Category Archives: Abortion

Why I Chose the Chimps

Randal Rauser recently tweeted a poll:

The lab is on fire. You only have time to save the three chimpanzees in Room A or the three fertilized human embryos in Room B. Which do you save?

I chose the chimps, despite the fact that I’m (broadly) “pro-life.” So now I feel the need to explain myself. Does this contradict my pro-life stance on abortion? Not at all. I have written a number of articles on this blog in which I expound and defend pro-life principles. The human embryo has value, great value, much greater value than it is typically held to have by those who would support the most permissive of abortion practices.

However, being pro-life needn’t be an absolute position. There are some groups who would outlaw abortion under any circumstances. For me, an unborn human has value, but not absolute value. There are considerations and circumstances that could outweigh our obligation to protect an unborn human. The obvious one is: should the pregnancy be a serious threat to the life of the woman, then abortion would be morally permissible.

My refusal to save the embryos isn’t a denial that they have ANY value. It’s the result of a judgment call on my part as to where the most value lies in this case. So, here are the choices (I’m assuming – for the sake of the thought experiment – that the chimps won’t kill me as I try to save them, and that I have the equipment that will safely store the embryos outside the building):

Room A contains 3 chimps. Chimps are highly intelligent animals, almost certainly self-conscious, with basic language skills, and surprisingly powerful cognitive apparatus, including complex emotions and social skills. In fact, some philosophers have argued that they meet the threshold for personhood, and as such should be protected under the sorts of human rights legislation that protects our own species. These beings would die horribly in a fire. They will undeniably suffer greatly in the process, and depending on how the fire spreads, their death could be hideously prolonged. I have the ability to prevent these highly intelligent beings – one of our closest living relatives, sharing many of the charactistics we associate with personhood – from dying such an agonising death. Moreover, their chances of surviving subsequent to rescue is pretty high.

Room B contains 3 human embryos. Embryos are fully human, but they are not sentient. Whilst they have the potential for rational thought, self-awareness, and suffering, such things are presently unrealised. Should they be destroyed in the fire they will not suffer at all. Moreover, there is no guarantee they will ever be fully developed. The implantation procedure is far from perfect, and couples who undergo IVF are in no way guaranteed success, even with more than 3 embryos being implanted. I could save the embryos only to have their implantation fail. Their chances of surviving subsequent to rescue is fairly low.

So, we have guaranteed agonising pain experienced by animals incredibly close to humans, who have a high chance of surviving, versus human beings incapable of experiencing pain or terror, and who have a low chance of surviving post-rescue. I therefore make a judgment call to save the chimps.

Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article: Fetuses, Lemons, and Survivability

The Author Jennifer Wright has been sounding off a fair bit about abortion lately, and most of it is ill-conceived nonsense. Take one of her recent tweetings:

For fucks sakes, fetuses aren’t babies. Pretending they are is wishful thinking. They’re the size of lemons and can’t survive on their own. You don’t know any humans who are lemon sized.”

Now, granted Wright isn’t an ethicist or an academic, so why then do I target her? Simply because her tweetings beautifully illustrate much that is wrong with the abortion debate at the popular level. It’s so full of misconceptions and poor reasoning that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The debate seems so poisoned by ill-conceived ramblings that one is tempted to despair at the chances of the quality of conversation rising above bar-room brawl level.

Let’s say no more about the stroppy start to the tweet, and focus on three assumptions or claims that Wright makes.

(1)    Wright opens with the observation that “fetuses aren’t babies,” as if she’s establishing some sort of crucial point. She is, of course, completely correct. Humans develop through various stages, and whilst these aren’t always easy to clearly demarcate, we do tend to distinguish between: zygote, fetus, baby, toddler, child, teenager, adult, etc. However, Wright’s observation is trivial and utterly irrelevant. The issue of abortion has nothing to do with whether or not fetuses are babies. Teenagers, pensions, and the middle-aged aren’t babies either. The issue is whether a fetus is a human organism deserving of the same kind of protections enjoyed by other human organisms. Of course, Wright appears to deny that fetuses are human organisms at all, which brings us to her second point.

(2)    Her second point is that fetuses are only the size of lemons. Now, this is rather perplexing. What exactly is the relevance of being lemon-sized? Wright appears to be arguing thus:

(i)                 Whatever is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being.

(ii)               A fetus is the size of a lemon.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

Wright’s logic is flawless (if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows), but sadly her argument is unsound and hardly the most cogent. Why think that something that is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being, particularly since the science of embryology tells us otherwise? Wright is wholly incorrect: the evidence that a fetus is a member of the species homo sapiens is incontrovertible, and is rarely disputed, certainly not by ethicists. Anyhow, why is being the size of a lemon relevant for considering whether some entity is human or not? Why not choose a different standard: a sesame seed, a marble, a watermelon, a pumpkin, or perhaps a golden retriever?

(3)    The final point Wright makes is an incredibly common one: that fetuses cannot survive on their own. Sadly, the rational force of this claim is utterly out of proportion to its popularity. Wright seems to argue:

(i)                 Whatever cannot survive on its own is not a human being.

(ii)               A fetus cannot survive on its own.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

As with (2) the logic is flawless, but the argument is otherwise about as successful as young earth creationist attempts at geology. In this case we have at least one false premise and a vague term. The vague term is “survive on its own.” What does it mean to be able to survive on one’s own? A 15-week-old fetus could not survive on its own, but then again neither can a full-term baby. It requires feeding, cleaning, changing, and strenuous efforts to look after it to keep it healthy and alive. Moreover, many elderly people cannot survive on their own. Some require heavy medication just to make it through the day without their heart stopping. Other people require dialysis several times a week. Even fully fit and healthy humans wouldn’t survive for long without reliance on others. I wonder, if someone took Wright and abandoned her in the middle of the Sahara just how great would her own survivability be? Moreover, as science progresses fetuses are increasingly capable of being kept alive from an earlier stage. So, in short, neither premise (1) nor (2) has much going for it.

The abortion debate is certainly a complex one, and people will make mistakes. However, if you barely understand the issues at stake, and struggle to formulate even a prima facie non-silly argument, perhaps it’s best to close your mouth and open an ethics text.

Stephen J. Graham


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Abortion and the Right to Bodily Autonomy

Most pro-choice arguments beg the question concerning the status of the unborn, and thus are only good arguments if we already assume that the unborn are not human beings. But one argument – probably the most popular one – does not make this assumption. Instead, this argument holds that even if the unborn are human beings, abortion is justifiable because a woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy. In this article I want to say why I don’t think this pro-choice argument is a good one. My attack will be double-pronged: firstly, the language of “moral rights” that appears in the argument is misleading; rights are legal constructs, not abstract moral entities, and secondly, there is no good reason to think the legal right to bodily autonomy should be absolute.

Firstly, then, what sort of thing actually is a right? The concept of rights is equivocal, and can be used with either a legal meaning or a moral one. Take the pro-choice claim that abortion is a fundamental right. What sort of language is this? There are two ways to construe the claim: (1) abortion is a legal right, or, (2) abortion is a moral right. If the pro-choice defender is talking of legal rights there would be no point in claiming abortion is a “right” in a State in which it is forbidden. That would simply be factually incorrect. Rather, what pro-choice advocates mean when they talk of “rights to bodily autonomy” or the “right to an abortion” is moral rights – things which exist independently of the State, and upon which the State should not infringe. But where does such a right come from if not from the State? Perhaps we are to take this as some sort of natural right that springs from our nature as human beings. But if so then it’s a right we possess simply in virtue of our being human, and thus from conception. This would lead to the rather odd outcome that an unborn human has a moral right to an abortion but not to life.

The idea of rights as abstract moral entities which all humans somehow naturally possess (or which somehow pop into existence once a certain level of biological complexity is reached) isn’t clearly a coherent one. Unless the right to an abortion is enshrined in law then it isn’t clearly a right at all. What the pro-choice advocate must do is to either provide and defend some plausible theory of “moral rights,” whereby humans have a right to an abortion but not to life (good luck with that!), or to present adequate reason why our law should provide such a legal right.

Since the law attempts to balance competing desires, wants, and needs, legal rights are rarely absolute. What then of rights to bodily autonomy? There is already an implied legal right to bodily autonomy. You are free to choose your job, your food, your sports, and much else besides. But should such a right be absolute, such that it trumps all other rights? Consider this thought-experiment, proposed by Dr Rich Poupard. A pregnant woman suffering from a chronic sickness insists on taking thalidomide to counteract her symptoms. Her doctor tells her of the high risks of horrible birth defects but still she insists on using thalidomide because her right to bodily autonomy is absolute, and thus the foetus has no rights whilst in her body. Her doctor refuses to provide thalidomide, but she manages to acquire it nonetheless, and as a result, her child is born without arms.

Alternatively, imagine a woman has just had a baby and is leaving the hospital to go home. She doesn’t want the baby and is planning on having it adopted. It’s a long drive and the weather is very cold. It soon begins to snow heavily, and the woman finds herself driving through a forest where her car breaks down. Spotting a wooden cabin, she makes her way over to it. She finds the cabin deserted, lights the fire, and sits down to wait out the storm. However, the baby is getting hungry, and the only way to feed it is with breast milk. But the woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy and therefore she has no obligation to feed the baby at all. She lets the baby cry. Soon she hears a scraping noise at the door and discovers a small kitten that has got lost in the woods. She likes this kitten and decides to help it survive. Rather than feed her baby she decides to give her breast milk to the kitten. The baby dies, but at least the kitten survives.

If human beings have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, then these women will have acted perfectly legally, and yet there seems something very wrong here in thinking their actions morally excusable to the point of being legally permissible.

Regardless, many pro-choice defenders defiantly maintain that women should not be forced to use their bodies to sustain the life of another human being. I have no right to demand the use of my neighbour’s kidney should mine fail; and likewise, the unborn should have no legal right to use the body of the woman if she chooses to withhold her support.

But is it really the case that because we have no obligation to, say, provide a kidney to a neighbour that we shouldn’t have any legal obligation or duty towards our own offspring? There’s a shaky assumption here that a parent should have no more duty towards their own offspring than they do to a neighbour. Moreover, portraying abortion as the mere cutting off of life support or the refusal to donate an organ is quite incorrect. The baby in utero is killed through either dismemberment, poisoning, or crushing. (As an aside, there is controversy concerning the perception of pain by babies in utero, with the consensus being that babies can feel pain at least by the 3rd trimester, and arguably even earlier. Abortion practices in light of this growing evidence are nothing short of monstrous). So, even if withholding support is morally justified in some cases, actively killing is something else entirely. Suppose I come across a starving man in my house who will die unless I feed him. Now, suppose also I have no obligation to feed him. Should I be permitted to bludgeon him to death with a baseball bat?

The bodily rights argument succeeds if and only if the woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy, allowing her to do what she wants with her body regardless of the impact on the unborn child. As shown earlier, that assumption is false on two fronts: (1) There are no moral rights, and (2) The legal right to bodily autonomy cannot rightly be absolute. Whilst a woman’s claim to bodily autonomy is important, it doesn’t supersede her obligation to the unborn child, which includes – at minimum – a level of care to ensure the child’s health and survival. Parents have sometimes burdensome responsibilities and obligations towards their offspring that make demands on their personal freedom. Such obligations are ours whether we consent or not. That’s why fathers have an obligation to pay support for children even if they never consented to raise them. It’s why parents are rightly prosecuted for abandoning children even if they no longer “consent” to raise them.

The fact of the matter is that when a woman is pregnant we are now dealing with two human beings, two bodies; not one. This is why the matter isn’t, contrary to popular pro-choice opinion, merely private. The law needs to balance the well-being of two humans, and since the legal right to life is as important as any other protection, it must (in most cases) be given preference over bodily autonomy. The legal right to bodily autonomy is not more important than the right to life, and thus whilst abortion may be permissible in some cases – such as where the life of a woman is at stake – it isn’t justified in any or all cases simply out of respect for bodily autonomy.

Stephen J. Graham

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The Argument that Terrifies Pro-Lifers…Scared, Are You!?

I don’t normally fall for anything that sounds remotely like click-bait, but I was just too curious about this argument that pro-lifers are supposed to be terrified of. What was it? It came in the shape of a thought-experiment: if you found yourself in a burning lab and had time to save a baby in one room or 10 embryos in the other, which would you choose? The question is rhetorical: the pro-lifer – surely – will choose the baby. However, in doing so he or she is denying the full humanity of the embryos – the very thing on which their entire pro-life case rests! If the pro-lifer really believed embryos are fully human then they would save the embryos and let the baby die, an action which flies in the face of our moral intuition that tells us it is obviously right to save the baby.

So, there we have it: the “Terrifying Argument.”

I confess myself………..disappointed.

Firstly, it is patently false to suggest that the act of choosing the baby over the embryos amounts to a tacit denial of the humanity of the embryos. Allow me to use another thought experiment. Suppose the baby in one room is my own son and in the other room are other babies rather than embryos. Under these conditions – rightly or wrongly – I would choose to save my own son first. Now, whatever you make of this action –  whether it’s right or wrong, justifiable or unjustifiable, understandable or not – the point is that in saving my son first am I thereby somehow denying the full humanity of the other babies? Hardly! It’s simply my parental instinct that causes me to prioritise the life of my own son. You are free to think my actions are immoral, but you cannot rightly claim that they are driven by a denial of the humanity of the other babies.

I actually agree that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but this does not mean that the baby is more fully human than the embryo. It doesn’t even mean the baby is objectively more valuable than the embryos. All it means is that humans have certain moral intuitions (which, of course, can be completely wrong) in which babies are viewed as being of more value. After all, we can see babies, interact with them, hear them cry in pain, giggle when they fart, and smile at our funny faces. It isn’t difficult to see why we instinctively react to favour the life of the baby.

But of course, we must still face the deeper question: is it objectively wrong to save the baby over the embryos?

If you happen to be a certain breed of pro-life utilitarian then you might say that it is indeed morally wrong to save one life when you had it in your power to save ten. But why must a pro-life advocate – or anyone else for that matter – be a utilitarian of any stripe? The problems with utilitarianism are well-documented so there’s no need to expound them here. What we would need is some argument for the conclusion that it is morally wrong to save one life when it’s possible to save more than one. I’ll leave it to my readers if anyone wants to have a go at suggesting plausible candidates for such an argument or moral theory. However, I’ll note in passing that all the candidates I’ve ever been presented with cannot be maintained and are never applied consistently by their advocates. Take, for instance, charitable giving. We can give £10 to a charity that might save the sight of 2 people. But most of us who can give £10 could easily give, say, £15 and save the sight of 3 people. Are we morally wrong if we don’t live in borderline poverty and give all our money away to charity? Maybe we are, but no-one I know of lives consistently with that sort of principle.

Anyhow, there is nothing inconsistent with holding (1) that a baby is of much greater value than an embryo – such that we rightly save a baby over a bunch of embryos in a burning lab situation – and (2) that it would be wrong to intentionally kill a developing embryo in an abortion. So, not only is it the case that our moral intuitions lead us to prioritise the baby, but there are plausible reasons a pro-life advocate can offer in support of prioritising a baby over some embryos in the burning lab scenario. The baby has fundamental interests in staying alive; the death of a baby in a fire would be far more horrendous than what an embryo would experience; the baby has begun certain deep interpersonal relations of bonding with other human beings whilst the embryo has not. These are just a few of the grounds on which pro-life advocates could claim that a baby is more valuable than an embryo in a petri-dish without thereby denying that an embryo is fully human and worthy of protection from dismemberment or chemical destruction in utero.

In any event, the issue of abortion is not like the issue of choosing whether to save a baby or ten embryos. In the case of the fire in the lab we are trying to save at least one human life – and thus our actions are to some degree at least morally good. But, except in cases where a mother’s life is a stake, abortion is simply a matter of killing a human life, not of choosing to save one life over another.

It seems to me, therefore, that the Terrifying Argument is a failure on numerous fronts:

(1)    It fails to demonstrate that the embryo is not a human being worthy of protection.

(2)    It fails to demonstrate the pro-life advocate must deny his foundational belief that the embryo is a human being worthy of protection.

(3)    It fails as an analogy to abortion.

Even if we grant the Terrifying Argument in its entirety it doesn’t demonstrate that the pro-choice position is correct.

Stephen J. Graham

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Abortion & Scripture

I’m not particularly surprised, but I’ve recently discovered a number of religious organisations and individuals who offer arguments in favour of abortion explicitly on religious grounds. Take, for example, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They point out that the Bible says nothing about abortion, and surely if it considered the issue of prime importance it would have done so. Roy Bowen Ward writes, “One thing the Bible does not say is ‘Thou shalt not abort.’” He advises pro-life Christians and Jews to therefore be silent where the Bible itself is silent. Or take the words of the Reverend Mark Bigelow: “Even as a minister I am careful what I presume Jesus would do if he were alive today, but one thing I know from the Bible is that Jesus was not against women having a choice in continuing a pregnancy. He never said a word about abortion (nor did anyone else in the Bible) even though abortion was available and in use in his time.”

Now, let’s grant the claim that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention abortion. Let’s ignore also – for the sake of argument – the many passages which appear to regard the unborn as fully human. What follows from this? Does the alleged silence of scripture mean women have a God-sanctioned right to abort? I hardly see how that is the case. Why should we suppose that just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn some practice or other that it must therefore approve of it? That strikes me as a terrible piece of reasoning. The Bible is silent about a great many things. It doesn’t tell us that it’s wrong to discriminate against people of other races. It doesn’t condemn the lynching of homosexuals. It never tells us that torturing animals for kicks and giggles is not a-OK. Are we to suppose such actions are therefore morally justified? Not so long ago it was a popular line of racist argumentation to claim that because the Bible was silent on the humanity of blacks that blacks were not fully human.

Firstly, the Christian can regard many things as prohibited by scripture by inference from the sorts of principles it lays down as to how he or she should live in the world. Thus, scripture does indeed – by inference – condemn many things that it doesn’t explicitly mention. While it’s therefore true that the Bible never speaks of individual races it does tell us that all human beings are created in the image of God and are of utmost value as a result. Secondly, why should we suppose that the only moral injunctions the Christian should pay attention to are those explicitly cited in holy writ? Human have (I believe) a moral sense and an ability to engage in moral reasoning. Whilst the Bible provides the primary authority for Christians there is no reason to suppose that it should be the Christian’s sole authority. There are many things that might be right or wrong despite the (alleged) silence of scripture.

Furthermore, there might well be an explanation for the silence of the Bible on abortion. As mentioned above, the Bible is not a complete moral code. It’s a record of the life of, firstly, the Israelites, and, secondly, the early church. It concerns their life and religion, and their experiences with God and with each other. As such it primarily addresses issues of relevance to those communities. Seemingly neither the Hebrews nor the early Christians were inclined to practice abortion, and thus it shouldn’t surprise us that their writings are silent about the matter. It just wasn’t an issue. This itself is telling, particularly in light of the fact that abortion was widely practiced by the surrounding cultures. The Hebrew worldview was very different. Humans were regarded as possessing intrinsic value as a result of being made in the image of God. Children were regarded as a great blessing, a gift from God; they were not an unwanted nuisance getting in the way of life. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward,” writes the Psalmist. In fact, early on in the national psyche of the early Hebrews immortality itself was expressed through one’s descendants. In this light, barrenness was regarded as a curse. In this culture, therefore, abortion was largely unthinkable; hence the Bible’s silence. The same goes for a practice like female infanticide. Despite being widespread in the surrounding cultures it is never mentioned in the Bible, but the reason is because it wasn’t an issue for the early Hebrews, not that female infanticide is therefore morally permitted.

When we come to the New Testament and the early church a similar point can be made. The early church – and almost all the NT authors – were Jewish Christians. As such they inherited a Jewish morality. Whatever the Jews believed about abortion was almost certainly what the early Jewish Christians also believed. When we look at the Judaism of the period we find that it was staunchly opposed to abortion. The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides states: “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures.” Or take Josephus: “The law orders all the offspring be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the fetus.” It is therefore reasonable to assume – in the absence of any evidence to the contrary – that this opinion was shared by the early church of the NT period. Much of the NT was written to particular churches to address particular issues. Abortion simply wasn’t an issue. The silence of the NT is thus far more likely because of how common place moral prohibitions against abortion were, and because it simply wasn’t an issue that needed to be further addressed. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest the writers of the NT deviated from the established morality here.

If we wish to apply biblical principles to the abortion debate then it seems we must return to the most fundamental question of all: is the unborn a human being? If such is the case – and the science of embryology appears to tells us that it is – then the onus is on pro-choice Christians to show why the general biblical prohibitions against the unjust taking of a human life do not also apply to the unborn.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article (2): Abortion & Public Discourse

Is the general public now just incapable of having an intelligent discussion about an emotive subject like abortion? I rarely enter the abortion debate these days, and not because I’m a man who has no right to an opinion – I do – but because the level of public debate is now so juvenile that rarely can any good come from being involved in it. What is a critically important issue – a matter of life and death – deserves to be approached carefully, and perhaps with a certain level of gravitas. Instead the public debate is a noxious mix of cheap sloganeering, crass commentary, and venomous vitriol against anyone with a contrary opinion.

Abortion was one of the big issues discussed during the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections, largely due to a criminal case in which a woman received a suspended sentence for procuring abortion pills to administer her own abortion because she couldn’t afford to travel to mainland Britain where abortion – under certain circumstances – is freely and legally available on the NHS. However, rarely has public ignorance been so stark than when it came to discussing abortion. On a political debate programme one audience member claimed that a baby “shouldn’t be considered human” until it’s born. Another remarked that it’s irrelevant that a foetus has human DNA because, after all, “a banana has human DNA.” Sadly such mindless and uninformed comments were not isolated. They reflect the general level of the public debate recently.

Catchy slogans have replaced carefully nuanced argument. Prolife people are told to “get your rosaries off my ovaries,” as if everyone who opposes abortion is a practicing Roman Catholic. When two evangelicals appeared on TV as part of panel discussion the comments aimed at them were hideously ugly. There was next to no engagement with any of their points, as critics were over-focused on the fact that they held a religious faith. Consider also the well worn “my body my rights” slogan, used to silence those who disagree, when the fact of the matter is abortion is an ethical issue precisely because it isn’t just a woman’s body that is at stake. Perhaps the most ridiculous slogan touted was: “If abortion is murder then a blowjob is cannibalism,” because pro-life people argue for the full humanity of sperm cells, right? A classic case of trying to be smart and witty, but instead sounding silly and classlessly vulgar.

Nor can we let the so-called “prolife” movement off the hook here. Sadly many vulnerable young women are verbally abused by “prolife” activists simply for entering the premises of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. They are often called sluts or murderers. A friend of mine received abuse at the hands of these zealots, who mistakenly thought she too was entering the clinic when in fact she was going to the offices next door. Additionally, we have the rather disgusting spectacle of placards bearing the mangled bodies of foetuses, images which don’t belong in a public place, and from which I’ve had to shield a young child.

Even the terms “prolife” and “prochoice” create a false dichotomy and contribute to a general lack of nuance in the public arena. Bernadette Smyth, the leader of Precious Life – a rather extreme anti-abortion group who would outlaw abortion under any circumstances – makes much of the fact that Northern Ireland is “prolife,” claiming the majority agree with her. The truth is a tad more complicated. Whilst Northern Irish people are perhaps more reserved about abortion than the rest of the United Kingdom, to say they agree with the staunch “no abortion in any circumstances” position of Precious Life is wildly inaccurate. There’s an entire spectrum of views. A majority would agree with abortion when the mother’s life is at serious risk. A large portion of this group would also agree with abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and perhaps slightly fewer would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. And of course people will disagree about the time limit for abortions – 12 weeks, 20 weeks, 24 weeks. Very few people are either utterly against abortion or in favour of it under any circumstances right up to 9 months of pregnancy (despite the fact that many of the standard “pro-choice” slogans logically support abortion on demand for any reason at any stage of pregnancy).

Everyone has a right to an opinion, but too few want to do the difficult spade-work of serious moral reflection. What features of human life make it valuable? When does a human being become conscious? What is personhood and when does a being possess it? Does abortion cause pain to a sentient being? At what stage does a being deserve to be protected from being killed? Is there a moral difference between a being inside the womb and one outside, and if so why? What are human rights, where do they come from, and when can a human be said to possess them?

These are just a few of the difficult questions we must face with abortion. Unless you are willing to seriously reflect on them your opinion will be little more than a clanging cymbal.

Stephen J Graham

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Abortion & Men

Below is a section from a longer article on debating abortion. It concerns the popular sentiment from a growing number within the pro-choice movement that men have no right to an opinion or that abortion is none of our business.


This response is incredibly tiresome but I have yet to debate abortion without my opponent bringing it up. I was even told by another man that because we were men we had no right to an opinion on the matter. Ironically, this was stated right after he had given his own – “pro-choice” – opinion!

I have yet to be informed as to precisely how my having a penis is any hindrance whatsoever to my ability to rationally analyse the scientific evidence concerning the beginning of life, the philosophical question of personhood, the biological facts about life development, or issues of viability, disability, or mortality. In fact in plain experiential understanding of the realities of pregnancy and child birth I have discovered that I often far outstrip even many of my female opponents. I know what it’s like when it dawns on you that you’re going to be a parent. I know what it’s like to see my child for the first time at 12 weeks on a hospital scan. Due to certain complications I got to see many more scans over the months that followed and watched my son grow in the womb of my wife. I know what it’s like to be there every step of the way through a difficult pregnancy and a child birth hit by the complications of an ovarian cyst. My wife was very ill after giving birth, and was required to remain in hospital for a week afterwards. I may not have carried a life inside my body, but to think that this means I didn’t understand what was going on is pure unadulterated nonsense. I’ve lived it.

Furthermore, the idea that abortion has no effect on men is at best factually incorrect, and at worse a horrendous instance of the kind of sexism that would be censured if it was stated the other way around. Being a father is a big deal. Being a father has completely turned my life on its head. Utterly. When a woman contemplates an abortion it’s not just her own well-being and future at stake in the decision. The future of the man is at stake also. When his child is aborted do you really think this has no effect on a man? In fact, in the majority of cases when a woman has an abortion without her partner’s consent the relationship subsequently breaks down. We’re not robots. We’re not devoid of emotion. So please let’s have no more of this patronising nonsense that men should have no right to an opinion because we don’t know what it’s like or that abortion doesn’t affect us.

Of course, the argument leads to all manner of silliness: should only terminally ill people have a right to an opinion on euthanasia? Are disabled people the only ones qualified to dictate public policy concerning provision for disabled people? Are female doctors and surgeons incompetent when speaking on issues of testicular or prostate health? Perhaps all of us in the Western world should remain neutral on questions of third world aid since we don’t know what it’s like to be poor?

But, of course, the claim is merely a red-herring; little more than a lazy attempt to close off all debate, particularly when it’s going badly and a man is asking difficult questions of those who think it’s fine and dandy to take the life of an unborn child.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Abortion, Ethics

The Euphemisms of “Pro-Choice”

The issue of abortion is rarely far from the public consciousness. My own opposition to abortion is well known amongst those who know me, in particular those who have debated the issue with me recently. However, I must confess to a deep disappointment in those I have debated from the “pro-choice” lobby in recent weeks. The arguments in favour of abortion have been virtually non-existent, replaced instead mostly with ad hominem attacks. In 3 cases after I presented a pro-life case or questioned the “pro-choice” position I was immediately attacked for being a man and therefore, somehow, having no right to an opinion on the matter. Seemingly in the minds of these people having a penis somehow impedes my ability to analyse the scientific evidence concerning the beginning and nature of human life. In a further case when I asked for an argument from a “pro-choice” advocate I was told that “there’s no point in arguing with people who are religious so I won’t bother.” This was strange since up to this point nothing in our debate had been religious or spiritual in nature or content.

In almost every case my opponents wrote about abortion in terms which are grossly inaccurate. John Powell once was remarked that, “Language is something like the sugar coating on the ideas which we swallow and digest.” When an idea is repugnant it’s easier to get people to swallow it if we dress it up in language that suggests something else. Way back in America in the 1970’s the abortion debate was raging in the aftermath of the Roe v Wade and Bolton v Doe decisions (which legalised abortion on demand in all 50 States for the full 9 months of pregnancy). When the proponents of abortion were making their case they knew that public opinion would be against them if they spoke of the ending of a human life in the womb; so they needed a vocabulary to speak of abortion that avoided mention of the tiny human killed in each act. One of the terms coined way back then remains in popular usage: “terminating a pregnancy.” Proponents of abortion knew it was easier to gain public acceptance for killing babies in the womb if they called it “terminating a pregnancy,” and avoided mention of the human life altogether.

Occasionally I do meet “pro-choice” advocates who deny that abortion really is the ending of a human life. Such a viewpoint is pure wanton ignorance for which there is no scientific support. Doctor Bernard Nathanson (one of the leading pro-abortion voices in American until converting to the pro-life cause) wrote:

“Why did I change my mind? Well, to begin with, it was not from religious conviction, because as I have stated on many occasions…I am an atheist…In any case, the change of mind began with the realisation, the inescapable reality that the fetus, that embryo, is a person, is a protectable human life.”

Doctor Jerome LeJeune put the matter like so:

“Life has a very, very long history but each individual has a very neat beginning, the moment of its conception. . . To accept that fact that after fertilisation has taken place, a new human has come into being, is no longer a matter of taste or of opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.”

Or Doctor Matthews-Roth, “…it is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when the egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and that this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of its life.”

To flog the goat a little more, Doctor DeMere says, “From the medical standpoint there are mountains of documents to show that the human embryo is a separate person biologically distinct from the mother.” This human life which exists from conception becomes viable the moment it implants in the mother’s womb. Once it has done so a woman is pregnant, a new human being will grow and develop.

Therefore, owing to the sheer weight of scientific evidence proving beyond any reasonable doubt that human life begins at the moment of conception, most “pro-choice” advocates have no option but to quietly accept that this is so but do all in their power to avoid mention of it publically. Hence “terminating a pregnancy” rather than “terminating a human life.” “Terminating a pregnancy” is a euphemism, the sugar-coating on a horrendous idea that its advocates want us to swallow.

I have discovered that this is often the real reason “pro-choice” advocates complain so aggressively against the kinds of images made public by pro-life advocates. It is true that these pictures are grizzly, greatly disturbing, and deeply saddening. These images have haunted me. They’ve made me sick. They’ve made me shed tears. But they illustrate the horrible truth that in every abortion a human life is ended, either by having his or her body crushed or cut to pieces, or by having his or her skin and internal organs burnt and dissolved by chemical solutions. They expose the “pro-choice” euphemism of “terminating a pregnancy” and show us exactly what that means: the destruction of a human life.

Regrettably the “pro-choice” case is full of this kind of language, this sort of sugar coating to make repugnant ideas more palatable. Another popular form of language is that of the “private choice” of women to do what they want with “their own body.” Again, all mention of the human life being taken is conveniently glossed over in this attempt to close off all discussion and critique under the auspices that abortion is none of our business and should be left to the individual woman to decide what she does with “her own body.” Of course the plain truth is that abortion is not a private moral decision at all. We’re not talking about the right of women to have cancerous growths cut out from their bodies. We’re talking about the destruction of a human life, a life that is biologically distinct from the woman’s own life. The human life in question has his or her own genetic code, blood-type, fingerprints, beating heart, nervous system, and of course can be a completely different sex from the mother altogether. Furthermore, this human life feels pain independently of the mother, can be healthy even when the mother is unwell, can be awake even when his or her mother is sleeping.

For this reason abortion must be seen as more than just a “private decision.” There are two lives – two bodies – involved: not just one.

Amongst the more ridiculous examples of a pro-choice advocate trying to lessen the weight behind the fact that abortion ends a human life came at me a week or two ago during a debate. My opponent’s contention was that abortion kills a foetus but not a baby because a foetus does not become a baby until 24 weeks. When I challenged her on this she made no attempt at a justification, either scientific or ethical. Instead I was told I was a man and therefore had no right to an opinion. This response surprised me as I had merely asked a simple question: what is different between a foetus at 23 weeks and one at 24 that suddenly confers “baby status” on it? Moreover, given that a 4 year old child could in many cases be more advanced than a 5 year could it not also be the case that in many instances a 23 or 22 weeks old “foetus” be more advanced than a 24 week old foetus? What scientific grounds are there for such an arbitrary line between “foetus” and “baby?” “You’re a man, what would you know.” There’s nothing like a good piece of ad hominem when your opponent unmasks your ridiculous position for what it is, eh?

What my opponent conveniently overlooked is that the word “foetus” simply refers to a particular stage of human development, (in fact the word literally means “unborn child”). Throughout our lives we are called by many names: zygote, embryo, foetus, baby, infant, toddler, child, teenager, adult. We are fully human the entire time regardless of what particular stage we’re at. We tend to use the word “foetus” to describe a human being in the womb, and the word “baby” to describe a human being once it has left. From foetus to baby there is absolutely no fundamental biological change.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching my own son grow in the womb of my wife. I’ve seen the scans – more than most people get to see because of certain complications we had to face during the 9 months which required more frequent hospital visits. I still remember him at 12 weeks the very first time I saw him: spinning, moving – frantically moving – twisting, turning and so full of life. Of course everyone – me, my wife, relatives, doctors, midwives, nurses, GPs – referred to him as “baby.” But when a baby is earmarked for destruction the “pro-choice” advocates suddenly adopt a very different language – a language of dehumanisation. Other terms are used: “clump of cells,” “potential life” (a ridiculous term you’ll never hear a biologist use), “product of conception.” But these are words no-one ever uses in any other context. No woman ever says “wow, my clump of cells just moved there,” or “the potential life just kicked,” or “I saw the product of conception sucking its thumb.” We know the truth: there’s a human being in there. “Pro-choice” advocates wish to obscure this truth and once again the tactic of choice is euphemism: get the general public to swallow horrendous ideas by covering them in sugar-coated language that masks reality.

Abortion is an issue that isn’t going to leave the debate scene anytime soon. But whether we are for it or against it we should at least be accurate about what it is: the destruction of a human life.

Stephen J Graham

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Filed under Abortion, Ethics