Logic, Anyone? (Part I)

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. ‘

Published by

Jennifer R. Hardy

Jennifer R. Hardy recently graduated from Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Philosophy. She has studied abroad at Oxford University, and is currently a summer intern at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. This August , Jen is joining Milstein, Adelman, and Kreger, LLP in Santa Monica as a legal assistant. In the fall of 2010 she plans on attending law school while earning a Masters in Bioethics. She hopes to work for a non-profit corporation part-time and raise a family, as well as publish scholarly journal articles about bioethics and law, and fictional short stories. Her interdisciplinary interests and training lie in American history, analytic philosophy, education, cultural issues of sex and marriage, and bioethics. Jen spends her non-academic time with her boyfriend, her piano, and her horses in Southern California.

  • Citizen

    Doesn’t this logic commit the “pro-life” movement to becoming vegans and taking up animal rights with as much fervor as they have the cause of banning abortion? Otherwise, their own actions state that they find it acceptable to kill non-persons under some circumstances. We can take that as an area of agreement, and move on to defining when those circumstances are.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Jennifer R. Hardy


    I appreciate your comment. My point is only that if you assume all persons are worthy of life, that doesn’t imply that non-persons are not worthy of life. It is just that nothing has been said about whether non-persons are worthy of life in the usual argument from personhood in the abortion issue.

    I happen to hold an additional premise that non-persons are also deserving of life, unless proven otherwise. This means that my choice to eat meat from time to time flows from additional arguments, and a complex theology, about the balance between being a caretaker of the world and its inhabitants and the priority of human life, as well as a certain understanding of what particular digestive needs I have, etc.

    The main point to take away is that I have numerous additional arguments and presuppositions operating to get me to the point where I would take a life. This exactly supports the idea that if we are to conclude that it is acceptable to take the life of the unborn, even if we agree they are non-persons, we need additional arguments and premises beyond the premise “persons should not be killed.”

    Now I personally do not even accept the premise that the unborn are not persons, and was merely assuming that for the sake of the above argument. But I will formally rescind that presupposition in part II.

  • http://jewishatheist.blogspot.com JewishAtheist

    The argument you cite is simply pointing out that “we can’t kill humans” is not a good argument against abortion. The burden of proof then shifts back to those who would outlaw abortion or decry it as immoral. It’s not a proof of morality, it’s a disproof of a particular claim of immorality.

    Or are we just assuming everything is immoral unless there is a logical argument as to why it’s not?

  • Taki

    I’m pro life Christian conservative too but please make a distiction

    It’s ” Thou shalt not MURDER ”
    It’s NOT ‘thou shalt not KILL’

    Go to the original hebrew , aramic or greek words in the manuscripts and you will see

    Every murder is a kill
    But not every kill is a murder

    That is why I’m not vegetarian or vegan and can support war if they are ” just wars ” or of necessity and of self defense

    Four pillars

    – Moral absolutism or ‘graded absolutism’ over moral relativism
    – Distiction between human and animals and a couple of similiarities between them
    – Refute the grounds of liberalism , gender feminism ( make a distiction between gender feminism VS equity feminism ) , nihilism , amorality , the 60’s sexual revolution , rabid skepticism , radical forms of religion , etc
    – Study ancient greek , ancient roman history , christianity , ancient israel , judaism , eastern religions , and many other things — philosophy , civil studies , history , etc

    Abortion is immoral for example because it rests upon the whole implication that abortion is somehow a ‘right’ and many other things

    This rights this or rights that morality is dangerous and the oh well if it doesn’t harm anybody thing too

    Liberals only see morality in this or that scale

    For you to dialogue with them you must show COMPLETE breakdown of morality , ethics , logic and worldview and LINK them together

    You have to show black/white and greys , graded absolutism , moral relativism and moral absolutism , show them the victim mentality , the errors of affirmative action and much more

    Don’t go just after the effects honey
    Go after the root causes

    You need a lot of things since well society as a whole is declining and people aren’t the same )=

    The sad thing ? I’m only 17 years old
    There is some hope thought

    Among the rabid atheists , agnostics , deists , neo christians , muslims , jews , hindus , buddhists and what not I am seeing a new growth of conservatism in the christian youth

    It will be a mixture on the emotional side and the intellectual side

    Kinda reminds me of the whole social conservative/fiscal liberal vs fiscal conservative/social liberal argument going on right now

    The answer is neither … the social conservatism is the heart and the fiscal conservatism is the brain … what’s a heart without a brain ? Like George W. Bush … good man but wasteful spending

    What is fiscal conservatism with social liberalism ? The social liberal heart would be corrupted and would affect the brain

    Like I said it’s not enough to show them this or that
    You have to give them a complete worldview

    Kinda like keeping the pillars of conservatism together

    Fiscal conservatism + National security conservatism + Social conservatism + Small government + Constitution + Libertarian leanings = Conservatism

    Sadly my fear is that many truly stuck )=

    No matter how much logic or sentiment you give to them they will never move

    In the end one should never give up
    Goodbye =)

  • Taki

    Btw I’m not American but your website is wonderful =)

  • http://tyler.yates2@gmail.com Tyler Yates


    I read various posts from this site-at-large and really have been impressed with Torrey Honor’s alumni as writers and thinkers. I am applying as a transfer student for the fall to Torrey. It seems that you really learned a vast amount during your time there and I would look forward to that experience myself. Also, I cannot imagine how amazing your opportunities have been so far!

    I won’t try to expound on anything you have said so far, that would be rather dry of me! I will say that I agree completely with your logical process and out-workings.

    It seems, by far, that Peter Singer has advanced the non-person argument more than any other intellectual known today. The two versions of the non-person argument are the dualist version and the evaluative version. Princeton professor Singer argues for both of these. In essence, Singer states that a “human being” is a completely separate entity than a “person”. However, Singer is surprisingly different in ideology than most on the pro-choice side: most pro-choice advocates premise that a fetus or embryo is not a human being. Singer, however, states that a fetus or embryo is not only a human being, but is an innocent human being; however, as he states, he does not believe it is immoral to kill an innocent human being. Consider the following syllogism:

    Major Premise: It is immoral to kill an innocent human life.
    Minor Premise: An embryo of fetus is an innocent human life.
    Conclusion: Therefore, it is immoral to kill an innocent human

    Singer states that he disagrees with the major premise, that it is immoral to kill an innocent human being. This begs the question, why? While this gets complex, Singer’s conclusion is based on his preference-utilitarianism: this meta-ethical view revises Bentham’s traditional Utilitarian philosophy and argues that what makes a choice moral is that it maximizes the preferences for the most amount of people involved or effected by this choice. As it would follow, Singer does not believe that a fetus or embryo has preference at all as preferences are characteristics of a “person”, which comes much later is a human being’s development. There are several things wrong with this idea, however. Consider the following.

    1). If a “person” and a human being are completely separate entities, that is, one does not believe the person is starting to develop as early as a zygote but that the person starts to develop at a later, definitive moment among the continuum of a human being’s existence, then it would follow that the person and the human being would always be separate entities, even as an adult and onward! Yet, this would be absurd to believe. For example, when you refer to yourself as “I” you are not referring to either your person of human body alone, but are referring to those two things as the same “substance”, a unified self. Consider common linguistics in today’s culture: when a person says, “I am twenty-two years old”, they do not actual mean they are twenty-two years old minus the time it took to start developing as a person post-uterine. They recognize a common fact, that the word “I” refers to the unity of a person and human body. Or consider when you solve an equation. It is neither your body or person alone that performs this, but both.

    2). Singer also argues that while a fetus or embryo might have the potential to become a person, this is not the same as being a person. This argument has become one of the most popular points of debate today. However, Singer has admitted the fallacious logic of this argument. Singer cannot state that the characteristics of a person (autonomy, preference, rationality, etc.) are valued as a behavior, but as a potential behavior. Consider a person who has temporarily fallen asleep. This human being’s functions and characteristics of their “person” are not behavioral, but are simply potential behaviors of that sleeping person. Indeed, Singer admits that a sleeping person does not use functions of their person while sleeping. Yet, no one would agree that it would be moral to kill a person while they are asleep. The same induction can be made for fetuses, embryos, newborns, and so forth. For these beings have the potential of a person at conception, as a unique, completely original entity from any other human entity. It is therefore just as immoral to kill a fetus or embryo as it is to kill a sleeping person, based on the non-person argument that is.

    3). Last, valuing the person more than the human being is philosophically inconsistent. Simply put, valuing the person more than human being is valuing the function of something more than the very thing that functions. The intrinsic value is in the human being, the essence, rather than the functions of the person, which would be the accidentals of that essence. And there is no logic that will protect a person’s line of reasoning that values function more than the person who functions, for you cannot then logically defend infanticide or euthanasia, as those are simply using the same axiological reasoning.

  • http://www.morellaty.com ella moore

    Unfortunately, your Harvard/Yale professor friend is not as well read on abortion logic as one would hope… considering that she teaches at Yale. If she was, she would realize that indeed the “personhood” debate regarding the rights of the fetus is an impossible issue to resolve- but this isn’t new news. It’s something many pro-choicers realized a long time ago when they read Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “Defense of Abortion” (written over 35 years ago). Even if the fetus is a person, it still does not have the automatic right to live based on this fact. It is the fetus’s location that renders its rights null and void. (And considering that thousands of frozen embryos are “thrown away” every year from IVF clinics, many people don’t even consider the location to be important.) The human fetus (person or not) while in the womb is a parasite, relying on the host mother for survival until viability. This “status” as parasite is what “removes” the fetus’s right to life from the equation. I realize “parasite” is a harsh term, but the Webster’s dictionary definition is…

    1 : an organism living in, with, or on another organism in parasitism
    2 : something that resembles a biological parasite in dependence on something else for existence or support without making a useful or adequate return

    (Let us assume that if a woman truly wants to terminate her pregnancy, the warm fuzzy feeling mothers get from being voluntarily pregnant does not count as “making a useful or adequate return.”)
    Furthermore, I agree with commenter “Citizen” who claims that the complications your “illogical person definition” entails would be “erring on the side of caution” for all living beings. If you believe in the validity of Karen Lebacqz’s argument, then you would logically have to become a vegan as well as a pro-lifer.

    The fact of the matter is fetal personhood does not matter. Even if the fetus is a full-fledged person in the womb, it still does not have the right to live based on it’s location inside the mother- NOT because it is not a person.

    ella moore
    “Where deeply held beliefs go to drown. See whether yours will sink or swim.”

    Click on “Medical and Sexual Ethics” on morellaty.com to read articles explaining why the fetus’s status as a person is irrelevant to the abortion debate.

  • Tyler Yates

    Ella, could you explain your axiological reasons for what does, then, matter in whether a fetus or embryo has the right to life? To say that personhood does not matter is more a less a red-herring. What do you think is the qualifier for a human’s right to life as an unborn?

  • Amy

    Using the example of dolphins preys on an unsubstantiated human prejudice for certain animals we prefer to others, for cultural, sentimental, or religious reasons which vary across the world (e.g. cows to a Hindu vs. to many Christians, atheists, Muslims, and Jews who happily enjoy a hamburger now and again). Were you to argue that because dolphins are extremely intelligent and aware, that could be turned around again when it comes to abortion with the argument that fetuses are not as intelligent as dolphins. But if you’re willing to kill, or to see killed, any animal, insect, or plant (non-persons) based on their lesser intelligence– which you must or you should certainly starve– then your argument is itself fallacious. If it is permissible to kill any non-person, then you must present an argument for why it is not permissible to kill certain non-persons, such as fetuses. For that prohibition to be logically valid, it should not rest on sentimentality or cultural belief, like your dolphin example does (or, say, killing a dog. I should be very upset with you if you shot a dog that was not dying or dangerous, but in many other cultures this would not be the case), and it also cannot rest on religious belief, because, even though a Hindu would disagree, I see nothing wrong with eating a steak, and though Muslims and Jews again might disagree, I also see nothing wrong with bacon. No, it doesn’t follow from “The embryo/fetus is not a human person” that “The embryo/fetus can be killed” given the first premise, but it also doesn’t follow from “We cannot (well, not even cannot, people do kill dolphins whether you like it or not) or we should not kill some non human persons” that “The embryo/fetus obviously cannot/should not be killed.” That’s just as fallacious as the first.