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Five Non-religious Arguments Against Abortion

August 28, 2013

One thing that I find frustrating is when people are unable to argue their cause on any ground but one. This happens frequently among Christians, who argue for certain political positions by citing articles of faith. Yes, the articles of faith ultimately overrule any opposing political conviction, but they are not going to convince anyone who does not subscribe to them. A different approach is needed. It is good to think up new arguments for our positions, partly because they will be useful, and partly because they will help us to be better thinkers. As an example, then, I propose these following arguments against abortion, none of which reference or stand upon any specific religious conviction (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.).

1. The Argument From Uncertainty

  1. We do not know whether life begins at conception or at some later date.
  2. We should be very cautious in terminating what might be a life.
  3. Therefore, we should at least limit the amount of abortions happening, to avoid the risk of taking a human life.

This argument quite elegantly sidesteps the question of whether life begins at conception or not by simply saying, “I don’t know.” It argues from ignorance to clemency, in a manner reminiscent of St. Thomas’ injunction in the Divine Comedy to not judge a person stealing a loaf of bread because he might be taking it to feed his family. However, it is still a fairly weak argument. It will not be persuasive to people who are convinced that life begins or doesn’t begin at conception, and it’s second premise seems fairly vague and insubstantial. Also, it provide a conclusive argument against abortion per se, but only an argument for keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare.”

2. The Pragmatic Argument Against Abortion

  1. Abortion advocates claim that abortion is a beneficial or even necessary procedure for some women.
  2. However, the benefits of abortion are far outweighed by the costs, such as the psychological trauma the woman experiences, or the societal collapse of the family, or something else entirely. (Evidence is given to this effect.)
  3. Therefore, abortion should not be allowed except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life, when the benefits clearly outweigh the cost.

This is an interesting argument because it argues against abortion on the abortionist’s own terms. Rather than arguing about whether abortion is wrong, it argues whether abortion is good or beneficial. This is the strength of the argument; it is also its weakness. Both Leftists and traditionalists believe that society should be structured around some sort of moral order, though they disagree on what that moral order is. A pragmatic argument against abortion says nothing about its moral status, and ultimately could be harmful to the people arguing it–after all, if we’re simply arguing for something because it “works,” then all moral bets are off. An additional problem with the argument lies in the second premise. The arguer must needs spend a lot of time establishing that premise with evidence, and this threatens to become a rabbit trail. This is an interesting argument, but, like most pragmatic things, isn’t very practical.

3. The Potentiality Argument

  1. Within ever person, there is a potentiality that in itself is valuable.
  2. This potentiality is valuable even if it is never realized. (I.e. moral monsters like Hitler, stillborn children, mentally handicapped people, those who die young.)
  3. Abortion destroys this potentiality, by terminating a fetus before it even has the chance to live out its life.
  4. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

This argument reasons from our innate love of people to the outworking of that love, viz. respecting potentiality. In effect, what it is saying is that abortion is wrong because it doesn’t give a fetus a fair shake at life. Destroy a fetus in the womb and you may have killed off a Beethoven, a Dostoevsky, an Aristotle, or a Michelangelo. This argument is powerful because it has great emotional and moral appeal, and it taps into a universal human sentiment.

However, it still has a few problems. One is the idea of potentiality. One argument for some abortions is that it is more merciful to abort a fetus who would have Down syndrome or a horrible disability, because they would never be able to live a “fully realized life” (Whatever that may be). In effect, this counter-argument would say that some potentialities are more potential than others. I suspect parents of children with Down’s syndrome or disabilities, as well as the children themselves, would disagree. As one fellow pointed out, Leftists always love the marginalized unless they’re in the womb. Another possible objection would be that the mother’s potentiality outweighs the child’s. This would push the argument back into the pragmatic territory–would it be “better” for the poor, single mother of two children to abort the third child so she could afford to feed the others? I do think that this argument is a good deal more powerful than any of the others, and might be very effective among the “spiritual, but not religious” types.

4. The Pragmatic Potentiality Argument

  1. Within ever person, there is a potentiality that in itself is valuable
  2. This potentiality is valuable even if it is never realized. (I.e. moral monsters like Hitler, stillborn children, mentally handicapped people, those who die young.)
  3. If we preserve this innate potentiality within humans by refusing to abort them whenever they are the womb, then eventually we will see this potentiality actualized.
  4. And the actualization of this potentiality will be a positive good, both for individuals and for the larger world of art, politics, culture, etc.

This argument extends the potentiality argument by focusing on the result of the potentiality. It would argue that, if abortion destroys a potential Beethoven, choosing life allows a potential Beethoven to live and flourish, and this would be better for us all. A more personal version of the argument might be “If you let your child live, you will eventually find out that the benefits of having the child far outweigh the costs.” The weakness of the argument is that the results are hard to see–calculating the amount of children who weren’t aborted is like calculating the amount of cars that didn’t crash. It’s also hard to quantify how much “better” the world or someone’s life would be if abortion were not practiced.

5. The Argument From Guns 

  1. Abortion advocates claim that if abortion or certain abortions are outlawed, women will still seek illegal, unsafe, “back-alley” abortions.
  2. By analogy, if guns or certain guns are outlawed, gun owners will still seek illegal, unsafe, “back-alley” guns.
  3. Therefore, we should oppose gun control.

This argument is a “reductio ad absurdum,” arguing from premises held by an opponent to a conclusion that the opponent would find repugnant. This argument does not argue against abortion; instead, it argues against an argument for abortion. Its main virtue is that it will annoy the heck out of Leftists, which is the end goal of any sensible political endeavor.

Analysis of All The Above

The above arguments all try to argue against abortion from a non-religious perspective. Arguments 1, 3, and 4 argue from a “Natural Law” perspective, reasoning from moral sentiments that most humans possess to a specific conclusion. Argument 2 is purely pragmatic argument, setting aside any considerations about right and wrong. Argument 4 combines the Natural Law and pragmatic approaches, arguing that what is good is better for individuals and society (right makes might). And Argument 5 works as a confounder of a popular pro-abortion argument,  and allows the arguer to score some debating points. Ultimately, however, I find none of these arguments conclusive against abortion. At best, they can be used as supplementary arguments to the traditional understanding of abortion as a moral crime. However, I think that the strongest arguments against abortion will have to come from a religious viewpoint, whether Christian, Judaistic, Buddhist, Jain, Taoist, Confucian or Neo-Pagan.

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