When is abortion murder?

A good reader, who likes to put me on the spot to justify my moral outlook, has challenged me, on the subject of abortion, to specify at exactly what point the killing of a human fetus or embryo may be classified as a murder. As he points out, many U.S. states, like many jurisdictions around the world, treat the violent termination of an unborn child, such as in a physical assault, as a murder, even while legalizing abortion. In other words, there seems to be a lot of confusion, or at least an unwillingness to define one’s terms, in our contemporary treatment of these matters. 

(This, by the way, is why certain U.S. states, in recently removing barriers to abortion at any stage of pregnancy, also made a point of removing “right to life” protections from the unborn across the board. Seeing that their case for abortion as a mere “women’s health procedure” has always been complicated by the traditional status of the unborn as possessing a right to life from the point of view of criminal law, progressives have finally gotten around to simply eliminating that complicating notion from the law books altogether.)

To restate the question at issue, then: “At what stage of pregnancy may the killing of an unborn child, specifically in the case of abortion, rightly be called murder?” My answer is as follows.

Murder is a term of art, specifically the legal art. It is in part a social construct involving many notions related to general public perceptions, inherited norms, and so on. Hence, its application in the case of abortion is complicated, to the extent that the concept is immersed in convention.

By way of analogy — and to establish that I am not merely being evasive — consider the income tax. I believe that a tax extracted directly from a person’s income is a violation of the principle of self-ownership, which is a foundational idea of modern liberal democracy, limited republicanism, or classical liberalism. Hence, taxing my income is equivalent in spirit to stealing the television from my home: It is a violation of my moral claim to the peacefully earned product of my labor (labor = time and effort = life). But does this mean that income taxation, as it is currently practiced, may be uncomplicatedly classified as theft? In spirit, I may say yes. But does it follow that today, living in a world in which the income tax has been accepted practice and “settled law” for a century, I may charge tax collectors with felony theft, and, should I attain the means to do so, round up all income tax collectors and convict them under the laws protecting private property?

Theft, like murder, is in part a term of art and social convention. Very few people today see income tax as theft. Most people pay their income tax for years without complaint. Income tax collectors live in our communities as citizens in good standing, and no one thinks of them as ne’er-do-wells or a blight on the society. So are they thieves? Their work actually involves taking people’s rightful property, and might in that respect meet the threshold of the proper legal definition of theft. But their work is also a long-accepted practice in modern society, such that treating these people as literal criminals now would seem deeply incongruous with our social reality.

“When is abortion murder?” That is a loaded question, much less straightforward than it appears to be, for reasons directly analogous to the case of income tax and theft.

“Killing,” on the other hand (like “stealing”), is not a term of art, but a direct description of an observable, in no way socially-determined fact.

A life begins at conception. If that life is naturally directed toward adult humanity, then the life that begins at conception is a human life. Forcefully, willfully, ending that life at any point beyond conception is therefore an act of killing. 

The proper and salient questions to be asked, then, are:

1. “Are some forms of killing (of humans) acceptable?” and,

2. “Is killing a human being, who presents no threat to your survival or safety, has committed no offense against anyone, and intends no harm toward you, one of the (theoretically) acceptable forms of killing answering to question 1?”

To question 1, I answer “Yes, probably.” To question 2, I answer “No, and probably never” — meaning that I cannot easily think of any uncomplicated context in which I should answer yes.

Hence, killing a human being, meaning any human life after conception, is unacceptable if that human being falls within category 2, above.

I’ll leave the legal language (“murder”) to legal minds who wish to quibble about these things, although I would say, again, that social custom does muddy the waters somewhat with regard to legal definitions, since these entail specific punishments judged to be commensurate to the offense; but where there is a general societal acceptance or at least mixed opinion about a particular act, assigning it a status equivalent (legally) to acts universally understood to be evil is a touchy business. 

My concern, however, is with the pre-legal matter of right and wrong. Killing a human embryo or fetus is wrong, because killing a human being is wrong, all things being equal. In a civilization that wishes to ground itself in the tenets of human rights, equality before the law, and individual self-determination, to condone killing without just cause is to live in deepest hypocrisy and self-contradiction, and also, in the long run, to undermine our grounding tenets by tacitly inuring ourselves, and numbing our children, to the anti-individual, anti-liberty implications of socially-sanctioned “convenience killing.”

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