Seeking adventure, you post the following syllogism to your social-media page and hang on for the ride:
Premise 1: It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Premise 2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being. Conclusion: Abortion is morally wrong.
Right away a friend is typing. Six minutes later, you have a string of comments, not all of them nice. “Why do you hate women?” “What are you doing for kids after they’re born?” “Do you have a uterus? If not, shut up!” You expected controversy, but marvel how a simple syllogism provoked such outrage. It feels like something else is going on here. Indeed it is.
Larger Worldview Divide
What’s driving the abortion controversy is not who loves women and who hates them. Rather, it’s a serious philosophical debate about who counts as one of us. Either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life, or you don’t.
“Either you believe that each and every human being has an equal right to life, or you don’t.”
Legally, the issue defies compromise. The state either 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.
In short, like slavery in the 1860s, the underlying controversy is a question of philosophical anthropology — namely, What makes humans valuable in the first place? That question isn’t going away anytime soon. Until it’s decisively settled, you can expect more controversy.
Two Rival Views
Pro-life advocates, following Lincoln and The Declaration of Independence, hold to an endowment view of human value. That is, humans are valuable by virtue of the kind of thing they are, not some function they perform. Although they differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their Maker. Their right to life comes to be when they come to be.
Abortion-choice advocates more or less espouse a performance view of human value. Being human is nothing special. What matters is your ability to immediately exercise an acquired property like self-awareness, desires, or sentience. Notice that both positions — the endowment view and the performance view — use philosophical reflection to answer the same foundational question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Pick a side. There is no neutral ground here. That’s why abortion debates can heat up in a heartbeat.
During his UNC Wilmington debate with pro-life professor Mike Adams, abortionist Willie Parker admitted under cross-examination that he intentionally kills human beings. When Adams pressed him to justify his actions, Parker accused Adams of failing to distinguish “human beings” from “human persons.”
Idling beneath Parker’s assertion is a philosophical anthropology known as body-self dualism, which he made no attempt to explain or defend. According to body-self dualism, the real “you” is not your body, which is mere matter in motion. Rather, the real “you” is your thoughts, aims, desires, conscious decisions, capacity to reason, and capacity for relationships. Before you gain (or once you lose) cognitive function in these areas, your living body exists, but “you” do not.
Personhood theory applies body-self dualism to law and ethics. Personhood theory says being human isn’t enough to ground your right to life. Only “persons” have that right — that is, those who achieve a certain level of cognitive functioning. Lose that function and you forfeit your right to life. In short, we are left with two classes of human beings: human nonpersons we can legally kill and human persons we can’t. If you don’t make the grade, actual persons can override your interests, including your right to life.
“Personhood theory says being human isn’t enough to ground your right to life.”
For example, bioethicist Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Institute insists that once a patient loses “the capacity to reason, to have emotions, and to enter into relationships,” he cannot be called a “person” any longer (Nancy Pearcy, Love Thy Body, 86). “It is a mere body only” and the sanctity of life no longer applies.
John Harris from the University of Manchester applies personhood theory to the beginning of life. “Nine months of development leaves the human embryo far short of the emergence of anything that can be called a person.” A “person,” for Harris, is “a creature capable of valuing its own existence.” Only the lives of persons are important. It is not wrong to kill nonpersons or fail to save their lives “because death does not deprive them of anything they value” (54).
Peter Singer, in his defense of infanticide, is more precise. A “person” is a being “who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.” Fetuses and newborns need not apply.
Five Problems with Body-Self Dualism
Personhood theory grounded in body-self dualism is deeply problematic, and pro-life Christians can be ready to say why.
First, body-self dualism is subjective.
Why should anyone think there can be such a thing as a human who is not a person? In his debate with Adams, Parker presented no argument for that. He merely asserted it. Suppose Parker replies that personhood is grounded in an immediate capacity for self-awareness or consciousness. Okay, but why are those traits value-giving in the first place?
As Christopher Kaczor points out, requiring actual consciousness renders us nonpersons whenever we sleep. Requiring immediately exercisable consciousness excludes those in surgery. Requiring the basic neural brain structures for consciousness (but not consciousness itself) excludes those whose brains are temporarily damaged.
“We say that all humans have equal value because they equally bear the impress of their Maker.”
On the other hand, if having a particular nature from which the capacity for consciousness is present makes one a valuable human being — even if one can’t currently exercise that capacity — then those sleeping, in surgery, or temporarily comatose are valuable, but so also would be the normal human embryo, fetus, and newborn (Kaczor, Ethics of Abortion).
When personhood is detached from the living human body, human value is entirely subjective. Who decides which traits matter? Might makes right. Those making the rules decide if your life is worth living.
Second, body-self dualism is counterintuitive.
If pressed, you are forced to say things like, “My body existed before I did,” or “I was mere matter until my conscious self showed up.” You also must admit that you’ve never hugged your mother, since one cannot hug desires, thoughts, and aims. And if you’re a psychologist, don’t even think of curing multiple personality disorders. That would entail mass murder, given multiple personalities — each with separate aims, desires, and thoughts — are intentionally destroyed in treatment.
At bottom, 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). Both, Kaczor argues, are inextricably wound up in human nature.
Third, body-self dualism cannot account for human equality.
Does each and every human being have an equal right to life, or do only some have it by virtue of some characteristic which may come and go within the course of their lifetimes? If an arbitrarily selected trait like self-awareness grounds fundamental human value, and we don’t share that trait equally, those with more of it have a greater right to life than those with less. Human equality is a myth.
Fourth, body-self dualism distorts human “dignity.”
Parker confuses intrinsic dignity, which we have by virtue of our humanity made in the image of God, with attributed dignity, which we earn through achievement or performance. As Kaczor points out, the beach bum and the university scholar are both equal in their God-given, intrinsic dignity. However, they differ in their attributed dignity (Defense of Dignity, 5).
Fifth, body-self dualism justifies killing for the greater good.
Such thinking provides a philosophical foundation for intentionally killing innocent human beings outside the womb and justifies involuntary euthanasia and involuntary organ donation. That is, if the interests of actual persons can override the rights of a cognitively disabled patient, what’s wrong with intentionally killing him to benefit others? Given the logic of personhood theory, there is no theoretical ground for opposing such killing.
If that weren’t bad enough, on personhood theory, cognitively disabled humans could be — and perhaps should be — used for organ harvesting that benefits actual “persons.” To borrow an example from Frank Beckwith, suppose a developmental biologist alters the brain of a developing fetus so he never attains self-awareness. At age five, the child is killed in order to provide organs for actual, self-aware people (Defending Life, 139–40). On theoretical grounds, how is this wrong?
Protecting Human Rights for Everyone
Christians have a better foundation for human dignity. Instead of setting aside an entire class of human beings to be killed because they don’t measure up, we say that all humans have equal value because they equally bear the impress of their Maker. Differences of size, development, cognitive function, or dependency have no moral significance.
The abortion debate is not about a surgical procedure. It’s about a larger worldview question that demands an answer: Are the unborn members of the human family?
When a friend takes offense at your pro-life stand and accuses you of hating women, instead of getting defensive, gently clarify the issue that divides you:
I hope you don’t believe pro-lifers hate women, but I think you are right about one thing: If the unborn are not members of the human family, I am indeed unfairly imposing my views on women. However, if each and every human being has an equal right to life, and the unborn is one of us, 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 members of the human family and you don’t. That’s the issue I hope we can talk about.