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November 12, 2009


Is the idea that if the unborn is human then abortion is necessarily always wrong?

Depends on who answers.

Judith Jarvis Thomson would answer 'no.' Her answer is worthy of its own debate.

This post seems to be addressing the grass roots argument in favor of abortion which is based on the idea that the unborn are not yet human beings. As flimsy as this idea is, many people still try to make this appeal when discussing the issue at the popular level. This challenge then is an appropriate way to encourage average people to examine their reasoning on such a grave issue.


I'll buy that. I'd say arguing that the unborn isn't human, so abortion is okay, is a pretty weak argument. The way it's being stated here, and in Alan's earlier post, sounds like he's saying if the unborn is human, then abortion is never acceptable. That's also a pretty weak argument (although not as weak).

I'm all for people examining their reasoning more closely on this.


I'm sorry, I wish to understand what you mean: You reckon it is a weak argument to say that if the unborn is human, then abortion will always be wrong?

So, are there any instances where ending the life of a human entity (and a completely innocent one, at that, according to human laws) can be tolerated? Are there any examples where this would not be murder?


Yes, there are instances where ending the life a a human can be tolerated. Self defense is a good example.

You have added an additional premise, not found in the original post: that the human in question is completely innocent. Should we include that as a valid premise? I would accept it, but as I understand orthodox Christianity, it is not a valid assumption in the Christian worldview. (As we are in a Christian-hosted forum, I try to consider such things.)

Provisionally accepting the "completely innocent" premise, there is the case of 'collateral damage' in war. That is tolerated. (Whether it should be tolerated is a different question). When deciding to bomb Germany and Japan in WWII, the decision makers knew it was almost certain that completely innocent people (including infant and unborn humans) would die as a result. They considered the benefits to outweigh that cost. It is not a pleasant calculation, but it has been depressingly common.

Eric, if the unborn isn't a human being, what would be a reason to take issue with abortion? And if the unborn are human beings, what in your mind are good reasons to take their lives?

I believe the "completely innocent" refers to the "human laws" not to moral standing before God.

With regard to the killing of innocent (at least in human terms) human beings, Christians believe war is a special case of destroying an enemy who will harm you or those you have pledged to protect (self defense in a larger context). Thus, considerations in war would go towards minimizing the loss of innocent life while ensuring that those considerations do not prevent the enemy from being destroyed.

The only time I can see a self defense argument used in the case of the unborn is to save the life of the mother (which I think everyone here would agree is a justified case for the destruction of an unborn life, while still being a tragedy).

So outside of self defense and war, what possible justification can there be to take the life of a human being who has broken no laws?


You are rephrasing the argument often offered by Greg Koukl: If the unborn is not human, then no justification is necessary. If the unborn is human, then no justification is adequate. (If you are making a different argument, can you clarify the differences so I can understand them?) Do you disagree with the example of collateral damage in wartime being an adequate justification, or should we be charging everyone from the President down to the pilots and gunners with murder?

To answer your question directly, I think preventing a Hitlerian conquest of the world is a sufficient justification for taking actions which will almost certainly result in the death of innocent unborn humans. Do you disagree?


"So outside of self defense and war, what possible justification can there be to take the life of a human being who has broken no laws?"

Before we move on, let's wrap up our unfinished business first. You agree that fact that something is human does not mean there is no justification for killing it? We have two examples already (self defense and wartime collateral damage), that show that this idea is not true, one of which holds even if the human is innocent and even if the action resulting in its death is taken voluntarily and with full knowledge of the almost certainly fatal consequences.

Once we've established that the argument implied in the Alan's post is flawed, we can decide if we want to move on to other arguments.

(I don't wish to misrepresent anyone's position here. If Alan's position is not as I have inferred, then I am happy to have him clarify.)

Technically we have three justifications for the taking of human life:
1. War (with the corollary that it must be minimized)
2. Self defense
3. Criminal punishment

If you will agree with those three, we can continue. Are there any justifications you wish to add?


The same principle that supports item 1 would support other things. The question becomes one of 'drawing the line'. I'm not sure how deep I want to go into this. Basically, bad arguments bug me, and sometimes I can't resist pointing out the flaws. You will note that I have not given my position on abortion. I have simply taken issue with a bad argument. I do this with the "pro-choice" side as well. (For example, I will point out that 'pro-choice' is not a good description of their position. It's really quite a poor label.)

It's a very polarized issue, and people seem to be drawn very sharply to one end or the other, and once there they cease rational thought on the question.

When you read my comments, you can see that what I've said fits the pattern of,

"Argument A against Proposition B is a flawed argument."

That does not tell you what I think of Proposition B. It only tells you what I think of Argument A. I often reserve my strongest criticism for bad arguments in favor of things I believe to be true (if it's true, there should be good arguments for it). I'm not saying that's necessarily the case here. The problem with so many issues is that once you make your opinion known, people stop considering your arguments, or your critiques of their arguments.

Thank you for explaining that. I will attempt to resist probing your point of view and look only at your critiques of my argument.

Maybe I just have a mental block in this area, but I don't see how the "special case" of war can be applied to other areas.

First of all, when I speak about war I am not referring to all wars (I gave a brief definition earlier). I am referring to the "just war" concept, using the following rules:

1. The aggressor must have the potential to damage the nation in a manner that is lasting, grave, and certain,
2. All other means of resolving the potential conflict must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective,
3. There must be serious prospects of success if war is undertaken, and
4. The use of armed conflict must not produce other evils and disorders graver than the evil being eliminated by going to war in the first place.

Using those criterion eliminates a large number of wars and creates an even more specialized case. It is only within that specialized case that taking innocent life is justified and only (rule 4) if more innocent lives are saved by doing so than by not killing.

Please show me how this special case can be applied to other areas. Feel free to give examples and I will do my best to learn from the argument and not to attack you personally.

Giving my own post a little more thought, the case of just war is in fact not a real special case but a "count the cost" kind of situation.

In either alternative innocent people will die. One alternative will save more innocent people than the other. Choose this one.

Is that more clear?


As you said indicate your follow up comment, the case in war is justified by a utilitarian calculation. It is assumed that some harm will come, and the goal is to minimize that harm. The WWII examples are just to point to a case where a lot of people agree with the utilitarian calculation. It's conceivable to take this calculation to a different extreme. Perhaps by aborting a 6th child, a mother will be able to afford sufficient food, medical care, etc. for herself and her 5 children. She is able to save enough money to send the children to college. They are able to escape the cycle of poverty. Their better childhood nutrition and their higher education level and resulting better economic position results in longer lives and better quality of life for the 5 children.

The example is contrived, and I don't think I did very well presenting it. I hope you get the idea of where I'm going with it. I'm not saying I would make this decision, but this is an extension of the same logic that leads us to accept civilian deaths in war. The issue is where the balance is reached, and if there is anything other that goes into the equation that we have left out.


" I will attempt to resist probing your point of view and look only at your critiques of my argument. "

You can probe my views, I just may not always respond to your satisfaction. I mostly want to be clear that I don't only criticize arguments against my views. I will also criticize arguments in favor of my view, if I think the argument is bad. I've become particularly aware that I should point this out when it comes to the issue of abortion. It is such an emotional issue that it is especially susceptible to falling into ad hominem - and not just on one side of the argument.

Hi Eric

It sounds like you are taking the war on poverty a little to literally.

Not only that, but the unborn are not at war with us.

To apply the "civilian casualty" logic to killing innocent human beings because it may help economically or socially is a little scary. Didn't we see something like this with Stalin?

Why would you be exempt?

There doesn't seem to be anything to win on this challenge.

That sucks.

Oh well.

The dude didn't register his own .com name.

I bought it and took the challenge:

LOL :)


I think you've misunderstood the argument. The fetuses and infants in Berlin in 1945 also were not at war with anyone. The argument is about achieving the optimal balance between total good and total harm. Civilian casualties in war is just one example of this calculation in action. The hard part is determining where the balance occurs. (I think there is also something else that comes into the calculation, but no one else has mentioned that yet.)

Eric, it would be pretty flimsy to say that an unborn baby is at war with anyone, so that defense of abortion is inadequate.
Self-defense? If having a baby poses a health risk to a mother, any doctor worth his salt is still going to try to save both lives. If he can't, then he must do triage, but there is a difference between triage and playing God with life just because someone thinks a baby is inconvenient. And that's why most abortions occur -- not because of rape, incest or health risk to mothers. My information on that fact comes from the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
Criminal punishment? Our laws punish people who have been tried and found guilty of breaking our laws. What abortions can you cite that were necessary to punish unborn offenders? I think all of us would be curious about such cases, because they would be turning our criminal justice system upside-down.

I am bothered by Psalm 137:9 that says "Happy be he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."

Johnnie, do you know the context for that imprecatory psalm?
And do you realize that Psalm 137:9 is not a justification for abortion?
In Psalms of these nature, the Israelites are lamenting how they have been treated by their enemies, namely hostile nations and kings. The psalmist is asking God, the final Judge, to deal harshly with those enemies. There is a difference between dealing with someone yourself and asking God to apply His standard of perfect justice to the person who wronged you.

Heath Griner,

I'm afraid I 'm not understanding how your comments are related to what I've said. Are you agreeing with me, disagreeing with me, or just making some additional comments? If you are disagreeing with me, can you point out what I've said that you are attempting to rebut?

Heath Griner,

Here are the last two verses of Psalm 137 (I'm using the NIV). I will give two possible versions for a verse 10 (the Psalm ends with 9). Please tell me which of the two you think most closely approximates the sense in which the Psalm is intended.

8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-

9 he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

1. "I don't want anyone to actually do this, because it would be a bad thing"
2. "I want this to happen someday, because it will be a good thing"

Is 1 or 2 more faithful to the original intent?


I read your page addressing the "challenge". I think you've missed the mark (although the questions you raise are interesting in their own right). You address the question from a genetic definition of human, but I don't think it's currently up for debate whether or not a fetus is genetically human. No one is questioning that the fetus, if allowed to reach term, will be a human. The fact that no one questions this is what makes the challenge seem so disingenuous. The important question is not "is the unborn human?", but "is the unborn a person with rights, particularly the right of self-ownership?". Even with an affirmative answer to that, the question of the legitimacy of abortion is still open.

This supposed challenge is like Richard Dawkins offering to stop criticizing Christianity if someone can prove to him that Muhammad didn't write the Quran.

Heath Griner,

The relevance of Psalm 137:9 to abortion is that if infanticide is permissible under Psalm 137:9 and fetuses are human, killing a fetus is infanticde and is permissible under Psalm 137:9.


Are you a human?

If so, how did you come to that conclusion?

Johnnie, that Psalm isn't making the case that infanticide is permissible. That's why I asked if you knew the context.

Heath Griner:

I made the link between infanticide and abortion. So the whole abortion discussion (whether involving Psalm 137:9 or any other part of Scripture) needs to be recast as a discussion on infanticide.

I don't think anyone should be wasting any time on a person like Eric.

He seems to be an obsessive, endlessly philosophizing which ultimately leads nowhere. He reminds me of the person who says, "Well, who created God?" He could go on ad infinitum, from which no real knowledge could ever be grasped.

It's not that hard to see that the argument in question involves legalized abortion -- yet he has managed to hijack the question to include war, self-defense etc.

Quite simply, nothing will ever convince him; skeptics insist on an impossible standard of evidence.


>> ToNy, Are you a human?

Assuming i couldn't talk - like a fetus can, how might you ascertain to the answer to your question?



Well his question is:

"If somebody can respond with an argument, proving with science that the unborn fetus is not human, I’ll shut down this YouTube channel."

So all we need now is a definition of the word "human".

The problem is...

There isn't one.

'Human being' is so ambiguous a concept that nothing can be 'scientifically proved' about it (whatever you happen to prove, the answer can be given that 'we were saying 'being' in a different sense'.
For myself, I think that 'human being' (as opposed to 'human organism' or 'human cell') refers essentially to PERSONHOOD, and this necessitates CONSCIOUSNESS. So, before the emerging of the 'firings' of neurons in the cortex, nothing like a 'person' exists in the embryo.
Another argument, similar to this, is the following: the CESATION of brain activity is the sign of the END of HUMAN life (though the rest of the organs are ALIVE, and can be transplanted). So, by applying the SAME criterion, the STARTING of brain activity MUST be considered the begining of human life.

jesus zamora,

If consciousness is required, then would it be acceptable to kill someone if they are in non-REM sleep? What about a coma? What about when under general anesthesia in surgery, perhaps when several other people could receive life-saving organ transplants with organs harvested from the non-concious individual?

jesus zamora, in addition to what eric asked, did the pre-brain activity developing organism that eventually developed to be jesus zamora have any right to protection? If you say no because it'd be prior to you having any consciousness, I'd want to know how you answer erics questions.

jesus zamora,
if we are to say that personhood begins with consciousness, then when does consciousness begin? What level of awareness does a new born infant have? you can hardly ask them if they agree to 'i think therefore i am'. could you not argue from this that it would be ok to kill an infant because its level of awareness was so basic it was no different from an animal?

Hi ToNy,

Sorry ... forgot to check back here :(

If you are still around ...

The funny thing with your assertion that we can't define "human" is that there is no such confusion in our society, assuming we put the pre-birth scenario aside.

When a man, woman or child is killed, our justice systems do not require that the humanity of the victum first be proved. There is no mandatory screening of patients to determine if they should be treated in a hospital or referred to the local vet. I am not required to prove my child is human so they can attend school.

Simply put, you are trying to manufacture the appearance of confusion where it simply does not exist.

That said, I would still like to know if you are human.

I don't support abortion, but I'd be hardpressed to find universal condemnation of killing the unborn in the Bible.

Joshua 6:1-27- The taking of Jericho by God's people required that they "utterly [destroy] everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword."

This wasn't the sloppiness of modern warfare: each individual was slain with a sword.

What exactly could some crawling 6-month-old do to deserve such a fate? There is no mention of sparing the pregnant women, so we must assume that the unborn were here, too, slain.

Another passage is Hosea 13:16 "Samaria will be held guilty, For she has rebelled against her God. They will fall by the sword, Their little ones will be dashed in pieces, And their pregnant women will be ripped open.")

Given these passages, we have either two choices:
a) condemn abortion as a modern recognition of individual rights emanating from principles produced from the Enlightenment while rejecting Scripture as providing infallible moral advice
b) accept Scripture as inerrant while accepting abortion as potentially a moral good, depending on who's doing the killing.

>>What exactly could some crawling 6-month-old do to deserve such a fate?

John, the nation was being judged--wiped out as a culture after God gave a 400 year reprieve when their sin as a culture (a culture which would perpetuate that sin indefinitely if allowed to remain) became too great. This is the same kind of judgment God brought against the world in the flood. This has nothing to do with a general principle that it's okay to kill the unborn any more than it means it's okay to kill your adult neighbor, even though both were killed in God's judgment in this instance.


"This has nothing to do with a general principle that it's okay to kill the unborn any more than it means it's okay to kill your adult neighbor, even though both were killed in God's judgment in this instance. "
Doesn't it have something to with with the logic of Greg Koukl's argument against abortion? "No justification is adequate"?
"the nation was being judged--wiped out as a culture after God gave a 400 year reprieve when their sin as a culture (a culture which would perpetuate that sin indefinitely if allowed to remain) became too great."
Is it your opinion that there was adequate justification for killing these unborn humans?

As far as the original post is concerned, can someone tell me how many humans exist in an eight cell embryo in a Petri dish?

In response to Amy…

God created us. God can kill us at any time. We are all sinners. We are always living in sinful cultures, cultures that fail to listen to God. God can judge and punish at any time, and God is always justified, no matter how horrible or unjust God’s actions may appear to be to us.

Therefore, any and all acts of murder and/or genocide can be justified as the judgment of God. Any and all murders and all acts of genocide can be seen as simply God's punishment. So why is murder wrong? Why is genocide wrong? Who’s to say that any violent act against anyone isn’t the judgment of God? Who’s to say that any given act of murder and genocide wasn’t instigated and controlled by God? All of this killing is just the loving God being the loving God.

And so why the fuss over abortion? Women who have abortions are just the instruments of God. You shouldn't try to stop them. You should reward them. Maybe we could give them a land of milk and honey.

“There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.” – Jacob Bronowski

On the bright side, there actually was no flood that reduce the human populations to eight people, and there is increasing evidence that the accounts of genocide in Joshua are mostly fictional. No Canaanite genocide, so maybe God is off the hook after all.

Eric, in Greg's argument, there's only one question about the unborn in the case of abortion. The one question, after all, is "What is the unborn?" This argument is not meant to apply to any and every person in all situations--not even to every unborn child in every situation.

If something is growing inside of you and it's not human, there's no problem removing it--no justification necessary. If it's a human being, we don't have the right to kill him or her for any justification except when it's life versus life (i.e., a case where the two claims are ethically equal).

>>Is it your opinion that there was adequate justification for killing these unborn humans?

Yes, there was adequate justification for God to wipe out all the people, including the unborn children. The fact is that we only live at all at the mercy of God. Our lives belong to Him. But more than that, because we are by nature in rebellion against God, we are under His judgment from the very beginning. Rebellion against God is not something we punish on our own as individuals--that's God's prerogative. This is why the question of what God has the authority to do by virtue of His authority and role as judge of humanity has no bearing on what we can do on our own in the case of abortion.

I would also argue that what we do in war has no bearing on what's right in the case of abortion. For example, dropping the atom bomb on Japan killed unborn children. In this case, in order to stop the taking of life in war (not merely to make life better, to save money, to avoid difficulties, etc.), people were killed, including the unborn. Again, we're talking about life vs. life. This is also similar to God's blanket destruction of a culture which, in addition to being a judgment on them, was also meant to protect the world from the spreading sin that would destroy everybody. Again, in the case of the bomb, it's the government (the authority) that has the role of protecting the nation. In the case of abortion, we're talking about an individual person and another human being not threatening her life. She has neither the authority nor the role to kill another human being except to defend her life. The two situations are not analogous.

"There was adequate justification for God to wipe out all the people, including the unborn children."

But God didn't wipe out the unborn children. Human beings wiped out the unborn children. Conclusion? God uses humans to kill the humans God want to kill. And God can use human hands to kill any human at any time, including in the womb, because we're all just here at the whim of God.

So, are you going to claim that God is incapable to telling a woman that it's His judgment that the fetus should die? We have a firmly established precedent that God tells people to kill other people. How do you know what God did or did not tell any particular woman?

"She has neither the authority nor the role to kill another human being except to defend her life."

Well, God can give her the authority, right?

can someone tell me how many humans exist in an eight cell embryo in a Petri dish?

It depends, what kind of embryo is it?


" In the case of abortion, we're talking about an individual person and another human being not threatening her life. She has neither the authority nor the role to kill another human being except to defend her life."
We have the additional caveat, "except to defend her life". So the original argument needs modification. Let's put that aside for now. (I also want to put aside, for now, the fact that God is deemed exempt from this moral calculation, lest we get entangled in Euthyphro's dilemma.)

The proposition that the woman carrying the baby "has neither the authority nor the role " to abort the baby is precisely what the argument is aiming to establish. If it is to be simply asserted as true, then what is the point of the argument?

What he have here is an argument attempting to establish a position. I will summarize my understanding of the argument.

1. One human is not justified in taking the life of another human
2. An unborn child is a human
3. Abortion involves one human taking the life of an unborn child
3. Abortion is not justified

Please correct me if I have misunderstood the argument in it's original formulation. Based on this conversation, I think we all agree that the argument, as I have presented it above, is not a sound argument, because premise 1 is not true. Premises 1 and 2 were modified in the discussion to include the qualifier, "completely innocent". Then we had examples in which it was agreed that even with this qualifier, premise 1 is not true. This is even granting the major stated premise in Greg's argument, which is premise 2, that an unborn child is a [completely innocent] human.

Someone can still accept the conclusion of the argument as true, but it is not established by this argument. It does not become established by simply asserting it.

The argument,

"If the unborn is not a human person, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human person, no justification for abortion is adequate.,"

may be pithy and memorable, but it is not a sound argument. It rests on an unstated premise (premise 1 above), which is not established as true.


The embryo in question has a full complement of 46 human chromosomes.

You are making very sloppy distinctions in your arguments: just because God could tell a woman to abort her child does not mean that He would. Furthermore, the argument works just as well on anyone; God could tell you to kill your adult neighbor, that does not mean He would. Your line of reasoning would result in no murderer ever going to prison. However God did command us not to commit murder. The question at hand is one of defining whether or not abortion is in fact murder, which we are commanded not to do.

As for the flood and Canaanite issue not happening, well I would say you have taken on a rather large burden of proof.


A human embryo, by definition, is a human at a specific stage of development. The key word being development ... embryos do not become something, they are something; just something at its very early stages.

Trying to make you answer sound all cryptic doesn't change this basic biological truth.

"A human embryo, by definition, is a human at a specific stage of development."

Ok, but how many humans do we have at the eight cell stage?

"As for the flood and Canaanite issue not happening, well I would say you have taken on a rather large burden of proof."

Really? As far as the Canaanite genocide is concerned, I believe that the current consensus of archeologists...who have plenty of "proof" in that the descriptions of events in Joshua are largely fictious, or at least, these descriptions are contradicted by the available evidence.

With respect to the flood, I believe that you're the one with the fantastical Bronze Age myth. So, the burden is on you to explain why the massive amounts of geological, paleontological and genetic data available all contradict the flood myth. There is more uncertainity when discussing the history of Canaan, but when it comes to the flood, it's trivially easy to provide all the proof that is needed to demonstrated that it didn't happen.

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