I've been thinking about the pro-life position (by "pro-life" I mean the position that abortion should be illegal. I.e. on par with murder) for awhile, and it is normally presented as a religious position, one that a secular person cannot accept.

However, I have found a number of secular pro-life proponents, including Christopher Hitchens.

So, I've been trying to understand what sort of logic would underlie a secular pro-life position. This is a sketch of my best understanding of a secular pro-life argument:

  1. Human existence is inherently good.
  2. A human exists at the point of conception, i.e. that is when her DNA first began to exist.
  3. Therefore, abortion always destroys a human existence, and is always wrong.

Granting assumptions #1 and #2, is this argument deductively valid? And, is there any logical contradiction in a secular person accepting both #1 and #2 simultaneously? #2, at least, seems to follow from what we know about genetics. #1 may be more controversial, but doesn't seem contrary to secularism. Indeed, #1 is a straightforward way to justify human rights.

Hitchens references:
- This article has a couple good youtube links.
- Also this article in vanity fair has relevant quotes.

  • 2
    That is an excellent point. I'd agree many people would choose that way, but it isn't clear this is due to inherent inequality, or if it is even a proper choice. Additionally, it doesn't seem incorrect to say that all things being equal 1000 zygotes should be preserved and raised even at significant impact to the child's quality of life.
    – yters
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 4:40
  • 5
    @obelia I think that intuition is far from universally shared. It's part of what's at stake here. And it seems to be a troubling balancing method. Should we sacrifice 1000 mentally slow 5-year olds for a 15-year old child genius?
    – virmaior
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 4:46
  • 1
    @virmaior I would answer unhesitatingly "no" to your question. And I do think the preference for a single fully formed person over 1000 cells is near universal when confronted with the realities of the situation and not in the abstract, when you see with your own senses the difference between a fully formed person and a microscopic group of cells that don't look or behave at all like people.
    – obelia
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 5:44
  • 3
    statement #2 can be weakened to "human life may exist from the point of conception" for the position to be reasonable. There is no clear objective point where there is a transition from non-human being to human being, and it is not unreasonable to err on the side of caution. The utilitarian approach leads to other problems such as "how many pensioners would you sacrifice to save one child"? I would also argue that the value of an unborn child does not depend on whether its parents want it. Commented May 2, 2014 at 12:47
  • 2
    @obelia Exactly, so your response shows that the instinctual choice does not provide sufficient grounds for a moral norm. Now, you might think there are no moral norms, but that's a different discussion. This discussion takes place within the assumption that there is such a thing as a principled secular moral argument.
    – yters
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 17:05

12 Answers 12


To make the argument valid, you'd need to say something like:

  1. Human life is intrinsically valuable.
  2. A human life begins at conception.
  3. To destroy anything intrinsically valuable is always wrong.

Since abortion is the destruction of something that counts as "a human life" by (2), then by 1 and 3 it will follow that it is wrong.

Secular arguments against abortion have been around since literally the beginning of the debate. Even religious people make a "secular" argument in the sense that the premises of the arguments don't presuppose the existence of God.

  • 1
    What is a secular reason for premise 1? Additionally, what is the secular response to the claim that personhood does not begin at conception, and it is personhood that makes human life valuable?
    – yters
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 0:06
  • 17
    Secular people can think it's always wrong to kill a person too. They might take that to just be a basic moral fact, for instance. The way to respond to your other point is simply to offer a theory of personhood that turns on some psychological capacities or something.
    – user5172
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 3:55
  • 4
    The weak point of such an argument is #3, of course - it's better to not destroy anything intrinsically valuable, all other things being equal; but even if we completely avoid the abortion discussion, there are MANY cases where our ethics allow (or even require) destroying something intrinsically valuable if it saves something else [more] intrinsically valuable, or achieves some greater goal/principle.
    – Peteris
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 7:36
  • 2
    @Peteris Agreed. And we don't even have to change the subject: If #3 was indeed an absolute, then medically necessary abortions (to e.g. save the mother's life) would be unethical too.
    – Voo
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 10:42
  • 6
    @yters, I'm not necessarily endorsing any position here, i'm just clarifying some positions that secular folks might hold. People who are attracted to psychological accounts of personhood, usually think that the relevant psychological feature doesn't come until much later in development. Those who think that personhood isn't a basically psychologically phenomenon, but rather one connected to our being certain kinds of biological organisms tend to think that personhood begins early in development, perhaps even at conception.
    – user5172
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 12:05

I think Shane captures the basic structure of the standard secular arguments, but there are a few more that can be offered -- some of which run contrary to the usual political divisions at least in the American sphere.

Regarding your initial formulation, there are a few gaps that I don't really get:

  1. Human existence is inherently good.
  2. A human exists at the point of conception, i.e. that is when her DNA first began to exist.
  3. Therefore, abortion always destroys a human existence, and is always wrong.

Namely, there seems to be something jumbled about what happens in 3.

I would probably formulate this type of argument as follows:

  1. Conception brings into existence a zygote which is a novel human life
  2. We should never take human lives
  3. Therefore abortion as the taking of a human life is wrong.

Formulating in this way, I think, clarifies where the debate really centers in this formulation of an argument. Basically, all the hard parts are in 2 and whether or not we think its true. (You will hear some weird fallacious comparisons between skin cells and zygotes at times, and you will hear some interesting things about implantation [the current medical definition of pregnancy per the AMA] vs fertilization [what most pro-lifers take to be the point where it matters]).

Affirming 2 seems to be the default position. The challenge then would be to deny the prima facie reading of 2 and not wind up with a dangerous view. One method is to replace "lives" with "persons" and suggest that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not persons. But then how old does a born child have to be to be a person? Another method is to view human life as a relative good in competition with other goods -- e.g. the environment, personal autonomy, etc. The relative good approach also has some interesting pitfalls. What if a woman is part of dying tribe of people and wants to terminate her pregnancy? Could we then say that the value of diverse human genetics requires her to bring it to term or maybe more so become a baby factory?

But a second completely unrelated line of secular argument can also be offered built around social goods. We could argue that children are a good that belong to the community, and that people have duties to the community and its continued survival. So then those who are able are obligated to participate in community formation through procreation. (It's a socialist argument for babies).

A third line that I've seen advocated both by parts of http://www.secularprolife.org/ and by Matthew Scully who as far as I know is not affiliated with them is that we can link the cause of human suffering to animal suffering and view both as inordinately wrong. In other words, the consistent expansion of the second premise to include at least all mammals regardless of condition.

  • Excellent response, thanks! The second line of argument, while it may support some pro-life practices, would not be pro-life in principle. I am looking for a principled secular argument. Your response also confirms what I suspect, that it is no longer very arguable that a unique person comes into existence at the point of conception.
    – yters
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 2:46
  • I do agree the second type of argument would only become strictly pro-life with some further premises I leave out of the sketch, but they can be thoroughly secular in nature. For instance, a mussolini-type racial fascist can believe the Volk needs to reproduce and should not be allowed to abort. / Regarding your last sentence, I'm not sure I follow. Can you expand on what you mean by saying "it is no longer arguable that ..."?
    – virmaior
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 4:12
  • The Volk position like Hitler held is still not truly pro-life, as it favors a certain group of humans.
    – yters
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 4:15
  • 1
    I think it is still very much a point of argument as when we think there's something that deserves a basic right to life at least philosophically. But my sense is that many pro-abortion philosophical arguments start with the conclusion in hand and reject any account that would make abortion unacceptable. So they need ways to claim the zygote is not human life in the relevant sense. So they shift the goal post on what we call life -- but this tends to create odd cases where our intuitions say we shouldn't kill people who are sleeping, etc. but they fail the test as well.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 4:43
  • 1
    @Peteris, I think there are strong parallels, but there are also some interesting differences. Generally euthanasia debates assume the one to die is a person or at least was a person. They can also include questions of the person's wishes and desires (though they can mirror abortion in raising questions about what we desire for them). But there are those who accept the axiom on both sides without qualifications (usually Catholics) followed by those who realize there are times when it is a dangerous line to move. Then there are of course those who have unlimited freedom.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 10:01

You need an additional premise that destroying something inherently good is always wrong. This can be kind of hard to justify when there are tradeoffs of this sort: destroy X to save Y; destroy Y to save X; do nothing and save neither.

Also, premise 2 is not what most people mean by "human exists". Aside from developmental potential, there is nothing notably different between a two day old human zygote and a two day old mouse zygote (and fish and frogs aren't so different either).

So with the (dubious) premise 4 it would be a valid argument, but the premises would be hard to defend.

  • 2
    Good point in your first paragraph. As a response, it is coherent to say that while something is always wrong, it may be the lesser of two evils in certain circumstances. Second paragraph is incorrect, another animal's zygote would not develop into a human if placed in the womb, so they are quite different intrinsically, even if they may appear the same.
    – yters
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 2:44
  • Yes. Visual embryo genesis similarities between vertebrates are misleading.
    – Java Riser
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 3:29
  • 1
    @yters - Good grief, what do you think I mean by "developmental potential"?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 19:40
  • @Rex - If you think there are significant intrinsic differences, as I point out, then you contradict yourself saying these differences are not notable. Otherwise, you mean something quite different with the phrase "developmental potential."
    – yters
    Commented Jun 9, 2014 at 23:50
  • @yters - The point is that the things which make humans specially worth caring about has not yet happened in a two day old human zygote. Potential only gets you so far.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 13:49

Note: The question posed by the OP above was at one point asking for "secular pro-life arguments", and only later was focused to the analysis of a single of one such argument proposed by the OP. The first part of my response addresses the former question and I will keep it here in that readers may still find it useful. The second part is in response to the currently posed question.

I'm assuming by "secular" argument you simply mean "not based on some religious doctrine but justified through some form of logical reasoning". In that case, in my experience most of the arguments boil down to fetal potential; that you are killing something that has the potential to lead a fulfilling life. Perhaps the most famous to argue this was Don Marquis.

"A Future Like Ours"

Don Marquis argues that abortion, with rare exceptions, is seriously immoral. He bases this conclusion on a theory that he presents and defends about the wrongness of killing. In his view, killing another adult human being is wrong precisely because the victim is deprived of all the value—"activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments"—of his or her future. Since abortion deprives a typical fetus of a "future like ours," he contends, the moral presumption against abortion is as strong as the presumption against killing another adult human being.

Excerpt taken from Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, 7th Edition, by Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembaty.

Further Supporting arguments for this idea:
Stone, Jim: "Why Potentiality Matters." Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 17, December 1987, pp. 815-830.
Famous Rebuttals:
"A Defense of Abortion" by Judth Jarvis Thomson (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (1971), pp. 47-50, 54-66.)
Additional Good reads:
- Majority Opinion in Roe v. Wade by Justice Harry A. Blackmum
- On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion by Mary Anne Warren

Regarding your proposed argument

It is certainly not a common secular pro-life argument (it's almost identical to the most common non-secular pro-life argument), and the problem lies in that both your premises are not unequivocally true (most secularists would not immediately accept them).

"Human existence is inherently good."
Let's take the first one — good for whom? Good for other animals? I think not. Good for the planet? I think not. Good for humanity? Well that's just a circular argument ("human existence is inherently good for humans to exist"). As we well know, human existence is not inherently good for a lot of things and we do all sorts of harm to each other, to other species, and to this Earth. You might find it difficult to find evidence or convincing reasoning to support your assertion here.

The baser assertion in there is "existence is better than non-existence", and thus and existing thing would be inherently better than a non-existing thing. But this is again just an unsupported assertion. No reason or logic leads someone to that conclusion, it is merely stated as fact. People either accept it or they don't. Seems to me that existence is chaotic, full of pain and suffering and math tests and broken hearts. Sure, there's good too, but non-existence is essentially eternal peace, which doesn't sound so bad...

"A human exists at the point of conception, i.e. that is when her DNA first began to exist"
Your second premise is again difficult to agree with. A human exists whenever a thing meets your particular definition of "human". If you define a "human" as something with it's own DNA, then a blastocyst is human, and that's your prerogative to call it that. The problem with that is that we afford things we define as "humans" rights, and you just gave rights to something with less cells than a corn kernel. Some people might find that a bit ludicrous. There are a lot of good arguments against this line of thought (using the term "human" to describe objects which are very not human-like) so I won't belabor the matter here. Since you read Christopher Hitchens, you should also read his friend Sam Harris, in particular his book Letter to a Christian Nation. It is short, you can read it in an hour, and it talks about this very topic (in addition to other things about religion).


I believe there is one additional point that some secular pro-life proponents would argue, namely that there is no intrinsic reason why the mother would have any absolute rights over the life (assuming premise #2) of the foetus. Even if premise #1 does not hold, the new life would have just as much right to request the maternal life to be sacrificed for it's sake as the pro-choice proponents argue that the mater has the right to abort the baby's life, thus creating the following two possible reasonings:

The first:

  1. A human exists at the point of conception, i.e. that is when her DNA first began to exist.
  2. A human wants to live/is intrinsically egoistic.
  3. The wishes of both humans in question are equal, thus taking the wishes of one over the other is 'unethical'.

The second:

  1. A human exists at the point of conception, i.e. that is when her DNA first began to exist.
  2. A human has the right to make it's own choices (which in some way relies on premise #1 from the OP)
  3. A new life can not be asked to make these choices, so it should be protected till the age it can (at which point a secular view still leaves the debate open whether euthanasia/suicide is allowed).
  • 1
    As for "no intrinsic reason": That thing inside her, "person" or not, has still attached itself to her and is consuming resources that are rightfully hers. If she doesn't want to be pregnant, it is doing so against her will. If any other creature were to do that, it would be called a "parasite" and killed with impunity, because the wishes of the mother are worth more than those of some creature inside her.
    – cHao
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 1:15
  • @cHao: Wait, so let's have the hypothetical case where a man and a 2 year old child are crashed in the jungle. In our juridical system if it is within the capacities of the man in question he would be expected to care for the child, despite it possibly being against the man's will. So indeed, if it would be another creature it would be a parasite, but as we have premise #1 it is not another creature. Commented May 4, 2014 at 12:50
  • 2
    That's why we have laws such as child support. If no one was required to take care of children, the human race wouldn't last too long...
    – yters
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 17:52
  • 1
    @cHao, I am fine with that philosophically, if you are ok with a man not being required to provide support for his own 2yo in the jungle, or any fetus a woman chooses to keep.
    – user1873
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 22:04
  • 1
    People aren't robots, and aren't "hardwired" to take care of children. They know they have a moral obligation to do so, and choose accordingly. Some make the right choice, others make the wrong choice and kill and neglect their children.
    – yters
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 23:06

Very good question and a really invigorating discussion!! The issue of whether the stages of development from zygote through fetus qualify as "life" or "person" has come up a few times, so I want to contribute to that discussion. I will leave discussion of morality aside.

I have spent years researching and writing about this topic; as a physician, I needed to know with absolute certainty how to define "life" and "person" before I became involved in contraception/prenatal/delivery/postnatal healthcare.  

This is my secular argument that the definitions of "life" and "person" apply to all stages of the human organism's development.

I will use the colloquial term "person." But you can insert "an individual living human" instead of the word "person" at any point, and it will retain full meaning.

There are many situations where the criteria for "life" vs. "non-life" or "person" vs. "non-person" absolutely *must *be defined - at the very least for legality and bioethics purposes. Lacking a clear definition of "life" or "person" results in inconsistencies in discussions on policy and legality.

There is a continuum of possible definitions, many of which would have very different results and implications if selected to define "person." These definitions are necessarily binary; "half-person" or "3/11ths of a person" cannot logically apply.

I need these definitions to be based solidly on logic and scientific evidence.

I refused to accept any definitions the depend on current laws, belief systems, or emotions - these shift and change. The definition of a living member of our species cannot be based upon what is convenient, nor contingent on what we want the answer to be in order to justify how we feel about it.

I am not satisfied with ambiguity when it comes to a definition of human life.


A human organism, like all organisms, passes through stages in its development.

Tracing it backwards from end to beginning:  


  The reason for establishing the zygote as the initial stage of human development is that it is the earliest state in which the organism has its own unique DNA and is capable of independently continuing through the rest of the human development stages (provided there is adequate nutrient media and environment). Regardless of the amount of support, neither an ovum nor a spermatozoon has that capacity individually.

If someone is to define one stage as "person" vs "not-person" (same as for "life" vs "non-life"), then they must define the criteria for the person/non-person distinction. If they are unable to pinpoint the moment in development where that distinction takes place, then they cannot logically define personhood or lack thereof. In that case, either all stages are people, or no stage is a person.

It must be a single moment, for the distinction is binary: person, not a person. Shades of gray like "half-person...3/11ths of a person...17/273rd of a person" make no sense, and therefore do not apply.

For example if we use birth, a process spanning space and time (often lasting hours and a displacement of 12-24 inches), as the criteria for a binary definition, we leave those hours and inches undefined. Any events occurring in that time will also be undefined. That lack of definition causes inconsistencies in discussions on policy and legality. 

Therefore the task is to establish the precise moment of distinction between person/non-person - if there is one.

It is given that an adult, the final human developmental stage, is clearly defined as a person. Then tracing development backwards, what marker is used to determine this abrupt change from 0 to 1?  

Physiologically, when studying the molecular processes throughout the stages of development of zygote through adulthood and senescence, it becomes apparent that all change is gradual.

During embryogenesis changes are most visually striking (as has been mentioned about the early stages looking like other vertebrate embryos). But the developmental processes that began then will end at different times in the life cycle. For example, the growth plates of long bones that begins during embryogenesis won't finally fuse until one's early 20's.

Biochemically, with trillions of chemical reactions going on at different rates in the metabolism of a body comprised of more than 10^27 atoms, with trillions of different DNA transcription and translation processes running at any one instant, is there anything that can be pinpointed as an abrupt change warranting the distinction between being a person and non-person?


The microscopic level is uncertain, so let's take a big step back and look at it macroscopically.  

The common sentiment that birth is the distinguishing factor in defining person/non-person, as we started to discuss, must be examined in detail.


Birth is not a binary state with an on/off toggle switch.

  Tracing backwards from infancy, using the scientific term "organism" to avoid confusion, consider each snapshot in the continuous process of moving from uterus to outside environment:  

  • Organism, fully external, cord severed, placenta delivered (remembering that placenta and cord are fetal tissue), no tissue remaining. ----Nearly everyone would agree that it clearly fits the definition of a neonate.

But if this is the very first moment at which the organism is defined as a "person," then EVERYTHING before that moment must be defined as a non-person.

What about

  • Organism, fully external, cord severed, placenta not delivered. ---Is it a neonate yet? Person or not?
  • Organism, fully external, cord not severed. ---Neonate or fetus? Is it a person yet?
  • Organism, feet still in vaginal canal. ---Are the feet fetus, while the rest of the body is neonate? Is it a 9/10th person?
  • Organism, feet still in cervix, legs in vaginal canal. ---Are the feet fetus? The legs fetus or half-fetus? The upper body neonate? What % of a person is this?
  • Organism, head protruding from dilated cervix. ---Is the head a neonate, the body a fetus? Head of a person with the body of a non-person?
  • Organism, head crowning in dilated cervix. ---Is just the skin on the top of the head a person?

  • Organism, cephalic presentation, station +3, uterus contracting, but cervix not dilated yet ---This is probably clearly a fetus......**But the question remains: *

At what exact moment in the journey between clearly-a-fetus and clearly-a-neonate did it change from non-person to person?  

What about cesarean section?

  Before incision, during incision, after incision but before removing organism, or somewhere in the middle of the motion of removing the organism?

What about the gestational age at delivery?

  A neonate 3 months preterm is born on the same day as a full-term neonate. They have the same birthday, but are at very different developmental stages - 6 months versus 9 months since the zygote stage.

  • Is that preterm neonate still defined as a fetus? It is only at 6 months gestational age, and the full-term neonate was still defined as a fetus at 6 months.
  • Is the preterm neonate a person yet, like the full-tern neonate is? Or does it have to wait 3 months before it becomes a person?    

Why go through this exercise?

This exercise basically asks the question "in the process of that human organism traveling from her uterus, through her vagina, and into the outside environment and severing the cord - when did it become a person?"

This is to illustrate that there is no good boundary. There is a long transition from being 100% in the uterus to 100% out of the vagina; there isn't a toggle switch that flips from unborn to born.

Most of these intermediate options seem ridiculous, but in order to logically say that "birth defines personhood," one of these intermediate stages has to be chosen as the distinction.

This distinction becomes critical in law, because the precise moment of binary change must be clearly defined in order to determine at what point ending the life processes of a human organism qualifies as "killing a person." Intentional infanticide is homicide. Murder. This includes neonaticide - killing within the first 24 hours.

If we leave those hours and inches of birthing undefined, any events occurring in that time will also be undefined. That lack of definition causes inconsistencies in policy and legality. 

Then if we rely on our judicial system to create the life/not-life distinction for us, establishing precedents with each case it reviews, the criteria defining a living member of our species will be dependent on the current views of whomever holds political power at the moment.

An additional note about lacking boundaries: there is much debate in pro-choice circles as to what gestational age limit should be placed on abortions. This "intermediate-options exercise" should be absolutely critical to the success of these discussions - because in order to logically define life or personhood at birth, and also support partial-birth abortion or late-term abortion, one would be required to choose where along the continuum we explored is the absolute "defining moment." But I have rarely seen this discussed.

If we can't precisely define the distinguishing moment of change, we cannot establish solid criteria for life or personhood; therefore, the argument for personhood/non-personhood falls apart.

The only logical binary toggle-switch for the definition of "life" or "person" is the initial stage, when the individual organism first comes into existence - with its own unique DNA and capacity to complete human development. Prior to the formation of a zygote, there are two parental gamete cells with different haploid DNA, both incapable of development independently. That is a distinct biological change.

Rejecting the existence of any other boundary (based upon lack of scientific criteria to establish the distinguishing boundary) may very well be preferable to having a multitude of different ambiguous, poorly defined boundaries.

After having studied embryology, physiology, and aided in numerous vaginal and cesarean deliveries, I can honestly state that none of the intermediate options make sense to me.

A zygote will on its own develop into an adult, as long as nutrients and supportive environment are provided. Remember the placenta and amnion are 100% fetal tissue; the maternal organism supplies nutrients and environment only. An embryo will die without the uterus environment, just as an infant will die without other people taking care of it and feeding it.

Development is true a continuum; there is no moment at which the "life" or "personhood" toggle switch can be defined. Thus the distinction cannot exist.  

Therefore, I consider human life to be a scientific definition:

A human organism is a living organism that develops from a single-celled stage throughout its natural life cycle into adult and senescence, when its life processes cease and it dies.

Living human organism = human life = "person."

  • 8
    "[T]hey must define the precise moment at which that person/non-person distinction occurs." (And plenty of almost-repetitions of that.) That's not very philosophical of you. Sorites Paradox. Vagueness.
    – user3164
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 8:34
  • 3
    Your (quite understandable) desire for clearly demarcated boundaries doesn't imply that the boundaries (if any) are clearly demarcated. This kind of reasoning is called, admittedly somewhat unfriendly (but not meant as such), wishful thinking. If there is a vague boundary, then you'd have to deal with the reality of it somehow. I merely suggest that rejecting a boundary altogether because it might be vague doesn't necessarily follow.
    – user3164
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 10:08
  • 3
    To give an example for consideration: as the age of fetal viability continues to decrease with medical technology advances, it may not be all that far off to be having this discussion about a fetus raised entirely to term in an extrauterine environment. Will we then need to change our definition of life to fit that? Should the definition of life change depending on our current progress in technology?
    – DoctorWhom
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 10:40
  • 2
    @DoctorWhom, you might be interested in Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen's book Embryo. It's the best single resource I've seen on the ontology and moral status of the embryo. It's also deeply empirically informed.
    – user5172
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 12:51
  • 4
    +1 for your nice summary of life beginnings, but it seems like you identified the only binary toggle you could find (conception) and assigned the special significance of "person" to it simply because it is a toggle point.
    – obelia
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 16:47

I believe one must discuss the secular pro-life argument form at least two points of view, moral and legal.

Moral argument

1. Human life begins at conception.
2. The destruction of human life is "wrong."
3. Therefore abortion, as the destruction of human life, is "wrong." 

Legal argument

1. Human life begins at conception.
2. The destruction of human life is illegal.
3. therefore abortion, as the destruction of human life, is illegal.

Because we live in an imperfect world/society, the legal argument takes precedence and gives rise to the following argument:

1. In order to continue to exist, a society must enact laws that protect, preserve,
   and benefit its members.
2. Since current members have a limited life span, the laws must not only protect and
   apply to its current members, but also to its **future** members.
3. A future member is created at conception.
4. Therefore society's laws are applicable at the time of conception (of the future

A woman's right over her embryo is not a question of "ownership," but rather a question of "free choice." She can choose not to get pregnant. If she has been forcibly raped, she can choose "the morning after" pill to terminate it. With today's medical advances and medication, there is only one justification to require a medical/doctor abortion, and that is - the life of the mother can be saved only if the pregnancy is terminated. Choosing to conceive, is equivalent to choosing not to abort. You can not have a "do over" because you changed your mind, or it is inconvenient.

  • Quite good. One caveat is using a morning after pill contradicts your position, since it kills a fertilized egg.
    – yters
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 21:04
  • at last someone mentions legality Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 16:43
  • Your answer is blatantly wrong. Laws can change. Currently the law says Roe vs Wade makes abortion legal. You cannot say legal rights or legal statues over rule objective claims which are MORALS. Morality is and must be UNIVERSAL.That is the answer cannot change ever. So if act x is said to be immoral it is forever OR your first assessment was FALSE that act x is immoral. The same goes the other direction. If act x is moral the value can never ver change. Your use of moral is no different than personal choice. In philosophy this is a no-no. You seem to dislike abortion eventhough it is legal?
    – Logikal
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 22:07
  • @Logikal Note that act x may be different in morality to act x', which very much resembles act x. Shooting someone can be moral or immoral depending on circumstances. Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 19:19
  • @David thornley, shooting someone is too vague to make a moral value. Moral values need to be specific when there are specific details in the claim. For instance, shooting and purposely killing a home invader who is unarmed is a legal act but an immoral act. Morality covers all cases of a set of circumstances and it applies all place on the planet. People dont make morals what they are. You cant go from vague to specific and try to prove and justify x. You should be upfront from the start. If you have specific details they must be included. No bringing them up later on someone.
    – Logikal
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 20:04

I don't see the secular pro-life position as philosophical at all. The filters I will use here are:

  • Pessimism
  • Genetics
  • Novelty

The pessimistic entry point challenges the idea promoted by the Gates Foundation that "every life has equal value", which is optimistic and therefore not rational. (Here rational is used in the sense of Game Theory as the rational strategy as opposed to the superrational strategy.) Clearly every life does not have equal value in the economic sense, and economic factors underlie all mechanisms of life from most simple organisms onward. ("Economic" is used in the broadest sense, not limited to human commerce.) If one were to stop here, there would be no rational basis for a pro-life position. Quite the opposite.

Genetics tells us that diversity is beneficial. This is not philosophical but mathematical, based on analysis of data. Diversity, in the physical/ mathematical sense is "good".

But 6 billion and rising is far in excess of what is needed to maintain a viable level of human genetic diversity. Thus genetic diversity alone is not sufficient.

The benefit of diversity extends deeper in terms of the complexity of the universe, resulting in life, which is a combinatorial process. Here, the system is more than the rules of the system--the rules combined with the elements produce complex and unpredictable outcomes.

Novelty is where every human life has true value, in that each individual has potential. (This is what the Gates Foundation is getting at with their superrational approach.)

The rational strategy is about hedging one's bets to produce expected outcomes. The superrational strategy is about taking risks to in hopes of unexpected ("non--rational") outcomes.

So while the vast majority of humans will never realize their potential in any remarkable way, and the degree of potential may have something to do with genes, one never knows who will be the next Einstein, Heisenberg, Von Neumann, Nash, Kant, etc.

However, this supposes that anything humans do is inherently meaningful, which conflicts with the pessimistic filter. (i.e. actions are meaningful in context, but it goes no deeper than that.)

Reducing it to the most basic form, one might adopt the viewpoint of an automata for which inherent meaning is not a concern. In this conception, that which is is desirable is the greatest possible dataset--the more robust the dataset, the more potentially fruitful the analysis.

Novel data leads to novel insights, and each human life is a novel expression.
Thus all life is valuable as raw data, and human life especially so because of the capacity of the human brain and complexity of the human mind.

Note: The beauty of the pessimistic filter is that, even if overpopulation leads to extinction of the species, an outcome that is not certain, it ultimately doesn't matter. The phenomenal universe as we know it is merely a temporary state between two extremes of entropy.


There is no reasonable secular opinion that opposes all killing outside absolute pacifism, with an obligation to make everyone else pacifist. That is so ideologically embedded that it is really a religious position that may have alternative secular support. If you support any army, you are not actually pro-life, you are just anti-abortion. (And, given how armies are generally constituted, you are more pro-women's lives than pro-men's.)

There is definitely a position based on promoting personal responsibility that suggests that abortion should not necessarily be legal, but that it is surely still not equivalent to murder. If an unwed father is, by default, responsible for his child, if it is born, a mother could equally well automatically owe something to her child.

As most societies sit now, she is not obligated to keep and raise the child. We have provisions like adoption agencies, orphanages, and foster care that make it so that she now has the option to not keep the child. This is truly necessary, as we understand the burden placed on a child by being raised by a parent who cannot cope with it, or who blames it for ruining her life.

So in lieu of having to raise it, she could have to bear it, and the father could still be bound to contribute to the child's maintenance to the degree he is able if it becomes a ward of the state. Her share of this obligation is paid in suffering, and the difficulty she might have separating from the child. And hopefully the investment forced upon either of them might motivate them to keep the child and take on greater responsibility, which would be good for the society as a whole.

This would be a reasonable secular argument for not legalizing abortion. But it would call for far better commitment to the maintenance of the institutions we have that care for children without families. And it would only really justify a punishment for "withholding gestation" as severe as the punishment for withholding child-support.

If your child is separated from you and as a consequence starves and dies, it should not, perhaps matter whether what deprivation causes the starvation is distance from your blood-flow or your money. There may be some degree of relatively deep negligence present but in neither case has there been a murder.

It would also make the man's obligation not subject to the woman's choice, but to his child's luck.


Granting assumptions #1 and #2 ... #2, at least, seems to follow from what we know about genetics.

I don't think you can 'grant' assumptions #1 and #2.

Granting those assumptions would beg the question.

I don't think that #2 "follows from genetics". You are claiming,

"A human exists at the point of conception, i.e. that is when her DNA first began to exist."

It's debatable what "a human" is, but the humans I've seen all, I don't know, have a head.

So, for example, "No head, therefore not a human!" How's that for logic?

Humans typically have other attributes too:

  • A body
  • Breath
  • Feelings
  • A mother
  • An education
  • Intelligence
  • Language

In fact, these are the kinds of attributes which IMO they need to have, in order to even semi-justify your #1 premise which was, "Human existence is inherently good."

Without or before these things, it's arguably neither "good" nor "human".

Defining a pre-birth fetus or pre-implementation zygote as a "human being" is artificial (perhaps unnatural).

You could perhaps as well define a chocolate bar as human, because the chocolate bar is going to become human after it is eaten!

Defining "human life" as "starting at conception" is if anything a religious argument. Some sources e.g. this rant suggest that even that argument is merely a recent political invention, and that it used to be believed that the soul entered the body at birth (with the first breath).

Furthermore you said, "secular pro-life proponents, including Christopher Hitchens". Did you read his Vanity Fair article which you referenced in the OP? It says,

By rightly expanding our definition of what is alive and what is human, we have also accepted that there may be a conflict of rights between a potential human and an actual one.

IOW according to him a zygote is a "potential" human, not an "actual" one.

I wondered why he said, "rightly expanding". Re-reading the article I can only assume that's the talk about "viability" and "trimesters", IOW perhaps he's claiming that a fetus becomes an actual human after it's developed old enough to be "viable".

He also says, in the article you referenced,

Having once written a mildly “pro-life” essay, I now find (etc.) I resent this crude, uninvited annexation. The decision I took was mine and taken for myself alone.

IOW he says that he is not a "proponent". He's also not rabidly "pro-life": e.g. he said that his mother had abortions without being, in his opinion, murderess.

The top of page 2 says that science has shown that a human can be created by cloning a skin cell (implying that zygotes are analogous to skin cells).

  • There are many, many humans who don't have all those characteristics. You may not want them to be alive, but that does not mean it isn't good they are alive, nor that they wish they were dead. While Hitchens does not accept the full pro-life position, he clearly ascribes some right to life to the unborn.
    – yters
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:05
  • 1
    "Hitchens ... ascribes some right to life to the unborn" -- I infer from the article you referenced that perhaps he ascribes that 'right' at approximately the time when it becomes viable (and thus has both the 'existence' and the 'ability', without which it is difficult to have a 'right'). His doesn't seem to be some kind of pro-life, anti-contraception position.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:25
  • @yters Your first sentence seems to be arguing: "You shouldn't want to murder a disabled human; zygotes are equally unable; therefore zygotes are human; therefore you shouldn't want to prevent any zygote from coming to term and being born."
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:28

The answer would depend on the specific moral commitments of a given secular value system. Assuming secular humanism, which (at least in most versions) places a primary value on the experience of being human, the argument would be that abortion damages, weakens, or in some other way acts in opposition to the value we place on human life.

Note that this argument does not necessarily rely on how you categorize a fetus. It could be that abortion damages us as human beings even if fetuses are not human beings. For example, many non-religious people would say that abuse of animals damages our humanity, even though they are not themselves human. Others might say that the destruction of human artifacts, such as books and works of art, damages our collective humanity, although they are not even alive.

Admittedly this argument is incomplete as it stands. It's more of a sketch of an argument than a defensible position. But it would not be hard to expand it into a real argument, depending on what you think is capable of damaging our humanity. It also relies on the idea that our human qualities are valuable, but again, that's a common assumption in secular humanism.


Where are you guys claiming all these secular pro-life people were with these arguments when Savita Halappanavar died?

She was a human organism right? Where were all the secular pro-life people outraged at the loss of her intrinsically valuable life?

Here's a hint folks...if you mare making moral arguments that vary not one whit whether the fetus is in a stainless steel incubator, or a living, breathing, feeling, thinking human...well, if you don't point the disturbing nature of that moral equivalence, it makes it look like you hold it as a premise too. Is that what all of you intend?

Or, to put it another way, everyone's laying out of the necessary premises is clearly missing one, the premise that the pregnant women has no moral standing worth considering, despite being just as much a human organism as the fetus. That one's not supported, and that's the problem with the stance.

  • 3
    According to the doctors they did not think her life was in danger. That issue is due to a misdiagnosis. If she'd had an abortion yet her baby could have survived, the same needless loss of life would have occurred.
    – yters
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 5:26
  • 3
    The same needless loss of life? Hardly. The fetus would be dead either way, but the mother would still be here if the abortion were allowed. Why do pro-lifers so easily forget that the mother has a life worth considering?
    – cHao
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 17:46
  • 1
    You misunderstand my statement. If the mother's life was not actually in danger, as the doctors thought, yet they carried out an abortion, then there would be a needless loss of life. We can't argue they should have taken an action based on information they didn't know.
    – yters
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 17:59
  • 1
    The mother was pregnant. That means her life was in danger. The fetus was doomed. The doctors sat by and watched, rather than SAFELY end the pregnancy, because they cared more about keeping their hands clean that saving a woman's life.
    – swbarnes2
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 0:25
  • 3
    @yters: In fact, we can. The entire question is whether that action should be an option even if they aren't sure her life is in danger. A woman is dead because a bunch of cultists saw fit to make laws about what she can do with her own body, and threatened anyone who could have saved her. For a doctor living under laws like that, if there's doubt (and there almost always is), it's safer for him to let her die than to risk going to prison because someone second-guessed his diagnosis.
    – cHao
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 0:31

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