“Roe Isn’t Just About Women’s Rights. It’s About Everyone’s Personal Liberty.” was the title of an opinion piece in The Washington Post on July 8. It is one of many articles written about the possibility of a new member of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. How can Christians best think about and discuss this issue with others?
As is true in all other important discussions, underlying assumptions lead to different conclusions and therefore different positions. Ultimately those underlying assumptions are philosophical (related to the areas of epistemology—what we can know, ontology—what is real, and ethics—how we should live). So what are the underlying philosophical and assumptions in this conversation? How do they lead to the different positions people have and continue to take on the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and whether a future decision should overturn it?
In this nine-week series I will (1) identify the central underlying philosophical issue, (2) explain the two different positions related to this issue, (3) show why one is more reasonable than the other, (4) apply this to the morality of abortion, as well as four related issues in biomedical ethics: stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, genetic testing, and human cloning, and (5) offer final comments on how we can engage courteously yet effectively in discussions with others about these often emotion-laden issues, in order to promote human flourishing and the common good.
The Ultimate Question: What Is The “Fetus”?
Nancy Northup, the author of the Washington Post opinion piece (and President and Chief Executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights), indicates her answer to this fundamental question throughout her article. She assumes that the fetus is ultimately and fundamentally a part of the mother’s body. She repeatedly uses phrases such as: “[the issue is of] women’s reproductive rights,” is an issue in the “realm of personal liberty,” “liberty cannot exist if we are not free to make decisions about our lives, bodies, and health free from government interference,” “Invite the government to exert control over a woman’s body, and invite tyranny over our most intimate and personal life decisions.”
Given this assumption, she is a staunch defender of “a woman’s right to abortion.” Many commenting on Ms. Northup’s article agreed. One opined, “A group of cells is not a person.” Another stated, “Abortion isn't murder because a fetus isn't a person.”
I also agree with Ms. Northup’s conclusion, if her assumption is correct. If she is right in believing the fetus is essentially a part of her body, similar to her liver or kidney, then what she does with it is her decision alone. In this case, all women most certainly should be provided, under the Constitution, the right to an abortion, as women are afforded the right to other healthcare options concerning their bodies.
Those who disagree with Ms. Northup begin with a different assumption. They assume a fetus is a human person. Based on this, the fetus is a baby who happens to be quite small and temporarily taking up residence inside the mother’s womb. But the baby’s size and location does not make her or him any less of a person, and therefore any less valuable as a person, and therefore any less worthy of legal protection.
If this assumption is correct, then abortion is murder and should be outlawed (including overturning Roe v. Wade). It makes no difference where the person lives, how big it is (“A person’s a person, no matter how small,” as Dr. Seuss wrote in Horton Hears a Who), or what it can or cannot do at the moment. Laws are designed to protect the innocent and needy, and a baby in utero certainly qualifies as both.
Two Opposite Assumptions
Both of these positions are reasonable, given their starting assumptions. The question is which is the correct starting assumption? What is the fetus: a part of the woman’s body or a unique individual? Determining what it is to be a human person, ,and if the fetus qualifies, will definitively determine the morality of abortion. As one person who commented on Ms. Northup’s article rightly observed, “this is the crux of the matter: What is the unborn? That is the question that must be addressed in this issue.”
The good news is that there are only two answers to this question. The bad news is that to decide between them requires thinking deeply about ontology (the branch of philosophy which studies the nature of being, in this case what it is to be a human person—its “nature” or “essence”).
Unfortunately, many (on both sides of the issue) do not think very deeply about this issue. Therefore their starting assumption is not identified, analyzed, or defended, and the conversation remains at a superficial level. People talk past one another, don’t hear or understand one another’s point of view, and insult one another. The comments to Ms. Northup’s article illustrate this well. I hope that Christians will be more thoughtful, understand the underlying issues, and articulate them in clear yet respectful ways.
The Functionalist Definition
One definition of personhood is “functional,” This is the assumption underlying Ms. Northup’s article and her work at the Center for Reproductive Rights (though she doesn’t identify or defend this assumption in the article). On this view “personhood” is defined as being able to function in various ways. Though there is debate over what the essential function is which confers personhood, many take “viability” (the ability to live outside the mother’s womb) to be the function that confers personhood on a fetus. (This definition was assumed in Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.)
Many who commented on Ms. Northup’s article assumed the functionalist definition:
- “I personally am okay with abortion up until there are organized brain waves and the ability to breathe.”
- “A heartbeat does not define life. A person with a heartbeat who lacks organized brain waves can be taken off all life support. So the heartbeat means nothing without organized brainwaves and the ability to breathe.”
- “The fetus is nothing more than a bunch of unsupported cells once removed from the mother’s uterus. Therefore until it can survive independently it should be afforded no human rights.”
The Essentialist Definition
The second option is to define the fetus as a human person in virtue of essential properties she/he possesses. In this case, its functional abilities at any given state before (or after) birth are irrelevant. What is relevant is that he/she has a unique, human soul (an individuated human nature, which I’ll explain in more detail later). In this case, he/she is a unique human person, ontologically distinct from the mother, in whom he/she happens to temporarily reside.
A minority of those who commented on Ms. Northup’s article began with this assumption:
- “Does not personal liberty extend to the fetus? A fetus is a human.”
- “No definition of responsibility is compatible with killing another human being.”
- “[T]he fetus is a distinct and different organism from the mother, separate DNA, etc.”
- “The unborn baby is not the women's body . . murdering any human entity is immoral.”
How Do We Choose The Right Answer?
A great deal rests upon us determining which beginning assumption is correct—Functionalism or Essentialism. Assumptions, like everything else, can be analyzed and evaluated, so that we can embrace true assumptions and reject false assumptions.
In the remainder of this series, I will attempt to sketch out the critical issues, distinctions, and arguments to help answer this question. I hope this discussion provides helpful conceptual resources for you to come to a well-reasoned beginning assumption, and therefore well-grounded conclusion concerning the morality of abortion, and many related issues in biomedical ethics.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics by Scott B. Rae (Chapter 6: Abortion, last section entitled “The Personhood of the Fetus”). For a more detailed treatment see Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics by J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae.