BREAKING DOWN CARL SAGAN’S LOGIC ON ABORTION Part 14 “Viability arguments cannot, it seems to us, coherently determine when abortions are permissible…we offer for consideration the earliest onset of human thinking as that criterion” (My 1995 correspondence with Sagan) Francis J. Beckwith vs Carl Sagan

The last few posts have dealt with material from Adrian Rogers and Francis Schaeffer, But today Bernard Nathanson testimony is given.

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Francis Schaeffer and Adrian Rogers

Carl Sagan pictured below:


Recently I have been revisiting my correspondence in 1995 with the famous astronomer Carl Sagan who I was introduced to when reading a book by Francis Schaeffer called HE IS THERE AND HE IS NOT SILENT written in 1968. 

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Francis Schaeffer

I was blessed with the opportunity to correspond with Dr. Sagan, and in his December 5, 1995 letter Dr. Sagan went on to tell me that he was enclosing his article “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. I am going to respond to several points made in that article. Here is a portion of Sagan’s article (here is a link to the whole article):

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Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan pictured above

 “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”

by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed.


Is it wrong to abort a pregnancy? Always? Sometimes? Never? How do we decide? We wrote this article to understand better what the contending views are and to see if we ourselves could find a position that would satisfy us both. Is there no middle ground? We had to weigh the arguments of both sides for consistency and to pose test cases, some of which are purely hypothetical. If in some of these tests we seem to go too far, we ask the reader to be patient with us–we’re trying to stress the various positions to the breaking point to see their weaknesses and where they fail.

In contemplative moments, nearly everyone recognizes that the issue is not wholly one-sided. Many partisans of differing views, we find, feel some disquiet, some unease when confronting what’s behind the opposing arguments. (This is partly why such confrontations are avoided.) And the issue surely touches on deep questions: What are our responses to one another? Should we permit the state to intrude into the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives? Where are the boundaries of freedom? What does it mean to be human?

Of the many actual points of view, it is widely held–especially in the media, which rarely have the time or the inclination to make fine distinctions–that there are only two: “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” This is what the two principal warring camps like to call themselves, and that’s what we’ll call them here. In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

Let’s consider these two absolutist positions in turn. A newborn baby is surely the same being it was just before birth. There ‘s good evidence that a late-term fetus responds to sound–including music, but especially its mother’s voice. It can suck its thumb or do a somersault. Occasionally, it generates adult brain-wave patterns. Some people claim to remember being born, or even the uterine environment. Perhaps there is thought in the womb. It’s hard to maintain that a transformation to full personhood happens abruptly at the moment of birth. Why, then, should it be murder to kill an infant the day after it was born but not the day before?

As a practical matter, this isn’t very important: Less than 1 percent of all tabulated abortions in the United States are listed in the last three months of pregnancy (and, on closer investigation, most such reports turn out to be due to miscarriage or miscalculation). But third-trimester abortions provide a test of the limits of the pro-choice point of view. Does a woman’s “innate right to control her own body” encompass the right to kill a near-term fetus who is, for all intents and purposes, identical to a newborn child?

We believe that many supporters of reproductive freedom are troubled at least occasionally by this question. But they are reluctant to raise it because it is the beginning of a slippery slope. If it is impermissible to abort a pregnancy in the ninth month, what about the eighth, seventh, sixth … ? Once we acknowledge that the state can interfere at any time in the pregnancy, doesn’t it follow that the state can interfere at all times?

Abortion and the slippery slope argument above

This conjures up the specter of predominantly male, predominantly affluent legislators telling poor women they must bear and raise alone children they cannot afford to bring up; forcing teenagers to bear children they are not emotionally prepared to deal with; saying to women who wish for a career that they must give up their dreams, stay home, and bring up babies; and, worst of all, condemning victims of rape and incest to carry and nurture the offspring of their assailants. Legislative prohibitions on abortion arouse the suspicion that their real intent is to control the independence and sexuality of women…

And yet, by consensus, all of us think it proper that there be prohibitions against, and penalties exacted for, murder. It would be a flimsy defense if the murderer pleads that this is just between him and his victim and none of the government’s business. If killing a fetus is truly killing a human being, is it not the duty of the state to prevent it? Indeed, one of the chief functions of government is to protect the weak from the strong.

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Adrian Rogers’ sermon on animal rights refutes Sagan here

There is no right to life in any society on Earth today, nor has there been at any former time… : We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport, leopards for the pelts, and whales for fertilizer; entrap dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; club seal pups to death; and render a species extinct every day. All these beasts and vegetables are as alive as we. What is (allegedly) protected is not life, but human life.

Genesis 3 defines being human

And even with that protection, casual murder is an urban commonplace, and we wage “conventional” wars with tolls so terrible that we are, most of us, afraid to consider them very deeply… That protection, that right to life, eludes the 40,000 children under five who die on our planet each day from preventable starvation, dehydration, disease, and neglect.

Those who assert a “right to life” are for (at most) not just any kind of life, but for–particularly and uniquely—human life. So they too, like pro-choicers, must decide what distinguishes a human being from other animals and when, during gestation, the uniquely human qualities–whatever they are–emerge.

The Bible talks about the differences between humans and animals

Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Every human sperm and egg is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, alive. They are not human beings, of course. However, it could be argued that neither is a fertilized egg.

In some animals, an egg develops into a healthy adult without benefit of a sperm cell. But not, so far as we know, among humans. A sperm and an unfertilized egg jointly comprise the full genetic blueprint for a human being. Under certain circumstances, after fertilization, they can develop into a baby. But most fertilized eggs are spontaneously miscarried. Development into a baby is by no means guaranteed. Neither a sperm and egg separately, nor a fertilized egg, is more than a potential baby or a potential adult. So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg–despite the fact that it’s only potentially a baby–why isn’t it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?

Hundreds of millions of sperm cells (top speed with tails lashing: five inches per hour) are produced in an average human ejaculation. A healthy young man can produce in a week or two enough spermatozoa to double the human population of the Earth. So is masturbation mass murder? How about nocturnal emissions or just plain sex? When the unfertilized egg is expelled each month, has someone died? Should we mourn all those spontaneous miscarriages? Many lower animals can be grown in a laboratory from a single body cell. Human cells can be cloned… In light of such cloning technology, would we be committing mass murder by destroying any potentially clonable cells? By shedding a drop of blood?


All human sperm and eggs are genetic halves of “potential” human beings. Should heroic efforts be made to save and preserve all of them, everywhere, because of this “potential”? Is failure to do so immoral or criminal? Of course, there’s a difference between taking a life and failing to save it. And there’s a big difference between the probability of survival of a sperm cell and that of a fertilized egg. But the absurdity of a corps of high-minded semen-preservers moves us to wonder whether a fertilized egg’s mere “potential” to become a baby really does make destroying it murder.

Opponents of abortion worry that, once abortion is permissible immediately after conception, no argument will restrict it at any later time in the pregnancy. Then, they fear, one day it will be permissible to murder a fetus that is unambiguously a human being. Both pro-choicers and pro-lifers (at least some of them) are pushed toward absolutist positions by parallel fears of the slippery slope.


Another slippery slope is reached by those pro-lifers who are willing to make an exception in the agonizing case of a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. But why should the right to live depend on the circumstances of conception? If the same child were to result, can the state ordain life for the offspring of a lawful union but death for one conceived by force or coercion? How can this be just? And if exceptions are extended to such a fetus, why should they be withheld from any other fetus? This is part of the reason some pro-lifers adopt what many others consider the outrageous posture of opposing abortions under any and all circumstances–only excepting, perhaps, when the life of the mother is in danger.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.continue on to Part 3

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The attempt to find an ethically sound and unambiguous judgment on when, if ever, abortion is permissible has deep historical roots. Often, especially in Christian tradition, such attempts were connected with the question of when the soul enters the body–a matter not readily amenable to scientific investigation and an issue of controversy even among learned theologians. Ensoulment has been asserted to occur in the sperm before conception, at conception, at the time of “quickening” (when the mother is first able to feel the fetus stirring within her), and at birth. Or even later.

Different religions have different teachings. Among hunter-gatherers, there are usually no prohibitions against abortion, and it was common in ancient Greece and Rome. In contrast, the more severe Assyrians impaled women on stakes for attempting abortion. The Jewish Talmud teaches that the fetus is not a person and has no rights. The Old and New Testaments–rich in astonishingly detailed prohibitions on dress, diet, and permissible words–contain not a word specifically prohibiting abortion. The only passage that’s remotely relevant (Exodus 21:22) decrees that if there’s a fight and a woman bystander should accidentally be injured and made to miscarry, the assailant must pay a fine.

Neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas considered early-term abortion to be homicide (the latter on the grounds that the embryo doesn’t look human). This view was embraced by the Church in the Council of Vienne in 1312, and has never been repudiated. The Catholic Church’s first and long-standing collection of canon law (according to the leading historian of the Church’s teaching on abortion, John Connery, S.J.) held that abortion was homicide only after the fetus was already “formed”–roughly, the end of the first trimester.

But when sperm cells were examined in the seventeenth century by the first microscopes, they were thought to show a fully formed human being. An old idea of the homunculus was resuscitated–in which within each sperm cell was a fully formed tiny human, within whose testes were innumerable other homunculi, etc., ad infinitum. In part through this misinterpretation of scientific data, in 1869 abortion at any time for any reason became grounds for excommunication. It is surprising to most Catholics and others to discover that the date was not much earlier.

From colonial times to the nineteenth century, the choice in the United States was the woman’s until “quickening.” An abortion in the first or even second trimester was at worst a misdemeanor. Convictions were rarely sought and almost impossible to obtain, because they depended entirely on the woman’s own testimony of whether she had felt quickening, and because of the jury’s distaste for prosecuting a woman for exercising her right to choose. In 1800 there was not, so far as is known, a single statute in the United States concerning abortion. Advertisements for drugs to induce abortion could be found in virtually every newspaper and even in many church publications–although the language used was suitably euphemistic, if widely understood.

But by 1900, abortion had been banned at any time in pregnancy by every state in the Union, except when necessary to save the woman’s life. What happened to bring about so striking a reversal? Religion had little to do with it.Drastic economic and social conversions were turning this country from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. America was in the process of changing from having one of the highest birthrates in the world to one of the lowest. Abortion certainly played a role and stimulated forces to suppress it.


One of the most significant of these forces was the medical profession. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, medicine was an uncertified, unsupervised business. Anyone could hang up a shingle and call himself (or herself) a doctor. With the rise of a new, university-educated medical elite, anxious to enhance the status and influence of physicians, the American Medical Association was formed. In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. New knowledge of embryology, the physicians said, had shown the fetus to be human even before quickening.

Their assault on abortion was motivated not by concern for the health of the woman but, they claimed, for the welfare of the fetus. You had to be a physician to know when abortion was morally justified, because the question depended on scientific and medical facts understood only by physicians. At the same time, women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired. So, as things worked out, women had almost nothing to say about terminating their own pregnancies. It was also up to the physician to decide if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman, and it was entirely at his discretion to determine what was and was not a threat. For the rich woman, the threat might be a threat to her emotional tranquillity or even to her lifestyle. The poor woman was often forced to resort to the back alley or the coat hanger.

This was the law until the 1960s, when a coalition of individuals and organizations, the AMA now among them, sought to overturn it and to reinstate the more traditional values that were to be embodied in Roe v. Wade.continue on to Part 4

If you deliberately kill a human being, it’s called murder. If you deliberately kill a chimpanzee–biologically, our closest relative, sharing 99.6 percent of our active genes–whatever else it is, it’s not murder. To date, murder uniquely applies to killing human beings. Therefore, the question of when personhood (or, if we like, ensoulment) arises is key to the abortion debate. When does the fetus become human? When do distinct and characteristic human qualities emerge?

Section 8 Sperm journey to becoming Human 

We recognize that specifying a precise moment will overlook individual differences. Therefore, if we must draw a line, it ought to be drawn conservatively–that is, on the early side. There are people who object to having to set some numerical limit, and we share their disquiet; but if there is to be a law on this matter, and it is to effect some useful compromise between the two absolutist positions, it must specify, at least roughly, a time of transition to personhood.

Every one of us began from a dot. A fertilized egg is roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The momentous meeting of sperm and egg generally occurs in one of the two fallopian tubes. One cell becomes two, two become four, and so on—an exponentiation of base-2 arithmetic. By the tenth day the fertilized egg has become a kind of hollow sphere wandering off to another realm: the womb. It destroys tissue in its path. It sucks blood from capillaries. It bathes itself in maternal blood, from which it extracts oxygen and nutrients. It establishes itself as a kind of parasite on the walls of the uterus.By the third week, around the time of the first missed menstrual period, the forming embryo is about 2 millimeters long and is developing various body parts. Only at this stage does it begin to be dependent on a rudimentary placenta. It looks a little like a segmented worm.By the end of the fourth week, it’s about 5 millimeters (about 1/5 inch) long. It’s recognizable now as a vertebrate, its tube-shaped heart is beginning to beat, something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian become conspicuous, and there is a pronounced tail. It looks rather like a newt or a tadpole. This is the end of the first month after conception.By the fifth week, the gross divisions of the brain can be distinguished. What will later develop into eyes are apparent, and little buds appear—on their way to becoming arms and legs.By the sixth week, the embryo is 13 millimeteres (about ½ inch) long. The eyes are still on the side of the head, as in most animals, and the reptilian face has connected slits where the mouth and nose eventually will be.By the end of the seventh week, the tail is almost gone, and sexual characteristics can be discerned (although both sexes look female). The face is mammalian but somewhat piglike.By the end of the eighth week, the face resembles that of a primate but is still not quite human. Most of the human body parts are present in their essentials. Some lower brain anatomy is well-developed. The fetus shows some reflex response to delicate stimulation.By the tenth week, the face has an unmistakably human cast. It is beginning to be possible to distinguish males from females. Nails and major bone structures are not apparent until the third month.By the fourth month, you can tell the face of one fetus from that of another. Quickening is most commonly felt in the fifth month. The bronchioles of the lungs do not begin developing until approximately the sixth month, the alveoli still later.

So, if only a person can be murdered, when does the fetus attain personhood? When its face becomes distinctly human, near the end of the first trimester? When the fetus becomes responsive to stimuli–again, at the end of the first trimester? When it becomes active enough to be felt as quickening, typically in the middle of the second trimester? When the lungs have reached a stage of development sufficient that the fetus might, just conceivably, be able to breathe on its own in the outside air?

The trouble with these particular developmental milestones is not just that they’re arbitrary. More troubling is the fact that none of them involves uniquely humancharacteristics–apart from the superficial matter of facial appearance. All animals respond to stimuli and move of their own volition. Large numbers are able to breathe. But that doesn’t stop us from slaughtering them by the billions. Reflexes and motion are not what make us human.

Section 9 Sagan’s conclusion based on arbitrary choice of the presence of thought by unborn baby

Other animals have advantages over us–in speed, strength, endurance, climbing or burrowing skills, camouflage, sight or smell or hearing, mastery of the air or water. Our one great advantage, the secret of our success, is thought–characteristically human thought. We are able to think things through, imagine events yet to occur, figure things out. That’s how we invented agriculture and civilization. Thought is our blessing and our curse, and it makes us who we are.

Thinking occurs, of course, in the brain–principally in the top layers of the convoluted “gray matter” called the cerebral cortex. The roughly 100 billion neurons in the brain constitute the material basis of thought. The neurons are connected to each other, and their linkups play a major role in what we experience as thinking. But large-scale linking up of neurons doesn’t begin until the 24th to 27th week of pregnancy–the sixth month.

By placing harmless electrodes on a subject’s head, scientists can measure the electrical activity produced by the network of neurons inside the skull. Different kinds of mental activity show different kinds of brain waves. But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy–near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this–however alive and active they may be–lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think.

Acquiescing in the killing of any living creature, especially one that might later become a baby, is troublesome and painful. But we’ve rejected the extremes of “always” and “never,” and this puts us–like it or not–on the slippery slope. If we are forced to choose a developmental criterion, then this is where we draw the line: when the beginning of characteristically human thinking becomes barely possible.

It is, in fact, a very conservative definition: Regular brain waves are rarely found in fetuses. More research would help… If we wanted to make the criterion still more stringent, to allow for occasional precocious fetal brain development, we might draw the line at six months. This, it so happens, is where the Supreme Court drew it in 1973–although for completely different reasons.

Its decision in the case of Roe v. Wade changed American law on abortion. It permits abortion at the request of the woman without restriction in the first trimester and, with some restrictions intended to protect her health, in the second trimester. It allows states to forbid abortion in the third trimester, except when there’s a serious threat to the life or health of the woman. In the 1989 Webster decision, the Supreme Court declined explicitly to overturn Roe v. Wade but in effect invited the 50 state legislatures to decide for themselves.

What was the reasoning in Roe v. Wade? There was no legal weight given to what happens to the children once they are born, or to the family. Instead, a woman’s right to reproductive freedom is protected, the court ruled, by constitutional guarantees of privacy. But that right is not unqualified. The woman’s guarantee of privacy and the fetus’s right to life must be weighed–and when the court did the weighing’ priority was given to privacy in the first trimester and to life in the third. The transition was decided not from any of the considerations we have been dealing with so far…–not when “ensoulment” occurs, not when the fetus takes on sufficient human characteristics to be protected by laws against murder. Instead, the criterion adopted was whether the fetus could live outside the mother. This is called “viability” and depends in part on the ability to breathe. The lungs are simply not developed, and the fetus cannot breathe–no matter how advanced an artificial lung it might be placed in—until about the 24th week, near the start of the sixth month. This is why Roe v. Wade permits the states to prohibit abortions in the last trimester. It’s a very pragmatic criterion.

If the fetus at a certain stage of gestation would be viable outside the womb, the argument goes, then the right of the fetus to life overrides the right of the woman to privacy. But just what does “viable” mean? Even a full-term newborn is not viable without a great deal of care and love. There was a time before incubators, only a few decades ago, when babies in their seventh month were unlikely to be viable. Would aborting in the seventh month have been permissible then? After the invention of incubators, did aborting pregnancies in the seventh month suddenly become immoral? What happens if, in the future, a new technology develops so that an artificial womb can sustain a fetus even before the sixth month by delivering oxygen and nutrients through the blood–as the mother does through the placenta and into the fetal blood system? We grant that this technology is unlikely to be developed soon or become available to many. But if it were available, does it then become immoral to abort earlier than the sixth month, when previously it was moral? A morality that depends on, and changes with, technology is a fragile morality; for some, it is also an unacceptable morality.

And why, exactly, should breathing (or kidney function, or the ability to resist disease) justify legal protection? If a fetus can be shown to think and feel but not be able to breathe, would it be all right to kill it? Do we value breathing more than thinking and feeling? Viability arguments cannot, it seems to us, coherently determine when abortions are permissible. Some other criterion is needed. Again, we offer for consideration the earliest onset of human thinking as that criterion.

Since, on average, fetal thinking occurs even later than fetal lung development, we find Roe v. Wade to be a good and prudent decision addressing a complex and difficult issue. With prohibitions on abortion in the last trimester–except in cases of grave medical necessity–it strikes a fair balance between the conflicting claims of freedom and life.What do you think? What have others said about Carl Sagan’s thoughts on 

Carl Sagan asserted, “Viability arguments cannot, it seems to us, coherently determine when abortions are permissible…we offer for consideration the earliest onset of human thinking as that criterion.”

This relativistic thinking of Sagan is challenged below by Francis J. Beckwith.


The Shifting Focus in the Abortion Debate: Does The Humanity of the Unborn Matter Anymore?

Article ID: DA017

By: Francis J. Beckwith

This article first appeared in the Volume 17 / Number 3 Winter 1995 issue of the Christian Research Journal. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:

Pro-lifers in the United States have always assumed that if they could demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the fetus is a human person, then it would be only a matter of time before the courts and legislatures would declare nontherapeutic abortion — the willful destruction of a living fetus — unjustified homicide. Thus the pro-life view would be vindicated and nontherapeutic abortion would once again be illegal.

Even pro-abortion Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade (1973), agrees with this assumption: “If the suggestion of personhood [of the unborn] is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth Amendment].”2 The scholarly and popular literature produced by evangelicals on the issue of abortion seems to make this assumption as well.3

In 1985, however, evangelical philosopher Robert Wennberg4 defended a moderate pro-choice position employing an argument first presented in 1971 by M.I.T. philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. Thomson argued that even if the fetus is a human person, abortion — at least in the early months of pregnancy — is still morally justified.5 Unfortunately, nearly all the books published by evangelical opponents of abortion since the release of Wennberg’s6 — with the exception of recent works by John and Paul Feinberg,7 Keith J. Pavlischek,8 and this writer9 — have failed to address this important argument. This is so despite the fact that this argument — though nearly a quarter of a century old — is now being suggested by a number of legal scholars as a way to circumvent the problems of fetal personhood which they believe were mishandled in Roe v. Wade.


In her 1971 article, which by 1986 had become “the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy,”10 Professor Thomson argued that even if the fetus is fully a human person with a right to life, this does not mean a woman must be forced to use her bodily organs to sustain its life. It is much the same, we are told, as the case in which one does not have a right to use another’s kidney if one’s kidney has failed. Consequently, a pregnant woman’s removal of a fetus from her body, even though it will probably result in its death, is no more immoral than an ordinary person’s refusal to donate his or her kidney to another in need of one, even though this refusal will probably result in the death of the prospective recipient. Thomson illustrates her position with the following story:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you — we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or still longer? What if the director of the hospital says, “Tough luck, I agree, but you’ve now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine that you would regard this as outrageous…(emphasis in original)11

Thomson’s argument makes some very important observations that have gone virtually unnoticed. She is asking, “What happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise [that the unborn are fully human or persons]? How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible?”12 That is to say, from the fact that a certain living organism is fully a human person, how does it logically follow that it is never permissible to kill that person?

Although a near unanimous number of ethicists maintain that it is prima facie wrong to kill an innocent human person, a vast majority agree that there may be some circumstances in which taking a human life or letting a human being die is justified, such as in the event of a just war, capital punishment, self-defense, or withdrawing medical treatment. Thomson’s argument, however, includes abortion as one of these justified circumstances. She maintains that, since pregnancy constitutes an infringement by the fetus on the pregnant woman’s personal bodily autonomy, the ordinary abortion — though it results in the death of an innocent human person — is not prima facie wrong.

One can immediately appreciate the appeal of this argument, especially in light of what is arguably the most quoted passage from Roe: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate.”13 The Court, however, did not choose to employ Thomson’s argument, though there is little doubt that it was brought to its attention. Consequently, the Roe Court assumed the major premise of the pro-life position: If the fetus is a person, then abortion in almost every case is unjustified homicide. This, according to a growing number of scholars, was a fatal mistake — a mistake that energized the right-to-life movement.

It appears that the first leading legal scholar to have recommended Thomson’s argument to the judiciary was Michigan Law School professor, Donald Regan, in a law review article that appeared in 1979.14 More recently, Professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School, whose influence on the Court’s liberal wing is well-known, suggested in a 1990 book on abortion that the Court should have seriously considered Thomson’s argument. Tribe writes: “Perhaps the Supreme Court’s opinion in Roe, by gratuitously insisting that the fetus cannot be deemed a ‘person,’ needlessly insulted and alienated those for whom the view that the fetus is a person represents a fundamental article of faith or a bedrock personal commitment…The Court could instead have said: Even if the fetus is a person, our Constitution forbids compelling a woman to carry it for nine months and become a mother” (emphasis in original).15

In his highly acclaimed book, The Culture of Disbelief (1993), Stephen Carter of Yale Law School also recommended Thoinstead of an approach that denies that humanity under cover of the pretense that the definition is none of the state’s business. The conclusion of fetal humanity by no means ends the argument; it simply forces the striking of a balance….My point is that the only fair way around a successful legislative effort to define the fetus as human — the only option that does not deride religiously based moral judgments as inferior to secular ones — is to argue for a right to abortion despite it. And an argument of that kind does not require an attack on the religious motivations of any abortion opponents. (emphasis in original)16

In addition to what has already been mentioned, a subtle philosophical shift seems to have occurred on the Supreme Court as well as society at large, which would indicate an openness to Thomson’s argument. First, in a 1985 article Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recent Clinton appointee to the Supreme Court, chided the Court for appealing to the right to privacy rather than the equal protection clause in its grounding of abortion rights. She argued that since women are unique in their ability to be burdened by pregnancy — giving men a distinct advantage in social and political advancement — women should have the right to abortion based on the constitutional principle that all people, regardless of gender, deserve equal protection under the law. Thus, Ginsburg argued, by permitting women to undergo abortions on the basis of the equal protection clause, the Court would have made a clear stand for gender equity on firm constitutional grounds rather than basing its decision on the controversial and constitutionally vague right to privacy.17

Second, consider the recent physician-assisted suicide cases in Washington state and Michigan, in which a judge in the first case and a jury in the latter acquitted physicians who had killed consenting patients by appealing to an almost absolute principle of personal autonomy. The judge in Washington claimed she could find this principle in the 14th Amendment, the same place Justice Blackmun found the right to privacy in order to constitutionally ground Roe.

Third, in the 1992 case that upheld Roe as precedent, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Court asserted the following about the meaning of the 14th Amendment:

Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, family relationships, child rearing, and education….These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.18

Evidently the Supreme Court has chosen to abandon a rigorous defense of philosophical argument in the free marketplace of ideas only to replace it with a New Age mantra (“define your own reality”) in the convenience store of slogans.

In any event, there is little doubt that a shift is occurring in the abortion debate. This shift should be addressed by those who oppose abortion as well as those who, regardless of their stand on abortion, see Thomson’s argument as a threat to the moral force of parental obligations. Let us, therefore, take a critical look at Professor Thomson’s argument.


Although there are a number of problems with Thomson’s argument, the following five are sufficient for the judiciary to reject it from consideration.

(1) Thomson assumes that all moral obligations are voluntary. By using the violinist story as a paradigm for all relationships, Thompson implies that moral obligations must be voluntarily accepted in order to have moral force. Thus she mistakenly infers that all true moral obligations to one’s offspring are voluntary.

Consider the following story. Suppose a couple has a sexual encounter that is fully protected by several forms of birth control short of abortion (condom, the Pill, IUD, and so forth), but nevertheless results in conception. Instead of getting an abortion, the mother of the conceptus decides to bring it to term, although the father is unaware of this decision. After the birth of the child the mother pleads with the father for child support. Because he refuses, she seeks legal action and takes him to court. Although he took every precaution to avoid fatherhood — thus showing that he did not wish to accept such a status — according to nearly all child support laws in the United States he would still be obligated to pay support precisely because of his relationship to this child.19

As Michael Levin points out, “All child-support laws make the parental body an indirect resource for the child. If the father is a construction worker, the state will intervene unless some of his calories he extends lifting equipment go to providing food for his children.”20

For this reason, Keith Pavlischek argues that “given the logic of” Thomson’s argument, “the most reasonable course to follow would be to surrender the defense of paternal support laws for those children whose fathers would rather have had their children aborted.” This “will lend some credence not only to the pro-life insistence on the corollary — that an intimate connection exists between the way we collectively relate to the unborn and the way we relate to our children after birth — but also to the claim made by pro-life feminists that the abortion mentality simply reaffirms the worst historical failings, neglect, and chauvinism ofmales.”21

(2) A case can be made that the unborn does have a prima facie right to her mother’s body. Assuming there is such a thing as a special obligation to one’s children that does not have to be voluntarily accepted to have moral force, it is not obvious that the unborn entity in ordinary circumstances (that is, with the exception of significant life-endangerment to the mother) does not have a natural prima facie claim to her mother’s body. There are several reasons to suppose that the unborn entity does have such a natural claim.

First, unlike Thomson’s violinist, who is artificially attached to another person in order to save his life and is therefore not naturally dependent on any particular human being, the unborn entity is a human being who is by her very nature dependent on her mother. This is how human beings are at this stage of their development.

Second, this period of a human being’s natural development occurs in the womb. This is the journey we all must take and is a necessary condition for any human being’s post-uterine existence. And this fact alone brings out the most glaring disanalogy between the violinist and the unborn: the womb is the unborn’s natural environment whereas being artificially hooked-up to a stranger is not the natural environment for the violinist. It would seem, then, that the unborn has a prima facie natural claim upon its mother’s body.

Third, this same entity, when it becomes a newborn, has a natural claim upon her parents to care for her, regardless of whether her parents “wanted” her (see the above story of the irresponsible father). This is why we prosecute child abusers, people who throw their babies in trashcans, and parents who abandon their children.

Although it should not be ignored that pregnancy and childbirth entail certain emotional, physical, and financial sacrifices on the part of the pregnant woman, these sacrifices are also endemic of parenthood in general (which ordinarily lasts much longer than nine months). And these sacrifices do not justify the execution of troublesome infants and younger children whose existence entails a natural claim to certain financial and bodily goods that are under the ownership of their parents. If the unborn entity is fully human, as Thomson is willing to grant, why should the unborn’s natural prima facie claim to her parents’ goods differ before birth from what it will be after departing her mother’s womb?

Of course, a court will not force a parent to donate a kidney to her dying offspring. But, as in the case of the unconscious violinist, this sort of dependence on another’s body is highly unusual and is not part of the ordinary parental obligations associated with the natural process of human development.

Professor Stephen Schwarz points out that “the very thing that makes it plausible to say that the person in bed with the violinist has no duty to sustain him; namely, that he is a stranger unnaturally hooked up to him, is precisely what is absent in the case of the mother and her child.” That is to say, the mother “does have an obligation to take care of her child, to sustain her, to protect her, and especially, to let her live in the only place where she can now be protected, nourished, and allowed to grow, namely the womb.”22

It is evident that Thomson’s violinist illustration undermines the deep natural bond between mother and child by making it seem no different than two strangers artificially hooked-up to each other so that one can “steal” the service of the other’s kidneys. Rarely if ever has something so human, so natural, so beautiful, and so wonderfully demanding of our human creativity and love been reduced to such a brutal caricature.

This is not to say that the unborn entity has an absolute natural claim to her mother’s body, but simply that she has a prima facie natural claim. For one can easily imagine a situation in which this natural claim is outweighed by other important prima facie values, such as when a pregnancy significantly endangers the mother’s life.

(3) Thomson ignores the fact that abortion is indeed killing and not merely the withholding of treatment. Thomson makes an excellent point in her use of the violinist story; namely, there are times when withholding and/or withdrawing medical treatment is morally justified. For instance, one is not morally obligated to donate his kidney to Fred (one’s next-door neighbor) simply because Fred needs a kidney in order to live. In other words, one is not obligated to risk his life so that Fred may live a few years longer. Fred should not expect that. If, however, one donates a kidney to Fred, one will have acted above and beyond the call of duty, since he will have performed a supererogatory moral act. But this case is not analogous to pregnancy and abortion.

Levin argues that there is an essential disanalogy between abortion and the unplugging of the violinist. In the case of the violinist (as well as one’s relationship to Fred’s welfare), “the person who withdraws [or withholds] his assistance is not completely responsible for the dependency on him of the person who is about to die, while the mother is completely responsible for the dependency of her fetus on her. When one is completely responsible for dependence, refusal to continue to aid is indeed killing.”

For example, “if a woman brings a newborn home from the hospital, puts it in its crib and refuses to feed it until it has starved to death, it would be absurd to say that she simply refused to assist it and had done nothing for which she should be criminally liable.”23 Just as the withholding of food kills the child after birth, in the case of abortion it is the abortion that kills the child. In neither case is there any ailment from which the child suffers and for which highly invasive medical treatment (with the cooperation of another’s bodily organs) is necessary in order to cure this ailment and save the child’s life.

Or consider the case of a person who returns home after work to find a baby at his doorstep (as was the case in the film Three Men and a Baby, starring Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, and Steve Guttenberg). Suppose that no one else is able to care for the child, but this person only has to care for the child for nine months. (After that time a couple will adopt the child.) If we assume with Thomson that the fetus is as much a person as you or me, would “withholding treatment” (i.e., nourishment and protection) from this child and its subsequent death be justified on the basis that the homeowner was only “withholding treatment” from a child who could not benefit him, and for whom he did not ask? Is any person, born or unborn, obligated to sacrifice his life because his death would benefit another person?

Is it accurate to think of abortion as the withholding of support or treatment? Professors Schwarz and R. K. Tacelli make the important point that although “a woman who has an abortion is indeed ‘withholding support’ from her unborn child….abortion is far more than that. It is the active killing of a human person — by burning him, by crushing him, by dis­membering him.”24 Euphemistically calling abortion the “withholding of support or treatment” makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen.

(4) Thomson’s argument ignores family law. Thomson’s argument is inconsistent with the body of well-established family law, which presupposes parental responsibility of a child’s welfare. And, of course, assuming as Thomson does that the unborn are fully human, this body of law would also apply to parents’ responsibility for their unborn children. According to legal scholars Dennis J. Horan and Burke J. Balche, “All 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have child abuse and neglect statutes which provide for the protection of a child who does not receive needed medical care.” They further state that “a review of cases makes it clear that these statutes are properly applied to secure emergency medical treatment and sustenance (food or water, whether given orally or through intravenous or nasogastic tube) for children when parents, with or without the acquiescence of physicians, refuse to provide it.”25 Evidently, “pulling the plug” on a perfectly healthy fetus, assuming that it is a human person, would clearly violate these statutes.

In a case in New York, for example, the court ruled that the parents’ actions constituted neglect when they failed to provide medical care to a child with leukemia: “The parent…may not deprive a child of lifesaving treatment, however well-intentioned. Even when the parents’ decision to decline necessary treatment is based on constitutional grounds, such as religious beliefs, it must yield to the State’s interests, as parens patriae, in protecting the health and welfare of the child.”26 The fact is that the “courts have uniformly held that a parent has the legal responsibility of furnishing his dependent child with adequate food and medical care.”27

It is evident, then, that child-protection laws reflect our deepest moral intuitions about parental and community responsibility and the utter helplessness of infants and small children. These moral scruples are undoubtedly undermined by “brave new notions” of a socially contracted “voluntaristic” family (Thomson’s view). Without such scruples the protection of children and the natural bonds and filial obligations that undergird family life (and, through it, society itself) will become a thing of the past. This seems too high a price to pay for “bodily autonomy.”

(5) Thomson’s argument implies a “macho” view of bodily control, which is inconsistent with true feminism. Some pro-life feminists have pointed out that Thomson’s argument and/or the reasoning behind it, which is supposed to be consistent with feminism, is actually quite anti-feminist.28 In response to a similar argument from a woman’s right to control her own body, one feminist publication asked the question, “What kind of control are we talking about? A control that allows for violence against another human being is a macho, oppressive kind of control. Women rightly object when others try to have that kind of control over them, and the movement for women’s rights asserts the moral right of women to be free from the control of others.” After all, “abortion involves violence against a small, weak and dependent child. It is macho control, the very kind the feminist movement most eloquently opposes in other contexts.”29

Professor Celia Wolf-Devine makes the observation that “abortion has something…in common with the behavior ecofeminists and pacifist feminists take to be characteristically masculine; it shows a willingness to use violence in order to take control. The fetus is destroyed by being pulled apart by suction, cut in pieces, or poisoned.” Wolf-Devine goes on to point out that in terms of social thought…it is the masculine models which are most frequently employed in thinking about abortion. If masculine thought is naturally hierarchical and oriented toward power and control, then the interests of the fetus (who has no power) would naturally be suppressed in favor of the interests of the mother. But to the extent that feminist social thought is egalitarian, the question must be raised of why the mother’s interests should prevail over the child’s….Feminist thought about abortion has…been deeply pervaded by the individualism which they so ardently criticize.30

Despite the recent suggestion in legal scholarship that fetal personhood ought not be the question that determines the morality of abortion, we have seen that if such a move is carried out by the courts the result would be morally and legally disastrous. For this reason, opponents of abortion ought to master the contents of this article and be prepared to engage this old philosophical, though new legal, challenge to human dignity.

Francis J. Beckwith, Ph.D. is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as well as Professor at Large, Simon Greenleaf University (Anaheim, CA) and Senior Research Fellow, Nevada Policy Research Institute. He is the author of Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Baker) and co-editor of The Abortion Controversy: A Reader (Jones & Bartlett). He is on the North American editorial board of the journal Ethics and Medicine.


1This article, under a different title, was presented at the conference, “The Christian Stake in Bioethics” (May 19-21, 1994), at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. Another version of this article (titled “From Personhood to Bodily Autonomy: The Shifting Legal Focus in the Abortion Debate”) will be published in Bioethics and the Future of Medicine, ed. Nigel Cameron, David Schiedermayer, and John Kilner (Cumbria, UK: The Pasternoster Press, 1995).

2Justice Harry Blackmun, “The 1973 Supreme Court Decisions on State Abortion Laws: Excerpts from Opinion in Roe v. Wade,” in The Problem of Abortion, 2d ed., ed. Joel Feinberg (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984), 195.

3See, for example, Harold O.J. Brown, Death Before Birth(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977); Francis A. Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1979); and John Warwick Montgomery, Slaughter of the Innocents: Abortion, Birth Control, and Divorce in the Light of Science, Law, and Theology (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1981).

4Robert Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

5Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” in The Problem of Abortion, 173-87. This article was originally published in Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 47-66. All references to Thomson’s article in this article are from the Feinberg book.

6See, for example, R.C. Sproul, Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1990); Randy Alcorn, Pro Life Answers to Pro Choice Questions (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1992); and F. LaGard Smith, When Choice Becomes God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1990).

7John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics in a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 66-69.

8Keith J. Pavlischek, “Abortion Logic and Paternal Responsibilities: One More Look at Judith Thomson’s ‘A Defense of Abortion,’” Public Affairs Quarterly 7 (October 1993):341-61.

9Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), chapter 7.

10According to her editor, William Parent, in Judith Jarvis Thomson, Rights, Restitution, and Risk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), vii.

11Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” 174-75.

12Ibid., 174.

13Blackmun, 195.

14Donald Regan, “Rewriting Roe v. Wade,” Michigan Law Review 77 (1979).

15Laurence Tribe, Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 135.

16Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 257-58.

17Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade,” University of North CarolinaLaw Review (1985).

18Justice O’Connor, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Souter in “Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992),” in The Abortion Controversy: A Reader, eds. Louis P. Pojman and Francis J. Beckwith (Boston: Jones & Bartlett, 1994), 54.

19See In the Best Interest of the Child: A Guide to State Child Support and Paternity Laws, eds. Carolyn Royce Kastner and Lawrence R. Young (n.p.: Child Support Enforcement Beneficial Laws Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, 1981).

20Michael Levin, review of Life in the Balance by Robert Wennberg, Constitutional Commentary 3 (Summer 1986):511.

21Pavlischek, 343.

22Stephen D. Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990), 118.

23Michael Levin, Feminism and Freedom (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1987), 288-89.

24Stephen D. Schwarz and R. K. Tacelli, “Abortion and Some Philosophers: A Critical Examination,” Public Affairs Quarterly 3 (April 1989), 85.

25Dennis J. Horan and Burke J. Balch, Infant Doe and Baby Jane Doe: Medical Treatment of the Handicapped Newborn, Studies in Law and Medicine Series (Chicago: Americans United for Life, 1985), 2.

26In re Storar, 53 N>Y> 2d 363, 380-81, 420 N.E. 2d 64, 73, 438 N.Y.S. 2d 266, 275 (1981), as quoted in ibid., 2-3.

27Horan and Balch, 3-4.

28Although not dealing exclusively with Thomson’s argument, Celia Wolf-Devine’s article is quite helpful. “Abortion and the ‘Feminine Voice,’” Public Affairs Quarterly 3 (July 1989). See also Sidney Callahan, “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda,” Commonweal 113 (25 April 1986); and Janet Smith “Abortion as a Feminist Concern,” in The Zero People, ed. Jeff Lane Hensley (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1983).

29N.a., Sound Advice for All Pro-life Activists and Candidates Who Wish to Include a Concern for Women’s Rights in Their Pro-life Advocacy: Feminists for Life Debate Handbook (Kansas City, MO: Feminists for Life, n.d.), 15-16.

30Wolf-Devine, 86-87



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