I once read a quote that
“failures are divided into two classes:
those who thought and never did,
and those who did and never thought”.
All too often, our societies have left important issues unaddressed, because they were too controversial. Such issues include apartheid, genocide and slavery. It’s not because most people thought slavery was a good thing. It’s because most people just didn’t think about it.
A topic today that most people don’t think about is abortion. Abortion is controversial as, depending on your position, it either promotes a woman’s fundamental right to her body or breaches an unborn child’s fundamental right to life. However, the relationship of abortion with fundamental rights is the very reason that we should be thinking about it. I think the issue of abortion comes down to three questions.
1. Is an unborn child a human being?
Some people say that an unborn child is not a human being, but just a collection of cells that will one day develop into a human being. However, this gives rise to the question of what makes any collection of cells a human being.
It seems reasonable to say that anyone with a human heart, human brain and unique human DNA should be considered a human being. This would mean that an unborn child is a human being long before she is born. On this basis, she’s not “just a collection of cells” any more than the rest of us are.
An unborn child is simply another stage of human development and is no less human than a toddler or a teenager or an adult.
2. If an unborn child is a human being, does it have a right to life?
Most people consider that it is morally wrong to deliberately end the life of an innocent human being. That is, all human beings have a “right to life”. The presumption is that an unborn child has a “right to life”, like any other human being. However, some people have claimed that certain groups of human beings can be excluded from this right. This claim has a tattered history.
Human beings have been denied their right to life for arbitrary reasons, such as race, gender, or religion. To exclude certain human beings from the right to life, we must find a non-arbitrary distinction between human beings with and without the right to life.
A distinction made is that an unborn child lacks a number of basic human functions and needs her mother’s constant assistance to survive. However, the same applies to other vulnerable humans, such as infants and some disabled persons.
Unless we accept this as a valid distinction, we can be confident that an unborn child has a right to life.
3. Should our views on abortion be allowed to affect other people?
The question of whether we should allow a belief to affect other people depends on the type of belief we are talking about. Some beliefs only apply to us personally and we don’t tend to expect others to abide by these. For example, I think broccoli tastes bad, but I wouldn’t stop others from eating it. However, other beliefs apply to all people equally and we generally do expect others to act in accordance with such beliefs. For example, I believe gravity exists and I would happily demand this belief of anyone who wanted to jump off a cliff believing otherwise.
That human beings have a right to life is not a personal belief. We all think that human beings have a right to life and we allow this to affect other people. This is why we have laws against murder and manslaughter.
If abortion is the deliberate ending of a human being’s life, then we should do all in our power to defend those human beings,just as we should call the police if we see someone threatening another person with a knife.
Some might say, “Hold on, we can’t really know whether an unborn child is a human being with a right to life.” But if we don’t know, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution? If you were demolishing a building and you weren’t sure whether there were people still inside, would you demolish it? If there is a chance that abortion is the deliberate ending of the life of an innocent human being, then we should err on the side of caution and not permit it.