Do The Unborn Have A Right To Life?

The abortion debate is heating up in Ireland and one of the most common claims made is that the unborn has a right to life. There are groups dedicated to it such as the Society For The Protection Of The Unborn (SPUC). In fact, the 8th Amendment of the constitution states the unborn child has an equal right to live as the mother. But does it really? Do the unborn really have rights? Do we have duties to them? In my next post I examine when life begins, but right now, I want to look at the question of whether or not there is a right to life.

The claimed right to life is an awkward stance due to many variables. In essence, it claims that everyone has a right to be born and that abortion is denial of that right. This is followed up by the self-evident point that if you’re parents had an abortion, you wouldn’t be born. This is best expressed in the Ronald Reagan quote: “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.”

The problem is that the quote, like most Reagan quotes sounds good so long as you don’t think about it. If you do consider it properly you realise it’s rather empty and meaningless. After all everyone who is in favour of contraception is already born (so is everyone who is celibate). Herein lies the problem. If there is a right to life, then contraception is denying this right. Had my parents used contraception, I wouldn’t have been born. This used to be the standard position of the Church and for this reason contraceptives were illegal in Ireland until 1979 (and only then available to married couples with a doctor’s prescription). However, most modern anti-abortionists have progressed since then and prefer to gloss over this obvious problem.

In fact you can take this further and say that since sperm contains the potential for life, masturbation is denying the unborn’s right to life. This too was the Church’s position and for decades they condemned masturbation. This shows the absurdity of the right to life position. In fact this could be taken so far as to say that failing to have sex is denying the unborn right to life. Had my parents not had sex on the day of my conception I would not have been born. If my parents had chosen a celibate life there would be two less children in the world, hence mine and my sisters right to life would have been violated. In fact simply by using family planning methods, my family does not have seven children like my mother’s devout Catholic family. Is this a bad thing? Should we mourn the unborn children who never existed?

The fundamental problem is that unborn isn’t a thing. They don’t exist. Unborn makes as much sense as calling myself an un-old age pensioner or an unwoman or an undoctor. There are an infinite number of unborn children that were never born due to luck and the actions of history. To single out abortion as the main cause of this is wrong. Condoms prevent far more unborn children from being born than abortion yet only one of these is viciously condemned by anti-abortion groups.

One of most important (and least known) facts about abortion is that every abortion does not automatically lead to one less child being born. This is because most women who have abortions have the same number of children they would otherwise have, but just at a later date. Most women who get abortions are young and believe themselves unready to have a child at the moment, but may still wish to have one at a later date. Rebecca Wind of the Guttmacher Institute said that “most women obtain abortions to postpone childbearing not to prevent it altogether.” In this sense abortion is not denial of the unborn’s right to life but rather just the postponement of it.

The unborn do not have a right to be born and the clearest way to show this is by looking at the anti-abortion groups themselves. If they really believed that the unborn had a right to live and to deny this right was tantamount to murder, their reaction would be much stronger. If thousands of children really were being murdered, anti-abortion groups would call for the arrest of every woman who got an abortion and their doctors. They would physically prevent women even considering getting an abortion. It could even be justified to attack abortion doctors in order to save “lives”. The number of abortions would be considered a war crime. But they don’t. Even the anti-abortion groups (bar the most extreme) know that abortion is not murder and the unborn do not have a right to life.

So do the unborn have a right to be born? The answer is no. The fact we are dealing with a group whose membership is based on unfilled possibilities means that the variations possible are endless. To claim it is wrong to deny the (undefined) unborn child a right to life is flawed because any possible action could prevent future children from being born. If the unborn have a right to life then surely everyone who is celibate is guilty of preventing future children from being born. Most anti-abortion groups realise the flaws in this logic and thus the argument switches from claiming the rights of the unborn to claiming that the foetus is already alive. That is the topic for my next post.

26 thoughts on “Do The Unborn Have A Right To Life?”


  1. Well written article. I look forward to you next piece. However, as for myself, the first question must had been “when does the life begin”, simply because you cannot objectively and honestly state that if somebody is against abortion because it kills/denies the right of the unborn, therefore, the latter is also against contraception because it kills/denies the right to life. This is flawed, since if I assume that life begins only at 9th week (or to make argument more interesting, from first week) since conception, contraception and abortion till that is not “killing the unborn.” It is only a preventive measure to prevent formation of organism that, later for sure, will have certain rights.

    1. The purpose for the distinction between murder and abortion is where does state punishment kick in? In the law, killing and murder are different animals though they are used interchangeable in common discussion. While both killings and murder results in death, only murders bring with it criminal responsibility.

      The state should only be involved in murders. Abortion is a killing which is not murder, in the same way that a “justifiable homicide” is a killing that is not punished by the state.

      If we can’t decide where life begins, then while as a matter of theology an abortion might be a killing, it should not be a murder. If the state picks up the doctrine of a religion and then forces those religious tenants on others who don’t believe in that dogma, that violates your rights to choose your own religion.

      If your god considers it a sin, you meet your maker and get your punishment on judgement day. But the state should not punish because some religious faiths have a prohibition.

  2. Robert, once again you have hit it out of the park (if I may use an American baseball analogy). Regarding the above comment claiming a flaw in your argument based on “If I assume that life begins only at the 9th week…” is specious because all such assumptions are quite arbitrary. We have a hard time defining life as it is and all abortion laws based on dates are compromises to political issues rather than being science-based. The most common marker is birth as that is the point that the baby can live without the mother (without drastic surgery) which we inheirited from a time when such surgery existed,

    One could also make the argument that people are rapidly destroying the planet and adding another person to the load the planet has to bear is an attack upon the rest of us. All such arguments have no solutions per se because the interests of so many people are so wide.

    And why is it that, at least here in the U.S., th epolitical party that wants to get government out of people’s lives wants the most to get government into this issue?

    Great work, Robert, you are definitely on a roll and I look forward to your next post.

    1. I hate to post comments on others articles, yet since I was mentioned – I assume I must reply.
      “is specious because all such assumptions are quite arbitrary” – this is arbitrary indeed. Therefore, saying that “The most common marker is birth as that is the point that the baby can live without the mother ” – is in the same way subjective. However, due to significant findings of embryology, a NEW life can be called when the latter gets DNA (which is common among every human being,) that is formed from father’s and mother’s chromosomes – and that is acquired at conception. I’m a pro choice person, because there are social issues, yet being completely honest…

      1. Well I’ve been doing some research and DNA is not solely formed at conception, it develops over the pregnancy. Also the sperm and egg contain some of the genetic make up of a human and thus are part of the continum. More details in my next post

        1. That could be correct, however, DNA is changing throughout the whole period of life (of course, not entirely, just minor things), so the biggest difference is only the speed of development/change. The analogy could be height of the person – we tend to gain height significantly more during first 18 years, but later it stabilizes, but we cannot entirely say we are not growing?

  3. You so eloquently neglected to answer two fundamental questions Robert….1) “At what point is the unborn foetus alive”? and 2) “At what point does abortion become a process of ending the life of said unborn child?”

    I am a pro-choice personally, because of my position on individual liberty. However, as a physician, I find have tremendous conflict with late term abortions barbaric and quite frankly I think it is murder.

  4. You so eloquently neglected to answer two fundamental questions Robert….1) “At what point is the unborn foetus alive”? and 2) “At what point does abortion become a process of ending the life of said unborn child?”

    I am a pro-choice personally, because of my position on individual liberty. However, as a physician, I find that I have tremendous conflict with late term abortions, which I find to be barbaric and quite frankly, I think it is murder.

  5. I cannot help but think pretty much the same thing whenever I read or hear anything about abortion, gay right, drug enforcement, and the like. The fact that I feel really should be addressed in the first place is liberty. We each have simply through our existence on this planet a set of promises to certain behaviors and actions that cannot be taken from us; our personal liberty. I just do not think that the public, government, or anyone else should have a say in what others choose to do, no matter how we feel about those things. If some is against abortion, don’t abort. If you are against gay marriage, don’t marry someone within your gender. Not to say that gay marriage is anything like abortion, but they always seem to be in the spotlight together, when the government should be focusing on real problems and not issues of civil liberty. Well put together post Robert, very thought provoking.

  6. The birth of a child often denies the birth of other children. I had an abortion for a baby afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. A painful decision for which I received hate mail after writing about it. Eleven months later my son Daniel was born. I am grateful for his life, even if it seemed to sacrifice another life.

    Thank you for this.

  7. Great post. I didn’t realize that Ireland actually had an amendment guaranteeing the rights of the unborn. Legally, that makes this issue difficult to combat.

    1. Yeah it hugely complicates the situation and ties the governments hands. It also means we have to go through a very public and very divisive abortion referendum if we want to change anything.

  8. I’m not sure whether it’s down to bias or simple critical error but it’s clearly incorrect to compare masturbation, contraception, and/or celibacy with an unborn foetus as an example of denial of life. I’m sorry to be blunt but it’s such an elementary distinction that it should speak for itself yet apparently it needs to be made clear since neither the author or any commenter seems to have noticed the difference.

    Sperm and eggs are gametes. They are fully functional (insofar as their purpose is simply to search for/await fertilisation) living cells. However, they’re inert. That is, they will not go on to produce a complex, multicellular human capable of internal cellular regeneration. They will survive as long as biologically possible and then die. For men (and the males of most species) 100% or a figure so close as to make the difference negligible, of their sperm will be wasted. Through masturbation, involuntary ejaculation or on the rare occasion: the inhospitable environs of a uterus, all of these sperm will die unfulfilled. To a much lesser degree the same occurs for women. They’re bor…. *conceived* with a fixed number of eggs as specified by their DNA and development and will pass most of these out monthly over the course of their fertile lives.
    That’s not murder or a wasted human life, that’s simply nature and to cry over their passing would be the equivalent of weeping every time a red blood cell reaches the end of its life. In fact it has less significance because every other cell in our bodies can reproduce asexually.
    I know you’re all aware of this but the obviousness of it needs to be stated to compare with the fact that a just fertilised egg, a zygote, is still a single cell but DOES contain all the genetic information that is required to make a new person. Clearly it’s not a person at this stage but it will be. All it needs is time and energy and the right environment. This needs to be made clear. The womb doesn’t *build* the baby, the zygote possess all of the self constructing mechanisms required. It just needs an energy/food supply and a supporting environment. You know, similar to how we need the oxygen and heat on Earth and not the vacuum of space. I make this point because if we determine the embryo to be a non-person at this stage due to its dependence on the mother what will happen when we’re technologically able to wholly support life in the lab? I could talk about humans conceived and raised in a lab and yet not considered human but that’s outside the scope of this argument. I simply want to raise the ambiguity of the definition.
    So to put it as flatly as possible, life begins at fertilisation.
    That’s indisputable. We can quibble all we want about when this thing, this life, becomes a human life, or becomes aware, or is granted it’s soul (if you want to get really ridiculous) but it is a fully self-perpetuating life form.

    Now if you can’t see the difference between that and masturbation or contraception or celibacy then I don’t think there’s much more we can talk about but it’s impossible for me at least, to fail to see a fundamental and critical difference.

    I can’t see the relevance of your point about postponement. It seems to be based on the assumption that whatever it is that makes us who we are is just… queuing up somewhere, waiting to be conceived. Actually, not even that. Born. So you do seem to be suggesting that passing through the birth canal is the moment the previously empty body becomes endowed with *ourselves*. Unless you’re suggesting that we inhabit the foetus at conception but then if we’re aborted we go back to the top of the queue? Clearly that argument would rely on a soul which for me makes it either irrelevant or nonsensical (or both) so then let’s consider the genetic argument. If our genes are our core then there’s actually a ridiculously small chance of anywhere close to identical zygotes being produced. That’s why we have brothers and sisters and not clones. So again abortion would remove that (pre-) person.
    I’m sorry this argument simply seems to be about numbers, I can’t see how it relates at all to the main point.

    And finally, to use the fairly civilised manner in which abortion is opposed globally as a justification is…. absurd. The list of actions that we now consider abhorrent but which were previously accepted as unremarkable or ignored is about as long as human civilisation. Stoning, slavery, genital mutilation, ceremonial rape, paedophilia, cannibalism, genocide, it goes on. True every instance listed is one that is now impermissible but that has no bearing on the fact that morality is relative, people can be fooled and pacified, and that we could be wrong, factually. We could find definitive proof in the future that say… and I cringe to say this but… that the soul exists and it occupies the zygote immediately. Or that the act of being born *is* magical and that’s when we’re ensouled. Either way the aggressiveness with which the arguments were made before this knowledge was available is meaningless.

    My arguments above probably make me seem like a fanatic so I should frame my own views. I don’t view the zygote as a human or the morning after pill as murder or a killing. But I do start to get uncomfortable when you get to implantation of the blastocyst into the womb. Because that’s it. In 9 months and without any additional action on the embryo it’ll be considered a human by everyone. In a sentence: because we don’t know and we have an obligation to go into this with eyes open.

    For the record, I’m don’t support abortion but I do recognise a social need for it and wouldn’t deny someone in the proposed situations access to it. And on those grounds I would consider myself a supporter of the legislation. But we can’t ignore the fact that it is, without any doubt, the killing of a living organism, at best a pre-person. The question ‘at what point does it become a full person?’ is one that no one is qualified to even really guess at and that should make us all very uncomfortable.

  9. Thank you Robert for a brilliant thought provoking piece. The main problem is in your view of sperm, egg, and zygote. Neither sperm nor egg, by itself, left in its natural environment, has potential to become a future human being. Zygote when left in its natural environment does have a potential of becoming future human being.

    So the premise: “If the unborn have a right to life then surely everyone who is celibate is guilty of preventing future children from being born.” is false. For the same reason it is not true that “sperm[or egg] contains the potential for life[of a future human being], [thus ]masturbation is denying the unborn’s right to life.”

    The best defense against abortion, was offered by an atheist philosopher, Donald Marquis (see “Why Abortion is Immoral” Don Marquis. Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86 (April, 1989), pp. 183-202). His argument, which I have not found a good rebuttal, goes like this:

    1. It is prima facie immoral to deprive beings a future-like-ours.
    2. Abortion deprive a being a future-like-ours
    3. Therefore abortion is prima facie immoral.

    If zygote or fetus is a being with future-like-ours, then it would follow that aborting it is prima facie immoral. Prima facie is used so as to grant just-war combat killing, abortion to save the life of the mother, and lawful execution of criminals.

    A sperm and an egg are not being with future-like-ours, but a sperm united with an egg, zygote is a being with future-like-ours. So masturbation and celibacy would not be immoral, in this case.

    Let me know your thoughts.

    1. Not really my place to reply to this but I will anyway. You quote Donald Marquis as a source of why abortion is immoral and yet seem to miss the elephant in the room.
      If, as stated, the defense is correct then surely it must also apply to all human beings, yet we are more than happy to deprive beings a future like ours everyday in wars, executions and sefl-defence killings. now you may reply that they are ‘different’ from abortion and perhaps they are, but if you need to go into explanations to support your defense then in reality the defense is not sound and logical.
      Prima facie can also be used in abortion, after all we do have the right to protect ourselves from unconsented injury and a unwanted pregnancy more than meets the definition of injury (as does any pregnancy).

  10. Your post is ignorant to the fact that a child is something to be cherished not disposed off. I completely agree with the use of contraception, it is necessary. Aside from rape or abnormal foetal development, every pregnancy should complete full term. Your article has a massive religious basis which I view as an easy target. I am in no way religious but the right to life is very important. Apart from the situations I have outlined above, abortion is a disgusting way to end a life. I hope our law will always protect the unborn.

    1. ” … but the right to life is very important.” So are the rights of women. Each and every woman has her (very) personal reasons for choosing abortion and NO ONE has the right to make that decision for her.

  11. I think I lost about 30 IQ points reading this. You cannot equivocate unborn (meaning an infant) to unborn (meaning a potential being). I cannot believe people with your below-average intelligence level are even able to be on the internet.

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