this leads to spiritual depression and, in some cases, years of emotional pain. I once had a woman say to me, “What about people who commit grave moral sins like abortion? Even after repenting again and again, the guilty feelings linger. How can I ever be justified in God’s sight?”
In justification we receive the pure and spotless righteousness of Christ, a blanket that covers our sin in the sight of the Father. We’re declared righteous solely because Jesus bore the penalty for sin in our place. However, we remain sinners inwardly. Meanwhile, sanctification (also God’s work) is an ongoing process that changes us internally, conforming us more and more to the image of Christ. Over time, our thought patterns improve. Vices are replaced with virtues. Habitual sins are confronted and challenged. But moral improvement is not what makes us right before God. What removes our judicial guilt is the legal declaration of God the Father.
What incredibly great news! By God’s declaration, we are no longer His enemies, but adopted and dearly loved children. My message to this hurting post-abortive woman was simple: “Take heart—Do not despair. If you’re in Christ, the penalty for your past, present, and future sins was discharged at the cross. In short, you’re covered!”
Permit me one final example by Greg Koukl:
“The story is told of a king who, having discovered a theft in the royal treasury, decrees that the criminal be publicly flogged for this affront to the crown. When soldiers haul the thief before the king as he sits in his judgment seat, there in chains stands the frail form of the king’s own mother. Without flinching, he orders the old woman to be bound to the whipping post in front of him. When she is secured, he stands up, lays down his imperial scepter, sets aside his jeweled crown, removes his royal robes, and enfolds the tiny old woman with his own body. Baring his back to the whip, he orders that the punishment commence. Every blow meant for the criminal lands with full force upon the bare back of the king until the last lash falls.
In like manner, in those dark hours, the Father wrapped us in His Son who shields us, taking the justice we deserve. This is not an accident. It was planned. The prophet Isaiah described it 700 years earlier: ‘Surely our griefs He Himself bore….He was pierced through our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way. But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him’” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
Greg is right: Only Jesus can pay, and He does. He has completed the transaction. He has canceled the debt. It is finished. It only remains for us to trust in His promise.
If you’ve sinned by participating in an abortion-related decision, the solution to your guilt is not denial. It’s forgiveness. Like everyone else, your place is at the foot of the cross.
Here’s how to get started.
First, stop justifying yourself. Justification is God’s business. If you conceded to have an abortion, stop blaming your boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or husband. If you are that boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, or husband, stop blaming the woman you encouraged to abort. Be honest: Your choice resulted in the unjust taking of human life. God will not be shocked by your confession. He knows that outside Christ, our thoughts and attitudes are bent toward rebellion against Him. Just like me and every other human being, you feel guilty because you are guilty.
Second, resist the temptation to solve your guilt problem with “good” behavior. Truth is, your good deeds will never make up for your bad ones. You can’t fix what’s wrong and you must give up all hope of ever fixing it on your own. Only God can justify the ungodly and He did it by sending a substitute to take your place.
True, once you are justified, you’ll want to serve God with good works, even though you will fail to live out your convictions in many ways. However, your motivation for doing good deeds will be a heart of thanksgiving for what God’s already accomplished—not a feeble attempt to impress Him with your own good stuff.
Third, place your trust completely in the only substitute who can save you—Jesus, the sinless one, who paid your debt in full. Biblical faith is not a blind leap in the dark. It’s trust based on evidence. Ask God to forgive your rebellion and give you a new heart to serve Him. Seek out other Christians who’ve also been forgiven and draw strength from them.
Finally, establish a firm foundation for your Christian life. Learn the basics of Christian doctrine and thought. Bury yourself in Romans and Galatians. Memorize the lyrics of great hymns that convey the gospel. Consider reading The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges or Finally Alive by John Piper. Both will help you learn the foundation upon which your new faith is built.
James Montgomery Boice summarizes the gospel perfectly:
I’m not O.K. You are not O.K. No one is O.K. And the sooner we admit that we are not okay and turn to the One who knows that we are not, but who offers us a way of salvation anyway, the better off we will be. Jesus does not excuse us; he forgives us. He calls us sinners. Yet he says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). The most important thing in life is to know that Jesus is able to save you from sin. The second most important thing is to know that you require it.55
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