The abortion debate isn’t about the right to life

PZ Myers brings up another chestnut from the seemingly endless vault of “pro-life” arguments:

From a biology or human embryology textbook in use on an accredited university campus (your own University of Minnesota-Morris campus would be fine), please cite chapter and page that unequivocally states that “human life does not begin at conception.”

And this would end the debate? Really? Because we could probably make that happen — it would save everyone a lot of trouble.

PZ’s response is to point out that Lewis Wolpert, a renowned developmental biologist and author of one of the most popular developmental biology textbooks, has said as much: “I’ve spoken to these eggs many times and they make it quite clear … they are not a human being.”


Of course Wolpert knows as well as anyone that replying when spoken to isn’t an ironclad determiner of personhood, but he also makes it quite clear that in his opinion, a fertilized egg should not be granted an unconditional right to life.

Wait, anti-abortion activists aren’t convinced?

As I’ve said before, biologists are not going to answer this question for us. Appealing to biology is a convenient way to end an argument when the person you’re debating doesn’t know enough biology to realize it’s irrelevant. As I’ve suggested in the headline of this post, the abortion debate isn’t about the right to life at all.

We extend the right to life to many different things: Criminals convicted of anything other than murder or treason, “civilians” who don’t happen to be near a military target, endangered species, fish under a certain size, and so on.

Should we extend it to a fertilized egg in a woman’s uterus? A fertilized egg outside of the uterus? After all, if “life begins at conception,” shouldn’t we do all we can to save the untold thousands of lives imperiled each year at fertility clinics? Once their clients have had all the kids they want, we could forcibly impregnate women of childbearing age with the remaining fertilized eggs.

While there are some who question the morality of fertility clinics, I suspect that the number of people actually advocating forced impregnation with excess embryos from fertility clinics could be counted on one hand.

If forced impregnation with excess embryos is so obviously bad, then what about forced impregnation with the semen of a rapist? Again, most people agree that this is wrong.

But forced pregnancy for a woman who had sex for fun, who neglected to use birth control? Now suddenly the numbers jump. Millions of people say that any woman who consents to sex without birth control and gets pregnant should be legally obligated to carry the fetus to term.

Why the difference? The concern clearly isn’t for the “rights” of the fetus. The most charitable way of putting the anti-abortion argument is that a women who gets pregnant via unprotected, consenting sex should have to live with the consequences of the decision she made. I bet you’d get close to fifty percent agreement with that statement if you put it to a nationwide poll. If you phrased it a little differently, you might get a different response: “Pregnancy and childbirth are fitting punishments for women who have unprotected sex.”

Few people would agree with this statement, because we don’t like to think of babies as punishment. Babies are sweet and adorable.

But what other justification could there be for the vast gulf separating the millions who support forced pregnancy when the woman consented to sex and the few who support forced pregnancy when she did not? It can only be out of a desire to punish the woman.

When we look at it this way, we see that the debate over abortion isn’t about the right to life at all. That’s why asking a biologist for his opinion on the matter doesn’t resolve anything. A biologist can tell you whether something is alive, but she can’t tell you how (or whether) to punish someone for a perceived moral failing.

That’s why I always place “pro-life” in quotes. These people aren’t pro-life. They’re anti-sex. They’re so anti-sex that they advocate forced pregnancy as a punishment for having sex. They think sex is so wrong, they’re willing to condemn any woman who does it to nine months of sickness, and hours of torture that may result in death. Then, ideally, this same woman would care for and nourish the product of her torment for the rest of her life.

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11 Responses to The abortion debate isn’t about the right to life

  1. Toaster says:

    Maybe it’s also about control of society as a whole.

    Religion used to be the sole dictator of morality in Western civilization. Then secularism shattered the trope that morality is inherently dependent upon religiosity and people no longer placed nearly so much value upon religion’s dictates. This represents a loss of control of framing issues, morality, and society as a whole. Perhaps the conservative religious movement’s inflexibility is due more to fear of irrelevance/obsolescence than to actual anti-sex ideology.

  2. dave says:

    I think that’s possible, but it might even go a little deeper than that. The religious prohibitions against female sexual promiscuity may be related to Dawkins’ selfish gene. Men can’t be certain they’re the father of a child unless the control women’s sexuality. So powerful social taboos become the norm, and these are subsumed under “religion.” Now that we have other ways of identifying a child’s father, these taboos are unnecessary, but they are clung to because they give men a means of preserving their power over women.

  3. Mary says:

    I agree with your premises but not your conclusion.

    Consider someone dying of leukemia. A bone-marrow donation could save their life. This would be an uncomfortable and potentially fatal medical procedure for the donor, which would probably take months at the least to recover from.

    Now, we ask, what are societies, and the potential marrow-donor’s, obligations to the leukemia patient? As people if it’s okay to just kill the patient to free up a bed and save the medical costs, and no one will say yes. Ask them if it’s okay for the potential donor to refuse to give marrow, even though it will result in the patient’s death just the same, and most people will agree that it is okay. The donor gets to decide what to do with their own body, right? Even if it results in someone else’s death.

    But what if the donor is not a stranger. What if they are family? Or what if they are the employer of the patient, and the cause of the patient’s leukemia is radiation that they were exposed to on the job? I think you’d find that the number of people who would say that the potential donor had no obligation would drop precipitously in either case. Is it because they want to punish the potential donor? No, it’s because we have a sense that these things obligate you.

    I used to think the crux of the matter was when personhood began. But someone on another message board brought up the marrow donation analogy, in which there is no dispute over whether the patient is a person. They said, even granting personhood to the embryo or fetus, they would still think that it should not be mandatory to carry a pregnancy to term just as it should not be mandatory to donate marrow, just because you’re a match. So now I agree that it’s not personhood that’s the issue, really. I think the people who would say that there are circumstances under which someone should be required to donate bone marrow are likely to be the same as the people who oppose abortion, in general, and that both issues are very morally murky for me. I find it hard to understand anyone who thinks either is clear cut.

  4. dave says:


    I can see your point, but even in the case of the employer who caused the leukemia, you’ve got it wrong. Few would suggest that the employer should be forced to donate bone marrow to save the employee. Maybe the employer should be fined, or even sent to prison if the actions were negligent enough, but in no case would the employer be required to undergo a painful medical procedure. That would be “cruel and unusual punishment.”

    In reality of course that punishment of irresponsible employers rarely occurs. Employers mistreat employees in horrendous ways and get off completely free. Yet people think it’s entirely reasonable to put women through tremendous pain in the case of an unplanned pregnancy because “actions have consequences.”

    There is indeed tremendous social pressure on family members to donate bone marrow or organs for their sick relatives, and in many cases these people are willing to make the sacrifice to help their loved ones. But in no case are these people legally required to do so. Yet millions of people ask women to make a similar sacrifice in the case of unplanned pregnancies, and believe it should be a legal obligation.

  5. Toaster says:

    OK, Dave, I’ll see your Dawkin’s selfish gene and raise you Economic Theory. If we assume that the primary subconscious and/or explicit reason that men have historically wanted to control women’s reproductive tracts and by extension the women themselves to ensure that their women’s offspring are their own, then we must also posit that the primary societal reason for doing so was to pass on property, prestige, and wealth through inheritance. Economic inheritance could easily been seen as an extension of the selfish gene concept modulated through the social contract.

  6. Tom says:

    dave, you bring up some excellent points. I’ve long held the thought that this was, at its core, about controlling sexual activity. I fear that the logical target after securing “right to life” is to try and eliminate contraception options (other than abstinence) altogether.

    @Mary “we have a sense that these things obligate you.”

    I think it boils down to whether it’s appropriate that you obligate yourself vs. others obligating you to do something, and regarding the latter, whether you go from possible societal pressure to legality as a means of encouraging/ensuring that obligation.

    If people I don’t know think I have an obligation to donate the marrow, but I don’t feel that obligation, I certainly don’t want them to be able to be able to legally force me to take that action.

  7. Scandibilly says:

    Bibleheads don’t give a shit about science anyway. Debating them with science is like debating a mentally disabled child in order to convince them to behave or speak correctly. Instead, the fight against the anti-choicers should hit them in their silly, primitive concept of reality. Their religion is a fairy tale, and we should show them for what it is, thus destroying the basis for their uninformed and irresponsible — not to mention socially-harmful — views on society. For example:

    1. Christians claim that their god is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, and that despite the requirement of this belief that he preside in the energy that produces every atom of every object and process in the universe, he is never considered responsible for evil. Interestingly, though he is considered the creator of everything and possesses control over everything–including all evil acts and people–he is still not claimed to be evil. As the Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote in consideration of this contradiction:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him god?

    2. According to Christian belief, even though their one god is acknowledged as the only entity that allows each individual life and appoints the time for each person’s death, abortion, suicide and murder are considered sins generated by people alone. These acts are conveniently attributed to a “free will”, thereby freeing their one god from all responsibility.

    3. Despite all the processes and the resulting objects of the universe–including human life–being initiated, controlled, maintained and ended by the direction of one all-powerful, universally-present and all-knowing god who exists outside of time and is claimed by believers to see all events in time, human beings are said to have free will. How can humans truly have a “free” will devoid of all influences of such a god if they must exist within a world controlled by the laws of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology–all of which he is supposed to have created and without his constant presence and maintenance would not exist? It is a contradiction of belief. If such a deity exists as most Christians understand it, then all aspects of birth, life and death are determined and free will does not exist. Can you flap your wings and fly simply because you will yourself to do so? Of course not.

    4. Because each of our lives would have to be predetermined by this god, all sin would be predetermined and done through this god’s rules, essence and direction–the same way as all events in the universe are described by Christian belief.

    5. If this reality and the unchangeable processes of nature were not created and maintained by this god, then this god must operate within these rules and would therefore not be omnipotent as claimed by the Christian religion. If a god is responsible for this, then there can be no free will.

    6. If this god was not able to see the future or the choices of every human being before their births, then he would not be omniscient.

    7. If this god does not exist all places throughout all time, but only exists at different points along the span of time–no matter how complicated or numerous the arrangement of points–then he would not be omnipresent.

    8. If this god was omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, being all that we are composed of; creating and controlling all the rules we must follow; thus, not only allowing all which is considered “evil” but also actively participating though these powers and influences throughout all of time–and yet still sends people to suffer for eternity in hell for the lives he chose to give them against their will, indeed without allowing them a will–then this god is malevolent and cannot be a god of mercy or love.

    9. If this god is not all-knowing, not all-powerful and not ever-present, then why is he called “god” and given the above titles? This is not truth.

    10. The Christian god is also said to act through humans, though throughout time people have done things that oppose supposedly god-directed acts of other followers. Whether or not an action may be considered “righteous” depends on the reviewer’s position in society, history and culture. Either the Christian god is fickle, or his followers are acting on their own beliefs and whims without supernatural guidance. If god is only attributed to some of these acts and proclamations and not others, then one must ask who has decided what was god’s will and what was the will of a human? No matter what situation is considered from the Christian perspective, it will always yield a completely subjective conclusion.

    11. If the “road to hell is wide and the gate to heaven narrow,” implying that the majority of people will go to hell; and, all unborn children are indeed innocent, then a merciful Christian should prevent the eternal torture of vast numbers of souls by encouraging abortion–thus preventing that which Christians perceive as a soul from the overwhelming likelihood of going to hell after death! In other words, the possible life gets a “free ticket” to a glorious paradise where this soul would worship the Judeo-Christian god for all eternity instead of chancing the likely afterlife of eternal torture to his supposed displeasure!

    12. However, if life is defined as beginning before birth, then all aborted fetuses possess sin and must end up in hell, as “all have sinned.” All miscarriages and accidental in utereo deaths attributed to god-controlled and directed natural processes must necessarily end in eternal suffering as well. It is argued by some theologians that these souls would be offered a fair choice between serving god or denying god, though there is no biblical evidence supporting this–it is a manufactured story to explain the curious lackings of manufactured strories. If either point were true, then the Christian god would be niether merciful nor honest.

    13. As follows, if such a god truly prescribes all life and all death, and all that exists is composed of his direction, then, as we’ve established, he is responsible for all life and all death–including abortion. If he holds total control and participation in the universe as required by Christian belief, then a soul’s eternity would be his predetermined will as well. If we are to declare that this particular death was the will of god, but this other death went against his will, then he is either chaotically malevolent or he is not omnipotent.

    14. In the Roman-assembled, oft-disputed, and heavily-translated text we call the bible–a collection of books that were not written until after all characters had been dead for quite some time and placed together in one text much later–we are told that “all have sinned” and that “all sins are equal in the eyes of god.” This implies that no children are innocent to the Judeo-Christian god; and, that if abortion is a sin, then it is equal to lying which is equal to looking a woman with lustful thoughts which is equal to using the Christian god’s name in vain, which is equal to planting two different crops in the same field, etc…. The emphasis of concern which Christians place on this act or that act is not biblical, but entirely subjective to their denomination’s doctrine and/or culture. Either the great majority of Christians are hypocrites, the bible is contradictory, god is far more sadistic and cruel than often imagined, or the various books of what we call the bible are flawed replicas of the original manuscripts if such manuscripts ever existed.

    15. Though often used to make the concept of war acceptable to Christians, the character Jesus is providing a direct answer to the question of taxes when he states “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” an indirect answer to involvement in government, and all other inferences are drawn from culturally and selfishly conjured conclusions about the meaning of that statement.

    16. Let us also note that taxes gathered during the time of Jesus were primarily used to preserve and increase the size of the Roman Empire through violence. Universal health care, support for the impoverished, universal education and other social support systems benefiting all members of a society were either nonexistent or of very low importance. Large armies and luxuries for the richest members of society were the primary uses of tax revenue, indirectly paying taxes supported the oppression of those kooky religious freaks bent on changing the Roman Empire into the slush-bucket of failure which marked the onset of Christian emperors and the downfall of civilization, i.e., the beginning of the Dark Ages.

    17. Since the bible used by western churches tells us to give to the poor, to not kill and to help each other, it is another example of hypocrisy by politically-conservative Christians that they primarily support tax revenues to be used for purposes similar to those of the Roman Empire, while simultaneously opposing the use of tax dollars for obviously propagandic “”Christian”” purposes such as universal health care, social security and education. It’s funny how the very things which would make a society more conducive to rearing children are also the very things opposed by those who claim to care the most.

    18. In any event, if Jesus did separate the practices of a Christian life from the acts and requirements of governments, then political action by Christians is in contradiction to the supposed teachings of Jesus.

    19. Jesus also is supposed to have declared that: “Who of you is without sin may cast the first stone.” And, “Do not judge, lest you yourselves be judged.” Though free will cannot exist and all sinful acts must be predetermined under an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent god, if a free will were somehow allowed to exist within Christian doctrine the choice of whether to commit sin or not must be freely allowed so that each person can make a personal choice to follow Christ or not. These choices must not be restricted by laws or penalties so that people can exercise there supposedly god-given free will. If this is not so, then the choice to not sin is not a choice made of one’s free will, or god does not allow free will, or Christianity’s understanding of Jesus’ teachings are flawed–or simply ignored. Ergo, even if they believe it is wrong they must allow the choice of having an abortion for the sake of their religious beliefs; otherwise they’re violating the silly and contradictory mess of fairy tales upon which they’ve built their hivemind worldview.

  8. Dave Munger says:


    That would be a pretty impressive argument if you hadn’t copied and pasted it from all over the internet. Try thinking for yourself next time.

  9. Rob says:

    I believe most contenders in the abortion debate don’t fully understand the issue itself. If I am not mistaken, the official pro-life position is that after 3 or 4 weeks of conception, it is no longer acceptable to abort a fetus. What’s more, those who uphold the pro-choice position have to understand the physical limitation of abortion. That being that at the 7 month point, an abortion is extremely risky and no doctor would perform such an operation at that point (although I am certain a doctor or two who would chance this do exist.)

    Personally I believe it is best that two partners be prepared for their pregnancy. Financial stability can make a big difference in a child’s life and could be the difference between a happy marriage and divorce.

    I have enjoyed the points posted by other readers and will make this blog a part of my routine. Thanks for creating a stirring blog Mr Munger!

  10. Scandibilly says:

    Wow. This is old now. Just stumbled across this again and decided to address Dave’s comment:


    That would be a pretty impressive argument if you hadn’t copied and pasted it from all over the internet. Try thinking for yourself next time.”

    That link immediately shows only one other place the first point exists on the web than this little blog, and that’s on the Rational Responders page where I put it years ago. It was on an old blog of mine before that, and I encourage people to use it. Try to avoid jumping to conclusions next time, and give a guy a break for not wanting to paraphrase his own work just to provide some novel content for a minor web celebrity’s personal WordPress blog.

  11. Scandibilly says:

    Note: Apparently, a guy who goes by Sapient reposted it with attribution. Regardless, for a guy whose bio is adorned with all the frosting of intelligentsia it still seems to be an oversight.

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