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Why Abortion is a Flashpoint in the Culture Wars

Ever since this blog started in March of 2020, there have been several events in the United States that have become flashpoints for a national response, which let's just say has been diverse. I call it a "flashpoint" because it is during these times that the division between Americans comes into focus. The reactions to those events have been widespread and heated, sometimes resulting in violence.

On May 2, 2022, Politico revealed that it had gained access to a leaked draft of the majority opinion of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which are the two landmark Supreme Court cases that changed how abortion would be addressed as a legal issue nationwide. Prior to the Roe decision, which was decided in 1973, different states had different levels of regulation for abortion, with some outright banning abortion as a crime and others regulating it it to a greater or lesser extent. Roe ended this by finding a supposed "right to privacy" in the Constitution, from which was derived a right to an abortion as part of a woman's right to privacy. The decision made abortion access an issue of constitutional rights, and the decision went on to opine about the level of regulation that can be passed against abortion access at different stages, or trimesters, of a woman's pregnancy.

From the beginning, the decision was derided as an example of lawmaking by the judicial branch of government. The initial draft, written by conservative justice Samuel Alito, is a full and thorough critique of the reasoning behind Roe and Casey that argues strongly that both are so badly reasoned and so compromising to the Court's status that they ought to be overturned. Though it is rare for the Supreme Court to overturn its own past decision, it has done so on occasion. For instance, Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. That the majority opinion of the Court (as of right now) is to overturn these two decisions shows the extent to which the justices in the majority disagree with the reasoning of those two decisions.

Immediately after Politico's article was posted, everyone started reacting to it. The media and politicians across the political spectrum were sounding off. Many of my friends on social media, who come from every part of the political spectrum as well, were also reacting in various ways. Misunderstandings and inaccuracies on all sides abounded. First, many believe that the Supreme Court, if it overturns Roe and Casey, would outlaw abortion nationwide. This is not true. Without a recognized constitutional right to an abortion, the decision as to whether to allow it would go back to the states, just as it was before 1973. Second, many, whether on the right or left, believe that the draft is a moral statement about abortion. This is also not true because the moral status of abortion is relatively irrelevant to the reasoning of the Court, which in this case is primarily negative. That is, if you read the initial draft (and I encourage you to do so), you will find a critique of other Supreme Court decisions, rather than any positive case made for the current one. This is fitting because this particular decision, if it overturns Roe and Casey, won't establish new understandings of the Constitution applied to a unique situation. It will just repudiate old decisions about it.

As I've been keeping up with the national conversation, I've also noticed that many on both sides of the issue have begun defending or arguing against the morality of abortion. Again, this is relatively irrelevant for the Supreme Court, but it has been interesting to see how defenders of abortion discuss it when they're this angry and emboldened by what they see as opposition to abortion. It has become one of the flashpoints in the culture wars, an example of widespread disagreement about some of the most important metaphysical and ethical questions one can ask. And for this post, I want to use this flashpoint as an opportunity to explore why abortion is such a hot-button issue that has divided people in this country.

This post will have three parts. First, I will briefly summarize the topic of abortion from a philosophical perspective, showing why one's opinion on the issue depends on much more fundamental questions one answers about life, humanity, human dignity, and ethics. Second, I will highlight certain responses to this Supreme Court leak by those who support it, showing how their responses reveal how they think about these underlying issues. Third, I'll present a pro-life position, strongly grounded in the Christian worldview, as an alternative.

Philosophical Issues in Abortion

Abortion, as a moral question, is an intersection between several other issues at the heart of one's worldview. How one thinks on these other issues will determine how they "intersect" to determine one's view on abortion. Most of the time, in our cultural battles over abortion, these underlying issues are never brought up, and this has a lot to do with the fact that the cultural debate over abortion is so emotionally heated on all sides. The response to the draft leak has been so contentious that a fence and barricade have been built around the U.S. Supreme Court building. In some of the protests following the leak, the protests have turned violent. Here's my request for you as the reader: no matter your view, try to put emotion to the side and think of the topic intellectually. Dispassion is important to considering how one thinks about an intellectual issue.

I'm going to survey the topic of abortion in terms of multiple major philosophical issues that intersect abortion as a fundamentally moral issue. That is, the main question I'm addressing is this: is it morally permissible to end the life of an unborn person in the womb? There are already some assumptions made in that statement of the question, so I'll be addressing those assumptions as well.

First, what is the thing being aborted? In philosophical circles, this is referred to as the "metaphysical status" of the unborn. For pro-life people, even posing this question will be offensive, but it is important to note that those who think that abortion is morally permissible tend to use arguments assume a particular view on what's being aborted. Three considerations are important here: life, species, and personhood.

First, is the thing that's aborted alive? This may seem like a strange question, but remember that one of the main questions surrounding this debate is this: when does life begin? Does life begin at birth? Conception? Somewhere between the two? If at birth, then aborting the pregnancy doesn't actually kill anyone. If no one is killed, then it's impossible to label the act of abortion as murder, and the pro-life position falls apart. Rather, if the thing aborted is alive, then its life is ended.

Second, is the thing aborted a human being? In other words, what kind of living thing is the thing that's aborted in the womb? Notice that this question assumes that the thing aborted is alive. If the thing aborted is not living, then it cannot be a human being, since human beings are, by nature, living beings. Why is this question important? It's important because it is assumed by almost all people that human beings have some intrinsic value attached to them. In other words, human beings, as human beings, should not be mistreated. If the thing aborted is not a human being, then it could be argued that killing it via the act of abortion is much closer, ethically speaking, to killing a fly. Yes, the fly is a living thing that is killed when I swat it, but no one sees this as wrong. However, if the thing in question is a human being, then it seems clear to many that the unborn human being has some intrinsic value that ought to be respected, whether or not this human being has been born.

Finally, is the thing aborted a person? This has become the major question at issue among proponents of and opponents to abortion, especially among philosophers. It has often been asserted among philosophers that only rational persons have intrinsic worth that ought to be respected. (This was Immanuel Kant's view, for instance.) It is also often asserted that certain cognitive faculties, such as self-awareness, are necessary for personhood. Without these cognitive faculties, the thing in question is not a person. So, are unborn human beings persons? If not, then, it may be argued, they have no intrinsic worth and can be killed in the act of abortion, even though they are human beings. If so, then unborn human persons pass even this stricter requirement for intrinsic worth.

These questions can be summarized as metaphysical questions about abortion. They have to do with the nature of the thing aborted. There is another set of questions that can be thought of as ethical. They have to do with whether a given action is good or bad, right or wrong. Answers to the metaphysical questions inform answers to the ethical questions. When we ask whether it is morally permissible to do something, we by necessity have to ask by what standard we make such a determination. How do we assess whether a given action is good or bad, right or wrong? Are there metaphysical presuppositions that are required for the truth of certain ethical claims? Here are some questions to consider.

First, whose interests outweigh the interests of the other? In other words, if abortion is to be thought of as involving a conflict between the interests of the mother and those of the fetus in her womb, should the mother's interests outweigh those of the fetus? For some, the answer is an unqualified yes. In other words, to some, the interests of the mother outweigh those of the fetus, no matter the situation. Others support a more qualified position. They may see the interests of the mother outweighing the fetus's only in particular circumstances, such as in the cases of rape and those instances when the life of the mother would be jeopardized if the pregnancy is carried to term. If the person in question claims that whether to have an abortion is the mother's choice, full stop, then he or she is claiming that the mother's interests always outweigh the fetus's.

Clearly, one's answer to this question depends on answers one gives to the metaphysical questions. Some philosophers, who ground having morally-relevant interests in being a person (and define being a person as having certain cognitive faculties), see fetuses as not having interests whatsoever. The fetus's interests cannot outweigh those of the mother if the fetus has no interests by nature.

Second, is abortion murder? Answering this question clearly involves answering metaphysical questions first. If the thing in the womb is not a living being, then a life has not been ended when an abortion is performed. Therefore, abortion cannot be murder. If the thing in the womb is a human being, and more so if it is a person, then this opens the possibility that abortion is murder, since it is, minimally, the intentional ceasing of a human life. If the intentional and unjustified ceasing of a human life is murder, then abortion, in most circumstances, is murder.

So, this is a brief summary of some of the philosophical issues in the abortion debate. As you think through these questions, you may remember hearing commentary or seeing interactions on the internet in which people in the culture refer to these issues, if not explicitly. In the next section, I'll discuss some responses to the Supreme Court leak as they relate to the philosophical issues in the abortion debate.

Responses to the Supreme Court Leak

A cursory glance to responses to the Supreme Court leak concerning Roe and Casey yields some interesting results. One obvious observation can be made: the issue is still emotionally very heated. Abortion is by no means a decided issue in the United States, and in fact the disagreement is severe. Some of the responses are relatively well-reasoned. Others, not so much. In this section, I'll highlight three examples and show how they relate to some of the philosophical issues we've already discussed.

The first comes from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (hereafter AOC), Democratic U.S. representative from New York, who sounded off on several issues related to abortion in a viral video. The clip can be found embedded in an article here. In the clip, she addresses a supposed objection to abortion on the basis that, by performing one, one is "harming a life." Her response to this objection is that some "religions" don't believe that the fetus in the womb is a life. She asserts (without citing evidence) that many other faiths do not hold to the same definition of life as "fundamentalist Christians." She claims that it is "theocratic" and "authoritarian," presumably, for a fundamentalist Christian definition of life to supersede definitions offered by other faiths.

This clip is interesting for two reasons. First, notice how AOC focuses on the issue of life, claiming that when life begins is a matter of disagreement between adherents to different religions. This may or may not be the case, but she doesn't consider whether the issue of when life begins can be addressed scientifically. Perhaps the question of when life begins isn't exclusively a religious one. In fact, on the whole, the abortion debate has moved on from when life begins to whether the human fetus is a person, since scientific and technological advances have enabled us to see inside the womb at various stages of pregnancy. What this technology shows is that, from conception, the newly-formed embryo fits all of the characteristics necessary for the earliest form of life. If a single-celled organism is considered a living being, why is the newly-formed embryo, which has a unique genetic sequence from the two parents that formed it, not considered a living thing?

Some would assert that the thing in the womb is a fetus, not a living thing, but this is simply confused. The term "fetus" refers to a stage of development in the life of an organism, not an entirely distinct, non-living thing. Thus, it makes sense to think of a single human life as progressing through various stages from embryo to old age, just as biologists describe all mammalian life and development. For this reason, AOC fails to address the pertinent issues in the abortion debate. Whether life begins at conception has been settled scientifically. The key is whether it matters ethically whether a fetus is a person.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, AOC's assertion that other religions have different conceptions of when life begins is, strictly speaking, irrelevant for two reasons. First, as noted above, when life begins is a scientific issue primarily. Second, that people have contradictory conceptions of an issue doesn't entail that none of them can be mistaken or incorrect. AOC's reasoning would imply that the state should not punish the murder of black people, for instance, if the one committing the murder has an alternative conception of the value of human life that is based on skin color. The state, for the sake of preserving justice, must take a position regarding the value of human life. I doubt that AOC would defend the white supremacist and his alternative conception of the value of human life. Why, then, does it inherently matter if people disagree about when it begins?

The second example comes from a column, written by George Will, entitled "America’s abortion debate has non-debatable parameters." His column is fascinating for the questions it poses rather than the ones it answers. He notes that the debate concerning abortion has what he calls "non-debatable parameters," that is, elements that are effectively settled and set the parameters for the rest of the debate. He highlights especially the issue of when life begins, noting that this issue is settled by biology. Rather, he argues that the key is personhood. He writes:

"The admirable American debate occurs within some non-debatable parameters, beginning with this: Human life begins at conception, a conclusion not of abstruse philosophy or theology but of elementary biology. But this is not, as many abortion opponents think, where the debate about abortion ends. Rather, for most Americans it begins here: When is it reasonable — in some sense objective, because visible — to see a human person?"

This, I think, is correct. It's already been noted that most philosophers historically have seen human persons as deserving moral recognition. Non-persons, then, do not deserve it to the same extent. If the unborn child is to be considered a person, then this would presumably confer moral worth to the unborn child. If not, then it would be presumably morally permissible to end the unborn child's life for any reason. Because of this, the central issue in the abortion debate is philosophical, not scientific, which means that governments that legislate on this issue will have to do so on the basis of certain philosophical assumptions. Will continues at the end of the column:

"[The majority of Americans who care about the sanctity of human life] might soon have the dignified task of instructing their elected representatives to codify, state by state, community standards about the onset of personhood. An acorn is not an oak tree; an oak sapling is. The burden of intelligence, and self-government, is that distinctions must be drawn."

This point reflects the one just made with respect to AOC's video clip. In order for justice to be preserved, substantive distinctions must be made. A government, and its people, cannot avoid making some kind of commitment regarding the moral value of human life.

Will's statement (by implication) than an oak sapling is an oak tree is fascinating, though it needs to be stated more precisely. Take the white oak, whose scientific name is Quercus alba. I would put it this way: both the oak sapling and the oak tree are Quercus alba. The acorn, however, is simply part of an existing mature oak tree. In this case, we could say that the embryo, fetus, and fully-grown adult human being are homo sapiens. The question then becomes whether each is a human person (and whether that matters with respect to moral value).

The third example comes from an article on VOA News. It presents several interviews of women from all kinds of backgrounds concerning the recent draft leak. Though more women were interviewed, I'll highlight quotes from two women: Bowden of Memphis, Tennessee and Chaya of New Orleans. The former represents a pro-life perspective, and the latter represents a pro-choice perspective. Bowden stated:

"'It all boils down to whether you believe the life in the womb is a human life,' explained Memphis resident Bowden. 'If it's not, you can do whatever you like with it — similar to a wisdom tooth. But if it's a human life, you have to protect it. I believe it's human life because I can't see what else it could be.'"

Notice that Bowden presents the issue in terms of whether the thing being aborted is a human life. She assumes that it is a life and then states that it is a human life because she "can't see what else it could be." This, to Bowden is important because the life ought to be protected if human. Though she doesn't address the issue of personhood, she otherwise has a very clear grasp on the issue.

Chaya stated:

"'No one has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body,' she said. 'You can find the decisions I made in the past morally repugnant, but your power stops there. I find the decision not to get vaccinated morally repugnant, but I shouldn't be able to make you get the COVID-19 vaccine any more than you should be able to make me give birth.'"

Recall that, in our discussion of the philosophical issues related to abortion, we noted that one of the ethical issues in abortion has to do with interests. If we are to think of abortion as involving the competing interests of the mother and the fetus in her womb, then whose interests win out? If the mother's interests outweigh the fetus in an unqualified sense, then it is the mother's choice, full stop, whether to have the abortion, to the extent that it is her choice whether or not someone else finds it morally repugnant. Chaya grounds this view in one's right to do what one wills with her own body, insisting that to prevent women from getting an abortion is akin to forcing her them to give birth. Again, though she is focusing on the issue from a different perspective than Bowden, her grasp of the issues is clear.

I highlight these examples in order to show that the philosophical issues concerning abortion are not mere constructions of the ivory tower. They are relevant in everyday conversations and debates on this issue and have huge significance in other debates happening not only in the United States but in the West as a whole. They show that there is a wide range of disparate opinions, all of which are strong. What are Christians to think of the issue?

A Christian Pro-Life Position

Any position on abortion, whether pro-life or pro-choice, must account for the metaphysical and ethical issues related to abortion. It must have a certain set of defined presuppositions out of which certain moral claims are made. This is why abortion is a flashpoint in the culture wars. Differing opinions on abortion follow logically from differing conceptions on what it means to be human and why it matters to be human. And, as I've shown, there are many warring conceptions out there. In this section, I'll answer the metaphysical and ethical questions in turn from a Christian perspective.

First, what is the thing being aborted? Recall that three issues must be addressed with regard to this question: is the thing in the womb (1) living, (2) human, and (3) a person? If all three, then on most major ethical accounts, that thing in the womb ought to be protected as a being endowed with great (even infinite) moral value. So, this metaphysical question is of tremendous importance in addressing the morality of abortion.

As for whether the thing in the womb is living and human, as I've indicated before, this is not a philosophical issue but rather a scientific one. Just as an oak sapling is a living thing that will grow into a mature oak tree, so is a fetus a living thing that will grow into a mature human being. This is why the abortion debate has moved away from arguments about when life begins to arguments about whether the living human inside the womb is a person. So, is the embryonic or fetal human being a person?

This is a very difficult philosophical question that stands on the surface of what is called philosophical anthropology. Philosophical anthropology (from the Greek word "anthropos" or "man") is the philosophical study of the nature of human beings. One major subject in philosophical anthropology is the metaphysics of human beings. That is, what composes a human being? Is a human being a physical being merely, or does he or she have both physical and non-physical components or parts? Historically, philosophers such as Aristotle saw human beings as "rational animals." That is, human beings are composed of two things, one physical (animal) and one spiritual or mental (rational).

For Aristotle, all objects are composed of form and matter. Matter on its own is unorganized and disorderly, but form is the "organizing principle" of matter that forms matter into particular objects. Aristotle saw the soul as the organizing principle of the body, such that all living beings have a soul, some of which were rational (i.e., some of which had a mind). This view is a form of substance dualism, according to which human beings are composed of a duality of components, usually soul and body.

There are other views that can be taken in philosophical anthropology. One could be a physicalist and believe that human beings are physical only, or one could be an idealist and believe that human beings are spiritual only. Even substance dualism has two forms: (1) Aristotelian or Thomistic dualism and (2) Cartesian dualism. The one I briefly presented above is the former. I agree with John W. Cooper, the Christian philosopher, that Scripture affirms a kind of substance dualism that he calls "holistic dualism." He defends this view in a book called Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Holistic dualism argues that while the human being is formed of two components, the separation of the two at death is unnatural and undesirable. In other words, though the soul can be separated from the body at death, this is not the way God intended for human beings to exist. That separation is a tragic consequence of the fall to be reversed in the resurrection at the Second Coming of Christ. I believe, with philosophers such as J.P. Moreland, that Cooper's holistic dualism is more consistent with Thomistic substance dualism.

What's the relevance of all of this for the abortion debate? Our view of philosophical anthropology is connected to our understanding of personhood. For our purposes, let's understand personhood as a property or attribute of an object. To say that "Bob is a person" is to say that Bob has the property of personhood, whatever that is. Bob has characteristics that undeniably show that he is a person. Probably the most commonsensical way to understand personhood is to identify it with certain personal properties, such as self-awareness. If one is aware of oneself as an agent independent of others, then one is a person (or personal agent). This is a commonsense way to start because we tend to use analogical reasoning when we distinguish ourselves from other persons without noticing it. When other persons exhibit the same kind of behavior that we know we exhibit, we reason that other persons are around us.

On this view, persons are to be defined by their having certain properties. Because these properties are often called "capacities" (thought of as abilities that the subject have), I will call this approach the capacities-based approach to personhood. Philosophers who defend the moral permissibility of abortion often do so on the basis that, prior to being born, human fetuses are not persons. That is, they do not portray the capacities commonly associated with persons. But notice that this view, carried to its logical end, has some troubling implications. Infants do not begin showing the capacities of persons until about three years old. If this approach, and its moral implications, are correct, then toddlers could be killed for any reason prior to displaying personal properties. Not only that, but they would not be considered morally worthy in any way, so mistreating them through abuse would be morally permissible. Other humans, such as the severely mentally impaired or elderly, would also be vulnerable if this view were correct. Therefore, the capacities-based approach removes any justification for thinking that human beings are morally valuable as human beings. Rather, the thing of value is actually personhood itself.

On the capacities-based approach, fetuses are clearly not persons. But is there a different approach. Remember our discussion of substance dualism and holistic dualism above. On the Thomistic understanding of substance dualism, the soul provides the organizing principle of the matter of the body. The soul influences the body to grow into a fully-formed human being. In Psalm 139:13-14, we are told that this process is providentially ordered and guided by God (NASB):

"For You created my innermost parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, because I am awesomely and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works."

This "weaving-together" is purposeful or "teleological." That is, it has an end or goal: becoming a mature human being. Though the soul remains the same throughout the process of growth, the body must grow and mature in order to be a proper vessel for the expression of the soul. For substance dualists, there is a very strong basis for a strong perspective on personhood because the property of personhood can be found in the soul, not the body. A brain can't be a person any more than a chair or a cantaloupe can. The implication is that, since the soul stays the same while the body changes, personhood can neither be gained in early life nor lost late in life. The body, through which the soul must communicate itself in the physical world, has ceased to be the proper vessel for the soul. It is much like a pianist trying to play a broken piano. The pianist may well be a master, but the piano that she is trying to play is simply not the proper instrument, since it is broken. But the pianist does not cease to be a pianist because of an improper instrument.

Just to be clear, we're not talking about a "potential person," in the same vein as one may talk about a potential life. If this view of the soul and body, which I believe is most consistent with Scripture, is true, then from the moment of conception, the thing in the womb is a living, human person. Therefore, even the embryo fits this narrower standard for being morally worthy and ought to be protected from abortion. The ethical implications of this view are obvious. First, the embryo from the point of conception has an interest to life in the same way that the mature human being does. That this perspective would be considered extreme today simply speaks to how far the West has fallen from basic Christian presuppositions about human dignity and value. Therefore, since it would not be ethical to kill the embryo for any reason (no more than it would be for any other person), to kill the embryo or fetus through abortion without sufficient moral justification is murder. Therefore, the vast majority of abortions are murder.

The abortion debate is a flashpoint in the culture wars because it is one of the sites at which vastly different conceptions of humanity, human dignity and value collide. If the embryo is not a person, and if persons are the only bearers of moral value, then the interests of the mother clearly outweighs those of the embryo, and the pro-choice positions wins outright. For pro-life advocates (at least, those who see the embryo or fetus as a person), the embryo or fetus in the womb has infinite moral value, just as the mother has infinite moral value. To callously and unjustifiably end the unborn's life is an egregious evil. Until our nation is able to work out what a human life is worth and on what basis, this debate will have no end in sight. As for me as a Christian, however, I think that it's clear that the unborn person is morally valuable and worth protecting, so I take a strong pro-life stance.

This essay was intended to be a primer on some of the philosophical issues in the abortion debate and an explanation for their importance in our culture's discourse about abortion. I've always said that philosophy influences culture and politics, and this is true here as well. I hope that you found the post informative and helpful as you think through this issue deeply for yourself.

That's it for this post! If you've enjoyed the content, please consider subscribing to the blog to receive notifications when new posts go up. If you have some comment, feel free to comment below. If you have some specific question or comment for me, you can get in touch with me either by email or on Facebook. I'd love to hear some feedback and interact with readers! Thanks for reading!

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