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Pro-Life Logic, Part I: Defending Personhood

Tyranny, or murder? The pro-choice view says that restrictions against abortion are a type of tyranny against women, and the pro-life view asserts that abortion is the murder of an unborn child. Is outlawing abortion a tyranny against women, or is it a stand against murder?

Abortion is perhaps the single most controversial moral issue of our day. A secular worldview often sees abortion as “difficult” or “complex” or “gray,” and it often opposes laws that place limitations on abortion. But the Christian tradition says abortion is a clear-cut evil that all people must aim to eliminate, including those people in government.

Such a statement about abortion being a clear-cut evil may shock many modern Americans, especially those who were born after the Sexual Revolution (1965–1975), which promoted mass abortion, as well as those living after the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in all 50 states. Roe was overturned in the 2022 Dobbs decision, but in many states abortion remains legal.

Since 1973, more than 63 million abortions have taken place in the United States, with a disproportionate number targeting black babies. The abortion industry has grown into a large, profitable business, and its political power is immense. In every presidential election, abortion is a major issue the candidates must address.

The term abortion comes from the Latin word aboriri, “to perish,” and it means “the intentional killing of the pre-born inside the womb, so as to end a pregnancy.” The core question in the debate is the moral status of the pre-born: Is the pre-born a human person? Let’s look at some basic biological facts, as well as the steps to pro-life logic in defense of personhood.

In the womb, the stages of human development are roughly:

    • zygote (1 cell)
    • blastocyst (differentiated cells up to 2 weeks)
    • embryo (2 to 8 weeks)
    • fetus (8+ weeks)

ProLife Across America highlights a few relevant details:

    • At conception, a unique, distinctive, human DNA code exists.
    • About 18 days later, a heart beats.
    • At 8 weeks, all major organs function.
    • At 9 weeks, a distinct fingerprint has formed.
    • At 10 weeks, pain can be felt.
    • At 12 weeks, a smile can be seen.

As Dr. Peter J. Kreeft outlines, these are the core premises supported by pro-lifers:

Premise 1: The most basic purpose of any government is to protect the life of human beings.

Premise 2: All human beings have a right to life.

Premise 3: Pre-born children of human beings are in fact human beings.

None is a necessarily religious premise, demonstrated by the fact that some atheists are pro-life (e.g., Christopher Hitchens). If the terms above are all clear, and if all three premises are true, then the conclusion follows logically:

Conclusion: Therefore, the law must protect pre-born human beings.

The most controversial part is Premise 3: Pre-born children of human beings are in fact human beings. How can we defend Premise 3? Here are key logical steps to the pro-life view:

(1) Alive. No one doubts that the zygote (etc.) is alive. There is growth. There is movement. Thus an abortion is needed as a type of back-up birth control, says the pro-choice view.

(2) Human. No one doubts that the zygote (etc.) is indeed an alive human — genetically speaking. Any DNA analysis will show this. It’s human DNA. Plus, the law of biogenesis says that humans can only reproduce other humans. The same holds true for other species: elephants reproduce elephants; dogs reproduce dogs; eagles reproduce eagles, etc. Eagles do not reproduce elephants, etc.

(3) Unique. Furthermore, that one alive human cell called a zygote has a unique human DNA code that nothing on Earth has. If you could “clone” that one cell, so to speak, it would not be the mother nor the father. No scientist doubts this unique quality either. For example, even secular sources such as National Geographic’s documentary In the Womb (2005) state: “The two cells gradually and gracefully become one. This is the moment of conception, when an individual’s unique set of DNA is created, a human signature that never existed before and will never be repeated.”

(4) Person. The zygote (etc.), then, is: Alive. Human. Unique. But is the zygote (etc.) a person? How could one cell be a person? Here is where the debate often comes. Personhood is not something you can see with a microscope. You see the truth of personhood with the mind’s eye; you see the truth of personhood by way of using logic. Person means “one who has a natural capacity to perform personal acts like thinking and choosing,” and the pre-born is not “a potential person,” but “a person with potential,” explains Kreeft. “You have to be a human being to grow a human brain… What’s not logical is that something that’s not a human being can grow a human brain from within.” The zygote is growing. Only because the zygote was first of all a real human person (“personhood”), that one-celled zygote — you! — was able to grow into an individual who is able to read these very words.

Personhood sets the stage; it enables such growth; it undergirds all potential acts. Our essence comes before our function; “what we are” comes before “what we do.” We are first persons who then can do certain personal acts, e.g., grow. The Latin phrase is: Acto Sequitur Esse. Being before action. Being before growth. Being before accidental qualities. The law of cause-and-effect says that something greater cannot come from something less: thus personhood cannot evolve from non-personhood. Therefore, personhood must be there at the very beginning, which is conception, the formation of the one-celled zygote. Personhood does not come only after exiting the birth canal, nor do our basic human rights such as the right to life.

Those are four logical steps to defending personhood, and we hope that this pro-life logic equips those who wish to defend the pre-born from the tragedy of murder. During the last several decades, we have seen tremendous progress for the pro-life mission, and a grasp of the logic for personhood helps to empower us. A great contribution to the cause has been from scholars who provide pro-life logic, such as Peter J. Kreeft, Randy Alcorn, Francis J. Beckwith, and many others. For their scholarship as well as additional insights, several resources are offered below.


Additional Resources

Note: The above is an excerpt from a forthcoming FPIW small-group booklet called Pro-Life Logic (2024).

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