There are many religious people in the pro-life camp, but it is not a religious question. It is a question about the legal status of an entity that is under any biological interpretation a 1) distinct, 2) living, 3) human 4) organism at the early stages of development. Consider those four characteristics in order: There is no scientific dispute about whether an embryo is genetically distinct from the body in which it resides, about whether the tissue in question is living or not living, about whether the tissue in question is human or non-human, or whether it is an organism as opposed to a part of another organism, like an appendix or a fingernail.
The pro-abortion response to this reality is to retreat into mysticism, in this case the mysterious condition of “personhood.” The irony of this is that the self-professedly secularist pro-abortion movement places itself in roughly the same position as that of the medieval Christians who argued about such metaphysical questions as “ensoulment.” If we use the biological standard, the embryo is exactly what pro-lifers say it is: a distinct human organism at the early stages of development. If we instead decide to pursue the mystical standard of “personhood,” we may as well be debating about angels dancing on the head of a pin.
The main biological question at issue is the question of “viability.” But viability is a standard in motion, thanks in no small part to the fact that in every aspect of medical practice save abortion we prefer scientific standards to mystical ones. And the viability standard is in the end an intellectual dodge as well: You will never discover if an organism is viable by setting out intentionally to kill it.
There is a great deal of vacuity in the debate. The usual pro-abortion platitudes are so far from being intellectually respectable that they are answered only out of a sense of duty, not because they deserve to be answered. “I’m personally against abortion, but . . . ” would rightly be laughed out of existence if it were “I’m personally against murder/slavery/robbery, but . . . ” Which is to say, it is a statement that is defensible only if one assumes beforehand that abortion is not a species of homicide. Similar examples of begging the question include “It’s the woman’s body,” etc. We simply must answer the question — which is a biological question, not a mystical one — of how many bodies there are in question. I count at least two in the case of abortion. “People will still have abortions, only they’ll be dangerous.” People will still commit homicides, and crime would be less dangerous if we disarmed the police and forbade victims to defend themselves. The statement, like the others, makes sense only if we ignore the salient facts of the case.
Even less intellectually respectable is the reliable feminist insistence that the desire to abolish abortion stems from an obsessive male desire to control women’s bodies out of undue respect for potential opportunities of reproduction. That would be a sensible argument if, for example, pro-lifers were working to forbid women to have tubal ligations. There are pro-lifers who also are opposed to such practices, and that critique, though perhaps not entirely accurate, could fairly be applied to them to the extent that they seek to use the law to impose the ethics of Humanae Vitae. But the fact that a person who makes Argument X also makes independent Argument Y is not evidence against X. Nor does the fact that a person is a member of one sex or the other, has this life experience or that, give special status to his or her argument. We have to answer X on its own merits.