Is life-at-conception simply a “religious belief”?

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

Some abortion-rights literature, which I am certain is quite embarrassing to the more sophisticated proponents of this cause, claims that "personhood at conception is a religious belief, not a provable biological fact." [1]

What could possibly be meant by this assertion? Is it claiming that religious claims are in principle unprovable scientifically? If it is, it is incorrect—for many religions, such as Christianity and Islam, believe that the physical world literally exists, which is a major assumption of contemporary science. On the other hand, some religions, such as Christian Science and certain forms of Hinduism,[2] deny the literal existence of the physical world.

But maybe this “pro-choice” assertion is simply claiming that biology can tell us nothing about values. If this is what is meant, it is right in one sense and wrong in another.

It is right if it means that the physical facts of science, without any moral reflection on our part, cannot tell us what is right and wrong. But it is wrong if it means that the physical facts of science cannot tell us to whom we should apply the values of which we are already aware. For example, if I don't know whether the object I am driving toward in my car is a living woman, a female corpse, or a mannequin, biology is extremely important in helping me to avoid committing an act of homicide. Running over mannequins and corpses is not homicide, but running over a living woman is.

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.Maybe the “pro-choice” assertion is saying that when human life should be valued is a philosophical belief that cannot be proven scientifically. Maybe so, but this cuts both ways. For isn't the belief that a woman has abortion rights a philosophical belief that cannot be proven scientifically and over which people obviously disagree? But if the pro-life position cannot be enacted into law because it is philosophical (or religious), then neither can the abortion-rights position.

Now the abortion-rights advocate may respond to this by saying that this fact alone is a good reason to leave it up to each individual woman to choose whether she should have an abortion. But this response begs the question, for this is precisely the abortion-rights position (circular reasoning).

Furthermore, the pro-lifer could reply to this abortion-rights response by employing the pro-choicer's own logic. The pro-lifer could argue that since the abortion-rights position is a philosophical position over which many people disagree, we should permit each individual unborn human being to be born and make up his or her own mind as to whether he or she should or should not die.

In sum, it seems that the appeal to ignorance is seriously flawed.

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

Argument from Pluralism

It is sometimes argued that the question of when protectable human life begins is a personal religious question that one must answer for oneself. Justice Blackmun writes in Roe v. Wade,

"We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate."[3]

Hence, the state should not take one theory of life and force those who do not agree with that theory to subscribe to it, which is the reason why Blackmun writes in Roe,

"In view of all this, we do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake."[4]

In his dissenting opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), Justice Stevens goes even further than Blackmun:

"The Missouri Legislature [which said that life begins at conception] may not inject its endorsement of a particular religious tradition in this debate, for 'the Establishment Clause does not allow public bodies to foment such disagreement.'"[5]

Thus the pro-life proposal that pro-choice women be prohibited from having abortions on the basis that individual human life begins at conception is viewed, not only as a violation of their right to privacy, but as a violation of the separation of church and state as well. Such a separation is supposedly necessary to sustain tolerance in a pluralistic society. As pro-choice advocate Virginia Mollenkott argues,

"Women who believe that abortion is murder may never justly be required to have an abortion."[6]

Put in the words of a recent bumper-sticker:

"Don't like abortion, don't have one."

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

Problems with this argument

  1. First, this argument is self-refuting and question-begging. To claim, as Justices Blackmun and Stevens do, that the Court should not propose one theory of life over another, and that the decision should be left up to each individual pregnant woman as to when protectable human life begins, is to propose a theory of life which hardly has a clear consensus in this country.[7] Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

    That is, it proposes the theory that the personhood of the unborn child depends on the point of view of the mother—if she thinks it is fully human, then it is, and if she thinks it is not fully human, then it is not. This is a theory of life held by a number of religious denominations and groups, whose amicus briefs Stevens oddly enough (since he's concerned about not injecting religious traditions into the debate) cites in a footnote in his Webster dissent.[8]

    Hence, in attempting not to propose one theory of life, Blackmun and Stevens in fact assume a particular theory of life, and by doing so clearly beg the question and show that their opinions cannot abide by their own standard of not proposing one theory of life.

    Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.

  2. Second, the fact that a particular theory of life is consistent with a religious view does not mean that it is exclusively religious or that it is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

    For example, many pro-life advocates argue for their position by emphasizing that there is nontheological support for their position,[9] while many pro-choice advocates, such as Mollenkott,[10] argue that their position is theologically grounded in the Bible. Hence, just because a philosophically and scientifically plausible position may also be found in religious literature such as the Bible, that does not mean such a view is exclusively “religious.”

    If it did, then our society would have to dispense with laws forbidding such crimes as murder and robbery simply because such actions are prohibited in the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures.

    Furthermore, some public policies—such as civil rights legislation and elimination of nuclear testing—which are supported by many clergymen who find these policies in agreement with and supported by their doctrinal beliefs, would have to be abolished simply because they are believed by some to be supported by a particular religious theory of life.

    Hence, the pro-life position is a legitimate public policy option and does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

  3. In claiming that "women who believe that abortion is murder may never justly be required to have an abortion" but they shouldn't force their pro-life beliefs on pro-choice women, Mollenkott is asking the pro-life advocate to act as if the pro-life view of human life were incorrect.

    Mollenkott is also demanding that the pro-lifer accept the pro-choice view of what constitutes a just society. I believe that this is asking much too much of the pro-life movement. Philosopher George Mavrodes drives home this point in the following story:

    Let us imagine a person who believes that Jews are human persons, and that the extermination of Jews is murder. Many of us will find that exercise fairly easy, because we are people of that sort ourselves. So we may as well take ourselves to be the people in question. And let us now go on to imagine that we live in a society in which the “termination” of Jews is an every-day routine procedure, a society in which public facilities are provided in every community for this operation, and one in which any citizen is free to identify and denounce Jews and to arrange for their arrest and termination.

    In that imaginary society, many of us will know people who have themselves participated in these procedures, many of us will drive past the termination centers daily on our way to work, we can often see the smoke rising gently in the late afternoon sky, and so on.

    And now imagine that someone tells us that if we happen to believe that Jews are human beings then that's O.K., we needn't fear any coercion, nobody requires us to participate in the termination procedure ourselves. We need not work in the gas chamber, we don't have to denounce a Jew, and so on. We can simply mind our own business, walk quietly past the well-trimmed lawns, and (of course) pay our taxes.

    Can we get some feel for what it would be like to live in that context?…And maybe we can then have some understanding of why they [the right-to-lifers] are unlikely to be satisfied by being told that they don't have to get abortions themselves.[11]

    Since Mollenkott is asking pro-life advocates to act as if their fundamental view of human life is false, pro-life advocates may legitimately view Mollenkott's position as a subtle and patronizing form of intolerance.


  1. This is from a pamphlet distributed by the National Abortion Rights Action League, Choice—Legal Abortion: Abortion Pro & Con, prepared by Polly Rothstein and Marian Williams (White Plains, NY: Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion, 1983), n.p. [up]
  2. On Christian Science, see Walter R. Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, Second revised edition (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1977), pp. 111-146. On the Hindu denial of the physical world, see Elliot Miller, A Crash Course on the New Age Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), pp. 16-18, 22. [up]
  3. Justice Harry Blackmun, "The 1973 Supreme Court Decisions on State Abortion Laws: Excerpts from Opinion in Roe v. Wade," in The Problem of Abortion, 2nd edition, editor Joel Feinberg (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984), p. 195. [up]
  4. Ibid., p. 196. [up]
  5. "Webster v. Reproductive Health Services," United States Law Review 57 (22 July 1989), pp. 5044-5045. [up]
  6. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, "Reproductive Choice: Basic to Justice for Women," Christian Scholar's Review 17 (March 1988), p. 291. [up]
  7. See the results of The Boston Globe/WBZ-TV nationwide poll recently published in the Globe, which concluded that "most Americans would ban the vast majority of abortions performed in this country…While 78 percent of the nation would keep abortion legal in limited circumstances, according to the poll, these circumstances account for a tiny percentage of the reasons cited by women having abortions." (Ethan Bronner, "Most in US Favor Ban on Majority of Abortions, Poll Finds," The Boston Globe, 31 March 1989, pp. 1, 12.) [up]
  8. "Webster v. Reproductive Health Services," United States Law Review 57 (22 July 1989), p. 5044, footnote 16. 19. [up]
  9. See especially the nontheological defense of the pro-life position by former abortion-rights activist Bernard Nathanson, M.D. (Aborting America). [up]
  10. See Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, "Reproductive Choice: Basic to Justice for Women," Christian Scholar's Review 17 (March 1988). [up]
  11. George Mavrodes, "Abortion and Imagination: Reflections on Mollenkott's 'Reproductive Choice,'" Christian Scholar's Review 18 (Dec. 1988), pp. 168-169. [up]

Author: Francis J. Beckwith, adapted from a series originally appearing in the Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991. Provided with permission by Summit Ministries and the author. Edited for this publication by Paul S. Taylor, Christian Answers.

Copyright © 1995, 1998, Christian Research Institute, 1991, 1998, All Rights Reserved—except as noted on attached “Usage and Copyright” page that grants ChristianAnswers.Net users generous rights for putting this page to work in their homes, personal witnessing, churches and schools.

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