Random thoughts and views of Tim Young

Abortion (Part 1): A Naive Pro-choice Argument

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This series of posts will be dedicated to examining various pro-choice arguments. I’m gonna start from what I view to be the weakest arguments then move on to stronger ones. While I’m certainly no expert on the subject I hope you will be edified by my efforts. Enjoy!

The typical “street-level” pro-choice argument goes something like this:

–1. Fetuses are not human life at conception or in the weeks following.

–2. Therefore it is morally permissible to kill a fetus

The first part of the argument (1) claims that a fetus isn’t human life–it’s more like a ‘clump of cells,’ ‘material,’ ‘a blood clot,’ ‘a part of the woman’s body,’ etc. In any case, whatever “it” is that is developing inside the mother’s body, it ain’t human life according to (1). Probably the biggest benefit of (1) is that it helps ease any emotional guilt associated with killing a fetus. After all, if the doctor is only “killing” a clump of cells then there is no reason to feel guilty– it is not as though the doctor is terminating a REAL human life. And this, I think, leads us naturally to (2): It is morally permissible for us to kill a fetus since it isn’t human life in the first place. Ultimately what we want to know is what “grounds” the moral permissibility of abortion, and according to (2) the reason why it is morally permissible to kill a fetus is just because a fetus isn’t human life.

Now, I think this argument “naïve” for two reasons: Firstly, I think it misses the fact that there is a biological consensus that human life begins at conception [1] but I’ll save much of this discussion for a later post. Needless to say, I don’t think there is any reason for us to wrestle over whether a fetus is human life or not. Secondly—and this is the point I’ll elaborate on—it is clearly a bad argument that has consequences which are very hard to swallow. Suppose, for example, that I get a new puppy and that armed with the naïve pro-choice argument presented above, I decide to make the following argument:

–1. Dogs are not human life at conception, or at any point following conception

–2. Since my puppy is a dog, and since dogs are not human life, it is morally permissible for me to kill her right now.

Clearly there would be something wrong. What right would I have to kill my new found companion? Well, according to the naïve pro-choice argument, the right to kill a fetus comes merely from the (presumed) fact that fetuses are not human life. But by that logic, we have a license to kill ANYTHING that happens to be non-human life—including my new puppy.

But surely something’s amiss here. Our society doesn’t take lightly to people who think they have the right to kill any non-human life. And with good reason too. Most of us intuitively know there is something wrong with the idea of it being permissible to terminate a life just because isn’t human life. Those who don’t share this common intuition are fined, or have their movement restricted to a 10X10 cell. [2] In any case, there is something wrong with the naïve pro-choice argument.

up next: the pro-choice response, and how we can make the pro-choice argument stronger.


[1] It is important to recognize that a biological consensus is not equivalent to a moral consensus. Even if a fetus is considered human life it doesn’t necessarily entail that abortion is morally wrong. This is clear from Judith Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” which takes for granted that a fetus is human life, Mary Anne Warren’s “On The Moral And Legal Status Of Abotion” where she argues that even if fetuses are human life in a genetic sense, they aren’t human in a moral sense, or from the simple fact that even most pro-lifers think abortion is permissible when the mothers life is in danger.

[2] I do realize that it could be the case that it is permissible to kill non-humans simply because they are non-human life, but I don’t think that is a conclusion that most pro-choicers would accept, and since we are trying to ascertain the pro-choice position, I will simply ignore this as an option.


Written by Tim

January 2, 2009 at 7:39 pm

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