Does a Fetus Have a Right to Life?
Abortion is a war on the defenseless and voiceless. It is a war on the unborn. It is ironic that civilized societies that generally place safeguards on human life have now passed laws that sanction and publically fund the practice of abortion. Since the legalization of abortion in 1973 (Roe vs. Wade), approximately 50 million abortions have been performed the United States. Worldwide more than 40 million abortions are performed each year. More abortions are performed each year than soldiers killed in both WWI and WWII (30 million). Death from abortion far exceeds the toll of the deplorable loss of life from warfare. 93% of abortions occur for social reasons – the child is inconvenient or unwanted. Who speaks up for the rights of these unborn children – the right to life and all the potentialities it affords?
Let me be clear: I do not intend to argue against the legal right of the mother for abortion on demand. She has that legal right. She can do with her own body as she chooses. I intend to argue that the fetus has a right to life because it is a separate person that deserves to be born and to experience life. There are at least two people involved in the decision, even if we exclude the father. Terminating the life of a developing baby involves two individuals with separate bodies, brains and hearts. Perhaps it is presumptive to do so but in order to support that statement we need to consider when meaningful life begins. At conception, the mother and the father each donated 23 chromosomes containing the genetic coding that, when combined, establish all the characteristics of an unborn person. This genetic combining results in a new human being. Approximately 22 days after conception, a little heart begins to beat. At 26 days the circulation of blood begins. Just because the baby is not yet fully developed does not mean that it is any less of a person. The effort of man to legislate when a developing life is considered “meaningful” is presumptive and arbitrary. The fetus, no matter at what stage, is a person.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton and one of the most prolific writers on philosophy and ethics. He has stated, “The central argument against abortion may be put like this: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being. A human fetus is an innocent human being. Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.” Peter Singer disagrees with this logic. He has argued that “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons.” He has also said that “In a strictly biological sense, opponents of abortion are right to say that abortion ends a human life.” But he does not consider a fetus or even a human infant to be a person. His views on abortion center on the right to life being intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to hold preferences. I disagree with that assessment. Just because the fetus cannot yet express itself, does not make it any less of a person.
The real problem is defining what constitutes a person. Personhood cannot be defined based on functionality, presently realized. We must consider that abortion destroys one’s possible future. It is for this very reason that it is morally wrong to take our own lives. But is it a compelling argument? Not yet. It doesn’t answer the question of why human life is valuable and therefore why it is wrong to take another human life. A person or a potential person in the case of a fetus has great worth, even infinite worth if you consider what it can become. Even though a human fetus has not yet been born, it still possesses all the characteristics of a human being and thus is indeed a “person” or a member of the human family. Unrealized human potentiality gives that fetus a moral right to live. The fetus has intrinsic worth and value in its very nature as a human being in embryo. Abortion is indeed murder in that it denies the potential human person the growth opportunities this life affords. To truly understand the worth of a human being, you must consider that there is more to a person than merely a human body.
I am a substance dualist and readily concede my belief in a soul as a bias influencing my position on abortion. It is my belief that I exist now, have always existed and always will exist in some form or another with or without my physical, mortal body. In other words, I am composed of more than the neurons and molecules that make up my physical body. I have a mind and a spirit that are temporarily housed inside this mortal body. I have no idea how my mind and spirit interact with my body. My metaphysical position supports the idea of a plane of existence other than the natural world around us that we see and experience. Because I am self-aware and have a sense of personal identity over time, I have concluded consciousness will continue for me after the death of my mortal body. I cannot conceive of not “being.” I am more than a mental state produced by chemicals in my brain. I am an intelligent, eternal being housed in this mortal body for a time and season, learning and growing. In short, I have great worth and potential.
Abortion is murder in that it is destroying the mortal body created to house an eternal spirit. Abortion takes away the right of that eternal being to have a mortal experience with all the attendant growth and learning that takes place in this world. I am pro-choice but not in the sense that the phrase is normally used. I believe in freedom to choose my course in life but I do not believe I am free to choose the consequences of my choices. The analogy of an astronaut may help. Anytime during the selection or preparation process, the potential astronaut is free to withdraw from the program. But once the spacecraft has lifted off, the astronaut is bound to the consequences of the previous choice to make the journey. In like manner, once conception has occurred, the choice of the woman has already been made. She cannot “unchoose.” Yes, she is free to choose what she will do with her body, but once a new life has begun within her, she must consider the impact future choices will have on that new human being. Elective abortion simply becomes a form of birth control, a way to avoid undesired consequences of choice. It is morally wrong because it takes the life of another human being without their consent.
A common rebuttal to the argument against abortion is the woman’s right to what she can do with her own body. She has a right to choose and has a right to consent to what is done to her body. As I noted previously, I do not contest these rights. I am pro-choice in this regard. But I wonder if we are giving enough attention to the rights of the father. What if he is opposed to having his child aborted? I have purposely avoided including harsh descriptions of the abortion process such as “sucked down a sink,” or “skull crushed and severed.” Has the father nothing to say if he does not wish to have the child he helped create killed in such a brutal manner? The fetal pain debate is unsettled, since it is impossible to determine what the fetus feels during the abortion process. Why do we hold fathers responsible to provide for their children and not hold mother’s to the same standard? Abortion is a way of avoiding responsibility for choice.
Another rebuttal to the argument against abortion is that we are trying to force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term. I noted exceptions to my position of a general opposition to abortion in the opening paragraph. If the mother was raped or the pregnancy resulted from incest, statistically shown to be less than 1% of unwanted pregnancies, then abortion may be justified. However, in the case of pregnancy arising from consensual sex, the woman has tacitly consented to the fetus using her body so she is not being forced against her will. The right to life of the fetus and the right of the woman over her own body are ongoing debates. I do not believe in forcing a woman to do anything against her own will. The decision is a difficult one that ultimately, only the woman can make. She must live with the consequences of her own decision. She may regret having participated in an abortion in her later years.
In this paper, I hope I have made it clear that I believe human life begins at conception. I cannot say at what point the intelligence, soul or eternal spirit enters the human fetus. That is an important consideration in my personal religious beliefs but not relevant to this argument. You do not have to believe in the existence of a soul to understand that life begins at conception. I think anyone who has studied the issue concedes this fact. A new human life is a miracle, worth preserving. Why destroy a life that could bring joy to others? There are better ways of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Preserve the life of the child and give it to someone else through adoption. It is a wonderful alternative to abortion. I hope I have argued persuasively that life is precious, especially unrealized potential life. Life comes from life. It is no accident. It is a gift that is not our right to take as we choose. Choose life, not death.
For more information:
Official Statement on Abortion from LDS Newsroom
Abortion, An Assult on the Defenseless by Elder Russell M. Nelson
Weightier Matters by Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Is Abortion Right for Me? - a resource from LDS family services