Why Abortion is Not Murder
Robert P. Tucker, Ph.D.
Community Unitarian Universalist Church
Daytona Beach, Florida
October 1, 2000
Imagine that you are a traditional, pious Roman Catholic
woman, and that you are pregnant at a time in your life
when you don't want to be. To whom do you go, and to what
resources do you turn for advice? A traditional, pious Roman
Catholic would naturally want to know what the highest official
in her religion would say, and so she would seek out the pronouncements
of the pope. Similarly, she might want the advice of her bishop,
her priest, or the nuns she knows. It would be important to
her what her god had revealed on the subject, and in this case
that god would be Yahweh; and some of that revelation might be
found in her religion's holy book, the Bible. She might also
be concerned to know the views of her religion's savior, Jesus.
Armed with such information, she would then make her decision
as to what to do or not to do. That is what we would expect
her to do, for that is how "morality" works, and most
of us here would defend to the death her right to freely choose
her own course of action precisely as her conscience dictated.
Now, imagine yourself to be a Protestant woman with an
unwanted pregnancy. What resources would you seek out?
Your god would still be Yahweh. The Bible would still be your
holy book, and your religion's savior would still be Jesus.
But, you would not really care what any pope or bishop or priest
or nun might have to say. You would be more interested, perhaps,
in what Billy Graham and your own local minister would advise.
Thus prepared, you would make your decision; and most of us
here would support you, even though the criteria you used were
different from those used by the Roman Catholic woman!
Finally, imagine yourself as two other women with unwanted
pregnancies: first, as a traditional, pious Buddhist, Hindu,
Zoroastrian or member of any other religion; and second, as a
secular, humanistic agnostic or atheist. What resources would
you seek out? Well, religious women would seek out the will
of their gods-maybe Vishnu or Ahura Mazda; and instead of Jesus
they would turn to their own savior figures, such as the Buddha
or Confucius. Their holy books might be the Bhagavad-Gita or
the Upanishads. Their human advisers might range from an imam
(such as the Ayatollah Khomeini) to some minister (such as Louis
Farrakhan). As for agnostic or atheistic women, "none of
the above" would matter to them: no gods, no saviors, no
clergy. In all likelihood they would turn to secular advisers
such as philosophers, ethicists, psychiatrists, or to agencies
such as Planned Parenthood. Thus prepared, these last two groups
of women would make their decisions; and we would support their
individual rights to do so even though some or none of the criteria
they used would be criteria that Christians might use. That
is how "morality" works: by the free and informed
choice of an individual who, after careful deliberation, obeys
his or her own conscience and acts responsibly.
Now, imagine something very different. Imagine any of the
women I have just described. But this time, instead of them
having to decide personally and privately about their own unwanted
pregnancies, imagine that they have now become the president
of the United States or a justice on the Supreme Court or a Congressperson
or a senator or a state governor or a judge...and so on, such
that these women must now decide public social policy for
everyone who lives in America.
Suddenly what were perfectly appropriate criteria for making
private, personal decisions about "morality" seem clearly
inappropriate for determining public, social, "ethical"
policy! Remember the fears prior to John F. Kennedy's election
as president? No Protestant wants legislation determined on
the basis of what a pope believes; and no Catholic wants Billy
Graham dictating public policy. You can be sure that none of
the Muslims in America want social policy to be based upon a
Jewish interpretation of things, and vice versa! By now, I'm
sure you get the point: "Morality" is
one thing. "Ethics" is something entirely
different. "Morality" has to do with making personal
and private decisions about the behavior of single individuals.
"Ethics" has to do with making public and social decisions
about the behavior of all of the members of a society. The criteria
which are appropriate for making moral judgments are not the
same criteria which must be used for making ethical judgments.
This morning, I want to speak to you-not from a "moral,"
"religious," or "legal" perspective, but-from
an "ethical" point of view. I want to address,
as an "ethical" question, whether or not abortion should
be understood as "murder."
Philosophers rightly insist that the very first thing people
ought to do when discussing any controversial issue is to define
the terms being used, so that they may begin by speaking
in neutral language which does not contain any assumptions or
hidden agendas. In order to avoid the fallacy of "circular
reasoning," conclusions must never be used as the starting
points for discussions.
If it is defined neutrally, in medical terms, an "abortion"
must be described as "the intentional termination of a pregnancy."
Nothing more, nothing less. Anything beyond that definition
is an assumption or a conclusion which must be argued for, and
which should not be used as a premise!
Most people are not philosophers or ethicists; and so they
do not begin with definitions. The result, unfortunately, is
that their discussion deteriorates into shouting matches, logic
becomes overwhelmed by rhetoric, tempers flare, and nothing constructive
In our society, "murder" is something no one condones,
everyone condemns, and all of us want to prevent. Labeling any
action "murder" cannot start a discussion; it can only
end debate. If abortion turns out to be "murder,"
the debate is over, the case is closed, and Roe vs. Wade is not
only irrelevant, but unacceptable.
But is abortion "murder"? That is a question!
The answer must be argued for, and not merely assumed. Because
this is a public, social policy issue, the criteria for analyzing
it cannot be the same as those used in personal, private morality
or in religion or in law. Remember: the United States is a pluralistic,
secular democracy whose citizens practice many different religions,
and observe vastly different personal moralities. Granted, we
are a people of laws; but we also know that, sometimes-as in
the case of slavery-laws are not always ethical.
So, before we assume that abortion is "murder,"
let us determine just what criteria any action must meet
before it qualifies as "murder," and then, let us ask
if abortion meets those criteria.
It is my contention that for something to be labeled as
"murder" it must meet at least all of six criteria:
Number one: to be "murder" an action must
involve "killing." Something
that was alive before the act must be dead as a result of the
act. Meeting this criterion alone is insufficient reason to
label something a "murder," however, because we often
kill things in situations where no one would ever think of uttering
the term "murder." We kill germs with disinfectants,
and weeds with defoliants. We kill insects and rodents and cows
and pigs and never get charged with murder. We even kill each
other in accidents, in war, in self-defense and no one screams
out the dreaded "m"-word. "Killing" is not
the problem: we do it all the time.
Number two: to be "murder" an action must
involve the killing of "life."
I mention this obvious fact in order to get the word "life"
into the discussion. Notice, I did not say, "a
life." I did not because the term "a life"
has been misused by many people who have turned it into a stealth
term: a euphemism they have secretly substituted
for a different, much more important term, a term which represents
the last, the most difficult to meet, and yet, the most crucial
of all these six criteria.
Number three: to be "murder" an action
must involve the killing of "human"
life. When you kill bacteria by gargling Listerine, you
have not committed murder. When butchers slaughter pigs for
hot dogs and cows for steaks, they have not committed murder.
If the life you kill is porcine, bovine, feline, canine, or
anything other than "human," then your action cannot
ethically be described as "murder."
Number four: to be "murder" an action must
involve the "intentional" killing
of human life. Imagine two scenarios. In each one you hurriedly
back your car out of your driveway. In one scenario, you fail
to notice that your elderly neighbor has just walked behind your
car. In the second scenario you notice that someone you despise
has just walked behind your car. In both scenarios you back
your car over the victim and kill him. In the first case you
did so by accident, and in the second case you did so intentionally.
No one would doubt that the second killing was a "murder";
but, whatever else they might call it-an accident, a tragedy,
a misfortune-no one would label the first scenario a "murder"
precisely because it was not done intentionally.
Number five: to be "murder" an action must
involve the intentional killing of "innocent"
human life. As history shows, intentionally killing human
life is not an ethical problem. We do it all the time, and usually
congratulate ourselves on a deed well done. We do it in wartime.
We do it in capital punishment, and we do it in self-defense.
English versions of the Old Testament may say, "Thou shalt
not 'kill,'" but the meaning really is: thou shalt not "murder,"
because killings-in war, in capital punishment, and in self-defense-were
long ago recognized as ethically justifiable forms of killing.
The term "murder" was used to refer to forms of killing
which were considered ethically unjustifiable. What is it about
war, capital punishment, and self-defense which justifies killing?
It is the fact that none of the deceased individuals was "innocent":
all had become a "clear and present danger" to the
lives and welfare of others, and as such, each had relinquished
whatever "right to life" he or she had previously possessed.
Number six: to be "murder" an action must
involve the intentional killing of innocent human life which
is a "person." This is the sine
qua non, the absolute key, essential element of the whole
definition. If the innocent human life which is intentionally
killed does not constitute a person, than no "murder"
has been committed.
But what is "personhood"? Some ethicists
list more than a dozen criteria for defining "personhood."
But I believe there are just three which are absolutely necessary:
they are "consciousness," "self-awareness,"
and "memory." In order for me to be a person,
to be "Robert," it is essential that I possess the
ability to experience "consciousness"-by which I mean
an awareness of my environment. I must also have the ability
to recognize the difference between my environment and myself,
which is what I mean by "self-awareness." Despite
temporary lapses into unconsciousness and loss of self-awareness
due to sleep, sedation, and so on, I remain the "person"
I am only so long as I am able to return to consciousness and
self-awareness with the memory of my own past intact.
What is it that gives someone consciousness, self-awareness,
and memory? It is only one thing: a brain. . With a
mature, fully functioning human brain, there can be consciousness,
self-awareness, memory, and "personhood." Without
a brain, personhood is absent.
Let me offer two examples:
First: imagine that a bank robber intentionally shoots at
the hand of a cashier who is reaching for an alarm button, and
the bullet completely destroys the woman's thumb. Here we have
the intentional killing of innocent human life: he shot at her
hand, not at her head or heart; and it was, after all, not a
horse's hoof nor a dog's paw, but a human hand!
Notice: I once again did not use the term "a life."
Why? Because, while no one can deny that this thumb was innocent
human life which was intentionally killed, the term "a life"
is misused by some in the abortion debate to refer to more than
merely living human tissue: it is, instead, a euphemism for
Second: imagine that someone has been mugged, is brain-dead,
but still exists only because of life-support equipment. Then,
at the request of his family, physicians unplug the patient from
those machines, and he dies. The physicians are not arrested.
Nor are they charged with murder. Instead, the state's attorney
upgrades the original charge against the man's attacker from
assault to murder. Why? The beating obviously did not kill
the victim's body which was alive until the machines were stopped.
What did the beating kill? It killed the victim's brain-which
itself was innocent human life. Had it been his thumb, his kidney,
or his lung that was killed, no charge of murder would have been
contemplated. But the brain is special: it is the organ of
personhood. When someone intentionally kills an innocent living,
mature and fully functioning human brain, he has also killed
a person; and that destruction is what constitutes "murder."
To repeat, here are my six criteria: to be "murder"
an action must involve the intentional killing of an
innocent human life which is a person.
For abortion to be defined as "murder," it must
meet all six of these criteria. Does it?
As for criteria #1 and #2: does abortion involve
the killing of life? The answer is, yes, in 99% of all abortions,
the living content of the womb is killed. However, in some extremely
rare, late-term abortions, a viable fetus emerges; and in all
such cases, by law, it is not killed nor allowed to die, but
emergency measures are taken to preserve its life.
As for criterion #3: is the life killed by abortions
"human" life? Again, the answer is, yes, because it
is genetically human and belongs to no other species. However:
this is not the same as saying that "a human life"
has been killed, for the term "a life" refers to "personhood,"
which is a different matter.
As for criterion #4: is the killing of human life
in an abortion done "intentionally"? Abortion is done
intentionally to terminate a pregnancy. That poses no ethical
problems unless criterion #6 is met, and the fetus turns out
to be a "person."
A further implication is raised by abortion opponents. They
claim that the intention to terminate a pregnancy also involves
a determined effort to kill a person. If that were true, that
would deserve our ethical condemnation. Granted that no one
can ever really know the intentions which motivate other individuals'
actions, I would nevertheless argue that the burden of proving
such a dastardly charge falls on those who would so impugn the
medical profession, especially in light of the cases in which
physicians and nurses have fought hard to preserve the lives
of viable post-abortion fetuses.
As for criterion #5: is the human life killed in
abortions "innocent"? In most cases, the answer is,
yes. However, when a pregnancy endangers the life or emotional
welfare of the woman, the fetus can no longer be considered "innocent."
It is irrelevant whether the fetus has "intentionally"
endangered the woman. Viruses, bacteria, rabid dogs, drunk drivers,
sportsmen out hunting-none of these really "intends"
to harm or kill anyone, and yet all of us have the right to try
and protect ourselves from them. Even if the fetus turns out
to be a person, the pregnant woman is a person, too, and
as such she retains the inherent right of self-defense against
whatever or whoever attacks her. (Remember: killing
in self-defense, even if the non-innocent human life killed is
a person, is not murder, ethically!)
Finally, as for criterion #6: is the human life killed
in an abortion a "person"? This is the "ontological
question." It asks: "What kind of being is
a fetus?" The answer given will determine the ethical status
of a fetus, and that will determine how it ought to be treated.
Because "personhood" is an epiphenomenon of
the human brain, it should be clear that if there is no fully
functional brain, then there is no personhood.
In the case of a fetus, there simply is no brain present
during the first few weeks of pregnancy, and consequently no
personhood. It takes many weeks for individual cells to
become transformed into neurons, for these neurons to grow and
reach out to connect with other neurons, for synapses to form,
and for the central nervous system to develop.
There is a great deal of theoretical debate about when during
a pregnancy-if at all-a fetus achieves personhood. Some child
psychologists argue that personhood does not really develop until
months or years after birth, while some neuropsychologists argue
that the most rudimentary elements of "sentience" and
psychological activity may begin sometime around the 26th week-which
is the beginning of the third trimester.
In any case, the prevailing medical opinion is that, at least
as far as the first trimester goes, there simply is not yet sufficient
maturation of the developing brain and nervous system to give
the fetus any real ability to achieve consciousness or self-awareness.
The ethical conclusion that follows from this is inescapable:
at least during the first trimester and possibly into the
third, a fetus is simply not a "person;" and therefore
an early-term abortion does not constitute
Now, let's see what's on your minds. [Dialogue.]
Robert P. Tucker, Ph.D., Minister
Lake Region Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
3140 Troy Avenue, Lakeland, Florida 33803
863-646-3715 (Home: 863-682-2636)