In a recent debate I participated in against the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Nadine Strossen, we were asked to respond to the question “Should abortion be legal?” As is my usual practice, I believe the best way to teach people is to answer one question by asking more questions. Typically I would ask my audience to first consider questions like, “When does life begin?” and “How ought we treat humans whose lives have begun?” But instead I framed my message this way:
Q: What do civil societies expect of parents? and
Q: When does parenthood begin?
If you google the terms “Parents abuse, kill, starve, children” you will come up with news stories like these:
· From California: “Parents arrested after cops find 12 siblings shackled to beds”
· From Denver: “Abused children's cries for help were ignored”
As I told my audience, I know there is consensus in the room that these are horrifying headlines. We all agree on that because we all agree that in civil societies parents do not harm their children; instead, they help their children, they meet their children’s material and emotional needs.
Moreover, I suggested, we all know that the more vulnerable a child is, the greater a parent’s responsibility is. I asked the students to imagine they go home for the holidays and ask their parents to feed them three meals/day. If the parents refuse we might be sad for the college student, but we would not pursue criminal charges against the parents. But what if, I asked the students to consider, the child requesting food isn’t a college student? What if the child is four years old? What if the 4-year-old asks her parents to feed her and the parents continually refuse—at that point do we think the parents should be charged with neglect? Absolutely. So what is the difference between a child who is a college student and a child who is four? The latter is a dependent, and by virtue of the neediness, weakness, and vulnerability of such an individual, we expect more of the parents—not less.
Again, I said, I do not believe this is a point over which we have a dispute.
Therefore, if we can agree on a civil society’s expectations of parents, then I think we can agree that the response to the debate question, “Should abortion be legal?” ought to be one simple answer: “No.” In order to elaborate on that, I asked and answered the question, “When does parenthood begin?”
A basic understanding of reproduction tells us that the next generation of a species which reproduces sexually will begin at sperm-egg fusion. When a man’s body produces sperm or a woman’s body produces eggs, we know these are mere parts of the body from which they came. But when those parts are combined, what is produced is something entirely different from that which is a part of a female or a part of a male. In fact, what is produced is a female or a male. What is produced is not something but someone. What is produced is a whole new individual who can be genetically traced as the offspring of the parents—a part of their lineage, but not a part of their person. What is produced is a separate person.
Since parenthood begins at fertilization that means the responsibilities of parents begin then too. From the moment a child exists, parents have a responsibility to ensure the safety and care of that child. And if one day they wish to relinquish those responsibilities, the only moral way to do so is to ensure another party takes care of the child. In the absence of a proper “transfer of care” (e.g., adoption) the parents would be neglectful in their duty to help, not harm, their children.
So should abortion be legal? The answer to that question is obvious once we ask, “What do civil societies expect of parents, and when does parenthood begin?”