Abortion and Human Rights


The previous week or so saw chaos called Harvey. A stage four hurricane decimating a state and sending millions on the run. In the middle of the mess, this was tweeted by Texas-based organization, Whole Woman’s Health:


This kind of tweet might be met by three reactions:

“Great. Using a natural disaster to gain political points and push your agenda.” [Sarcasm]

“Wow, what a real kind gesture! Surely, pregnant women must be in terrible suffering because of the disaster and must need this support.” [No sarcasm]

“Ridiculous. You can’t correct a disaster with another tragedy.”

My particular response is neither of the three but closest to the third. I would dare say it’s ungodly to further promote the injustice of abortion to those vulnerable, drowning and desperate people. The suffering, no doubt, is immense, however, abortion will not save them or redeem the circumstances. It will not make anything better. It is a false promise. For this reason, and then some, I’d like to respond, without denying the difficulty of pregnancy, by giving my best attempt at a brief defense of the pro-life worldview, the one that I share. To be consistent with the ethic that life is worth saving, especially in disastrous times, we must be pro-life.

In a preliminary attempt to establish common ground with my pro-choice and undecided counterparts, let us all agree right now that our desire is that the rights of all people are protected. I want women and children, all, to be protected and supported. This agreement I hope for as I’d like to give the baseline reasoning for my position which isn’t as simple as pro-child or anti-woman.

There are many reasons one may be pro-life: because the Church is, to get votes, or because of conviction. My reasons are fundamentally theological but supplemented with what I consider to be a logical human rights argument. I hold that Human Rights, if consistently appreciated, are on the side of the pro-life worldview. The argument I hope to develop will come to a moral conclusion to the issue of abortion. Is the act itself morally good or morally evil? I aim at an answer. Note that I am not dwelling on politics, law or even religion, but purely on the ethics of the matter.

I will reach an answer in four steps. First, I shall introduce the topic of human rights. Second, I will examine the fetus and validate the humanity of the pre-born. Third, I will discuss the issue of personhood with respect to human rights. Finally, with terms fully defined and the problem clearly identified, the act of abortion will be examined from an ethical perspective.

John Locke and the Idea of Human Rights

Human Rights, as an idea and as a movement, it could be said, had its beginnings in the thought of one John Locke (though the development of rights theories existed in others such as Immanuel Kant (who was born the year Locke died)). Nowadays, we know the Human Rights movement has branched into many revolutions concerning many social issues. Feminism, in its first wave, sought to resolve the huge disparity between men and women. The Civil Rights movement aimed to unite people otherwise segregated according to race. Before all of this though was the 17th century thinker, Locke, who hated that the monarch of England reserved supreme rights for himself above ordinaries, especially on theological grounds, and gave a compelling treatise arguing for the equality of human beings. Human Rights is about the value and inheritance of human beings, external titles and wealth stripped away.

A much greater and lengthier discussion of Locke’s philosophy is owed. For the purposes of our discussion, I’d like to introduce what Locke felt were the fundamental reasons for believing people had, or deserved, rights in equal distribution and what can meaningfully carry into our discussion of abortion. I’d also like to expand on these notions to better fit our modern conversation on ethics.

It was Locke, not Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”. This is the climactic statement of his natural rights theory which is expounded in his Second Treatise of Government. It was a moral argument against a morally bankrupt political system. The king had for himself, supposedly, divinely appointed rights above peasants and merchants. Of course, these rights granted him freedom uninhereted by the rest. Locke knew this was folly. Locke knew that before princes and kings decided to claim ownership of citizens, citizens were the makeup of governments and kingdoms. He knew that, fundamentally, since Adam and Eve, we have been given a natural right to life and liberty and not even kings can rightfully remove us of these things.

Since then, we’ve had Wilberforce, Lincoln, Douglass, Wollstonecraft, Mill, MLK Jr., and a host of others asserting and defending the necessity of human rights, equality and inclusion.

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document constructed in response to the catastrophic violations of the Holocaust, states the following:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political,
jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person
belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other
limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

The basic rights we consider today are (perhaps too exhaustively) life, liberty, autonomy, property and security. (Some also include, possibly under ‘autonomy’, the right to privacy.) In the act of abortion, there is a perceived conflict between bodily autonomy and life. Restricting the ability of the mother to abort means sacrificing her ability to freely chose what to do with her body. Permitting abortion and causing it sacrifices the pre-born’s ability to live. Therefore, these rights – autonomy and life – shall be focused upon for the purposes of our discussion.

A person’s right to life may be possibly predicated upon three things: the innate human instinct to survive, the default human desire to live, and the general thought that it is inherently better that a person live rather than not live. The general assumption of the latter is that life is a good in itself.

A person’s right to bodily autonomy is derived from the principle that one’s body is one’s own being and property and therefore other beings aren’t at freedom to use this body for their own purposes, and especially without consent. This right is, in some sense, analogous to the right to own property. The sense in which this is true is that what one possesses is their’s and their’s to do with as they please so long as it doesn’t inflict harm upon others and infringe upon the other’s rights.

It has been defined what rights are and established that there is a basis for such rights. We accept these to be true. Now, a couple of other terms have been loosely used and need to be defined as well. Consider this phrase: Rights are given to all living human people. Rights so far is known to us. The meaning of living is common knowledge. Living things grow, and so on. Human is also common knowledge. A human is a rational, communal animal otherwise known in science as the species homo sapiens. Person remains undefined, however. These definitions are crucial to knowing who gets what rights, how they distribute, and what the effect of rights are on the morality of abortion.

In the following section, the uncertainties of the abortion issue will continue to be addressed. Is the fetus a living human? What is a person? Is the fetus a person? Does the fetus have rights? Once these questions are addressed, a decision can be made about the ethics of abortion.

Essential Humanness 

Now, the first question to answer about abortion, whose true answer is gradually and quickly becoming common knowledge on all sides of the conversation, is whether the fetus is even a human being. We have to define what a human being is and what criteria must be satisfied to acquire the label of ‘human being’. This step is necessary for the human rights argument, from either a mother- or fetus-centred, pro-choice or pro-life perspective, to move forward. Truly, even if we’re pro-choice, we need to recognize that in the act of abortion, two individuals (possibly) are present (this still needs to be validated). So, really, to understand the problem itself, we need to know exactly what is happening and central to this is the essential nature of the pre-born. Other things will need to be understood, as well, such as the motive of the mother, the end that they seek, and the means that they use to achieve this end. For now, though, let us attempt to properly understand what we mean when we talk about the pre-born.

What is conceived at conception?

Biological conception of a human being, in reproduction, requires a sperm carrying genetic information from the father and an ovum carrying more information from the mother. In the uterus, the egg is fertilized with the sperm entering to create a zygote, a new organism, a single cell, with unique DNA.

What has happened in this moment, or sequence of moments? What is the zygote? Most embryology textbooks identify this as the first stage of growth of a new individual. The zygote is a new organism in its most primitive stage with human DNA that is totally unique. The critical conclusion we can derive from this is that, though the organism has not multiplied in cell count, is indeed an organism of the human species and is distinct from the mother as an organism and an individual. We also know the zygote is dependent upon its environment for survival.

This touches at some of the old recurring problems of the abortion debate. Is the pre-born child a human being? Is it/he/she a distinct individual? It has been established that what is created at conception is a new, distinct human being. Since no human being ever ceases being human (aside from dictators and mysoginists), we can therefore conclude that human beings are such from the zygote stage, the aftermath of conception at its earliest.

As previously alluded to, this is quickly becoming common knowledge. We all know what a human is. We are omnivorous mammals with hair, four limbs, two eyes, warm blood and we like community (except the nasty introverted humans). We also know that these things develop over time and so we can reasonably conclude, I think, that all our features at least begin to develop from the beginning when our unique genetics come together. We are alive and growing from the start and thus are developing humans from the start.

It would be erroneous, ridiculous and deeply problematic to define the human species solely by our external features rather than our DNA. Firstly, it simply misses the genetic cause of our features which more fundamentally distinguishes us from all other species. Snakes have snake DNA. Chimpanzees have chimp DNA. Humans have human DNA. Secondly, within the human species, features can differ greatly. Genetic mutations and defects cause diversity in the physical characteristics of humans (which is a good thing from an evolutionary viewpoint). Surely, conjoined twins are not their own sub-species of human? We are human regardless of our physical differences which I think most agree with. Only moral monsters would disagree (this will be relevant later). Thirdly, it is necessary for humans to not possess all features from day one. Humans are not at full size as a newborn. Our reproductive organs are not fully developed as a toddler. Really, in an exactly similar way, our organs are not fully grown during the fetal stage of development. I think it would be unreasonable and logically untenable to conclude that since an organism with human DNA does not possess all of the “human” features and characteristics, the organism, therefore, isn’t a living human being.

Therefore, with the embryological data considered, a brief but sufficient effort to establish the humanity of the pre-born has been made.

Evaluating Personhood by Intrinsic and Extrinsic Value: the Foundations for Equality or Discrimination, Justice or Cruelty

The above header is super long, I know, but I think it conveys just how weighty and pivotal the following section will be in our moral analysis of the act of abortion. No final conclusions will be asserted in this section but we will begin to engage with the topic of personhood.

Why does personhood matter? It matters because generally it is desirable to know who deserves the basic rights mentioned by Locke and the UDHR. It is contended by many that personhood is the basic criterion to be satisfied in order to inherit these human rights by law. This initially strikes me as being odd because ‘Human Rights’ is human. They aren’t called person rights. It’s almost as though there is a distinction being made between ‘human’ and ‘person’. I’d like to make my best attempt to rationally determine whether this distinction is valid or not.

Personhood is a cloudy topic that is tough to touch. However, generally, personhood correlates with personal value, I find. Put another way, eliminating the double-usage of the word ‘person’, personhood follows from the particular worth assigned to the being.

Inanimate objects are not persons. Animals are not persons. However, human beings are generally called persons as well as humans. In fact, for many, human and person are treated interchangeably as terms. Why are rocks, for example, not persons? The danger here is to immediately answer by comparing rocks to human beings, judging differences, as though human beings are a standard of personhood which would be a presupposition on our part. To avoid this trap, how do we go about defining personhood or person without making a circular argument? Is there some other example or standard we can resource? What is our beginning assumption?

I think what is revealing here is that our idea that human beings are persons relies faithfully on some presupposition we have about human nature and human existence. We call ourselves people, without fully knowing why, but it’s as if to assume a quality unpossessed by other objects or created beings. This quality we assume is perhaps only best called human value. Why do we assume we are persons? Because we have some quality or value that distinguishes us from other beings.

My train of thought here may not be without objection from others. Many philosophers have connected personhood and rights to our ability to reason or express emotion, or our faculties of intelligence and moral reasoning. Others have tied personhood to the existence of a soul. Others to a number of cognitive capacities and abilities as checkpoints. (But if these things are inherent to the human being, developed over time, then it is possible to at least hypothetically link human value with our faculties of reason, cognition and morality unpossessed by other animals.) For now though let us assume that personhood flows directly and simply from our unique value.

What is human value, where does it come from and why do we believe in it? To answer the third, it really depends on one’s worldview. A religious person will have a different view of human value, possibly, than an atheist, but perhaps not. This is not particularly relevant at this point. What human value is will probably be explained once we figure out where it comes from. Where does human value come from? Value may be intrinsic or extrinsic, inherent in our being or based on external features, characteristics or qualities. It may be safe to assume that human value, the source of personhood and basis of human rights, cannot, in its essential and most fundamental nature, be both intrinsic and extrinsic. What is meant here is that it makes no sense to say that we derive our personhood from both our intrinsic value and some external variable(s) of our existence. Let me explain.

If we treat human value as intrinsic, first of all, there are many benefits that I can envision. It means that all human beings have the same value and that this value doesn’t vary, depreciate or inflate with external changes to the physical being or even their circumstances. Our value is absolute and constant. The broader significance is the inclusivity of this idea of human value. All human beings share the same value as each other because it’s basic and essential. Surely, this is grounds for equality of value between people. We’re all people just the same.

On the other had, ff we treat human value as extrinsic, depending on external features or characteristics, there are arguably some practical benefits for society but with some dubious trade-offs. The benefits first of all are the promotion of desirable traits and the demotion of poor quality of living. For example, if human worth is dependent upon level of intelligence, then, generally, people with greater education and training will be treated better and thus probably succeed. This, in theory, will make society better and encourage more people to desire and pursue intelligence. A more intelligent population might lead to greater technology and better living conditions, leading to more overall happiness. However, there are certain glaring problems that are quite obvious when one takes a half-step back to consider.

The biggest difficulty is avoiding a hierarchical ranking system of human beings in terms of their worth. If value be based on a characteristic or feature, then not all humans are equal, even humans already born. Take the intelligence example. Not all humans are smart. Some are smarter than others. Will education-level ultimately determine personal worth? Of course not! But this is the necessary outcome of a conception of human value exclusively based upon extrinsic qualities. The second problem with this is idea of human value is that it falls victim to subjective preferences. Who decides what are desirable traits or characteristics which serve to indicate human value? On what basis?Surely, it is preferential by nature, unless we yield to the transcendent moral law of God (or some other absolute standard). Otherwise, what we consider “good” for society really has no objective basis and therefore the characteristic or feature or quality we choose as our criterion for human value and personhood is ultimately subjective. (At this point, bringing the objection against subjectivity into the picture, we could choose to engage in a debate over moral ontology… let’s not.)

Can a person reasonably decide what is the measure of a human being’s value?

Disagreement on the idea of personhood and equality is at the root of all human rights violations, as it turns out, in addition to power-thirst. Looking back through the centuries of abuse around the world, wherever affliction on a massive scale is carried out against a specific people-group, it is very often because of the personal devaluation of that particular group. The party in power treated the other as inferior, lesser, and unworthy to the point where their rights were violated or removed entirely. If human value depends on something extrinsic to the individual, then discrimination is necessary. Whatever we consider to be the qualitative metric by which our value is determined, be it intelligence, size, race, age, ability, location, environment, religion or class, we necessarily enter the position of making some humans valuable and some humans less valuable or not valuable at all.

If value is intrinsic, then nothing extrinsic, by necessity, can diminish that value of the human being. For this reason, if personhood comes from human value, then it cannot be both simultaneously intrinsic and extrinsic, inherent and assigned. That human value is intrinsic to the human being aligns much better with my own religious presuppositions. It was also the assumption of Locke and Kant. But I think it’s also most people’s common sense, everyday attitude. We never stop to think whether you are or are not a person, whether or not you deserve human rights based on criteria XYZ. I think we naturally, especially here in North America, assume that all human beings deserve basic rights. The people that have historically disagreed we now describe as people of hate.

Therefore, since:

  1. human rights are given to all people,
  2. personhood is derived from human value, and
  3. value is intrinsic to the human, then
  4. human rights are given to all human beings.

The Act of Abortion

This is where I will speak directly to abortion itself: the act of killing, the mother’s motivation, the means and ends, legality and all the rest. This is where a conclusion is drawn about the morality of abortion.

Firstly, let us recall what is abortion. It is the act of the mother, with assistance from a medical practitioner or other person, terminating the life of a pre-born baby, either in the embryonic or fetal stage of development, inside the womb.

Secondly, let us tie together what has been concluded in the previous two sections. The humanity of the pre-born child from the zygote stage has been established. Furthermore, having defined personhood as having root in some inherent value or quality distinguishing us from other things, I genuinely think it follows to conclude that the pre-born child, from conception, is a person. The pre-born human doesn’t become a person at some specific point during pregnancy. Certainly, the child doesn’t become a person at birth. Or viability. He or she is an individual, distinct human being from the zygote stage and therefore fits under the category of person which is inclusive of all human beings regardless of physical or developmental distinction.

Now let us reconstruct the act of abortion taking into account our new conclusions. Abortion is the mother, with assistance, terminating the life of the unborn child who is fully human and having personal being. Therefore, the termination of the living person is accurately described, otherwise, as killing. The usage of the word ‘killing’, here, is valid.

Now, the next part is investigating whether rights are being violated in the act of abortion which is also an act of killing. This should be the next step as any unethical act can be evaluated in terms of the rights violations taking place. This should be how we determine the ethics of the act. Theft is a violation of the right to property and security, for example. Murder is the violation of the right to life. Rape is the violation of the right to security, liberty and autonomy. And so on. And so, as we assess the act of abortion, in terms of human rights preservation, let us further describe the state of the fetus and the mother in the situation.

The fetus, again, is totally dependent and confined within the womb. The fetus had no choice in entering existence and hasn’t the choice of leaving it. The pre-born child could be anywhere between the embryonic and fetal stages of development, between a couple of weeks and several months of age. The fetus may possibly feel pain, or not. The fetus hasn’t had much earthly experience beyond their early living in the warm sanctuary of the womb. The child is innocent.

The mother, on the other hand, is often in control, making a conscientious choice in having an abortion. That being said, abortions are sometimes forced. The woman may be having an abortion for a variety of reasons and with different motives and emotions coursing through them. For example, abortions are often out of convenience (to save money or maintain a quality of living), or for genuine concern over their safety and security. (These concerns can, should and must never be dismissed. Moreover, any appropriate response must intentionally and compassionately address the concerns at hand.) Moreover, there may be social pressures behind particular cases. Pregnancy is difficult to bear, for women who endure it, and demands a huge amount of energy, resources and inner strength on their part. Abortion may possibly be considered a solution to financial and social challenges. Abortion can be procedurally risky, as well, for the woman, possibly endangering her health.

The woman has a right to choose what to do with her own body so long as harm is brought to no one. This is an iteration of the principle underlining the autonomy right cited in the Human Rights section. This seems to conflict heavily with the abortion act as it is by definition the killing of another human, personal individual, who, being an individual, can’t on any moral grounds be considered her property. No matter the stage of development and the degree of dependency of the fetus, the pre-born is not her, nor is the pre-born to be considered something like another organ of her body. The pre-born child is an individual. Abortion may be an operation taking place on the mother’s body, and thus affecting it, but it is also an operation on the child’s own body and it afflicts direct harm to the child and to the point of extinguishing his or her life.

The child has a right to life. We know this because the unborn child is human and a person and therefore deserves all the rights that we have. So, it is obvious the child has a right to live. And the child has a right to security, not to be harmed by others. Yet, in the act of abortion, the mother is both afflicting direct harm and depriving the child of their life. The child is a victim.

It seems therefore consistent to assert, from these two facets of the issue, life versus autonomy, stated admittedly simply, that abortion is an immoral act which necessitates injury to the rights of the victim. This warrants categorizing abortion, definitionally, as murder.

Abortion is murder.

Of course, the matter has its complexities, much of which can’t be contained within this section. Though the act may be wrong, the mother may not be, by intention, an ill-willed person. In spite of my moral conclusion about the act, I seriously hesitate to call the mother, aborting, a “murderer” or someone of murderous intent. Certainly, it is unnecessary to conclude the latter. It is fully understandable to me that a person may act on the knowledge of a faulty promise, out of misunderstanding. And a misguided person is, by their motive, better than a malicious one, so long as we’re not mere consequentialists.

For example, there is a difference between a person who gets an abortion because abortion is a valid exercise of womanly autonomy over their child’s abrupt invasion of their body – the malicious mother – and a person who gets an abortion because, from what they’ve heard, the fetus isn’t an actual human being and an abortion would allow them to go to college – the misunderstood mother. One is radically committed to one individual trumping another. The other is committed to self-preservation. The difference is knowing whether or not the child is a human and a person thus changing the understanding of the act’s necessary consequences. It is also, in many cases I think, the mere consideration of the fact that legality does not mean morality. But, more than this, one of the sample women presented is possibly enduring real suffering. Let’s not just think of a stressful financial uncertainty; think of certainly existing cases of rape, forced abortions and life-endangering cases. Answers don’t come easy.

For this reason, my thinking is that, in the same step that I affirm “abortion is murder”, I also feel the need to say that I would willingly adopt the mother’s child if it meant saving the child’s life. And I would give dollars and time if it also meant giving the child a good life.

There is, however, a side door to this whole problem which has been alluded to but not directly addressed. It’s been assumed that either both the mother and the child have rights, in equal measure, or the child simply doesn’t have rights at all. What if they both had rights but in unequal measure? What if the mother’s rights trump the child’s? My problem, here, is that this approaches the “extrinsic value” idea presented in the Personhood section. Some people get more rights than others – or some people have “heavier” rights than others – and this means, still, that not all human beings are equal. All because of some physical variable like size, dependency, stage of development or environment. What is sacrificed here is our understanding of the equality of human beings before our maker. It is a dangerous compromise, even for the irreligious.


I have tried furiously, within a short article still, I think, to accurately represent my moral perspective on the issue of abortion. Keep in mind, I’ve tried to stick close to ethical theory. There is still a theological discussion to unpack. Moreover, within this argument, assumptions about metaphysics and morality were made and it is assumed largely that my audience holds to an objective view of good and evil, rejecting the soft relativism of postmodern-minded folk. My conclusions are that abortion is wrong and the justification of mass murder needs to end. We either recognize all humans as individuals or we don’t. But we should all accept that to continue the progression of inclusion, equality and the heralding of human rights in our society, we must recognize the fundamental nature of human value as intrinsic.

Whole Woman’s Health doesn’t get it.

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