Discussing abortion, Scholastic-style

In the spirit of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, what follows is an attempt to tackle the topic of abortion according to a medieval-scholastic disputation. The topic is divided into four key questions (philosophical, biblical, circumstantial, and legal) that follow the format of Aquinas’s Summa, first setting forth the objections, then stating the opposing traditional view (sed contra), followed by my own position (respondeo), and concluding with responses to each objection. Please note that I am not attempting to give the answers that Aquinas himself would have given (in fact, I happen to disagree with him on the matter of delayed human ensoulment), although I certainly hope that Aquinas would have approved of my arguments here.

Summa Theologica II-II Question 64 ½. Abortion

  1. Is the human fetus a person?
  2. Is abortion contrary to Scripture?
  3. Are there any circumstances that would allow abortion?
  4. Should abortion be outlawed?

Article 1. Whether the human fetus is a person?

Objection 1. It would seem that the human fetus is not a person. In the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, and again in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a woman has a legal right to abort her fetus until it reaches the stage of viability (that is, the point at which a fetus can survive outside the mother’s womb). Since a pre-viable fetus is not legally protected from termination, it follows that it does not have the status or rights of a person.

Objection 2. According to the modern philosopher Peter Singer, personhood involves the intellectual capacities of rationality, autonomy, and self-awareness. Since a fetus lacks these capacities, it follows that it does not have the status or rights of a person.

Objection 3. Thomas Aquinas himself said that a fetus does not receive a soul until 40 days after conception for a boy, or 80 days after conception for a girl. Therefore, a fetus in its early stages cannot have the status of a person.

Objection 4. According to the latest scientific research, embryos can split into twins as late as 14 days after fertilization, and therefore there is no reason to treat an embryo as an individual person prior to that stage.

Objection 5. Columnist Ellen Goodman proposes this hypothetical scenario: imagine that a research lab is burning down, and you are forced to choose between saving a vial of frozen embryos and saving a two-year-old. Since most people are probably inclined to save the two-year-old before the embryos, it follows that embryos do not have the same status as a person.

Objection 6. According to pro-choice writer Suzannah Weiss, “My body, my choice.”

On the contrary, philosophers Robert P. George and Patrick Lee argue that a fetus counts as a person, because it is 1) distinct, being capable of directing its own internal development apart from the direction of the mother or father; 2) human, having a fully human genome consisting of 46 chromosomes; and 3) complete or whole, and will naturally mature into the next stage of human development, unless prevented by disease, violence, or a hostile environment. Further, philosopher Stephen D. Schwarz argues that personhood does not depend on 1) size, 2) level of development, 3) environment, or 4) degree of dependence (SLED).

I answer that, a fetus is a fully human person and is entitled to all the rights of a person, including the right to life. It differs from infants, children, and adults only in degree, not in kind. Therefore, with the exception of the rare cases when pregnancy threatens the life of the mother (such as an ectopic pregnancy), the intentional killing of a fetus is the equivalent of homicide.

Reply to objection 1. It is the responsibility of the U.S. Supreme Court to interpret the U.S. Constitution, not to create new constitutional rights de novo. No human law courts have the authority to grant artificial rights to some at the expense of the natural rights of others. Further, the standard of “viability” is arbitrary and unstable. Due to advances in medical research, while the age of viability was about 28 weeks when the Roe decision was first issued, that age is now closer to 24 weeks. Further, there is no reason to think that viability provides a better ground for personhood than does conception. The viability argument would also seem to entail the absurd conclusion that the more independent a person is, the more value their life has.

Reply to objection 2. There are two kinds of capacity: immediate capacity and potential capacity. It is true that a fetus does not have the immediate capacity to exercise rationality, autonomy, or self-awareness; but it does have the potential capacity, and given enough time it will be able to exercise those faculties. Similarly, a sleeping person does not have an immediate capacity to exercise rationality, but they do have the potential capacity. Surely a person’s life does not have less value when asleep than when awake; likewise, the life of a fetus is not of less value simply because it lacks immediate intellectual capacities. Further, if Singer’s view is correct, it would mean that the life of a human infant has less value than the life of a dog, since the latter has a greater immediate cognitive capacity (even Singer admits this).

Reply to objection 3. Aquinas was following the common but mistaken science of his day, which held to an Aristotelian view of ensoulment. According to this view, the essence of a thing is determined by its form: since a fetus prior 40-80 days does not appear to the naked eye to have an obvious human form, it was widely believed to not yet possess a human essence or soul. Due to modern developments in science, we now know that a fetus has all the elements of a complete human being from the moment of conception, and therefore even the Roman Catholic Church today teaches that humanity begins at conception. Further, Aquinas still believed that abortion at any stage of fetal development is contrary to nature and thus a grave sin, even if he didn’t believe it technically counted as homicide before ensoulment.

Reply to objection 4. Just because an early embryo is capable of twinning, it doesn’t follow that the embryo isn’t a human being. As it turns out, cloning works in much the same way as twinning: under the right conditions, a cell from the parent organism can be grown into a genetically identical offspring. Ramesh Ponnuru writes, “If an embryo has no right to life because a twin can be formed from it, and a twin can be formed from any of us, it follows that nobody has a right to life.” Further, even if capable of twinning, an early embryo still counts as a distinct, individual organism, because all of its constituent cells function in an integrated, coordinated manner toward the unified end of the organism’s own internal development.

Reply to objection 5. What if the choice were between saving a 9-month-old and saving a 90-year-old? Would the decision to save the baby mean that the elderly adult is less human? It is important to distinguish between failing to save someone (despite the intention to do otherwise, if it were possible) versus intentionally killing someone. Abortion is the latter.

Reply to objection 6. The appropriate response to “my body, my choice” is, “not your DNA, not your body.”

Article 2. Whether abortion is contrary to Scripture?

Objection 1. It would seem that abortion is not contrary to Scripture, since there is no verse stating that a human fetus is a person or that abortion is sinful.

Objection 2. In a 1968 issue of Christianity Today magazine, Bruce Waltke, professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote that according to the Bible, “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” Further, in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming that abortion should be legal in order to protect the life of the mother as well as to protect her emotional health. Therefore, it would seem that most evangelicals did not consider abortion to be contrary to Scripture until the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s.

Objection 3. The Old Testament imposes a different penalty for taking the life of an adult versus taking the life of a fetus. According to Exodus 21:22-24: “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot….” Therefore the life of a fetus has less value than the life of an adult.

On the contrary, David prays to God in Psalm 139:13-14, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” David also acknowledges his moral status from conception in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Further, God refers to his commission of the prophet Jeremiah while he was yet unborn: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5).

I answer that, the Bible is sufficiently clear that human life has value and is worthy of protection from the moment of conception.

Reply to objection 1. Although Scripture does not explicitly condemn abortion, this can be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture. There are many ethical issues that Scripture does not explicitly address—such as racism, for example. However, given the Bible’s clear teaching on the creation of all humans in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28), we can conclude that every human being, including the unborn, has dignity and value.

Reply to objection 2. Bruce Waltke later changed his mind on his view of the Bible’s teaching on abortion, retracting what he wrote in his 1968 Christianity Today article. In a 1974 article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, he wrote, “On both theological and exegetical grounds… the body, the life, and the moral faculty of man originate simultaneously at conception.” Further, in 1980 the Southern Baptist Convention reversed its position on abortion, and has since passed several resolutions affirming the value of human life from conception and condemning abortion. It is also not true that evangelicals did not condemn abortion before the rise of Jerry Falwell. Already in the sixteenth century, John Calvin wrote, “If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.” It is regrettably true that most American evangelicals did not give much attention to the issue of abortion before the 1980s, but the same was once true regarding evangelical attitudes toward the sin of chattel slavery. There are sometimes critical moments in history when the evangelical conscience must be awakened to the reality of certain injustices.

Reply to objection 3. The meaning of Exodus 21:22-24 is somewhat ambiguous. It is not clear whether the “harm” mentioned refers to harm only to the mother, or to harm to either the mother or the child. Either way, the purpose of this text was not originally to determine the humanity of the fetus, but rather only to determine the appropriate legal penalty in the case of a fight that resulted (whether accidentally or not) in harm to a pregnant woman. It is also worth noting that in the preceding text of Exodus 21:20-21, the law stated that if a master strikes his slave so that the slave dies a day or two later, the master is not to be punished. However, this does not imply that the slave is less human; it only implies that the Old Testament imposes different penalties in different circumstances. Even Thomas Aquinas writes concerning this passage, “He that strikes a woman with child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death either of the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide.”

Article 3. Whether there are any circumstances that would allow abortion?

Objection 1. It would seem that some circumstances allow for abortion. In a USA Today opinion piece, former pro-life advocate Shannon Dingle writes about how her husband tragically died in July 2019 during a vacation to the beach, leaving her to care for their six children on her own. She then soon discovered that she was pregnant. Being widowed and struggling financially, and due to health complications that could threaten her life if the pregnancy were carried to full term, she considered getting an abortion. Although her pregnancy ultimately ended in miscarriage, she concludes, “I’m not pro-life anymore, not in the political sense. I firmly believe that decisions regarding pregnancy should be between a patient and doctor, not predetermined impersonally by a mostly male governing body. My body shouldn’t be up for public debate.”

Objection 2. It would seem that in cases of rape or incest, or in cases where the mother is underage or in an abusive family, it would be better to terminate the pregnancy than allow a child to enter into a life full of suffering.

On the contrary, in his book The Case for Life, pro-life advocate Scott Klusendorf writes, “Ask if this particular justification for abortion also works as a justification for killing toddlers. If not, the argument assumes that the unborn are not fully human. I call this tactic ‘Trot out the Toddler.’”

I answer that, if we grant that a fetus is a fully human person (see art. 1 above), then any argument in favor of ending the life of a fetus would be morally equivalent to an argument in favor of ending the life of a toddler. Any appeals to special circumstances therefore amount to a red herring (a fallacy of relevance) and begging the question (the fallacy of assuming the conclusion).

Reply to objection 1. Shannon Dingle’s story is heartbreaking, and we ought to grieve with her over the loss of her husband. But an argumentum ad misericordiam (the logical fallacy of an appeal to pity) is not a sound basis for denying the right to life for unborn children. In her case, getting an abortion would have only compounded tragedy with tragedy. Would any reasonable person think that her circumstances could in any way justify her taking the life of one of her six living children? Should any decision regarding the life of these children only be between her and her doctor? Certainly not.

Reply to objection 2. As stated above, if rape, incest, or extreme family circumstances could not justify taking the life of a toddler, then they could not justify taking the life of a fetus either. The humanity of the fetus is the central question.

Article 4. Whether abortion should be outlawed?

Objection 1. It would seem that abortion should not be outlawed. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, abortion is a religious issue, since people oppose it on religious grounds. Outlawing it would therefore be the equivalent of the establishment of religion, which is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

Objection 2. Laws do not change people’s hearts. If we seek to eliminate abortion, we should do so by persuading people rather than by imposing our views on them by legal force.

Objection 3. It will be impossible to overturn Roe v. Wade, since it is now the settled law of the land. Pro-life advocates need to accept this reality and focus their political efforts on issues other than abortion.

Objection 4. If abortion is outlawed, women will get them anyway, and illegal back-alley abortions could endanger their lives.

Objection 5. It is inconsistent to pursue policies that only protect the life of a child before it’s born, while ignoring policies that ensure the welfare of the child after it’s born. It would be more effective to pursue policies that reduce the overall number of abortions by lifting women out of poverty and making birth control more accessible.

Objection 6. We should not be “single-issue voters”. Abortion may be unjust, but many pro-life political candidates promote other unjust policies or have personally immoral character. Overall it may sometimes be better to vote for a pro-choice candidate whose positions are otherwise just, than for a pro-life candidate whose positions are otherwise unjust.

On the contrary, Thomas Jefferson once stated, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” Likewise, the Presbyterian Church in America adopted a resolution in 1978 which urged its members “to seek to bring about substantial changes in existing legislation so that the human life of an unborn child be recognized and protected.” The Southern Baptist Convention, after reversing its former qualified support for abortion, has adopted several resolutions since 1980 calling for “appropriate legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother.” The Roman Catholic Church also teaches, “The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation.”

I answer that, the right to life is the first and highest human right. Therefore, any threats to this right pose the greatest violations of justice. Abortion should be considered not merely a sin, but also a crime. Therefore, citizens should seek legislation prohibiting abortion except in cases where pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.

Reply to objection 1. It is possible to make a case for the value of unborn human life purely on scientific and philosophical grounds, without appealing to the revealed doctrines of any specific religion (see art. 1 above). Further, what the First Amendment forbids is preferential treatment by the government for any specific denomination or church organization. There is nothing unconstitutional about seeking policy goals on the basis of one’s religious convictions. There are many justice issues that are informed by one’s religious beliefs—issues such as slavery, warfare, poverty, and civil rights. In fact, all particular policy goals will ultimately be grounded in one’s fundamental conception of justice, which entails certain metaphysical and religious commitments. Further, if one’s metaphysical commitments are essentially materialistic, it is difficult to justify how any life has value (born or unborn).

Reply to objection 2. It is true that laws in themselves generally are not enough to change people’s hearts. But as Martin Luther King Jr. once said in his address at Western Michigan University, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important, also.” While it is good to seek to persuade people of the wrongness of abortion, it is still an intrinsic good to prevent abortions even apart from persuasion, for the sake of the lives of the unborn children.

Reply to objection 3. Many unjust legal decisions of the past have been overturned, and there is no reason in principle to think that Roe v. Wade would be different. For example, the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857 denied African Americans the right of citizenship, but this was later overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment. Further, overturning Roe v. Wade is not the only policy goal of pro-life advocates, even if it is one of their highest long-term policy goals. Preventing the repeal of the Hyde Amendment (which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions) is an example of an important short-term policy goal for pro-life advocates.

Reply to objection 4. We don’t apply this logic in the case of any other crime. Does it make any sense to say, “Even if rape and murder are illegal, people will commit them anyway, so we should instead make sure that these crimes can be committed safely”? Further, studies have shown that the rates of abortions are actually lower when abortion is illegal.

Reply to objection 5. As Stephen Wolfe has argued, there is an asymmetry between the call to criminalize abortion on the one hand, and the call for government social programs on the other. The criminalization of abortion logically follows as a natural consequence of the unborn child’s right to life. However, questions about whether poverty is best alleviated by public or private assistance, or whether subsidized birth control is the most effective means of reducing abortions, are prudential considerations on which pro-life advocates may sincerely disagree. This corresponds to the asymmetry between negative rights (the right not to be killed, stolen from, etc.) which are natural and absolute, and positive rights (the right to employment, healthcare, etc.) which require others to act for the sake of the right holder, and are thus more open to dispute. For these reasons, the criminalization of abortion should be a higher priority than the establishment of government social programs.

Reply to objection 6. Voting for a given political candidate generally requires a prudential consideration of which social goods are most important, which are most achievable in a given situation, which means of achieving those goods will have the fewest undesired consequences, as well as the candidate’s own moral character. A vote for a candidate is therefore not a blanket endorsement of everything that the candidate represents or of how he/she behaves; rather, a vote is merely an expression of the voter’s overall preference in light of the limited options available. While ending abortion is not the only issue that voters should consider, it should still rank as a very high priority, since abortion violates the most fundamental of human rights: the right to life.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

One Response to “Discussing abortion, Scholastic-style”

  1. Regarding Article 2, Objection 1, there is an argument that one can offer against the idea that abortion isn’t contrary to Scripture. I would like to bring your attention to a document known as The Didache (did-a-KAY), or “The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles to The Nations”. This was a document circulated among new followers of Jesus in the Apostolic age, and functioned somewhat as a guide for the way that new believers were to conduct themselves, as well as covering some of the most basic doctrines of the Apostolic Church. Think of it as the First Century version of “Christianity for Beginners”.

    This document is NOT Scripture. Make no mistake about that, this document has never been referred to as Scripture, but that’s what is so interesting. The Didache presents a very clear snapshot of what the early Church taught, by way of the teachings of the Apostles, to include a very thorough reiteration of the moral law in the second section entitled “The Second Commandment”. Included among the rules laid down, one can find, “You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor kill a child at birth.”

    These were people who lived their lives by Scripture, and who risked their very lives in doing so. If anyone knew Scripture, it was the Apostles, and this is what they were teaching. As this was what they were teaching, and their teachings were based in Scripture, then it’s safe to say that Objection One is taken apart by the historical record. One only has to note the first portion of the command here and see what I mean. It says, “You shall not murder a child by abortion”. Even then, the Church regarded abortion as murder.

    If you were to read through The Didache, what you will find is early Church doctrine interwoven in a listing of direct quotes from both Testaments in the Bible, which is a clear demonstration of the biblical grounding of their beliefs. These were people who risked life and limb to rescue abandoned Roman babies who’d been left out to die of exposure, in order to adopt them and give them a good life. If abortion was regarded as murder to such godly and Spirit-filled people, then we can do no less as their descendants.

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