Abortion – Faith and Facts


April 26, 2013 by Anders Ingemarson

The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade had barely faded from memory before the trial of Kermit Gosnell once again brought abortion into the limelight. Regardless of your stance on abortion, we probably agree that it is one of the most polarizing issues in America today. And for good reasons. It is literally a matter of life or death.

If you believe that aborting an embryo or a fetus is murder you’re advocating for a ban on abortion. After all, you argue, the fundamental role of government is to protect individual rights, so it is within its jurisdiction to ban abortion to protect the rights of the unborn.

If, on the other hand, you’re championing a woman’s right to her life you’re sure to defend her right to have an abortion if she chooses. After all, you say, the fundamental role of government is to protect individual rights, and what is more fundamental than the right to decide what to do with your own body?

Each side is deeply entrenched. Is there any hope for finding common ground?

Enter a discovery that so far has received little attention. A discovery that I think eventually will resolve the abortion issue once and for all.

This is the discovery that individual rights—the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—only apply to actual human beings, not potential human beings.

What does it mean to be an actual human being? To find out we need to understand what, in essence, makes us human. We need to define “human being”. The proper definition is “The Rational Animal”. Rational in this context does not necessarily mean behaving rationally at all times although we may hope for the best. No, here “rational” means having the capacity (mental or physical ability) to reason (to think) and the free will to exercise that capacity.

Until a fetus has become “a rational animal”, until it has developed free will and the capacity to reason, it doesn’t meet the definition of an actual human being. It is only a potential human being and as such without rights.

When has a fetus developed into an actual human being? Probably sometime in the third trimester. However, this is a question that only science can answer. As research advances we’ll continue to learn more and more. But as tricky as the third trimester borderline cases are, it is important to realize that this is not the real issue in the abortion debate. On a fundamental level, the question is whether the embryo or fetus has rights at all times during pregnancy or not, from conception onwards.

(As you read this your thoughts may go to individuals who are born with a diminished capacity to reason, or that have lost that capacity later in life. These are important issues but not the subject of this post.)

The discovery that individual rights only apply to actual human beings, not potential human beings, is obviously controversial, primarily in anti-abortion circles (but also among pro-abortion advocates who don’t understand the concept of individual rights). But most controversial discoveries that are based in facts of reality tend to become accepted over time.

Most anti-abortion advocacy is faith based. Religious people base their position on religious texts and teachings. But a recurring theme throughout history is that people of faith who are also committed to reason tend to adjust their religious views as new scientific and other facts are discovered. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

  • In 1633, Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest for life by the Roman Inquisition for his advocacy of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, because it was against the teachings of the church. But sentencing Galileo did not stop heliocentrism from spreading. On the contrary, his discovery quickly became central to future scientific discoveries, for the most part spearheaded by scientists who themselves were religious. When faced with the newly discovered facts that contradicted their faith, they went back and reexamined and often reinterpreted the religious texts, and adjusted their faith accordingly.
  • In the early 1800s the new science of geology was all the rage. William Smith, the father of geology, examining fossils in different strata of the earth, discovered that our planet had been around a little longer than previously thought. The standard, religiously based, view before William Smith was that of Bishop Ussher who in 1654 had calculated the night preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC as the date of creation. The debate between the proponents of the new science and the people of faith that supported Bishop Ussher’s view was as heated as today’s abortion debate. But over time, the facts became irrefutable and religious people gradually adjusted their views.

History is full of examples of this process at work, with faith and facts initially clashing but eventually being reconciled. I think we will see the same development in the views of abortion. The fact that rights only apply to actual human beings will over time gain acceptance among religious people. I’m not saying it will happen tomorrow or next year. Faith based views are deeply personal and each individual has to find a way of reconciling the new facts with his faith, and allow the time he needs. But gradually, religious men and women will gravitate towards the facts.

In the meantime, while trying to come to terms with the issue, I hope you join me in championing the moral case for separating state and the economy and make abortion a lower priority on your moral and political agenda.

12 thoughts on “Abortion – Faith and Facts

  1. Jeff Wright says:

    If one lives long enough, it’s easy to see how ground already covered repeats itself after a time. There’s nothing new in this argument. The arbitrary division of when “humans” obtained rights, of course, started out as beginning with live birth through the birth canal. That’s now modified by the term “viable,” which a fetus can be outside the body before the third trimester, It’s further modified by any arbitrary designation one wishes to make about the definition of the term “life.” In essence it amounts to, “tell me the exact date when any of us become ‘human.” It can’t be done. Therefore, in law, such arbitrary designations will always leave plenty of room for debate on the application of law to the terms “human” and “life.” QED, nothing is solved through this argument.


    • Thanks, Jeff. I think the discovery that individual rights only apply to actual human beings in combination with defining a human being as “The Rational Animal” is “newish”. I think it can be attributed to Ayn Rand who made the identification in her essay “Of Living Death” published in the September and December 1968 issues of the periodical “The Objectivist” (“Of Living Death” has been republished in “The Voice of Reason”). My knowledge of the history of philosophy is admittedly limited so I’d be interested in any earlier references.


  2. Couldnt B. Righter says:

    Look, I appreciate this line of enquiry, but a baby doesn’t have any meaningful capability to “reason” until age 2 or 3, where “reason” i defined as the act of integrating percepts into concepts and using some basic form of logical inference. So I get where you are going here, but if “being rational” as opposed to “having the potential to be rational at some time in the future” is the standard, then the line gets drawn maybe (to be on the safe side) at 18 months after birth. I, for one, am not too keen on this dividing line for obvious reasons.

    On the other hand, if you make a more broad definition of reason (like capable of perception and action based on that perception) then the dividing line moves to about the 5th month of pregnancy, what was once called “quickening.” This was the accepted dividing line at the time of the founding of the US, and indeed had the original district court judge’s ruling in Roe (that the right to an abortion was a ninth amendment right) not been overturned by the Supremes in Roe with the absurd “emanations of penumbras” standard, the law today might actually define the line at quickening and 70% of the people in America might support it. Alas, the court ruled irrationally and here we are.

    While quickening would make a good law from a political popularity standpoint, unfortunately it’s not good from a philosophical one, as many animals are just as aware as 6-month old fetuses are, so such a standard would lead to animal rights, which as fond as I am of animals, I don’t think is a tenable proposition.

    Certainly birth is a bright line of sorts, but even Diana and Ari describe this line based on inessentials like breathing and pooping, rather than being rational. The only tenable way to get out of this conundrum is to realize that the “potential” rational animal can have rights of a certain sort, as children, no matter how some people distort the facts about them, are for the most part themselves just “potential” rational beings, their potentiality actuated at adulthood. If potential rational animals have rights then the question becomes when does the physical manifestation of the rational faculty–the human brain and the human mind–get to the point of being a distinct organ that starts functioning at some level? Using this criterion the line here is between the third and fourth month of pregnancy, a line I could support. After all, unless there are medical complications (in which case the right to self-defense trumps all other rights even those of innocent people), I really have very little sympathy for those seeking an abortion after the first trimester. The “a woman has a right to her own body” argument fails easily, as she has the right to her own apartment, too, but that doesn’t mean she gets to kill or even just evict her (pre-rational) minor child without going before a judge and explaining herself and making other arrangements for the child.

    It’s important to note that Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff both have never defended abortion for all nine months, indeed stressing their defense of abortion was, if not limited to the first trimester, at least unarguable in the first trimester. In fact, arguing for abortion for all nine months (as Ari and Diana have done) is ultimately a disastrously strategy (as well as being unsupportable from the facts). Both sides in the abortion debate argue for absurd extremes using rationalistic logic to support their positions. The religious argue for conception as the line, a position opposed by 80% of the public, while the pro-abortionists argue for all nine months (Ari and Diana) or when the baby gets home (Planned Parenthood and Barbara Boxer), a position opposed by well over 90% of the population. Both camps argue (using the fallacy of the excluded middle) that these are the only two logically consistent positions one can have, so each person needs to choose one of these to support. Our legal system now recognizes the all-nine-months position, as can be seen for example by the judge’s ruling in the Gosnell trial dismissing the three counts of murder because though the baby was separate from the mother and breathing, there was no evidence that it was “alive.” By forcing the issue to be an either/or proposition–conception or birth; by continuing to argue the excluded middle fallacy, Objectivists are actually *helping* the personhood movement and the religious right. This is because when faced with a choice between banning all abortions on the one hand and Kermit Gosnell on the other hand, and being told these are the only two possible choices, the American public will vote overwhelmingly to ban abortion. Objectivists like Ari and Diana who argue the abortion-on-demand-for-all-nine-months-even-when-99%-of-the-baby-is-delivered position are in fact advocates for the religious right position from the standpoint of reductio ad absurdum. If I were a religious right anti-abortion fanatic nutcase, and I were determined to ban abortion in the United States, I could think of no better strategy than to hire earnest young philosophers like Diana and Ari to argue the Kermit Gosnell/Planned Parenthood position understanding full well that such an argument would do more to hurt the abortion rights cause than any year full of prayer breakfasts, pro-life rallies, and fundraisers.

    So I commend you for trying to think of a more rational standard than “ensoulment” (the religious right) or “pooping” (Diana and Ari). But I think you need to think about it some more. In any case, in the public sphere, please do, like Rand and Peikoff, restrict your advocacy to abortion rights in the first trimester, where the issue is crystal clear on our side, rather than to play into our enemies’ hands by arguing for birth as the dividing line and dooming abortion rights in American for a long time to come.


  3. It’s a matter of semantics. Look up the word “Human” it might surprise you. Is a woman’s right arm “Human” – Should she be allowed to abort her right arm if she so chooses? Who owns her right arm. If her right arm could live and breath on it’s own, independent of it’s maker – could we say her right arm is Human?

    If we ever establish a universal definition of human, and we define that “humanness” occurs at conception. We open a huge can of worms, because then a woman is no longer and individual, unless she is totally incapable of being pregnant.

    If we agree that no woman is an individual – then THAT would be repeating a very old argument. And ofcourse – this would make everything comprehensible, even to those of us who refuse to do moral / intellectual heavy lifting on matters regarding what actually constitutes a human (right worthy) individual.

    If a living “Human” can survive on it’s own, seperate from the direct biolgical surport of the human mother (i.e. Live Birth). It’s time to qualify it as a person – an individual – worthy of human rights” – and – even “Constitutional rights” !!!!

    This works pretty well without opening huge cans of worms (semantics).

    To ask “when do we become human” is silly – at best. But it pacifies those of us who still struggle to define what an individual is — (and applying the definition to women).

    To get out of the semantc problems. first we must figure out what human is – then we have to figure out what an individual is, then – what constitutes a sovereign individual, and then we have to figure out what is a good time to give this “person” individual “rights”. This has already been done for us !!!!

    But that was back before women could vote !


  4. iskeen says:

    The key concept which is missing in the case of individual rights generally, and in abortion in particular is that actual rights cannot be not in conflict. Two individuals cannot have the same “rights” in the same sense at the same time and in the same respect. That is because two entities cannot occupy the same precise space in the universe at the same time, in the same respect or aspect.

    If one entity is contained within and dependent upon another physically, it is not an entity in the strictest sense of the word entity. We can conceptualize the fetus or unborn child as an entity in a medical context from the point of view of a growing life form. However, in the context of law, we are mistaken when we conceptualize it as an entity in physical fact. We are ignoring the incontrovertible fact that the fetus’ continued existence depends on the predigested nutrients carried by the woman’s blood supply through the umbilical cord to the fetus. The umbilical cord also carries away the waste products of growth. The blood supply of the fetus is self-contained, but the blood of the woman supplies the fetus with the nutrients for its development.

    The purpose of government is to identify the right and wrong of a position in particular cases, not to parcel out rights to different individuals, whether they be fully actualized or only potential. Once we understand as a principle of existence that the genuine rights cannot be in conflict, then we must realize that the woman and the fetus are not both individuals at same time and in the same respect. Why not? Because the fetus is physically dependent on the woman and not yet in the strictest physical sense an independent entity.

    In the case of abortion, as in all other cases concerning her body, the woman’s right to her body and its contents is absolute. No one has a right to interfere with her bodily processes (including her having an abortion). In the case of the unborn child, no one has a right to assert that the unborn has rights which trump the right of the woman in which the unborn is contained.

    By the same token, the woman does not have any rights to compel other people to provide food, shelter and/or abortion services to her.

    Different people will always have different ideas about the timetable of what is acceptable to each of them as a proper time frame for abortion. They are entitled to their ideas, but not to impose them on the woman or on anyone else with the force of law. Time is of the essence for the woman seeking an abortion. Government regulations have impinged on the woman’s time line with regards to acting on her will and are therefore wrong.

    Bottom line, the government’s position should be: the government protects the rights of each individual with the strictest sense of the concept of the individual.


    • Thanks, Ilene. I think I agree with what you’re saying but need to digest it a little further. Is the end of your first sentence a typo? “actual rights cannot be not in conflict” The double negative doesn’t make sense to me.


  5. Mike says:

    Could the pro-life and pro-choice join together in a huge love fest and distribute birth control to everyone? Can both groups agree that the best way to handle unwanted pregnancies is not to have one?


    • 🙂 Thanks, Mike. I actually think both sides agree that the best way to handle unwanted pregnancies is not to have one but may differ on how to achieve it: love fest w/ pills vs. no love fest. Either way, if and when to use contraceptives is a good example of a decision that should be left to the individual w/o government meddling.


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