A review of Defending Life. By Francis Beckwith.

Cambridge University Press, 2007.

This is certainly the newest pro-life work to appear, and arguably among the best. It not only lays out the legal, rational, moral and philosophical case against abortion choice, but it more broadly makes the case for human equality and the sanctity of life.

Beckwith is an American professor of law and philosophy who has written extensively on these issues previously. This volume brings together years of thinking and debating on this contentious issue. It is an invaluable resource for all those wishing to stand up for human life at all stages of development, and to counter the arguments of the pro-choice brigade.

The first third of the book paints with broad brush strokes, examining moral reasoning, legal considerations, and political dimensions of the abortion debate.

Image of Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice
Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice by Beckwith, Francis J. (Author) Amazon logo

The second third of the book looks more closely at the abortion debate per se, looking at the science, the morality and the arguments involved in the debate about abortion.

The final third of the book extends these considerations to recent developments in bioethics, including cloning and stem cell research.

The second and longest section of this book does many things, including carefully dismantling the various arguments put forward by the pro-abortion camp. All the leading pro-abortion thinkers, such as Thomson, Boonin, Stretton, and Dworkin are taken on, with their positions carefully assessed and interacted with.

On the broader issue of human equality, Beckwith argues for the substance view which states that a human being “is intrinsically valuable because of the sort of thing it is and the human being remains that sort of thing as long as it exists”. That is, an individual “maintains absolute identity through time while it grows, develops, and undergoes numerous changes”.

Various functions and capacities, whether fully realised or utilised do not constitute a person. Thus a human being is never a potential person, but is always a person at different stages of development, whether potential properties and capacities are actualised or not.

This view stands in stark contrast to the utilitarian and functionalist views held by most pro-abortionists. They argue that personhood is not inherent or intrinsic, but based on certain capacities and functions, be it consciousness, sentience, self-awareness, the ability to reason, and so on.

As to the specifics of the abortion debate, Beckwith responds to the numerous objections raised by pro-abortionists over the years. For example, consider the argument often heard, involving the hard cases of rape and incest. These are certainly tragic events, but in no way can they be used to justify an abortion.

First, such cases are extremely rare, making up just a tiny fraction of all abortions. Second, to argue for the legalisation of abortion because of these extreme cases would be similar to arguing that we eliminate traffic laws because in some rare cases they need to be violated, as in rushing a loved one to hospital.

Third, it simply begs the question by assuming the unborn child is not fully human. Fourth, to justify abortion in these circumstances is to argue that it is acceptable to forfeit a life for the alleged benefit of another. But a basic ethical intuition argues that we may not kill one person to possibly save another. John may desperately need a vital organ of Mary to stay alive, but he has no right to demand it, especially if it entails killing her in the process.

The more recent, and difficult, cases of embryo research, human cloning and stem cell therapies are also examined, looking at the various justifications given for them, and their pro-life responses. Similar issues arise here concerning the nature of personhood and the inviolability of life.

Beckwith closes by laying out his case as it has been argued throughout: the unborn are full members of the human community; it is wrong to kill members of that community; abortion kills the unborn entity; therefore abortion is morally wrong.

The three hundred pages of tightly-knit argumentation and logically constructed reasoning take on nearly all the major justifications for abortion. All are found wanting – morally, legally, and philosophically. Beckwith is to be praised for assembling in one volume some of the best pro-life argumentation around.

[691 words]

5 Replies to “A review of Defending Life. By Francis Beckwith.”

  1. Bill, how is this book different from his earlier (excellent) pro-life book Politically Incorrect Death (which I reviewed positively here)?
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  2. Thanks Jonathan

    A good question actually. I pulled my copy of the 1993 volume off my shelves and compared notes. In many ways it covers a lot of similar ground, dealing with many of the same issues. Obviously things like legal changes since ‘93 are covered in the newer book, as are the newer bioethics issues like cloning and stem cell therapies.

    One difference is that the earlier volume looks at a number of biblical and theological considerations on abortion, since it was published by Baker, an evangelical publishing house. Those concerns are missing from the CUP volume.

    So yes, a fair amount of overlap and similarities, with many whole passages simply re-used in the newer book. Maybe there is a 70 per cent replication between the two volumes. But if you have the time and the money, the new volume (not described as simply a revision or new edition of the earlier work) is well worth getting.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Bill, here’s a perspicacious comment:
    “But a basic ethical intuition argues that we may not kill one person to possibly save another. John may desperately need a vital organ of Mary to stay alive, but he has no right to demand it, especially if it entails killing her in the process.”

    This raises rarely-explored questions about the whole concept of major organ transplants. (Regenerative tissue transplants are in a different category, though – I think.)

    I am not sure that heart or heart-lung transplants are all that useful in medical terms, given the problems of rejection, the resources required to perform the operation and the limited success rate.

    At this level, the transplant industry operates on the unchallenged assumption that the body is a collection of parts which can be donated, saved and hawked around, in order to save another person’s life.

    As the encouragement to donate organs is replete with arguments of emotional blackmail, I wonder if anyone has written on this area? The risk of being misunderstood as a heartless luddite standing in the way of medical progress is quite large, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the literature was fairly sparse.

    John Angelico

  4. Further to what John said above, the concept should not remain unchallenged. Surely the fact that organs are useless if “dead” should raise not the least concern.
    Jeremy Peet

  5. Thanks guys
    Yes the issue of organ donations/transplants can raise some ethical and social concerns. Guess I need to pen a new article!
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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