COOK: Philosophy scholars are wrong about abortion

Below is breakdown of prominent pro-abortion arguments in the field of philosophy and explanations for why they are incorrect.

Ben Cook is Correspondent Editor for Campus Reform. He is completing his PhD in philosophy at Syracuse University. Ben graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in philosophy and political science.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, progressive academic philosophers took to social media to argue in favor of abortion rights.

For the most part, academic philosophers are hostile to the pro-life position. For example, a 2020 PhilPapers survey found that around 82% of professional philosophers polled view abortion as morally permissible.

However, an analysis of the two most common arguments offered in favor of abortion by academics shows that their position cannot be justified.

Below is a breakdown of prominent pro-abortion arguments in the field of philosophy and explanations for why they are incorrect. 

A brief summary of my pro-life position precedes that section. 

The Pro-life Argument

The pro-life argument is straightforward: it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life. 

Every abortion, with the exception of one intended to save the mother’s life, is the intentional killing of an innocent human life. So, every abortion, with the exception of one intended to save the mother’s life, is wrong.

 A common non-academic objection to the first premise is that abortion does not kill an innocent human life because a fetus is not a human. One often hears, for example, that a fetus is merely a ‘clump of cells’, but not a distinct human individual.

 Underlying this argument is the premise that it is nearly impossible to determine when life begins. But far from being an inscrutable mystery, it is well-established in the scientific community that a distinct human life begins at conception.

 In his 2019 doctoral dissertation in Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, for example, Steven Jacobs surveyed 5,557 biologists, the majority of which identified non-religious and liberal, on the question of when human life begins. Ninety-six percent of those surveyed “affirmed the view that a human life begins at fertilization.”

 According to a classic 1956 textbook, The Principles of Embryology, “The moment of fertilisation is the conventional point of origin from which to date the existence of a new individual.” 

“It cannot be denied…that fertilisation is, normally at least, the most crucial event within the continuous series of changes by which the new creature comes into being,” the text states. 

 Similarly, the 2020 textbook Integrated Human Embryology states that in fertilization “a new organism is created through the reactions that take place in the cytoplasm of the zygote” and that “[f]ertilization is a complex process in which two gametes, or sexual cells, interact between each other to create a new living being.”

 In short, at conception, a distinct human organism comes into existence, with its own unique genetic code formed from its parents, which naturally develops into a fully realized human being under suitable biological conditions. 

The fetus is simply the earliest stage in the single life cycle of a human animal. It follows that abortion at any stage terminates this human life.

 Let’s now consider the two most influential arguments for abortion in the academic literature.


Pro-Abortion Argument: There’s No Right to the Mother’s Body

 In academic philosophy, Judith Thomson’s influential argument states that pregnancy is analogous to being compelled to provide life-sustaining assistance. 

Thomson asks her readers to imagine being kidnapped and hooked up via a medical device to a stranger who requires the use of your kidneys for nine months in order to survive. 

In such a case, the kidnapped person is fully within his rights to ‘unplug’ from this person, despite knowing they would die as a result. The ailing individual has no right to the other’s body because one cannot be compelled to offer life-sustaining assistance without consent.

Pregnancy is then claimed to be analogous to this kidnapping case. When a woman is pregnant, the fetus is entitled to use her womb to sustain its life only with her consent. She is thus fully within her rights to ‘unplug’ from the fetus, and has no obligation to continue offering this life-sustaining assistance.

Why the Argument Fails 

This argument is undermined by a number of powerful considerations, as other philosophers including Francis Beckwith have pointed out.  

In Thomson’s example, the individual is forced to offer life-sustaining aid. 

That is at best analogous only to cases of rape. Therefore, it does not apply to women who use abortion-on-demand as a form of birth control. 

Additionally, Thomson’s scenario involves strangers, rather than family. 

Morally speaking, we have obligations to family members that we do not have to strangers. Parents especially have unique obligations to use their bodies to ensure the survival of their children; the work to provide food, clothing, and shelter. 

Just as parents must use their bodies to sustain their children’s lives, mothers are obligated to do the same for those children in utero. 

Finally, to withdraw life-sustaining support in Thomson’s example is not to kill that person. It is merely to let them die. 

The distinction between killing and ‘letting die’ is key to understanding why Thomson’s argument fails. 

The Difference Between Killing and Letting-Die

Imagine you are hanging off a cliff attached via a rope to another climber. If you do not cut the rope, you both will fall to your death. If you do, you, at least, will survive. In order to minimize the loss of life, you cut the rope, and the other climber falls to his death.

In this case, you have not intentionally killed the other climber, but rather have simply let him die for a distinct purpose. The climber was innocent, but you were justified in letting him die.

Now imagine that you both had successfully climbed back up the precipice, but you realize you’re all out of food for the rest of your wilderness journey. In order to survive, you decide you must eat your partner. You grab the climbing rope, and strangle him to death.

In this case, you have intentionally killed the climber, and did not simply let him die. You might have been justified in cutting the rope, but you are not justified in the strangling.

 Why the Argument Fails 

To kill someone is to intentionally deprive them of something that is naturally required to sustain their life, such as intentionally depriving the climber of oxygen by strangling.

By contrast, to let someone die is to either passively refuse to offer life-sustaining assistance, such as deciding not to rescue a drowning person, or it is to withdraw artificial life support, such as cutting the rope in the above example. 

With this understanding in mind, abortion reveals itself as intentional killing because every abortion procedure, whether chemical or surgical, deprives a fetus of what is naturally required to sustain its life: the intrauterine environment of the womb. 

To intentionally deprive the fetus of this environment is like intentionally depriving a post-birth human child of oxygen or food. Abortion cannot be made analogous to cases of mere letting die. 


Pro-Abortion Argument: The Fetus is Not a Person 

Another prominent academic argument is that the fetus is a distinct human organism, but not a person. Therefore, the fetus is not a person in the moral sense because it lacks capacities such as rational thought, consciousness, and the ability to feel pain. 

Some academics have recognized the disturbing implications of this view of moral personhood and simply embraced them. 

Eminent philosophers Michael Tooley and Peter Singer, for example, have followed their rigid criteria for personhood to its logical conclusion and embraced the permissibility of infanticide.

 Other philosophers have followed suit, embracing an abilities-based view of moral personhood, as the paper “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” published in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2013 shows.

Why the Argument Fails 

If rationality is the criterion for personhood, then infants and the severely mentally disabled have no innate human rights. 

If consciousness is the criterion for personhood, then those in a coma have no rights. 

If the ability to feel pain is the criterion for personhood, then those with congenital insensitivity to pain have no rights.

 All attempts to add criteria beyond simply existing as a human being to qualify as a person in the moral sense have disastrous consequences.

That is a slippery slope in which vulnerable individuals can be targeted and excluded from legal protection and moral worth.

 The most popular arguments for abortion, both within and without academia, have no claim to morality. 

Every member of the human family should enjoy the same legal protections, no matter their age, race, gender, or ability.