Human embryo (4 weeks)[For pro-choice month on Feminist Fire]

There are many bad arguments for why women should not be allowed the right to an abortion. I am not too concerned about those, because they are easy to knock down. But there are also some good ones. Well, one good one. And that’s worth talking about because I think it does create a space for legitimate disagreement about the moral rights and wrongs of abortion. And if there is such a space, it’s important that we know where it is, and what is inside it, right?


First, just for fun, some of the bad arguments.

Abortion is wrong because it says in [insert preferred holy book here] that [insert quotation here] – therefore abortion should be banned.

I’m not even going to engage with religious arguments. Most of them are at best debatable even on their own merits, as far as I can make out. But even if that were not the case I would not care. Even if, in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Flying Spaghetti Monster bible it says “Abortion is wrong, and can never be justified. No woman shall ever be permitted to have an abortion and no person shall ever perform an abortion on any woman, no matter what the reason, not ever…” I would not care.

Because faith-based arguments are just not admissible if we are talking about legal restrictions that are intended to operate across the whole of society. Because I do not live in a place where priests get to make the rules. I do not live in a place where I have to abide by the rules of somebody else’s religion, regardless of whether and to what extent I share their beliefs. I live in a democracy where we have a thing called freedom of religion. I have the freedom to reject the moral or any other dictates of any religion, and so does any woman who wants to know that she could get an abortion if she needed one.

Abortion is wrong because – omg look at these grisly pictures of dead babies from late term abortions – therefore abortion should be banned.

Nobody is suggesting that abortion is a walk in the park, or that women go about hoping to contract an unwanted pregnancy just for the joy of aborting it as late as she thinks she can get away with. Abortion is unpleasant. It is upsetting, sometimes even traumatic. Many things in life are unpleasant, upsetting and potentially traumatic. Sometimes we opt for unpleasantness or for doing something that we know will be upsetting because we are in a tight place and there is no good option. The lesser of two evils is still evil – but if you ban the lesser, you are left with the greater.

Information about dead babies means nothing, and is hopelessly one-sided, unless it is balanced by information and analysis covering all the issues. Or maybe we could just balance these pictures with pictures of the lacerated and blackened wombs of women who have died from massive infections after an unsafe, illegal abortion?

Abortion is wrong because it harms women – therefore abortion should be banned.

Some women do find that having an abortion was upsetting and traumatic. Some women also find that their abortion has resulted in medical complications (especially, I might add, in countries were abortion is illegal and they have resorted to a backstreet abortionist). Some women find that having an abortion was a relief and a lifesaver, sometimes literally a lifesaver. Most abortions carried out by medical professionals in appropriate settings do not result in complications. Who is the best person to make this choice? You? Me? Or the woman who is actually going to suffer whatever harm is in the offing?

And if the best person to make decisions about things that may or may not harm a woman is the woman herself, there is no call for legislation. Just provide her with good quality information, and let her decide.


Now for what I call “the good argument”.

The “good argument” runs along the following lines:

  1. Human life is sacred / deserves respect (or whatever formulation you prefer), so the deliberate destruction of human life is always* wrong.
  2. A zygote / embryo / foetus is an unborn human being** incapable of protecting itself.
  3. Therefore, abortion (the deliberate destruction of a zygote / embryo / foetus) is always wrong and we should step in and protect the foetus.

* Some variations of this argument allow that the deliberate destruction of human life is not always wrong (e.g. self-defence could justify killing) and therefore that abortion is not always wrong (e.g. where the pregnancy is life-threatening for the woman).

** Other variations may suggest that a zygote / embryo / foetus does not become a “human being” until a certain point in gestation, for example when it becomes viable outside the womb (usually considered to be at 20-odd weeks) or when it starts to have or display some (usually arbitrary) characteristic that is said to transform the clump of human cells into an actual human being, for example when it starts to look like an unborn baby rather than a sort of blob, or when it has the capacity to feel pain.

I call this the “good argument” because each of the premises is capable of being presented attractively, humanely and persuasively – to some degree at least; and because if you accept each of the premises it is difficult to fault the conclusion irrespective of how much sympathy you may have for the woman whose body contains and supports the foetus.


Most of us feel that in some degree human life deserves respect – we may formulate it differently, but most of us have a sense that humans and human beings are somehow special, that human life has some sanctity. At least more important than, say, a dog or a tree. Most of us also feel to some degree that what is sacred, or what deserves respect, should not be destroyed.

However, the first point to make is that these feelings are just that. It is philosophically difficult to prove that something objectively deserves respect or is sacred (or whatever) or that it ought, as a matter of objective morality, to be preserved rather than destroyed. If someone disagreed, then it would be hard to prove them wrong, however much our bones may shudder at what they say. It is a matter of faith and belief, not fact. This is worth bearing in mind, given that we live in a democracy with freedom of conscience: because if people may legitimately disagree over whether something is right or wrong then, unless there is some other good reason for doing so, the law generally ought not to ban it.

The second point is to recognise that “human life” is itself a bit of a loaded term. Why do we feel that “human life” has special sanctity compared with, say, a dog or a tree? Do we really believe that an insensate clump of cells is more important and more deserving of respect than, say, a fully grown dog, just because that clump of cells happens to be in possession of human DNA?

I believe that all things created are sacred and deserve respect, because the wonder of creation is wonderful – and I don’t think this is limited to human life. I think it extends to all creation. I also believe that a person should be treated as deserving special respect compared with a non-person: thus (I hope) we would not kill a person to save a potato, and we would not complain about smashing a diamond into smithereens to save a person. But I don’t believe that “person” is equivalent to “human life”. An insensate clump of cells may be classed as “human life” but that doesn’t mean that it is a “person”. A fully grown dog certainly does not count as “human life” but many dog lovers will tell you that a dog is a person, and why not?

Finally, we need to understand that there are questions of degree involved. Just because we accept that a human embryo deserves respect, does not mean that we have to accept the suggestion that it is absolutely inviolable in the sense that destruction can never be justified.

Some people may indeed believe that human life – interpreted as including even a clump of human cells that has not yet attained personhood – is absolutely inviolable. But it is perfectly legitimate to hold the view (as I do) that while a human embryo deserves, like all created things, a measure of respect, this does not mean that a human embryo has to be treated as absolutely inviolable. So if we say that something is sacred or deserving of respect in some degree (falling short of inviolability), we are not saying that destruction is always wrong. Nor are we saying the opposite, that destruction is always morally acceptable. We are saying that destruction can only be justified if there is good reason.

What counts as a good reason? Does the mother’s life have to be in danger, or is it enough that she just doesn’t want to be pregnant, or is the trigger point somewhere in between? It all depends on the degree (if any) to which we feel that a clump of human cells is sacred. It depends on the weight we attach to that sanctity when compared with the weight to be attached to the woman’s interests or preferences, if she does not wish to continue her pregnancy. We can argue in circles for ever about these issues because we all have a different idea of how valuable that human foetus is.

And that, ultimately, is the point. We all have a different idea of how valuable that human foetus is: and our different ideas can only co-exist as long as we understand that this is a matter of faith. We can legitimately disagree about matters of faith, but what we can’t do, in a democratic society where we have freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, is to impose the consequences of our own faith on other people. I can’t make someone have an abortion just because I think it is right for her case. She cannot stop me from having one just because she thinks it is wrong in mine. In a democratic society, we have the right to make our own decisions.