Even uncertainty tips the scales of justice toward life


The abortion debate isn’t merely a struggle to save babies, but a contest between the best and worst aspects of human nature.

Science reveals that the unborn are live, individual human beings from fertilization onward. The Bible tells us they possess souls we are bound to respect. Secular reflection can also conclude that the unborn deserve legal protection.

However, only the first of these three observations is empirically indisputable. Abortion defenders honest enough to admit what the science says still maintain that pro-life views are too personal and subjective to act upon, because the soul isn’t measurable and moral philosophy isn’t reducible to universally agreed-upon formulas and standards.

Are they right? Do we need ironclad, obvious-to-everyone proof that a principle is objectively, cosmically irrefutable before enshrining it in the law?

Hardly. First, note that almost no aspect of human morality is a simple matter of scientific inquiry. Of all the values our society adopts – free speech, innocent until proven guilty, racial equality, property rights, democratic decision-making, you name it – we don’t “know” that any of them are “true” in a purely secular, empirical sense. We believe they are true. Though we don’t know there’s some Cosmic Law of Goodness behind the scenes, we feel confident enough about our moral conclusions to make them legal standards.

That confidence is informed by a complex blend of reason, faith, emotion, and tradition – the final practical arbiter of which is the ballot box. So while abortion defenders are entitled to find pro-life principles unsatisfying, the criteria they use to disqualify our opinions are selective at best. To suggest they’re such objectivity-minded purists in the rest of their political reasoning would be absurd.

Second, we actually do have widely agreed-upon moral standards that tip the scales in life’s favor. When faced with uncertainty, generally we err on the side of caution, of minimizing the possible injury or injustice of our actions. In medicine, this is expressed by the adage Primum non nocere – “first, do no harm.” In law, it surfaces as William Blackstone’s formulation that it’s better to acquit ten guilty men than to convict a single innocent.

If it’s true that the unborn are live members of our own species (which they are), and if it’s reasonable to believe that humans have souls – and it’s hard to observe the incomparable wonders of human interaction, history, art, culture, achievement, and thought without considering that there’s something making us more than the sum of our biological parts – then morality dictates that we err on the side of not slaughtering our brothers and sisters. It is abortion advocates who should bear the burden of proof in demonstrating to the rest of us that they aren’t destroying anything worth protecting.

Our disposition to tread lightly in questions of human life is rooted in basic compassion and a healthy awareness of our judgment’s limitations, while the desire to interpret uncertainty as a license to kill comes from our hubris and greed…meaning the abortion debate isn’t merely a struggle to save babies, but a contest between the best and worst aspects of human nature.

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