Humans have value simply because they are human, not because of some acquired property that they may gain or lose during their lifetimes. If you deny this, it’s difficult to say why objective human rights apply to anyone.

Whole Human Entities

To review, pro-life advocates contend that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human organisms. They are not parts of larger human beings (like skin cells are), but whole human entities capable of directing their own internal growth and development. Pro-lifers don’t look to theology to tell them these things, but to the science of embryology.

Admittedly, science cannot tell us how we should treat unborn humans. It can’t tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. Is it wrong to torture toddlers for fun after beating your wife? Science can’t help you with that question. Nor can it tell us why the unborn human (or for that matter, any human) has a right to life. In short, science alone cannot justify the pro-life position, though it can give us the facts we need to draw moral conclusions on a host of controversial issues, including abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and cloning. Hence, the first step in resolving these issues is to state the proper scientific facts about the biological nature of the unborn entity. As we have seen, those facts are not in dispute: Embryology textbooks uniformly state that new human life comes into existence upon completion of fertilization (or after a successful cloning process).

The Religion Thing

At this point, some abortion advocates pull out a standard debate-stopper: “No one can claim an embryo or a fetus is a valuable human being without bringing the metaphysics of religion into the debate.”

Yes, it’s true: The claim that the embryo has value is indeed grounded in a worldview that admits a transcendent starting point for human rights and human value. But are we to conclude from this that the pro-life view is inherently irrational?

Such a view is clearly mistaken.

First, the claim that an embryo has value is no more a religious claim than saying a five-year old has value. Ramesh Ponnuru writes:

“The pro-life argument on abortion is that eight-week old fetuses do not differ from ten-day old babies in anyway that would justify killing the former. A lot of people believe that God forbids the killing of ten-day-old babies, and many would be unable, if pressed, to give a persuasive account of non-theological reasons for holding such a killing to be wrong. We do not take the opposition to killing babies to be therefore an essentially religious view.”

Indeed, can a thoroughly materialistic (secular) worldview tell us why anything has value or a right to life? According to materialism, everything in the universe—including human beings and their capacity for rational inquiry—came about by blind physical processes and random chance. The universe came from nothing and was caused by nothing. At best, human beings are cosmic accidents. In the face of this devastating news, secularists simply presuppose the dignity of human beings, human rights, and moral obligations. But on what naturalistic basis can human rights and human dignity be affirmed?

Second, just because the pro-life view is consistent with a particular religious viewpoint (such as Christian theism, Conservative Judaism, or Islam) does not mean it can only be defended with arguments exclusive to that viewpoint. Nearly all people would agree it’s wrong to kill toddlers for fun and they don’t need a course in church doctrine to apprehend that truth. At the same time, few people can present a completely secular argument detailing why abusing toddlers is wrong. But that hardly stops them from recognizing this moral truth, even if they can’t articulate their reasons in exclusively secular terms.

Third, even if we assume the pro-life view is essentially religious (though pro-life advocates can defend their views with reasons accessible to non-believers), why should anyone suppose that religious truth claims don’t count as real knowledge? What’s the evidence for that metaphysical claim? Historic Christianity, for example, does not teach blind faith, but trust (knowledge) based on evidence. We see this throughout the New Testament: 

(also see Acts 2: 32, 36; Acts 1: 3; and Mark 2: 10-11) 

To put the matter briefly, the Christian faith is historical and places a high value on realism. The Apostle Paul says it well: If Christ did not rise from the dead bodily and historically, Christianity is one big joke. (1 Corinthians 15: 1-15) Of course, it’s possible Christian theism is mistaken in part or in whole (though I think that’s highly unlikely), but to say that believers can’t defend their views with rational arguments is simply false. 

Fourth, the “imposing religion” objection is not really an argument, but a ramrod used to silence all opposition to abortion. Law Professor Mary Ann Warren rightfully asks why citizens should have to withhold their moral views on abortion but not on other issues where they do not hesitate to advance religiously grounded moral viewpoints—such as the Vietnam War, capital punishment, civil rights, and relief of poverty? Strange though it may seem to liberal elites, most religious conservatives I know don't want a theocracy or “Christian” nation that imposes theological doctrines. What they want is a more just nation, one where no human being regardless of religion, gender, size, level of development, location, or dependency is denied basic human rights. They also want judges who respect the rule of law rather than legislate from the bench. 

Finally, I could turn the tables on my secular critic and say: "Show me an argument for abortion rights that doesn't assume some transcendent grounding point." Here's the problem for the strict atheist: Where does the right to an abortion come from? If it comes from the State, he really can't cry foul if the State decides to revoke that right. After all, the same government that grants rights can take them away. However, most abortion advocates think the right to abortion is fundamental, meaning it's grounded in something that transcends the workings of human government. Yet how can transcendent rights of any kind exist without a transcendent source of authority that grants them? (Jefferson recognized this problem and promptly grounded human rights and human equality in the concept of a transcendent creator.) Of course, this by itself does not prove that Christianity, Judaism, or any other world religion is true, but it does seem to rule out atheism as an adequate starting point for basic human rights. In short, I doubt my secular critic can get his own claim for fundamental abortion rights off the ground without borrowing from the very theistic worldview he so despises. 

Back to Basics 

Sadly, modern jurists have forgotten two foundational truths understood by their early American counterparts. First, the purpose of government is not to create rights, but to secure ones that we already have by nature. Second, one cannot speak seriously of things that are truly rightful or of human rights in general without assuming moral realism (that is, the belief that right and wrong are real things, not merely constructs of human opinion or culture). Put simply, if moral truths do not exist as a foundation for law, then law itself becomes merely a system of raw political power accountable to no one.  

Moral neutrality is impossible: Both sides of the abortion controversy bring prior metaphysical commitments to the debate. Why, then, is it okay for liberals to legislate their metaphysical views on the status of the unborn but not okay for pro-lifers to legislate theirs? Pro-lifers aren’t imposing their views with intimidation (except for the very few who resort to violence); they’re proposing them in hopes the electorate, at some level, will vote them into law. That’s called democracy.

The New Relativism: Condemn but Allow

During a debate at U.C. Davis in June of 2006, Dr. Meredith Williams, who performs some abortions, repeatedly called abortion tragic and said that she, too, wanted to reduce the practice provided no laws were passed restricting it.

But why abortion is tragic and why she wants to reduce it she couldn’t say. Seriously, if the unborn is just a "parasite," as she claimed more than once during the debate, isn’t removing that parasite a great event rather than a tragic one? The more abortions the better! She can’t have it both ways. 

Throughout the exchange, Dr. Williams couldn't decide whether women had an absolute right to bodily autonomy or not. For the first part of the exchange, she more or less argued they did. However, during the cross examination, she backed off that claim when I pressed her with this question provided by physician Rich Poupard: 

“Let's say a woman has intractable nausea and vomiting, and insists on taking thalidomide to help her symptoms. After having explained the horrific risks of birth defects that have arisen due to this medication, she still insists on taking it based on the fact that the fetus has no right to her body anyway. After being refused thalidomide from her physician, she acquires some and takes it, resulting in her child developing no arms. Do we believe that she did anything wrong? Would we excuse her actions based on her right to bodily autonomy? The fetus after all is an uninvited guest, and has no right even to life let alone an environment free from pathogens.”  

When Dr. Williams said the woman was wrong to do that, I replied: "So if the mother chooses to harm her unborn child with drug use that's wrong, but if she chooses to kill him with elective abortion, that's fine?”

Journalist Christopher Caldwell sums things up this way: “A pro-life regime is not really something Americans want--it's just something they feel they ought to want.” Even when they disapprove of abortion, “they booby-trap their disapproval so that it never results in the actual curtailment of abortion rights….Americans want to register their moral disapproval and keep the procedure available at the same time.”  

Dr. Williams wants to make abortion rare provided there’s not one law passed against it.  Religion and ethics aren’t banished; they’re just reassigned to the private realm where they make no real demands on us. Caldwell is right: This is not a pro-life stance at all.  “It's idle moralism, freeloading off a pro-choice culture.” 

Godless Pro-Lifers? 

Yes, they exist and I’m glad to have their help fighting abortion. But their metaphysics are deeply problematic. As Paul Copan pointed out earlier, atheists have difficulty offering a substantive ontological foundation for human dignity, human rights, or moral obligations. They simply presuppose these things. But on what naturalistic basis can human rights and human dignity be affirmed? Aren’t we all just accidents of nature?  True, atheists can recognize moral truth, but they can’t ground their moral claims ontologically. In short, they can’t really tell us why we ought to behave rightly on abortion or any other moral issue.  

Bottom Line 

A theistic universe better explains human rights and human dignity. For the theist, humans have value in virtue of the kind of thing they are, creatures who bear the image of their maker. At the same time, objective morals make sense because they are grounded in the character of an objective moral law-giver.

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