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Philosopher Peter Kreeft argues that “either we do or do not know what a fetus is.”

He explains:

Either there is “out there,” in objective fact, independent of our minds, a human life, or there is not; and either there is knowledge in our minds of this objective fact, or there is not.

There are four possibilities, he writes:

  1. The fetus is a person, and we know that.
  2. The fetus is a person, but we don’t know that.
  3. The fetus isn’t a person, but we don’t know that.
  4. The fetus isn’t a person, and we know that.

Kreeft then looks at what abortion is in each of these four cases.

Abortion in Case 1

In Case 1, where the fetus is a person and you know that, abortion is murder. First-degree murder, in fact. You deliberately kill an innocent human being.

Abortion in Case 2

In Case 2, where the fetus is a person and you don’t know that, abortion is manslaughter. It’s like driving over a man-shaped overcoat in the street at night or shooting toxic chemicals into a building that you’re not sure is fully evacuated. You’re not sure there is a person there, but you’re not sure there isn’t either, and it just so happens that there is a person there, and you kill him. You cannot plead ignorance. True, you didn’t know there was a person there, but you didn’t know there wasn’teither, so your act was literally the height of irresponsibility. This is the act Roe allowed.

Abortion in Case 3

In Case 3, the fetus isn’t a person, but you don’t know that. So abortion is just as irresponsible as it is in the previous case. You ran over the overcoat or fumigated the building without knowing that there were no persons there. You were lucky; there weren’t. But you didn’t care; you didn’t take care; you were just as irresponsible. You cannot legally be charged with manslaughter, since no man was slaughtered, but you can and should be charged with criminal negligence.

Abortion in Case 4

Only in Case 4 is abortion a reasonable, permissible, and responsible choice. But note: What makes Case 4 permissible is not merely the fact that the fetus is not a person but also your knowledge that it is not, your overcoming of skepticism. So skepticism counts not for abortion but against it. Only if you are not a skeptic, only if you are a dogmatist, only if you are certain that there is no person in the fetus, no man in the coat, or no person in the building, may you abort, drive, or fumigate.

This undercuts even our weakest, least honest escape: to pretend that we don’t even know what an apple is, just so we have an excuse for pleading that we don’t know what an abortion is.

Here’s Kreeft in video form:

John Gardner depicts Kreeft’s argument as follows:


You can read his whole Apple Argument Against Abortion here.

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11 thoughts on “Don’t Know What a Fetus Is? Here Are Your Options”

  1. John S says:

    I love this argument, it takes the emotion out and applies dispassionate logic. However, I don’t think it moves the general public much, whereas the talk about and images of ‘fetus’ hearts and livers and lungs does. As does the exposed attitudes and money motivated planned parenthood executives. You would think that the two combined would move both the thinking individual and the feeling individual.

  2. Martin says:

    I agree that when in doubt … choose life. That is the overarching Biblical view.

    However, the implications of defining abortion as murder or manslaughter our very serious. Are we prepared to subject the teenager next door, our sisters, our nieces or our mothers mother who might have had an abortion prior to our births to the sentences defined for murder or manslaughter? Would we be in favor of enacting those laws in our society?

    Ezekiel 12:12-24 defines the sentences for those guilty of murder and manslaughter. But, those who cause a premature birth to a woman are not subjected to those punishments. I have to think that a premature birth in the days of Ezekiel often resulted in the death of a fetus. Medical practitioners at that time did not have the means to save many of those who were born prematurely.

    However, like many reading this blog, I believer the choice should be life where there is uncertainty.

    1. Dan says:

      If we didn’t retroactively apply laws against slavery to pre-1865-ish salve owners then I think the same principle would apply here.

  3. Martin says:

    Whoops! I meant to reference EXODUS 12:21-24, not Ezekiel.

    Sorry about that … the ‘E’ got me.

  4. Philmonomer says:

    There is a lot of gray in abortion. Both the left and the right ignore that (when convenient for their side)–this is part of the reason why abortion is hard to talk about.

    1. Dan says:

      Umm… What gray? It’s either morally ok or it’s not.

      1. Cedric says:

        Ok, here is number 1 grey area for me:

        In “What Happens Month-by-Month within the Womb”, posted 15 days ago, Justin Taylor quote Beckwith:

        – Within one week after conception, implantation occurs — the time at which the conceptus “nests” or implants in her mother’s uterus.

        – During this time, and possibly up to fourteen days after conception, a splitting of the conceptus may occur resulting in the creation of identical twins. In some instances the two concepti may recombine and become one conceptus. . . .

        Based on the above, I don’t see how a “conceptus” can be a person at conception: I don’t see how a “human individual” can be split into two or three persons and then recombined into two or one.

        So, here is my first grey area: when does the “conceptus” become a person?

  5. Martin says:

    Dan, but what about now? If we define abortion as murder, should we enact laws that subject young women to the same punitive measures we now reserve for murderers – 25 years imprisonment, life imprisonment or the death penalty? Again, the words freely use have serious implications. Just my thoughts that cause me to pause.

    1. Dan says:

      With grace and love, but yes, I think so. Now, I also think that we as a country should create infrastructure and resources to help single women who are pregnant, and it’s a huge issue, but that’s another story.

  6. Martin says:

    Ok. Thanks for your reply. I agree with you on the infrastructure and resources question. However, we are miles apart on labeling and sentencing women as murderers. The conservative Christian community better get its act together regarding the vitriolic words it employs in commenting on a woman’s very personal decision. Seems like grace and mercy should be the verdicts instead of judgmental sentences. How can you sentence a young girl, often under duress, to years of imprisonment for making this personal decision? There is no grace or love in that … unless you want to rationalize your own personal demand for punishment.

    I raised this question because the accusation of abortion as ‘murder’ is too thoughtlessly made. We can infer from Scripture that God recognizes life in the womb as a person. However, Scripture does not define an abortive act committed by a person as murder.

    We must work for the minimization of abortions through education and alternative choices.

  7. Cody says:

    I know this is fighting language (or borders on it) but a lot of things which people believe are wicked (such as murder, adultery etc) are personal decisions. And frankly to say that we can infer from something we believe to be true that something is a person but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to destroy them for no fault of their own borders on covering your ears and singing loudly to try to ignore the implications of your beliefs.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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