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 gets accomplished.

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 "personhood."

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 "murder."

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)