How is a pro-life law driven by Christian motivation legal when it constrains Jewish practice? One Christian ministry responded to this broadside by denying that its argument was religious! Let’s see if this claim holds up.

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Is the pro-life argument stronger if it’s not based in Christianity?

The Stand to Reason ministry claims that its arguments aren’t religious but are firmly grounded by science. One such argument is “All Human Beings Are Valuable” by Tim Barnett. This video opens with Barnett opposite an unidentified woman who made an excellent and relevant addition to the abortion debate. Judaism has a clearer position on abortion than Christianity does, and abortion has a role in health care for a Jewish woman. I’ll add that the Satanic Temple makes its own religious arguments supporting abortion as a valid option. Why then should conservative Christianity get to impose its religious views on society? Why not Judaism instead? Or, let’s give every woman with an unwanted pregnancy the right to decide for herself how to handle the problem.

Barnett sidestepped the question and instead argued that his pro-life position isn’t religious—it’s scientific. It’s hard to imagine religion not being at the heart of his motivation when he works for an organization with a conservative Christian statement of faith, but let’s hear him out. He first quotes an embryology textbook that makes the unsurprising statement that each of us began as a single fertilized human egg cell.

Seen properly, persons aren’t killed with abortion, they’re prevented.

What is a human being?

Next, he quotes moral philosopher and atheist Peter Singer, who says that a single cell, because of its Homo sapiens DNA, is a “human being.” But read that quote in context to see that Singer is giving that as just one plausible definition of “human being.” And according to that definition, living skin cells that you scratch off are also human beings, since they also have H. sapiens DNA in them. Is that really the definition Barnett wants, a definition that gives a human zygote no more moral standing than scratched-off skin cells?

Let me push back in response to this broad definition. Here’s a thought experiment: picture a human being. You could picture just one or many, and you could picture ones you know or strangers. This thought experiment might bring up images of individual family members, people on crowded city sidewalks, or a newborn baby asleep in a bassinet. What it doesn’t bring to mind for me is an invisible cell you can’t see without a microscope. I haven’t done a poll, but I disagree that “human being” in common parlance includes the single cell that a baby starts as.

The dictionary agrees. Using Merriam-Webster, “human being” directs us to “human,” which leads to this definition of “man”: “a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens) that is anatomically related to the great apes but distinguished especially by notable development of the brain with a resultant capacity for articulate speech and abstract reasoning.”

So here’s what we’re looking for: bipedal primate, like great apes, brain development, speech, and abstract reasoning, none of which a single human cell has. Or move up a level to see human beings within the class of mammals. A mammal provides milk for its young and has hair, a neocortex, and three middle ear bones. Again, the single human cell strikes out.

He might respond with the Argument from Potential, that the zygote isn’t a human being yet, but it will be. He’d be correct, but by admitting the zygote isn’t a human being now, he would undercut his own argument.

Here’s a radical approach for a ministry looking to avoid a religious argument. They could argue that the Bible says little to support the anti-abortion argument. The Bible’s offering is meager when the highlights Christians point to are verses like “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” which does little to counter a god who cares so little for the “human being” in the womb that he aborts half of them. That modern Christians should shed tears over a single microscopic cell or equate that with a baby would be laughable to the patriarchs in the Bible.

See also: What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?

Also not a religious argument

Another article from the same ministry was written a day later and used the same template. This one is “Why Pro-Choicers Insist Pro-Life Arguments Are Religious” by Alan Shlemon.

Shlemon also says that his argument isn’t religious.

I began my debate by claiming abortion should be illegal for the same reason that it’s illegal to kill a fourteen-year-old, a four-year-old, or a four-month-old: It’s wrong to kill innocent human beings. If the unborn is a human being just like born children, then it’s equally wrong to kill the unborn….

Notice that when I make my case, I don’t cite the Bible. I don’t invoke God. I’m not making a religious argument.

He starts with the presumption that abortion is immoral (more on this later). His argument requires that the newborn baby and the zygote be in the same category so he can declare, “If it’s murder to kill the newborn, it must be murder for the zygote. How can it be otherwise? They’re the same thing!”

The argument begins to come apart when we list the similarities between the newborn and the zygote: they both have Homo sapiens DNA … and that’s it. I wonder what all the pro-life fuss is about if this is the core of their argument. Very little tender poetry is written about the kind of DNA in the cells of one’s beloved.

pro-life science - blue-green spectrum
(image by author)

My response: the spectrum argument

To see the newborn and the zygote from a more realistic perspective, consider the color spectrum above, which makes a smooth transition from blue to green. We can debate where blue ends and green begins, but it should be easy to agree that blue is not green. In other words, the two ends are quite different.

The same is true for a spectrum of personhood. Imagine a single fertilized egg cell at the left of a nine-month-long spectrum and a trillion-cell newborn on the right. That’s already a huge gulf, but it gets wider. That newborn is far more than just a trillion undifferentiated cells. Its cells have specialized into 200 different types, and they are organized and connected to make a person—it has arms and legs, eyes and ears, a brain and nervous system, a stomach and digestive system, a heart and circulatory system, skin, liver, bones, and on and on. The newborn is a person, the zygote is not, and the gulf between them is enormous. By comparison, the difference between the newborn and, say, a young adult is trivial.

Contrast this long list of fundamental differences between the newborn and the zygote with the ways they’re alike, which is merely that they’re the same species.

I say that the newborn is a person, the zygote isn’t, and it’s a spectrum of personhood in between. I’ve argued with many anti-abortion advocates who have disagreed. No, they’re both persons, they say. They’re both humans, they’re both human beings, they’re both babies, and I’m sure they’d try to reclaim any other word I’d propose to highlight the difference. But we’ve already seen with the definition of “human being” that the dictionary can be an obstacle to those with the urge to redefine words.

I’m trying to find a word that describes the spectrum. I want a noun that the baby is and the zygote isn’t. I say the newborn is a person and the zygote isn’t, but I’m flexible. Perhaps my pro-life antagonist has a better word. It shouldn’t be hard. Think of the words we have in English for the new baby: newborn, infant, baby, kid, one-year-old, toddler, and more, each referring to a slightly different being. Surely we can think of a word to make clear the enormous difference between zygote and newborn. If “person” isn’t it, then I challenge anti-abortion advocates to offer something better.

Seen properly, persons aren’t killed with abortion, they’re prevented.

Is that really the definition [he] wants, a definition that gives a human zygote no more moral standing than scratched-off skin cells?

Going to extremes

I’m looking at just two points along the spectrum, the beginning and the end. I’m trying to simplify, and the anti-choice argument is most brittle when it insists that even back to the single cell, women can’t be trusted with power over their own bodies.

The Christians I’ve argued with online often demand to know where I draw the line beyond which abortion should be illegal. I answer that I have no opinion. That’s an important question, but I have no expertise or interest, and it’s been answered hundreds of times in legislatures around the world.

The anti-abortion argument is indeed religious

Let me return to my claim that this anti-abortion argument is flawed because it doesn’t collect the facts and find the best explanation but begins with its conclusion that abortion is immoral. This is clear because of the focus on similarities (if they have the same DNA, they are morally equivalent) rather than admitting that this is tenuous and exploring the issue more broadly to search for a more sensible argument. In other words, they poked around the argument space, found an argument that gave them the conclusion they wanted, redefined troublesome words as necessary, and stopped. Why stop there instead of anywhere else? Because they had an agenda. Why is this agenda religious? Because both authors are writing for an evangelical Christian organization, and I’m certain they’ve made overtly Christian pro-life arguments before.

Returning to the opening of Barnett’s video, he quoted someone who argued that abortion fits in a Jewish worldview. I added that that’s also true of the worldview of the Satanic Temple, and that of additional religious communities. Barnett tried to sidestep these religious responses by recasting his argument as scientific, not religious.

But this dodge failed, and the challenge remains. The First Amendment prohibits government, whether federal or state, from “an establishment of religion.” Imposing the Christian anti-abortion views as law, which some state governments are poised to do, violates that Constitutional guarantee.

A few final observations in part 2.

You can’t eliminate abortion.
All you can do is make it more dangerous.
— paraphrase of a comment by Chris Charbonneau,
Fall of Roe podcast

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...