I have been considering something for a while and I wanted to air it out a bit. Greg Koukl developed the simple scenario to break down the moral complexity of the issue of abortion. According to them we envision ourselves standing at the sink washing dishes. From behind us we hear our young child ask the following, “Daddy, can I kill this?”
Obviously the first thing we must determine before we can answer that question is what exactly “this” is. If it is a spider or cockroach then we will probably affirm his right to kill it. If it is his little sister, then the answer will be an emphatic no. This demonstrates that our intuition tells us the identity of the unborn is the central issue in the abortion debate. We all immediately understand this.
It is dangerous to push analogies beyond the specific purpose they are designed to demonstrate, and so I will not do that here. I have noticed more and more, though, seemingly compassionate people arguing for the right to kill the unborn at certain developmental stages for less than convincing reasons. The odd thing about this attitude toward killing unborn life is that it is so often oozing with an enlightened superiority that is breathtaking. What these people are claiming is that they have a better intellectual handle on what we can kill. They then attack pro-lifers for a lack of compassion for not having their broader conceptions on things that we are allowed to kill.
In their defense, they would argue that the term kill does not apply at all to the termination of life in question. In the case of very early life or severely brain damaged individuals that an actual person does not exist to kill at all. This does not ease my mind, though. Proponents of this position seem to be arguing that something living is present, but that this something is a thing that we can reasonably kill.
I admit that we kill many things. Just down the street from where I am working, a poultry plant is killing chickens on a massive scale. I am not disturbed by this fact for various reasons. I have no moral opposition to killing chickens for the purpose of eating them, and so any concern of mine over a large number of chickens being killed would be out of place. If I think killing one innocent chicken to feed me is ok, why would it bother me if you kill 10,000 to feed 10,000 other people? Certain needlessly barbaric practices may outrage me and highlight a need for regulation, but I will not become inflamed by numbers. In this line of reasoning, the practical method of killing is the issue and not the fact of terminating the lives of innocent chickens. Cows, pigs, and many other animals would be included in this category.
In addition, roaches spread filth and disease and spiders can conceivably hurt my family. Therefore, I feel reasonably justified in killing innocent insects and arachnids. It should be noted however, I admit that I am most definitely killing the cockroach I pick up with a paper towel and then crush in my hand. I see it as a justified killing, but a killing none the less.
But what if we framed the original question differently? What if my son asked, “Why can’t I kill this?” Does this demonstrate a different perspective? I think so. It appears to me that this is how many people who defend the practice of abortion are framing their approach to the question of the unborn.
What is the functional difference between the two? Both questions acknowledge that we have a right or permission to kill certain living things for various reasons. The first question my son asked, “Can I kill this?” starts from a position that sees the termination of life as something that must be weighed against additional considerations. Whatever it is that he is holding in his hands, the question demonstrates that there is information that must be discussed before we kill it. In approaching the question of the right or wrong of killing the object in question, the questioner presupposes he may not be allowed to kill this object and had better check before doing something that cannot be undone.
This is not the same as asking, “Why can’t I kill this?” This question presupposes that I have a right to kill and I want to know why this thing falls outside of that right. It sees restriction as impediment in a negative sense as opposed to a reasonable limit. The difference here is subtle, but I think important when working through these arguments. The more I read the defenses of abortion the more I here this second question asked over and over again. In the next post I will draw out how I think this difference effects the level of discourse.
*The original post credited Scott and Greg Koukl for the "Can I kill this?" illustration. Scott has corrected me that it was Greg alone who came up with that.*