Abortion to Prevent Premature Death

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 05/16/2023

“I watched my child take his first breath, and I held him as he took his last one.” That was the heart-rending comment of a mother whose newborn son died shortly after birth. He was diagnosed with a terminal condition, and she was told he wouldn’t live outside the womb. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery is challenging enough. Losing a newborn child, though, is heartbreaking.

A mother expects to experience the joy of holding her newborn and then raising her child. Being robbed of that joy as he dies in her arms is the ultimate tragedy. I pray this mother had a loving community of friends and family who were (and are) able to walk with her during this dark time.

This raises the question, should it be morally permissible to abort your child if that child will die shortly after birth? A recent CNN article argued it was wrong for a Florida law to prevent this woman from procuring an abortion when physicians knew the baby didn’t have kidneys and wouldn’t survive long after delivery. Despite the tragedy described in the article, it’s still a serious moral wrong to kill an unborn child, even if it’s known the baby will die shortly after birth. There’s a singular reason why.

The argument in favor of abortion in this case presumes a falsehood—that the unborn is not a human being. If you’re a pro-lifer, it’s a strategic mistake to overlook this assumption. Asking (and answering) the question “What is the unborn?” is the key to demonstrating the flaw in the article’s reasoning.

Think about this: If the unborn is not a human being, then it is permissible to get an abortion for any reason. If, however, the unborn is a human being, then it’s not permissible to get an abortion because that would entail the intentional killing of an innocent human being.

The reason why abortion seems so compelling in this situation is that it sidesteps the question “What is the unborn?” Worse, the argument in the article presumes the unborn is not a human being. If that’s true, then of course the Florida law is ridiculous. If the unborn is not a valuable member of the human community, then go ahead and kill the unborn to prevent the pregnant woman from going through any further inconvenience or distress. Abortion should be available for any reason or no reason at all, at any stage of pregnancy, if the unborn is not a human being like you and me.

Notice, though, that this claim (that the unborn is not a human being) is simply assumed in the article. If you don’t unpack this assumption and show why/how it’s false, then you will be at a serious strategic disadvantage. No amount of your reason, care, or compassion will be able to demonstrate the validity of your pro-life view. That’s why you need to address the question “What is the unborn?”

The best way to accomplish that is to employ a conversational tactic (that I use virtually every time I’m discussing abortion) called “Trot out the Toddler.” The purpose of the tactic is to move the conversation towards the key question, “What is the unborn?” Here are the three steps to this tactic:

Step 1: Listen to their reason for abortion.

Step 2: Ask whether it would be permissible to kill a toddler for that same reason.

Step 3: Clarify that the real question that needs to be answered is, what is the unborn?

Here’s an example of what a conversation might look like using that tactic. Assume a pro-choice person has claimed abortion should be permitted if the child is going to die of a terminal condition. Keep in mind that this is just the skeleton of the conversation, intended to demonstrate the reasoning behind the tactic. It’s abridged for clarity. Real conversations are longer and more messy.

Step 1:

  • Pro-life person: “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You think that a woman should be able to get an abortion if her doctor has diagnosed the unborn with a terminal condition?”
  • Pro-choice person: “Yes, it seems reasonable for her to avoid the unnecessary hardship of a nine-month pregnancy when the child won’t survive anyway. Remember, the fetus has no kidneys. There’s no way it will survive on its own. Why make the woman go through the trauma of watching her newborn die?”

Step 2:

  • Pro-life person: “Okay, I think I understand your view. Let me ask you a question. Suppose a two-year-old toddler was diagnosed with a terminal condition and had only nine months to live. Would it be permissible for his mother to kill him?”
  • Pro-choice person: “Of course not. You can’t just kill a kid because they’re going to die of a disease in the future. But that’s not the same as what we’re talking about. Toddlers are obviously human beings that can’t be killed. A fetus, though, is not the same as a toddler. They are two different things.”

Step 3:

  • Pro-life person: “That seems to be where our views differ. You think the unborn is different from a toddler, but I think the unborn is the same as a toddler. I think they are both equally human beings.”
  • Pro-choice person: “Yeah, you’re right…that is definitely where we differ.”
  • Pro-life person: “Then it seems to me that the issue of the child having a terminal condition is irrelevant. The real question we should discuss is whether the unborn is a human being, the same as a toddler. After all, we both agree you can’t kill a toddler. If the unborn is a human being like a toddler, then the mother shouldn’t be allowed to kill the unborn. Wouldn’t you agree, then, that the question we need to resolve is, what is the unborn?”
  • Pro-choice person: “Sure. Of course, it seems obvious that a fetus isn’t a human being like you and me. If you think it is, prove it!”

Now the conversation is where it needs to be—a discussion about the status of the unborn and whether it is a human being like a toddler. Of course, this requires providing evidence from the science of embryology that the unborn is a human being. Although it’s not the point of this article to provide that evidence, I believe there is compelling evidence from both science and philosophy that the unborn is a human being.

Once the case is made that the unborn is a human being, the argument that it’s morally permissible to kill the unborn loses its force. After all, you can’t kill a toddler just because they have a terminal condition. Therefore, it shouldn’t be permissible to kill the unborn for the same reason.

Notice, if you fail to address the hidden assumption that the unborn is not a human being, it will be nearly impossible to object to the article’s reasoning.

One additional thought as to why a mother shouldn’t be granted the right to an abortion in this instance is that there’s no need to burden a woman with the guilt of knowing she killed her own child. In this scenario, her son was going to die no matter what. He had a terminal condition and wouldn’t survive even a day. This is traumatic enough. If a mother is permitted to kill her child prematurely, she then takes on an additional burden—the guilt of knowing she intentionally killed her own son.

Keep in mind, the situation in this article did not involve a regretful sexual tryst with a boyfriend, a rape, or a failed attempt at birth control. Rather, the woman (and her husband) wanted this child. Sadly, their child wasn’t able to survive, and so she experienced significant heartbreak over his death. It makes more sense for her to endure the natural heartache of losing a child without the added emotional grief that accompanies an unnatural death by abortion.