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Perhaps the most common secular argument made by pro-life writers
concerning the rights of unborn children is based on certain biological
facts about the embryo or fetus. John and Barbara Willke make
this type of argument. So does John Noonan, Jr. in his paper "An
Almost Absolute Value in History." Noonan's paper can be found in The
Morality of Abortion, an anthoogy which he edited. Part of the article
is also included in the Feinberg anthology. Here is a very brief
formulation of the argument by Noonan:
The positive argument for conception as the decisive moment of humanization is that at conception the new being receives the genetic code. It is this genetic information which determines his characteristics, which is the biological carrier of the possibility of human wisdom, which makes him a self-evolving being. A being with a human genetic code is man. . . .
The perception of the humanity of the fetus and the weighing of fetal rights against other human rights constituted the work of the moral analysts. But what spirit animated their abstract judgments? For the Christian community it was the injunction of Scripture to love your neighbor as yourself. The fetus as human was a neighbor; his life had parity with one's own. The commandment gave life to what otherwise would have been only rational calculation.
The commandment could be put in humanistic as well as theological terms: Do not injure your fellow man without reason. In these terms, once the humanity of the fetus is perceived, abortion is never right except in self-defense. When life must be taken to save life, reason alone cannot say that a mother must prefer a child's life to her own. With this exception, now a great rarity, abortion violates the rational humanist tenet of the equality of human lives.
The most common reply to this argument is that it confuses scientific
and ethical concepts. For example, Joan Callahan in "The
Fetus and Fundamental Rights" summarizes this view.
To couch the question in terms of the beginning of human life is to muddle the issue. It is to make the question of the morality of abortion sound like one that can be answered by a very clever biologist. But the issue is not when human life begins. Unquestionably, human fetuses are, from the earliest stages, alive. What we really want to know is whether the living human fetus should be recognized as a bearer of the same range of fundamental moral rights that you and I have, among them the right not to be killed without very good reason. And the most clever biologist in the world cannot answer this for us, since the question is simply not a biological one.
Reference: See John Noonan "An Almost Absolute Value in History." Partially reprinted in Feinberg The Problem of Abortion, p. 13. Callahan's article originally appeared in the April 11, 1986 issue of Commonweal. It can also be found in the Baird anthology. This excerpt was taken from the Baird anthology, p. 117-118.