This week marks the 41st Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on January 22, 1973.  Since that time over 55 million babies have been aborted in the United States. That’s about 8 times the number of people who live in Indiana (my state) and over a sixth of the total current population in the United States.

Abortion is a polarizing issue in our culture: a moral, political, and religious dividing line that separates ethicists, citizens, and even professing Christians. And while many of my readers value the sanctity of human life and believe (as I do) that abortion is the unjust murder of a human being, it’s all too easy for us to caricature people of the opposing position as monsters who lack any moral conscience whatsoever. Even calling abortion murder will sound (to many) like inflammatory rhetoric that generates more heat than light. 

The problem, of course, is that while such statements may galvanize support from folks who already agree with us, it does nothing to actually engage the thinking of people who believe abortion is morally permissible. To do that we have to interact with the moral arguments pro-choice people appeal to in defense of their position.  

Consider one example.[i] An American philosopher named Mary Anne Warren wrote a well-known article defending “The Moral and Legal Use of Abortion.” Warren acknowledges that if an unborn fetus is a full-fledged human person then abortion is morally wrong. But the crux of her argument is that fetuses in fact are not persons and therefore do not have the same moral rights persons.

So how does Warren define “person”? Well, she actually doesn’t give a formal definition, but suggests a list of “the traits which are most central to the concept of personhood, or humanity.” She suggests five of these traits – (1) consciousness,  (2) reasoning,  (3) self-motivated activity,  (4) the capacity to communicate, and (5) the presence of self-concepts and self-awareness – and argues that fetuses lack them all.  “I consider this claim to be so obvious,” says Warren, “that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of [these traits] was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is.”[ii]

In other words, if personhood consists in these capacities, and a fetus has none of these capacities, then terminating a fetus in abortion is not equivalent to killing a human person.

So, how should we respond? First off, we could question this particular list of characteristics. While it’s true that these traits do characterize many, even most, mature human beings it is not obvious that these are necessary traits for personhood. Just because a human being lacks some of these traits does not mean he or she is therefore not a person. (It’s also not obvious that unborn babies lack all of these characteristics.)

But more than that, Warren’s argument, if true, proves too much. She says one must have certain capacities to qualify as a person, and when these capacities (and therefore personhood) are lacking, it is not morally wrong to take its life. But this reasoning could be used to justify not only abortion, but also infanticide and the termination of people with certain disabilities. In fact, another philosopher, Peter Singer, actually goes this far, reasoning from similar presuppositions that there are situations when killing an infant “is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”[iii]