Why I don’t believe abortion is murder

Right to life activists say that abortion is murder, while proponents of abortion rights say it is a matter of individual choice.  But if abortion really is murder, it can’t be a matter of individual choice.  Nobody thinks there is a right to commit murder to preserve your own life or health, nor a right to murder infants who were born as the result of rape or incest.

So is abortion murder?  Is it the taking of a human life?  My own belief is that a human life consists of a human mind in a human body.  My life extends to long as my brain functions; when that ceases, there is no point in trying to keep my brain-dead body functioning, even though the body has my DNA and meets the definition of biological life.  Similarly, my human life did not begin until I had a functioning brain and mind, capable of awareness of myself as an individual, and not did my rights as an individual begin before that point.

Religious opponents of abortion say that human identity is a question of soul, which is different from mind and brain, and that the soul enters the body or emerges at the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg.  However, in the normal course of events, most fertilized eggs perish in what is called “spontaneous abortion.”  If you believe that God created the world and its biological processes, and you also believe that God loves individual human beings, it seems hard to explain why God would create a process in which the vast majority of human souls perish almost as soon as they come into existence.  It is easier to think that the fertilized egg is only a potential human soul.

Many Christian leaders have taught that life begins at “quickening,” the independent movement of the fetus in the womb.  Click on this article and this article for some of the historic background; click on this article for an argument that human life begins with the first breath.

I am a member of a reading group which read Dante’s Divine Comedy a couple of years ago. Somewhere Dante says that the human fetus begins as a “vegetable soul,” capable of growth, develops into an “animal soul,” capable of independent movement, and later becomes a “human soul,” capable of self-awareness. This is what I think, too. It fits with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, which distinguished between the first trimester of pregnancy, in which there was a right of abortion; the second trimester, in which there was a restricted right; and the third trimester, in which there is virtually no right.

I wish I knew how to write about these matters without sounding so cold and clinical.  And being a male, I know nothing about what it is like to be pregnant or to be a mother; I am not even a parent.  I don’t think abortion is nothing – only that it isn’t murder, and that it isn’t necessarily the worst choice to make. Like former President Clinton, I would like to live in a world in which abortion is “safe, legal and rare.”

Now I will turn to what I think is the strongest argument against abortion.

A Unitarian Universalist minister in another city once told me that everybody he knew in the disability rights movement was anti-abortion. He said these disabled people think the abortion rights people are saying that it would be better if they had never been born.

That’s not what I am saying, although I’m not sure I can articulate why. I believe that all human beings have dignity and worth, regardless of their physical and mental limitations, and I am aware that we all have limitations. I don’t believe that I am any less a human being because of my absent-mindedness, near-sightedness, mild color-blindness, mild hearing loss, poor physical coordination, flat feet, etc., nor do I believe I would lose my humanity if I had more serious mental and physical problems.

I am grateful for the gift of life, but it is a gift. If circumstances had been different, if for example my father and mother had never met. And if people in the future are taller, stronger, healthier, more intelligent and better-looking than I am, it does not take anything away from me.

It is not a denial of the humanity of, for example, blind or deaf people to hope that nobody in the future is born blind or deaf.  To say otherwise is to say the essence of a human being is whether he is blind, sighted, deaf or hearing.



5 Responses to “Why I don’t believe abortion is murder”

  1. Vladimir Estragon Says:

    In earlier times when the medical technology of abortion was much less ‘safe”, the common practice was “exposure” – there was a place beyond the sacred boundaries of the city, beyond the social and ethical limits if the civitas and urbis, where unwanted infants were left on their own to die of exposure or the predation of wild beasts. They were effectively banished from the world where civilization held sway.

    By theorizing precisely when abortion is acceptable what we are basically doing is likewise drawing the arbitrary line of demarcation of boundary of civilization: if you’re within that line then you are part of the community of humanity with full ethical and cultural rights and privileges. Fall outside, and you loose the protection of your fellows and society and its laws.

    But of course this ‘boundary of civilization’ – i.e. the Pomerium – applies not only to infants but to the poor and powerless, who are banished from the security of civilized life to wander, exposed, right within our cities – and thus allowing us to disavow the very existence of this border.

    Now, for the record, I support abortion rights in practice but completely oppose it on principle. I also completely oppose this bogus “Religious Liberty” chest-beating on the part of religious leaders who, under the camouflage of religious freedom (to not subsidize abortion or contraception services), their true purpose is to allow employers to pick and choose what medical benefits to extend their employees. Today its abortion/contraception and psychological services, tomorrow it will be cancer treatment and palliative care.

    By my true purpose in writing this is to emphasis that its in everyone’s interest to extend out the boundaries of civilization to Everyone, and to have no space where we can banish or expose our fellow humans – by simply declaring them “not human enough”.

    Its the “liberal” thing top do.


  2. philebersole Says:

    What does it mean to support abortion rights in practice but completely oppose them in principle? What is the meaning of a principle if it makes no difference to your practice?

    Either an embryo is a human being or it is not. If it is, then killing the embryo is murder (although it might be justifiable homicide in certain cases, such as saving the life of the mother). If you don’t consider killing an embryo to be murder, then what does it mean to call an embryo a “fellow human”?

    I don’t think abortion is a good thing, but I don’t think abortion is murder, for reasons I stated in the post. I think that, in the words of President Clinton, abortion should be safe, legal and rare.


  3. Vladimir Estragon Says:

    A wise man once said: ” In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they’re not. – Yogi Bera”.

    Theory (or principles) has value in orienting society and making society operate smoothly and safely with minimum of anxiety. However rules are made to be broken in cases of emergency or dire need.

    Considering abortion to be murder in principle but allowing for abortion for individuals is no different than being opposed to murder but allowing for war. The only difference is that in one case the exception is granted to governments and the other to individuals. Governments has been able to get the theorists to give them a “just war” exemption – that provides for the wholesale slaughter of war while keeping sacrosanct the commandment “thou shalt not kill.”

    I’m not a supporter of your “Three Souls” theory or human life – vegetable souls, animal souls and human souls. A baby is no more or less human before then after birth. Its not clear to everyone that thirteen year old boys have anything other than animal souls. Its not clear to everyone that old folks have anything other than vegetable souls. The idea that I should allow Clarence Thomas and his immediate circle of friends, or Bill Clinton for that matter, to decide whose souls are animal or vegetable or human, is not something I’m in favor of.

    We humans are “killer angels”. We kill each other and everything around us, sometimes just for pleasure. Its better that when we kill we do so with our eyes open and in full knowledge of what we are doing,


  4. philebersole Says:

    Vladimir, I’m not sure whether you’re against abortion, in favor of abortion or simply opposed to any definite conclusion about anything.

    I am in favor of Roe vs. Wade as social policy—a right to abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, no right to abortion in the third trimester, no sure about the second trimester.

    That is because I think there is a difference between a fertilized egg and a fully-formed human being. This is not a new idea. It was once accepted by the Catholic church, as indicated by Dante’s vegetable soul (capable of growth), animal soul (capable of movement within the womb) and human soul (capable of brain activity, sensations and pain within the womb).

    You say you think abortion is murder, but it is sometimes justifiable homicide. I would be interested to know under what circumstances you think that is the case.


  5. Vladimir Estragon Says:

    re: “I’m not sure whether you’re against abortion, in favor of abortion or simply opposed to any definite conclusion about anything.”

    As I’ve already stated above, I am oppose to abortion is principle, because it is murder. I am FOR legalizing abortion because it may be necessary, as judged by the individuals personally and intimately involved, rather then by the theorists.

    I think my position is far from being “opposed to any definite conclusion about anything.” Principles may need to be violated – that doesn’t mean that the principles are “false” or that the violators are “immoral”. – as I mentioned previously, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they’re not – Yogi Bera”.

    Re: ” I think there is a difference between a fertilized egg and a fully-formed human being.”

    I agree. I also think that there is no difference in “essence” between a newborn infant and the same infant one week before being born. In fact, I don;t much believe in essences at all, come to think of it.

    But if we are going to assign different kinds of souls to everyone based upon what we think their “essences” of potentials are, how are we to judge the aged, who have no more potential for growth? Since they have no potential for growth, I guess that makes them even lacking in vegetative souls! Does this then not logically imply that the aged have no souls? I’m here just trying to point out the folly of judging who, when killed, is murdered and who when killed is just exterminated based on some assignment of vegetative, animal or human soul by authorities of unknown motives.

    Do Muslims lack humans souls – having only animal souls – and is this good enough justification for permanent start of war?

    I say, murder may be justified – but that doesn’t make it any less murder. In fact it is much better to know that you are committing murder when you kill – because it makes you think and consider your actions and weight the issues at hand.

    If my daughter (I have two) were to get pregnant while still in school I would definitely council her to get an abortion. In spite of it being an act of infanticide. Because I CHOOSE to defend my daughter’s welfare and future prospects at the expense of a grandchild. rather then justifying the act using some kind of “lower souls” argument that is paper thin in its solidity, and more importantly, a constructed argument to reduce responsibility and gravity of the action. I’m by no means saying to not take the action – but to take the action fully aware of what your are going as your own responsibility and not someone else’s or based on some contrived argument. I don’t need to call babies in 2nd trimester “enemy-combatants” or “just animal souls” to justify an abortion. I have my own very good reasons.

    We now have a volunteer army, and because of economic conditions, many choose a stint in the armed forces rather then poor economic prospects in the fast food industry at home. The pay for a private is about $18,200 a year, which is less then $3/hour. Soldiers are NOT told that this is the pay for murdering other humans – oh no. They are told that they are “shooting at the enemy”, or that the enemy are animals and not humans, etc. $3/hour may justify “shooting at enemies of freedom”, but would it be enough to murder fellow human beings? Not unless the stakes were much higher.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: