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An embryo’s moral significance

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP) — Philosophically, we can say that embryos are less developed than newborns (or, for that matter, toddlers) but this difference is not morally significant in the way abortion advocates need it to be.

Consider the claim that the immediate capacity for self-awareness bestows value on human beings. Notice that this is not an argument, but an arbitrary assertion.

Why is some development needed? And why is this particular degree of development (i.e., higher brain function) decisive rather than another? These are questions that abortion advocates do not adequately address.

There is no morally significant difference between the embryo that you once were and the adult that you are today, as Stephen Schwarz pointed out in the 1990 book “The Moral Question of Abortion.” Differences of size, level of development, environment and degree of dependency are not relevant such that we can say that you had no rights as an embryo but you do have rights today.

Think of Schwarz’s acronym SLED as a helpful reminder of these non-essential differences:


Embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, but why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.

Level of development

Embryos and fetuses are less developed than the adults they’ll become someday. But again, why is this relevant? Four-year-old girls are less developed than 14-year-old ones. The same holds true for boys. Should older children have more inherent rights than their younger siblings? Those who say that immediate self-awareness is what makes one human could argue that newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Six-week-old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing any number of human mental functions, but so do the reversibly comatose, those with Alzheimer’s disease and even the sleeping.


Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? How can a journey of eight inches down the birth canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from non-human to human? If one asserts that the unborn are not already human, how does merely changing their location make them into persons of worth?

Degree of Dependency

If independency is what makes us human, what do we make of those who depend on insulin or kidney medication? Would anyone propose that they may be killed? And what about conjoined twins who share blood and bodily systems? Shouldn’t they have a right to life?

In short, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal in value because they share a common human nature.

True, some people will ignore the scientific and philosophic case you present for the pro-life view and argue for abortion based on self-interest. That is the lazy way out. Remind your critics that if we care about truth, we will courageously follow the facts wherever they lead, no matter what the cost to our own self-interests.
Scott Klusendorf is president of Life Training Institute, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., and on the Web at prolifetraining.com. He is the author of “The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture” and has been featured on such Christian programs as “Focus on the Family” and “The Bible Answer Man.” This article is adapted from “How to Defend Your Pro-Life View in 5 Minutes or Less” at the LTI website.

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