In the wake of President Biden’s “Memorandum on Protecting Women’s Health at Home and Abroad,” the topic of abortion has returned to the fore of public discourse. Perhaps for many, such as those who participated in this year’s virtual March for Life, it never left. Whatever its status, though, this debate has a way of becoming unproductive rather quickly.
At its worst, discussion devolves into shouting. “You are murdering babies!” In reply: “You don’t care about women!” It is indeed a sad state of affairs and a damn near intractable problem when framed in such a light. Unfortunately, I do not have space here to delve into the tradeoffs involved in these extremes. Suffice it to say that I think presenting pregnancy as a choice between a well-rounded life and drudgery is a false one (even for those who do not want a family). And telling others that they are murderers has a way of forcefully short-circuiting productive dialogue.
My focus is instead on the essence of the abortion debate: Is a fertilized ovum, called a zygote, a human? This is a more exact way of asking if life begins at conception because what we are really interested in is whether or not a single living cell can be regarded for moral and legal purposes as fully human. If it can, it seems obvious that it deserves what all humans have, namely, a right to life. I mean the phrase ‘right to life’ in the same way Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence. That is, a right that prohibits harm at the hands of others and, particularly, harm that leads to death.
If pro-life advocates wish to make progress, we cannot rely on those who disagree being moved by the image of God lovingly knitting children together in the womb. We cannot simply charge murder and only be able to point to the human-looking thing on a sonogram as evidence that a human has been killed. To be clear, I think this commonsense evidence is convincing, but it will not do to lament that others do not. We need to find a philosophically robust way to counter them that is grounded in science and makes abortion an obvious violation of human rights.
As John Finnis has noted in his paper “The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion,” this debate need not involve rights at all. What is truly at issue is what is morally required, with rights only playing a tangential role. However, I revert to the language of rights in order to gather into this discussion the civil dissenters on whose votes our hopes for legal change depend. These are the people who affirm that abortion is wrong but do not think that they should be able to tell others what is morally required.
My response is that such limitations of interference only go so far. Imagine saying, “I think rape is wrong, but I don’t like telling others what to do.” If a human is truly a human all the way from zygote to grave, then these dissenters cannot rely on civil distance and must explain why some humans do not have or deserve basic rights that others do. That burden of proof is one that I would find hard to bear.
For most pro-choice advocates, this burden never arises. When asked whether or not a zygote is a human, they answer is that it is, in fact, not. Zygotes become embryos; embryos become fetuses; fetuses become babies. It is not until this latter stage that any real moral problem arises. Until then, women can decide with impunity what to do with their bodies, which in this instance include the mass of cells parasitizing them.
Masses of cells feel no pain, have no thoughts, develop no relationships. In short, none of the essentially human features immediately recognizable in adults are present in these bio-pollutants. Getting rid of them, then, has no moral weight and should have no legal weight either.
These people are rarely asked to explain what makes their own bodies more than a mere clump of cells. Surely it is not solely these higher-order abilities such as thought. If that is all that makes a person human, why care about bodily integrity or autonomy? Why make claims about what women can do with their bodies if in the end all that matters is thought? Furthermore, if such higher-order functions are truly what makes one a human, why do babies—who have no such organized and rational thoughts—make the cut?
I will admit that I see the allure of such a position. Higher-order behaviors are the most unique thing about us as a species, and claiming that our humanity lies most truly in the exercise of that ability is not a terrible first stab at defining the concept. The problem is that it leads one inevitably to claim that babies are not humans. It also commits one to claiming that adults are not humans much of the time, e.g., when sleeping or on “auto-pilot.”
Two things are clear from our questions. First, the capacity to engage in higher-order behavior is crucial to the concept ‘human.’ We are still human when we sleep and are babies, but all that we can say about thought and pain and emotion in these states is that we are able to participate in them given the right conditions, such as being a conscious adult. Second, having a body is crucial to the concept as well. Life, as such, is a biological phenomenon and takes place in physical systems. We need a body to be human.
Unlike pro-choice advocates, we have an answer to what makes us more than a mere clump of cells. We recognize that humans are an organized integration of living material and systems. We are composed of trillions of cells working together in concerted processes each of which serves some function.
A function is not random like a lightning strike or senseless like a rock falling to the ground. Functions serve a purpose; they are actions aimed at some end. The function of a hammer is to push nails into a substance. The function of a knife is to cut. Cutting is the function of a knife because it is the purpose for which knives exist.
Each system in our body, from cells to organs, serves a purpose. It has a function. For example, the function of the cardiovascular system is to oxygenate and circulate blood. And the ultimate aim, goal, or end of all of these systems is to preserve a human life. Our bodies are united into a cohesive whole by us, by our life. We are not a random clump of cells but an organized integration, with every system and subsystem doing its part to serve the final end of sustaining our life.
It is this purpose that makes a human body meaningful and integrated. It is directed toward human life, and that directedness is present at every stage of our existence, including in zygotes. Being so directed means that the very capacities which even pro-choice advocates prize as uniquely human (feeling, thinking, expressing, forming relationships, etc.) are present from the first moment of conception.
When a sperm cell collides with an ovum, a new variation of the human theme is formed. The resulting zygote is a novel and unique iteration of DNA, not merely a side-by-side of the parents’ DNA. This new code is the ‘epigenetic primordia’ that, so long as it is situated within a properly functioning zygote, contains all the potentiality and capacity we recognize in fully grown adults.
It is pointless to claim that, because we do not yet see fingers and toes and brain activity, the zygote is not human. The same developmental tendency and life-preserving directedness that unifies an adult body is present here. To strip a zygote or embryo or fetus of this distinction is to dissolve our own bodies of their unity and reduce us to mere clumps of cells as well.
It is from this standpoint that I think the best defense for the unborn lies. The question is about the concept ‘human,’ not whether or not it would be more convenient or conducive to a career to abort a child. I am quite sure that murder and slavery have their own convenience to offer for those who think no moral problem is at stake in them.
Conception marks the beginning of human life. It is the first stage in a developmental story that is true for all of us. The final stage is death, and that is true for all of us as well. We regard direct action to hasten the arrival of death in another human as killing. That is precisely what abortion is. Whoever desires to deny that truth must be repeatedly shocked when, instead of a human, they see a pointless cellular conglomeration in the mirror.