BREAKING DOWN CARL SAGAN’S LOGIC ON ABORTION Part 15 “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”(My 1995 correspondence with Sagan) Francis J. Beckwith vs Carl Sagan


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. 

Image result for francis schaeffer

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):

Image result for carl sagan ann

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

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.

This position of only when the life of the mother is in danger is not an extreme position (see below)

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.

End of Sagan Excerpt 


Carl Sagan said “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”

Francis J. Beckwith Answers that objection below:

Aren’t you absolutizing the unborn’s right to life? No, for there could be times at which abortion is justified. The pro-lifer is fully cognizant of the fact that we live in a world in which moral conflicts can occur. Take, for example, the case in which it is highly likely that a woman’s pregnancy will result in her death, as with a tubal pregnancy. Because it is a greater good that one human should live rather than two die, the pro-lifer believes that in this case abortion is justified, since otherwise both unborn and mother would die. However, as I argued elsewhere in this series, abortion is not justified by appeals to reasons such as financial burden or the child’s potential handicap, because if the unborn entity is fully human, one must respect her life as one respects the lives of those who are already born.

Anti-Abortion Arguments: What Are Some Anti-Abortion Arguments?

Article ID: DA020-4

By: Francis J. Beckwith

Anti-Abortion Arguments- THE GRADUALIST THESIS

Those who defend the gradualist thesis, such as Daniel Callahan and Robert Wennberg,29 argue that the unborn entity increases in value as it develops physically. Unlike the theories critiqued above, in this view there is no one decisive moment at which the unborn entity moves from nonperson to person. For example, the one-celled zygote has less value than the three-month fetus while the three-month fetus has a lesser right-to-life than the eight-month fetus. There have been a number of critiques of this position which space does not permit me to articulate here.30 However, our critique of the major decisive-moment theories in Parts Three and Four of this series is sufficient to refute gradualism. That is to say, since none of the decisive moments we have already gone over can be shown to eradicate the full humanness of the unborn entity at any stage of her development, it follows that there are no philosophical, scientific, or moral grounds by which to say that the unborn gradually becomes fully human. For she would still need to achieve full humanness at some decisive moment. That is, someone who is fully human cannot gradually become more fully human. Certainly it is true that the unborn human physically develops gradually,as is true of humans at later stages (e.g., infancy, childhood, adolescence). But it does not follow from this fact that the unborn human is any less human than the infant, the child, or the adolescent. They are nonetheless fully human although they are gradually developing.

Anti-Abortion Arguments- COMMON QUESTIONS

In my critique of the decisive moment theories, I dealt with a number of objections to the pro-life position. However, there are other common objections which should be answered. In this final section, I will briefly respond to five common questions asked about the pro-life position. 1. Why don’t sperm and ova have a right to life since they are also genetically human? Sperm and ova do not have a right to life because they are not individual genetic human beings, but are merely parts of individual genetic human beings. They are only genetically human insofar as they share the genetic codes of their owners, but this is also true of their owners’ other parts (e.g., hands, feet, kidneys, etc.). Sperm and ova cease to exist at conception when the zygote, an individual genetic human being, comes into existence. 2. Doesn’t this view “absolutize” biological human life? Not at all. Although the pro-life advocate believes that biological human life is important, he or she certainly does not believe that it is absolute. For biological human life without the natural inherent capacity to function as a person is probably not fully human. And it is questionable whether the taking of such a life or the permitting of such a life to die can be classified as homicide. For example, I do not think it is homicide to pull the plug on a respirator that is biologically sustaining a brain-dead patient. Such a patient’s natural capacity for personal acts is simply not present. Of course, other questions surrounding the problem of the withdrawal of certain forms of health care are much more complex and fall outside the scope of this series.31 In any event, the pro-life advocate does not absolutize biological human life and is willing to apply his principles critically and to think reflectively in morally challenging situations. 3. Aren’t you absolutizing the unborn’s right to life? No, for there could be times at which abortion is justified. The pro-lifer is fully cognizant of the fact that we live in a world in which moral conflicts can occur. Take, for example, the case in which it is highly likely that a woman’s pregnancy will result in her death, as with a tubal pregnancy. Because it is a greater good that one human should live rather than two die, the pro-lifer believes that in this case abortion is justified, since otherwise both unborn and mother would die. However, as I argued elsewhere in this series, abortion is not justified by appeals to reasons such as financial burden or the child’s potential handicap, because if the unborn entity is fully human, one must respect her life as one respects the lives of those who are already born. 4. Wouldn’t your position mean that some forms of artificial birth control result in homicide? Yes. For example, forms of birth control that result in the death of the conceptus, such as the IUD and the “morning-after” pill (RU-486), would logically entail homicide if the pro-life position is correct. However, not every form of birth control results in the death of the conceptus. For example, the condom, diaphragm, some forms of the Pill, spermicides, and sterilization would not logically entail homicide if the pro-life position is correct, for they merely prevent conception. This is why the pro-life advocate makes a distinction between contraception and birth control. Contraception literally means “to prevent conception.” Therefore, all contraception is a form of birth control, since it prevents birth. But not all forms of birth control are contraceptive, since some forms — such as the ones cited above — prevent birth by killing the conceptus after conception. Hence, the pro-life advocate as such finds no problem with contraception as a form of family planning. 5. Isn’t it true that some zygotes do not have forty-six chromosomes? Yes. Although the normal number of chromosomes is 46, some people are born with less (e.g., people with Turner’s syndrome have 45) and some people are born with more (e.g., people with Down’s syndrome have 47). But don’t forget that my case for the unborn’s humanness does not rest necessarily on the number of chromosomes an individual may have, but on the fact that the entity in question has a human genetic structure. Consequently, a human genetic structure can still subsist in an abnormal number of chromosomes (genes are contained in the chromosomes within the nuclei of a person’s cells). That is to say, the Down’s or Turner’s syndrome child with human genes and an abnormal number of chromosomes is no more nonhuman than a child with an abnormal number of more obvious parts. For example, a person born with six fingers is human, as is a person born with one arm or one leg.

Anti-Abortion Arguments- SUMMING IT UP

In this four-part series I critiqued four basic types of arguments that have been put forth in defense of both liberal and moderate positions on abortion rights: (1) arguments from pity (Parts One and Two); (2) arguments from tolerance (Part Two); (3) ad hominem arguments (Part Two); and (4) arguments from decisive moments (Parts Three and Four). In the process of critiquing these arguments I gave a defense of the pro-life position that full humanness begins at conception (Parts Three and Four), which included a detailed presentation of fetal development (Part Three). Despite the number of arguments covered in this series, some readers will be disappointed that I did not deal with some theological arguments32 or lesser known philosophical arguments.33But since even a four-part series has its limitations and since Justice Harry Blackmun (who wrote the majority decision in Roe v. Wade [1973]) has argued that the morality of abortion is completely contingent on the full humanness of the unborn,34 what has been covered in this series is more than sufficient. For this series has clearly established the following conclusions: (1) the popular arguments for abortion rights either beg the question as to the full humanness of the unborn or ignore the question altogether; and (2) both sound philosophical and scientific reasoning clearly establish the full humanness of the unborn from the moment of conception.


1 Baruch Brody, Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life: A Philosophical View (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1975). 2 Ibid., 102. 3 Andrew Varga, The Main Issues in Bioethics,2d ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 61-62. 4 Ibid., 62. 5Brody, 113-14. 6 A. Chadwick Ray, “Humanity, Personhood, and Abortion,” International Philosophical Quarterly 25 (1985):238. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid. 9 Varga, 62-63. 10Ibid., 63. 11 Jane English, “Abortion and the Concept of a Person,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembatty (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), 430. 12Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) in United States Law Week 57 (July 1989):5040. 13 For a defense of this view, see Richard Werner, “Abortion: The Ontological and Moral Status of the Unborn,” Social Policy and Practice 3 (1974):201-22. 14 See Joel Feinberg, “Grounds For Coercion,” in Ethical Theory and Social Issues, ed. David Theo Goldberg (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1989), 307-15. 15 Ray, 240. 16 Peter Kreeft, “Human Personhood Begins at Conception,” in Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine 4 (Winter 1990):11. 17 Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). 18 Mary Anne warren, “On the Moral and Legal status of Abortion,” in Biomedical Ethics, 417-23. 19James Rachels, The End of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). For a critical analysis of this book, see J. P. Moreland’s review in The Thomist 53 (Oct. 1989):714-22. 20 Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, “Reproducive Choice: Basic to Justice for Women,” Christian Scholar’s Review 17 (March 1988):286-93. 21 See Tooley. 22 Mollenkott, 291. 23Tooley, 167. In rebuttal, see David Clark, “An Evaluation of the Quality of Life Argument for Infanticide,” Simon Greenleaf Law Review 5 (1985-86):104-8; and Richard A. McCormick, S.J., How Brave a New World? Dilemmas in Bioethics (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1981), 157-59. 24 English, 429. 25 Ibid., 430. 26 Some philosophers, such as Tooley (Abortion & Infanticide), “bite the bullet” and say that infanticide is not a form of murder since the newborn is not a person. 27 John Jefferson Davis, Abortion and the Christian (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1984), 57. 28Ray, 240-41. 29 Daniel Callahan, Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality (New York: Macmillan, 1970); and Robert Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy (Grand Rapids, MI: Williams B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985). 30 Philip Devine, The Ethics of Homicide (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979); Robert E. Joyce, “Personhood and the Conception Event,” The New Scholasticism 52 (Winter 1978):104-9; J. P. Moreland and Norman L. Geisler, The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues of Our Time (Westport, CT: Praeger Books, 1990), 31-34. 31 See Moreland and Geisler, The Life and Death Debate; and Francis J. Beckwith and Norman L. Geisler, Matters of Life and Death: Calm Answers to Tough Questions about Abortion and Euthanasia (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), part 2. 32 See my “A Critical Appraisal of the Theological Arguments for Abortion Rights,” Bibliotheca Sacra(July/September 1991). 33 Judith Jarvis Thomson, for example, argues that abortion is morally justified even ifthe unborn are fully human. I critique this argument in “Personal Bodily Rights, Abortion, and Unplugging the Violinist: A Critical Analysis,” International Philosophical Quarterly (March 1992) (forthcoming). 34 Justice Harry Blackmun, in “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), 1


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