Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Axioms of Abortion

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 5, 2009

Disclaimer: The two definitions of personhood described below are based on my own opinion. Not every anti-abortion person is anti-abortion for the reason I disclose; likewise, not every pro-abortion person is pro-abortion for the same reason either.

Axiom: a maxim widely accepted on its intrinsic merit
Person: an entity deserving of basic rights such as the right to life

In the end, what does the abortion debate come down to? If we ignore all of the side arguments about monetary costs, etc., there is one central issue here: at what point does a fetus become a person? Though there are many possible answers, it really comes down to two possibilities.

Perspective 1: According to most anti-abortion people, all humans are persons.
Perspective 2: According to most pro-abortion people, humans only become persons at a certain point. This point is typically when the human becomes capable of rationality and self-awareness, the things that truly make us human.

So the real question in the great abortion debate is, which of these axioms about the definition of personhood is correct? As we shall soon see, these axioms are not axioms after all: axioms are by definition at the lowest level and cannot be proven, but these statements are not yet at the lowest level. They can be supported by evidence.

On the surface, from either an evolutionary, biblical or spiritual perspective, the first definition is the correct one. All humans share a great deal of genetic material; humans alone were made in the image of God; humans alone have souls. From each of these it can be concluded that all humans are also persons.

The second definition takes a different perspective. There is nothing inherently special about humans; instead, what makes humans special is their rationality. A core foundation of the second definition is this: do not do harm unto others. This may seem counterintuitive: are the pro-abortion people not advocating that we do harm to living beings? As a matter of fact, they are not. From the perspective of the second definition, the fetus is not being harmed, because to truly be harmed requires that one is self-aware. A being incapable of emotion is incapable of being harmed. A being incapable of self-awareness is incapable of being truly aware of harm: an emotional being such as a mammal or bird is capable of pain, but only a self-aware being can think about the true ramifications of pain, and only a self-aware being can speculate about the meaning of death.

Since in every situation the first perspective seems to be the correct one, why does anyone hold the second at all? It comes from human rationality. If we were to follow the guidance of evolution, we would accept the first perspective. But differences arise when we escape the direct guidance of evolution; only rational beings are capable of this. When we take a broader and less selfish perspective, we can become more understanding of others and their needs. This is what we do when we adopt the second moral perspective.

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One Response to “The Axioms of Abortion”

  1. […] heavily depends on how responsibility is defined. (The reason for opposing views is that there is a definitional miscommunication. The most useful definition is […]

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