If it can be proven that fetuses are not human until they reach the 30th week, then abortion should indeed be permitted in the first 29 ones.
Is that the case?

Gabriel de Arruda Castro

Few issues have been more controversial in the public arena in the last 50 years than the debate on the legalization of abortion. At least in the Western countries, the rationale behind the so-called pro-choice arguments can often be synthesized this way:

Women should have control over their bodies and, while religious citizens have the right to oppose abortion, the secular state requires that government decisions be made without taking religious principles into account.

Those were the main talking points of proponents of legalization in recent debates in Ireland (where abortion ended up legalized1) and Argentina (where lawmakers decided to keep it illegal2 ).

Amnesty International, which is in a global campaign for abortion rights, has recently stated that it “is campaigning to make sure we all have control over our sexual and reproductive choices across the globe3.”

The narrative of the advocates of legalization usually rests on women rights, respect for the secular state and non-interference of the church in matters of government. Nothing is said about the embryo or fetus.

There is no question religious citizens should be able to make their case against abortion the way it sees fit to them. On the other hand, one should not expect to have significant results in contemporary Western societies while backing his policy arguments solely on religion. In fact, that strategy makes the abortion advocates’ situation much more comfortable, since all they have to do is to argue religion cannot dictate rules in the public sphere of a secularized society, which sounds like a reasonable argument.

However, one does not need to blur the separation between church and the state to make a solid case for the abortion prohibition. In fact, the Bible does not make detailed comments about abortion. The main reasons for a ban are moral and biological. That is where this issue will be settled. If, for instance, it can be proven that fetuses are not human until they reach the 30th week, then abortion should indeed be permitted in the first 29 ones.

Given that central question is the life of the embryo or fetus, It would be interesting if the proponents of the legalization of abortion tried to answer what has been proving to be the most solid argument from the other side. This argument can be synthesized in the following syllogism:

  1. Every human life that does not offer a conscious, immediate threat must be protected unconditionally by the state
  2. The embryo is human, it is alive and offers no conscious, immediate threat
  3. The embryo must be protected unconditionally by the state

The major premise

1) Every human life that does not offer a conscious, immediate threat must be protected unconditionally by the state

Most peoples that have produced written pieces of legislation highlight protection of life as a core value. It is only natural, given any person’s human rights depend on that person being alive. The very existence of government derives its efficiency from the fact it is a collective force which concentrates the power of coercion and is capable of protecting life in the first place. As John Locke argues in his Second Treatise of Government, to be a member of a society is to renounce part of one’s liberties in order to be protected by the collective power. The standard position is that the state must protect all lives.

Abortion supporters are right when they argue not all lives must be protected by the state. But that is true in specific cases in which innocent lives are in danger. A terrorist who holds hostages can be taken down by police forces. The protection of life includes, by necessity, the possibility of eliminating a person that decides to put others at risk in a deliberate and unjustified way. That is not the case of a pregnancy, however.

Denying the absolute value of human opens the door to eugenics and even genocide. Human life has value ​per se, and innocent persons that offer no immediate threat to anyone ought not to have their lives terminated. Reducing the value of human life any of its contingent elements (mental condition, physical condition, attachment to relatives, economic potential) has proven to be extremely dangerous. Humans either have inherent, unalienable rights or they have no objective right at all. As Immanuel Kant pointed out in his ​Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, they shall not be seen as a means to an end.

Contemporary law codes seem to acknowledge human life has intrinsic value – as recognized by modern legal frameworks, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose preamble states:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity of all members of the human family and of their equal and inalienable rights constitutes the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world …”

The document above echoes the Declaration of Independence of the United States of 1776:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Brazilian Constitution also supports, in Article 5,

“The inviolability of the right to life.”

Germany’s basic law goes on the same direction:

“The German people, therefore, acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.”

It looks clear that law codes all around the globe agree the state must unconditionally protect every human life that offers no conscious, immediate threat. And in this, there seems to be no disagreement.

The major premise of the syllogism appears to have solid ground. Still, insofar, there’s no definitive answer about abortion. Analyzing the minor premise is necessary.

The minor premise

2) The embryo is human, it is alive and offers no conscious, immediate threat

Let us scrutinize each part of this proposition. If only one is debunked, we will have failed to prove abortion should be outlawed.

Until a few decades ago, there was much information about the generation of life. Augustin, one of the fathers of the church, stated that he couldn’t know at what time life begins4. In the United States and Britain, abortion was allowed by law until the 1800s. It was the discoveries of modern science which justified the decision to restrict this practice.

The first ultrasound was done in the 1950s, and this technology became common in hospitals in the 1970s. Today, with cutting-edge equipment, it is impossible to deny that the embryo is alive. From the earliest days, he has its own development rhythm. In two and a half weeks, he has a beating heart. Right at the beginning, he already possesses his own circulation system, his own blood type, and own organs. The embryo is a living being whatever criterion is adopted. The newly fertilized ovum already has much greater complexity than unicellular organisms that are unanimously recognized as live, independent beings. At this point, one is not debating the nature of that life. But it is undeniable that the embryo is alive, as any bacteria in the human body.

Secondly, is the embryo human?

In the last decades, biology has found out that, hours after conception, the embryo has a wholly different DNA from the father and the mother5. Moreover, not surprisingly, this DNA is not that of a sequoia or a kangaroo, but entirely human. To deny this would be to deny biology itself, which relies on the systematic classification of living beings into distinctly distinct categories. To demonstrate the absurdity of contrary propositions, one needs only to inquire: if the embryo is not human, what species of the animal kingdom does it belong to? If it does not belong to the animal kingdom, is it by chance a vegetable? Of what kind? The embryo is alive indeed, and it is human indeed.

It is true the embryo or fetus is not fully formed. But that is not an adequate criterion for defining what a human life is. A six-months baby is obviously not fully formed. The same can be said of children and teenagers. The human brain is not complete until near the 25th birthday6. Still, no one seriously denies those are humans with all rights.

Third, does the embryo pose a conscious, immediate threat to anyone?

The answer is no. Pregnancy creates a harmonic system, in which the unborn child is protected from the mother’s organism by the placenta. They have different DNAs from the beginning, and they might have even different blood types. In half the cases, they are from different sexes.

It may be argued that some embryos (or fetuses) pose an immediate threat to the mother’s life because of health problems the pregnancy may cause. However, the unborn child did not choose to do harm and have no power to avoid it. One cannot be punished for an act he committed when it was impossible to act differently.

Would it be justified if a police officer decided to execute a truck driver who has just passed out in order to avoid him potentially reaching the sidewalk and hitting a pedestrian? Life is contingent, and all so-called medical certainties are no more than educated guests, as David Hume would probably argue in this debate.

Even if there are exceptional cases in which a doctor has to choose between the mother and the baby, those extreme situations would occur very rarely and would not be enough to determine the result of the general debate on abortion.

The corollary

3) The embryo must be protected unconditionally by the state

If the embryos are alive, human and they do not offer a conscious, immediate threat, they ought to enjoy the same protection provided to other human beings – young and old, economically active or not, self-sufficient or not. Their life is inviolable, and their right to life is unalienable.

That is the corollary that logically follows from the two premises.

Some opponents of abortion prohibition often agree with the major premise, expressed in item 1. But especially in countries with stricter laws, they then move forward to claim that legalizing the practice would save the lives of women who currently resort to unsafe procedures.

Their formulation, therefore, seems to go on the following path:

  1. The state must protect every human life that offers no conscious, immediate threat
  2. The illegality of abortion causes the death of women who offer no conscious, immediate threat
  3. Abortion must be legalized

The problem, in this case, is that the logical chaining has apparent flaws. It is based on the principle – never justified by those who use this argument – that the pregnant woman’s womb does not harbor a human life. In other words, by omission or well-thought-out strategy, the central issue in the whole debate on abortion is not discussed.

If abortion is equivalent to extracting a tooth, as former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has once compared, why not legalize all abortions in all circumstances? Few people would care about a law that entitles anyone to remove his teeth, for whatever reason.

Therefore, if the hidden premise (that pregnant women do not carry human lives in their wombs) is upheld, the debate ends with a crucial victory of pro-legalization. If there is no human life until birth, let us legalize all types of abortion, since this will in no way undermine the first premise – that every human being that offers no immediate threat must be protected.

However, as we have seen above, this is not the case. The state must protect all innocent lives against external threats, and an unborn child is alive, human and innocent.

Some choose to ignore the relationship between the premises (which they have no choice but to agree with) and the conclusion (which they still reject). In doing so, they avoid following basic logic, which is remarkable since some proponents of the legalization of the abortion present themselves as spokespeople of the rationality against darkness.

One may still ask: what about the children with special needs? What about the children of poor mothers, who have higher stakes of becoming criminals in the future? However, defending abortion in such cases is a violation of the major premise in the syllogism above. Those who agree with abortion in those cases are automatically denying the proposition that the state must unconditionally protect every human life that does not offer an immediate threat. Moreover, the harmful consequence of this utilitarian stance is that there will need to be a judge, a definer of which lives are worth living.

Pregnant women in situations of socioeconomic or psychological stress deserve compassion, understanding, and care. However, the best use of logic urges us to admit that ​1) Every human life that does not offer a conscious, immediate threat must be protected unconditionally by the state; 2) The embryo is human, it is alive and offers no conscious, immediate threat; 3) The embryo must be protected unconditionally by the state.

Based on the best scientific evidence, the most consistent logic and the moral principles upon which human coexistence is based, we are forced to conclude that abortion must be curbed by the state, including by force of law.

Gabriel de Arruda Castro is Monte Castelo Institute’s executive director. He holds a MPA from the University of Pennsylvania and B.A in Communications from the University of Brasilia.


1 McDonald,​ Henry, and Emma Graham-Harrison. “Ireland Votes by Landslide to Legalise Abortion.” The Guardian. May 26, 2018. Accessed December 18, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/26/ireland-votes-by-landslide-to-legalise-abortion

2 Goñi,​ Uki. “Argentina Senate Rejects Bill to Legalise Abortion.” The Guardian. August 09, 2018. Accessed December 18, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/09/argentina-senate-rejects-bill-legalise-abortion.

3 “Sexual​ and Reproductive Rights.” Early Marriage and Harassment of Syrian Refugee Women and Girls in Jordan. Accessed December 18, 2018. https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/sexual-and-reproductive-rights/.

4 Enchiridion ​23.86

5″When Does a Human Life Begin? 17 Timepoints.” PLOS Ecology Community. January 15, 2018. Accessed December 18, 2018. https://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/2013/10/03/when-does-a-human-life-begins-17-timepoints/.

6 “Understanding​ the Teen Brain .” Ice Packs vs. Warm Compresses For Pain – Health Encyclopedia – University of Rochester Medical Center. Accessed December 18, 2018. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=305 1.

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