Can the abortion debate ever be logical? 

Abortion seems to raise emotions that people sometimes didn’t even realise they have. 

There are very few topics which ignite passionate public division and debate quite like abortion. Indeed, abortion seems to raise emotions that people sometimes didn’t even realise they have. Anyone brave enough to venture onto the wilds of social media in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court overturning of Roe vs Wade (which made abortion a right under the US Constitution) knows what I mean. 

Even when it was just a rumour, that decision stimulated much commentary. I was particularly intrigued to notice that famed atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins weighing in with a contribution in (secular humanist publication) Free Inquiry.  

The article, entitled ‘They think its Murder’, was touted as ‘bringing logic back to the abortion debate’. Yet as I read Dawkins’ piece, I had my doubts.  

Understanding Pro-Life Objections 

To his credit. Dawkins recognises the logic of his pro-life opponents by acknowledging that, if abortion really was murder, then it’s consistent for them to oppose it. He writes, ‘No wonder they scream outside abortion clinics … Wouldn’t we all scream if we believed what they believe?’ 

He also recognises that, to the pro-life advocate, ‘choice alone’ is insufficient grounds to justify abortion because there’s another person involved. As he paraphrases it: ‘Yes, your woman body is yours, but there’s another body inside it—a human being with rights just like yours.’ 

The Quest to Persuade 

Hence in order to bring ‘logic’ to the debate, Dawkins recognises the need to try a different approach. He believes that abortion advocates need to talk pro-lifers out of their passionate conviction that human personhood begins at conception and therefore abortion is murder. 

Dawkins fails to offer an alternative. He doesn’t explain what defines human life, nor when human life actually begins.

Unfortunately Dawkins fails to offer an alternative. He doesn’t explain what defines human life, nor when human life actually begins. He doesn’t explain when an embryo becomes a baby—which is the critical point of disagreement in this debate. 

Instead, he sneeringly points to the Vatican doctrine which states that: 

…  from the time that the ovum is fertilised, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. 

Dawkins calls this ‘childlike naivete’. But he never actually deals with the fact of a new life beginning with the fertilisation of an ovum. The fact that the embryo possesses unique human DNA is central to the argument of pro-life camp (as the Catholic document implies).  

The Question of Pain 

He then deals with the question whether an embryo can feel pain, which to Dawkins appears to be the heart of human uniqueness. Yet this argument raises awkward questions. Is someone suffering from leprosy less human because they can’t feel pain? Does a patient undergoing general anaesthetic ceases to be human while they are unconscious? The experience of pain is not a sufficient category to define the uniqueness or distinctiveness of humans.  

Dawkins’ assumption that pain defines the uniqueness of a human allows him to equivocate by comparing the emergence of a human embryo with animal pain. Pro-lifers are inconsistent, he declares, because they are exclusively pro-human life. 

But this is precisely to miss the point. The pro-life camp is ‘exclusively’ pro-human life, not because of some capacity to feel pain (or any other capacity), but because they believe that humans stand in a unique relationship to God as his image-bearers. 

The Argument from Potential 

Then Dawkins’ considers another element defining the preciousness of human life by considering the argument from potential. He concedes that, even if the embryo has no greater capacity than a pig embryo, ‘… it is hard to resist speculating on what that incipient little life could have become.’ 

Even though he has made the tacit acknowledgement that there is an ‘incipient little life,’ he argues that if we consider potential, then we just can’t rule out any unprotected sex at all. Yet this clearly overlooks the creation of a new life at the moment of conception, which again, is at the heart of the pro-life argument and which the Catholic Church acknowledges in the earlier quote. 

Dawkins overlooks and dismisses this critical point by arguing that he isn’t ‘an enthusiast for drawing lines—either in evolution or in the parallel process of embryonic development’ 

It’s unclear why Dawkins’ considers his argument convincing; pro-life advocates (even anti-contraception Catholics) draw a very clear line between unfertilised eggs and sperm and the new genetic individual created by their joining. Fertilisation is the moment at which a new human life begins. Dawkins unwillingness to ‘draw lines’ around the very issue being debated seems to undermine his attempt at a ‘different approach’ to persuade. 

Dawkins’ Conclusion Fails 

Hence, after rallying these arguments and attempting to be logical, Dawkins concludes that: 

… we have to target our arguments directly toward their fundamental premise: the illogical, or at least dubious, premise that personhood begins at conception. 

Unfortunately Dawkins hasn’t really addressed this at all—he has merely sidestepped the issue. By redefining key terms and asserting that ‘I’m not that into lines!’ he has left the central pro-life case undamaged. He has failed to show what is wrong with the idea that human life begins at conception—and therefore failed to showed that destroying can be justified.  

Has Logic Failed? 

I think Dawkins is right to appeal to logic. Logic is important in building consistency into our decision making. We are logical creatures and we seek to live consistent lives. Yet, whilst some have been convinced that Dawkins has brought logic back to the abortion debate, I am unpersuaded.  

The dividing line is between the fundamental assumptions … The conclusions simply ‘logically’ flow from the starting points.

Yet perhaps logic can never truly adjudicate between two competing worldviews? When the choice is between an absolute view of ‘freedom’ to choose what happens with one’s body, and the sanctity of human life, the dividing line is between the fundamental assumptions about the nature of human life. The conclusions simply ‘logically’ flow from the starting points.

If that is correct, then perhaps what we need most urgently—and especially in the wake of the Supreme Courts ruling—is not more arguments, but the example of Jesus to show us how humans should be treated. Jesus: welcomer of children, advocate for the vulnerable, voice for the voiceless, friend to the despised, associate of sinners and diseased, saviour of his enemies; Jesus—set forth in Scripture and mirrored in the lives of his people. Here is a logic to persuade.