The most common arguments for abortion rest on fallacious logic. This is not to say that every argument for abortion invokes faulty logic. However, in my experience traveling to many US college campuses and dialoging about abortion, studying abortion ethics at Oxford, and interning at the Yale Bioethics Center, this is the prevailing argument used in favor of abortion:
We agree that human persons should not be killed.
However, the unborn [qualify with developmental stage] is not a human person.
Therefore, the [human being not yet attained to personhood] does not have the same rights as a human person.
This line of thinking usually attributes the “right to life” in the rights attributed to human beings established as persons but not to the unborn “pre-person.” It carries emotional weight by pitting the being-who-has-not-yet-attained personhood (the embryo or fetus) against the rights of the being-who-has-obviously-attained-personhood (the mother). When it is thus framed, many people would argue that the non- or pre-person may morally be aborted.
It took a Yale professor to show me the flaw in this argument. Karen Lebacqz is a thirty-year bioethicist from Harvard who now teaches at the Graduate Theological Union and Yale. Her many contributions to the field include helping draft the internationally recognized Belmont Report.
Lebacqz introduced her “Methods in Bioethics” seminar this summer with a reprisal of basic logic. With a bachelor’s degree in philosophy tucked under my belt, I expected nothing new. When we began by reviewing this simple fallacy, I almost fell asleep:
Major Premise: Red apples are good to eat.
Minor Premise: This apple is green.
Conclusion: Therefore this apple is not good to eat.
This is the fallacy of the “Illicit Major,” in which the converse of the first statement is assumed to be true. I had spotted plenty of these fallacies while working on my undergraduate degree. Simple enough. But then we changed the terms:
Major Premise: Human persons should not be killed.
Minor Premise: The embryo/fetus is not a human person.
Conclusion: Therefore the embryo/fetus can be killed.
This is the same fallacy: the major term is undistributed in the major premise, but distributed in the conclusion. In other words, nothing has been said about non-persons, so we cannot draw a conclusion about whether we may kill it, at least not without making a fallacious argument. Simply assuming that an embryo/fetus is not a person does not grant us the right to terminate it. Additional arguments—and robust ones at that—are needed.
These additional arguments must state clearly and defend the hidden assumption that it is permissible to kill a non-person.
However, most people who use the above argument for abortion also argue that certain non-persons ought not be killed. While Lebacqz used the example of a redwood tree, I would point to the vast animal rights movement. I don’t think dolphins are persons, and I don’t think they ever will be. But I would do everything in my power to stop someone who threatened to shoot a dolphin.
Assume, then, that the unborn are not persons. But don’t think it is therefore obvious that abortion in all instances is morally acceptable. If a dolphin was growing inside my friend’s womb, I would do everything possible to convince her not to have an abortion. Only if her life was in danger would I drive her to an abortion provider (and I’d do that if it was a baby, too). While unborn babies are far more precious than dolphins for many reasons, this “hierarchy” has no bearing on the fallacious assumption that “we can obviously abort non-persons” operating as a hidden premise in this common argument for abortion. If abortion advocates want to persuade those who have taken logic, they will have to provide arguments that are much more robust—and logically valid. ‘