Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 6
In this series of blog posts we've been looking at David Boonin's criticisms against arguments favoring the notion that life should be protected from conception onward. He thinks that every argument that could support protecting life from conception is ultimately unsuccessful. In today's post we will look at Boonin's critique of the "sanctity of human life argument" (27-33).
According to Boonin, the argument runs as follows:
P1: The fetus is a human life from the moment of its conception.
P2: Every human life is sacred.
P3: If the life of an individual is sacred, then the individual has a right to life.
C: The fetus has a right to life from the moment of conception.
In an attempt to argue on terms critics of abortion can accept, Boonin assumes P1 to be true. However, he thinks how we define the word 'sacred' (in P2 and P3) is a significant factor and it is here where his critique is focused. The word has two possible meanings: (1) something that stands in special relation to a deity (the theological sense; e.g., humans are made in God's image), and (2) something worthy of awe or reverence (the nontheological sense). Whether either meaning is used, Boonin attempts to show that the sanctity of human life argument fails. First he argues that if the theological sense is used, then the argument rests entirely on religious assumptions. He points out that not all critics of abortion are religious, whose arguments are not at all influenced by faith. And some religious abortion critics acknowledge that their position does not depend on religious affiliation - as the wrongness of theft and murder does not depend on the truth of any particular religious decree. Therefore, if we opt for a theological understanding of human life as sacred, since such an understanding is unnecessary to protect fetal life, the argument must be rejected. Second, if the nontheological sense is used, Boonin also thinks the argument fails. Just because something produces a sense of wonder, which he acknowledges an understanding of embryology can do, this does not provide sufficient basis to protect its life. He agues that the sperm and the egg, the reproductive processes of other animals, and redwood trees can produce a similar sense of awe, yet circumstances may dictate that such things not be protected. So, regardless of which sense of the word is used, Boonin thinks that the argument breaks down.
How then to respond? On the one hand, I agree that one can arrive at the conclusion that human life should be protected from conception without adhering to a religious standpoint on human sanctity of life. Some avowed atheists are strongly pro-life. In fact, Abort73.com, while avowedly Christian, primarily uses secular arguments to make its case against abortion. On the other hand though, a claim to truth (like "life is sacred" in the theological sense) cannot be written off simply because not everyone believes it. That I am sitting at my computer typing right now is not an invalid claim just because not everyone sees me. I do not think Boonin has in any sense refuted the theological claims about the sanctity of human life, that human's are created in the image of God, etc., but has instead written them off because not every critic of abortion draws upon religious beliefs to form their opinions. Instead, he needs to deal with whether the claim about human beings as created in God's image is true.
Personally, I like the sanctity of human life argument. If there is any theological claim that impacts how I treat my fellow human beings, it is that human beings are created in the image of God. In Genesis 9:6, this fact is put forth as a reason not to murder a fellow man. In James 3, this same fact is put forth as a reason not to curse a fellow man with our tongues. For me as a Christian, what motivates me to respect human life from conception is my belief that every human being is made in God's image. Even though I think I could arrive at the conclusion that I should not murder a fellow human being apart from faith, my religious belief is actually the strongest reason why I am pro-life.