Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A simple argument against abortion that even liberals can understand


  1. Hi John,

    The second premise is problematic on historical and theological grounds.

    Historically, great churchmen like Augustine and Aquinas held otherwise. The principle reason is the duality that is implicit in the "life begins at conception" argument. In other words, is man an angel with a body (if the soul pre-exists the body)? Or is he a human whose body and soul are created simultaneously.

    Much more could be said and probably will be later.

    If I don't correspond later, please have a very blessed Thanksgiving.


  2. I should add, if man is the latter then the question becomes how does the soul develop with the body or at what point does it enter the body if not in whole at the beginning.


  3. Constantine:

    1. The fact that some theologians many centuries ago thought there was discontinuity between a zygote and an adult isn't any reason to accept that that is actually so. From a purely biological perspective we know that Augustine and Aquinas were mistaken.

    2. Whether or not the spirit pre-exists the body is irrelevant to the argument (though I find no biblical evidence that it does). The biblical evidence is clear that what makes a human being a chay nephesh, a living creature/soul, is the presence of a commensurate spirit. So if a zygote or fetus is alive, then it has a human spirit. You're welcome to refer to my notes on this at

    3. Moreover, even if the zygote/fetus does not have a spirit (or soul, if you prefer), this only exacerbates the evil of destroying it, due to premise [4-iii]. It is analagous to whether the zygote/fetus is a person, which I dealt with in objection #4.

  4. Hi Dominic,

    Nobody said there was any "discontinuity". And because a soul is not a physical entity, biology cannot have anything to say about it. So Augustine and Aquinas are not disproven on that ground.

    Whether or not the "spirit pre-exists the body" is not only not irrelevant, it is the very heart of the debate for the reasons I mentioned earlier. If the soul exists, fully formed before the body or at the time of the first division of cells in the creation of the zygote/fetus, that requires a dualistic view of human nature that is not consonant with biblical Christianity or history. That is, man is not one nature but the combination of two disparate natures. That is, precisely, the debate.

    And forgive me for not granting you the "biblical evidence". There is a strong case to be made that the bible does, in fact, prescribe abortion in Numbers 5:11-17.

    At the very least the bible claims that we cannot really know in any event. (See Ecclesiastes 11:5).

    That being the case, all your good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding, there is simply no warrant for your claims.

    Please have a Happy Thanksgiving!


    1. Constantine

      "And forgive me for not granting you the 'biblical evidence'. There is a strong case to be made that the bible does, in fact, prescribe abortion in Numbers 5:11-17."

      Actually, there isn't. I addressed that appeal a few weeks ago. I could go into more detail, but I see no reason to reinvent the wheel. For instance, John Currid's commentary is a good place to start.

      In addition, even if Num 5 had reference to abortion, you're disregarding Jeremy Pierce's discussion, which I also cited in the same connection. You need to get up to speed on the actual state of the argument.

  5. Constantine, you haven't shown how questions over the soul are actually relevant to my argument.

    How does whether a zygote/fetus has a soul, whether that soul pre-existed the zygote/fetus, etc, affect whether the zygote/fetus is a human being?

  6. Hi Steve,

    I'm not disregarding anything but would be grateful if you would direct me to your previous posts. I will be more than happy to read them.


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  8. Your question surprises me, Dominic. I assumed some agreement on the nature of a human being that is apparently not there. Forgive my assumption.

    Let’s take your questions one at a time:

    1. “How does whether a zygote/fetus has a soul…affect whether the zygote/fetus is a human being?”

    Ever since Genesis 2:7 man has been seen as the combination of a body and a soul. So a zygote/fetus or any other creature without a soul is simply not human. You don’t believe that there is such a thing as a human being without a soul, do you Dominic?

    2. “How does… whether that soul pre-existed the zygote/fetus, etc, affect whether the zygote/fetus is a human being?

    A non-physical being that is created without a body is an angel. Angels are not the essence of human souls. So any non-physical created being that exists prior to a human body cannot be human.

    So the orthodox Christian view of the nature of man is that he is the combination of a body and soul both of which are created by God. Genesis 2:7 seems to lend some logical, if not chronological, precedence to the body’s creation.

    But at any rate, I like Charles Hodge’s summation of the matter:

    “The object of the discussion is not to arrive at certainty as to what is not clearly revealed in Scripture, nor to explain what is, on all sides, admitted to be inscrutable, but to guard against the adoption of principles which are in opposition to plain and important doctrines of the word of God.” (Systematic Theology, Kindle loc. 15493).

    I’d like to comment on another aspect of this discussion and will do so shortly.

    Thanks, Dominic.


  9. Constantine:

    1. As it happens, I don't believe there is such a thing as a human being without a soul. However, I don't see that if I were wrong, it would affect my argument. Indeed, if a zygote/fetus turns out not to have a soul, it would strengthen my argument on the basis of premise [4-iii]; just as it would if it turns out a zygote/fetus is not a person. I don't see the need to reiterate a point I've already made.

    2. Of course, this argument isn't directed towards Christians. There shouldn't be any need to convince a Christian that abortion is equivalent to murder. Many of the people who may find this argument convincing might well disbelieve in the existence of the soul. Thankfully that's irrelevant to the persuasiveness of the argument.

    3. The biblical argument for a zygote/fetus having a soul is pretty basic: What makes human beings alive is the presence of a soul (more correctly a spirit, but let's say soul for now). Zygotes/fetuses are human beings (biologically speaking) that are alive. Therefore, zygotes/fetuses have souls.

    4. As regards your comment on angels, I think you need way more biblical evidence for the premise that a non-physical being created without a body is necessarily an angel. But if we assume you're right, so what? How is it relevant to my argument?

  10. Hi Dominic,

    I mentioned previously that your second premise, “A human zygote or fetus is a human being”, is errant. The first evidence of that is historical.

    It appears that while there has been a long-standing opposition to abortion it is important to understand the basis for it. In the years after Augustine and through the Council of Trent (and perhaps further), opposition to abortion was based on “perversity” grounds. That is, to commit an abortion was to “pervert” the cycle of creation; that view said nothing whatever about the intrinsic nature of the fetus. Augustine held that all sexual relations were sinful, even between a man and wife, but that this sinful activity served the useful purpose of procreation. Therefore to abort, was to interfere with the only unsinful aspect of human sexual relations. It was therefore, “perverse” to commit abortion.

    However, it should be remembered that throughout most of the history of Catholicism opposition to abortion has not been on ontological, but rather on perversity, grounds. According to defenders of this latter position, abortion is immoral because it indicates that the sexual relations that resulted in the pregnancy to be aborted were engaged in for the wrong reasons. Indeed, such sexual relations were, for Augustine, cruel in that the two human beings who engaged in the sexual act that resulted in an aborted pregnancy mistreated one another.”
    (Deltete and Dombrowski. “A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion”; University of Illinois Press, 2000. P. 79)

    It is of interest that the Catholic Church prohibited the baptism of any fetuses on just these grounds.

    So where did the current view originate?

    According to Deltete and Dombrowski, from an errant 17th century scientific observation by a Catholic scientists using primitive microscopes. These people thought they observed fully formed chickens in chicken eggs and thereby extrapolated in an egregious post hoc manner, that all life came from eggs and that all of that life was but an essential miniature in their respective eggs. Therefore, life exists, at least in miniature, in its full essence and it is therefore morally repugnant to end it. Deltete and Dombrowski lament the fact that the moral dictate based on bad science has lingered far beyond the corrective to the science.

    When the error in seventeenth-century biology was corrected, the church’s moral view unfortunately did not return to the older, more consistent, Augustinian and Thomistic position. Having adopted the theory that a fetus is a human person from the “moment” of conception, the church did not let it go and held fast to the view of abortion that seems to have arisen as a result of erroneous seventeenth-century science. (Deltete and Dombrowski, op. cit.; page 36).

    So Dominic I hope I have offered my reasons to object to your second premise in a way that is reasonable and understandable. As you well, know much more could be said but in this limited forum I hope to have offered my reasons.

    For what it’s worth, my sympathies lie with the “pro-life” side of the argument. I just think that we have to make a better case. I really appreciate what Dr. Stanley Hauerwas has written on this topic:

    …I want to approach the matter by discussing the reasons why Christians understand as a morally unhappy act. Thus, the preliminary question must be inverted: “What kind of people should we be to welcome children into the world?” Note that the question is NOT “Is the fetus a human being with a right to life?” but “How should a Christian regard and care for the fetus as a child?” (Hauerwas, Stanley: “Why Abortion is a Religious Issue”, in “The Ethics of Abortion” ed. Baird and Rosenbaum; 1993 Prometheus Books. P. 150)

    I didn’t intend for our interaction to become so protracted but thank you for your patience.


  11. Hi Dominic,

    You wrote:

    “As it happens, I don't believe there is such a thing as a human being without a soul. However, I don't see that if I were wrong, it would affect my argument.”

    And this is your syllogism:

    1. It is wrong to kill another human being for personal reasons
    2. A human zygote or fetus is a human being
    3. Therefore, it is wrong to kill a human zygote or fetus for personal reasons

    Therefore, the conclusion cannot follow if #2 does not have a soul. It cannot be wrong to kill a zygote or fetus if it does not have a soul anymore than it can be wrong to kill cancer cells, or rotten teeth, which have no souls. It’s simply not wrong – for personal or other reasons. It is morally neutral.

    Now you may have something to add about your definition of “personal reasons”. But assuming you mean “reasons acceptable to me” that doesn’t help. What if I have my “personal reasons” to kill a fetus? (Health of the mother, etc.) Then it's certainly not wrong, for my "personal reasons" to kill the fetus.

    At any rate, I may have to break for the evening.


  12. Constantine:

    1. You haven't offered any reasons to object to my second premise. You have simply provided an account of some historical views which are incidental to my argument. Since my argument doesn't rely on those views, and since I've argued for premise [2] on philosophical grounds, I truly have no idea why you'd think your little history lesson gives us any reason to disbelieve [2].

    2. Premise [2] is unaffected if the human zygote does not have a soul, since it is still biologically a human being. Indeed, [2] is strengthened if the zygote does not have a soul, due to premise [4-iii].