Richard Dawkins Is (Partly) Right about Pro-Life People

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 06/14/2022

Richard Dawkins is right. He recently wrote an article claiming that pro-life people “believe—deeply and sincerely—that abortion is murder.” Let’s give him credit where credit is due. At least he understands why we oppose abortion. We recognize (and have good scientific and philosophical evidence) that abortion kills an innocent human being. After all, the science of embryology demonstrates that the unborn—from the moment of conception—is a living being (not a potential life), a distinct being (not part of the mother’s body), and a human kind of being (not a potential human or other species). Since abortion kills the unborn, we know abortion kills an innocent human being.

Dawkins is also right about why we “count up the number of ‘babies killed’ and liken it to an annual holocaust of hideous magnitude.” If our view is correct, then abortion is tantamount to a holocaust, seeing as 63,459,781 unborn children (as of 2021) have been legally killed since Roe v. Wade. Indeed, it’s the greatest holocaust of our time. Dawkins deserves props for getting that right too.

He’s also right about why abortion-choice slogans like “My body, my choice” sound “hollow” to us. It has nothing to do with our religious convictions. It’s because such statements are at odds with the science of embryology. As I stated above, the unborn is a unique, individual human being that is distinct from its mother’s body. The unborn has its own brain, heart, and reproductive organs that are separate from the mother’s body. The unborn can have a penis, which—despite recent claims from modern gender ideology—a woman does not possess.

In fact, even the mother’s body “knows” the unborn is not part of her body. While inside the womb, the unborn’s blood vessels don’t connect to the mother’s vessels. The two circulatory systems approximate each other inside the placenta, but their blood never mixes. Here’s what’s fascinating. If there is a problem in the placenta where the two circulatory systems connect or the blood lines mix, then the mother’s body mounts an immune response against the unborn’s body. Why? Her body perceives the unborn’s body as a foreign entity, not part of her body. Notice that the mother’s immune system does not attack her appendix, liver, or tonsils. Her immune system recognizes those body parts as part of her own body. It “knows,” however, that the unborn is a different body.

Obviously, you can’t fault a mother’s immune system as being biased or religiously motivated. This physiological fact is as objective as it gets and is evidence that the unborn is not part of the mother’s body. This is why—as Dawkins acknowledges—pro-life people find abortion-choice slogans “hollow.” Many of them don’t align with the facts of physiology.

Now, I don’t want to get too jubilant about Dawkins’s decrees. Shortly after his quick stint getting things right about pro-life people, he returns to getting things wrong. Finding one of his favorite targets, the Roman Catholic Church, he derides their teaching that human personhood begins at conception as “fallacious” and “articulated with almost childlike naiveté.” In fact, he quotes one of their documents to allegedly demonstrate how wrong they are.

From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence…modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the program is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life.

I had to read and re-read this quote because I was expecting to find a myriad of scientific inaccuracies wrapped up in religious lingo. What does Dawkins think is fallacious or naïve about that paragraph? It claims a new life that is neither the mother nor the father begins at fertilization. That’s scientifically true. The life growing inside a pregnant woman has neither the mother’s nor the father’s DNA.

It claims the new life is a human being with its own growth. This is also true. The law of biogenesis (species reproduce after their own kind) tells us that the unborn is a human being already. After all, human parents can only produce human offspring.

It claims modern genetic science confirms these facts. Yes, genetics does confirm the aforementioned facts.

It claims this new life has a fixed program at conception that determines its characteristics. Again, this is genetically known to be true. At conception, many of our characteristics (sex, eye color, etc.) are determined by virtue of the zygote’s chromosomal makeup.

Finally, it claims that fertilization is when this whole “adventure of human life” begins. That’s also true. Okay, maybe it’s not scientific to refer to it as an “adventure,” but the point still stands. Our journey as an individual human life does begin at fertilization.

To be fair, I’m aware of religious people making false claims about abortion or embryology, and I’m comfortable calling them out and politely correcting their inaccuracies. I do this if needed when I’m speaking at events on this subject. There’s nothing naïve, fallacious, or childlike, however, about the paragraph Dawkins quotes.

Dawkins does highlight one sentence he apparently believes is egregiously false: “It would never be made human if it were not human already.” Does he not think the unborn embryo is human already? Perhaps not, because his argument against this is to claim that “an acorn is not an oak tree,” implying that an embryo (conceived from human parents) is not a human being.

This is ironic. While accusing the Roman Catholic Church of naïve or fallacious thinking, Dawkins demonstrates a fallacy of his own by citing this oft-repeated and scientifically incorrect statement about acorns and oaks. This common abortion-choice statement is ill-conceived because it conflates two categories: species type and stage of development. Within the species type of oak, there are many stages of development. An oak begins its life as an acorn (seed), then it develops into a sprout, then a sapling, and then finally becomes a tree. At every stage of development, it is an oak species. Therefore, an acorn is an actual oak. It’s just an oak at the very earliest stage of development—the seed stage. The lesson here is that living beings look different at different stages of development but remain the same species type throughout.

In the same way, an embryo conceived from human parents is of the species type human. A human being also goes through many stages of development. It begins as an embryo, then develops into the fetus stage, then becomes a newborn, then an infant, toddler, adolescent, teenager, and then finally becomes an adult. At every stage of development, it is a human being.

Therefore, saying an acorn is not an oak conflates the two different categories of species type and stage of development. Also, if Dawkins is meaning to say that an oak seed is not the same as an oak tree, then this is obviously true but not very meaningful. It’s like saying a sprout is not a sapling. Of course it isn’t. It’s also like saying a fetus is not an adolescent. Of course not. But an acorn is an oak and an embryo is a human being. This is the basic scientific understanding of a human being’s development.

Dawkins references a few other claims (fetal pain, twinning, meat eating, etc.) that he believes undermines the pro-life position. He also hints at a distinction between personhood and being a human being but never defends his view. My goal is not to address every point he raised. I simply wanted to highlight a few things he got right and a few things he got wrong in his latest article.

He ends his piece by acknowledging—again—that pro-lifers won’t be persuaded by the claim that a woman has an “absolute right to control her own body.” That’s not because we don’t believe a woman should control her own body. What Dawkins never demonstrated is that the unborn is part of her body. That’s what his argument hinges on. By contrast, we have good reasons from the science of embryology to show that the unborn is a different body (albeit inside the mother).

Therefore, he gets the status of the unborn wrong, which is critical to understand in this discussion. At least he got a few things right about those of us who oppose abortion…and he also referred to us as “pro-life.” That’s also worth a bonus point.