The Limitations of Science in the Abortion Debate: Why You Need Philosophy

Part Two

One of our not-so-secret missions at ERI is to help pro-life advocates to think well about philosophy as it relates to the abortion debate. The problem with scientism is it says that philosophy isn’t a valid way to reach truth or discover facts. According to this position, our philosophical case for the unborn doesn’t matter, because only science really matters.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes.

Book with glasses.

Now, if scientism was true, we would have to drop our strong philosophical arguments and just talk about biology. Biology and embryology can be helpful in articulating the pro-life position, but we don’t think they can get you all the way there. Just knowing that the fetus is human doesn’t tell us how to think about it. But scientism is false—more than that, it’s self-defeating, as I showed in the first article in this series.

So, How Far Can Science Get Us?

This is important, so to say it again: scientism does not equal science. Scientism says that arguments don’t matter, only bare scientific facts. Science stems from philosophical foundations. It answers questions about the world while using basic rules of logic to do so. This makes it a second thing, not a first thing, but scientism pretends that science is first and only. As C.S. Lewis writes:

“You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”

If we pursue science as first (scientism), then we lose science in its proper place.

And science in its proper place gives us good and valuable facts which can support various arguments in the abortion debate. We cannot say, with the justices playing make-believe about biology in Roe, that we don’t know when life begins. 96 percent of biologists (not just embryologists, mind you) agree in acknowledging that life begins at conception.

The study of embryology expands on this consensus by telling us what happens at and after conception. An individual human being develops from a single-celled organism into a recognizable baby, maintaining biological integrity and continuity the entire way. We can detect early cardiac activity; we can observe the differentiation of stem cells; we can see movement and interaction. And science adds new discoveries, such as the likely pain threshold for prenatal humans recently being pushed back from 25 weeks to 12 weeks.

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Science Can’t Tell Us Why Abortion is Wrong

But none of these facts can get us, by itself, to why abortion is wrong or right. So the fetus is a human individual; what if it’s not always wrong to kill humans? So what if the embryo shows cardiac activity at six weeks; is that a rational cutoff for individual rights? How do the rights of women intersect with the rights of their children? What grants a person’s life value? These are questions that science and scientific fact cannot answer. Questions about ethics are outside the bounds of science. They are a matter of philosophy.

And remember what I said in the first article: a system of thought can only generate conclusions as strong as its presuppositions, and science depends on philosophical presuppositions, so it can’t be stronger than philosophy. Philosophy is a necessary ingredient in conversations about abortion, even when we’re talking about what science has to say.

Scientism: “A Plague O’er Both Your Houses”

It might surprise you, but even though scientism is more strongly connected with secular thought, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates from many perspectives fall prey to scientism and its mistakes. Whenever you hear someone pushing scientific data for the purpose of excluding legitimate arguments, you’re seeing scientism in action.

Pro-life scientism looks like this:

  • “Human life begins at conception, so abortion is wrong.” Just because something is alive or human doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a person; that’s a legitimate philosophical question.
  • “Abortion stops a beating heart.” Same as above; we need to argue why it’s different to stop a human’s heart than a tadpole’s.
  • “It’s wrong to kill the fetus when it can feel pain.” The fact of feeling pain doesn’t get us to the wrongfulness of abortion. This statement assumes that it’s always bad to inflict pain, even if it serves some other end. Bodily-rights arguments for abortion deny this.

Common to all of these is the idea that science shows us that human embryos are alive and growing from fertilization, and that’s all we need. It’s helpful, but we need more. We must start with these facts and then make arguments to show why they matter. We give an in-depth explanation of how to do this in our Equipped for Life Course.

The pro-choice variations on scientism are more broad:

  • “Abortion 👏 is 👏 Healthcare” (and its good friend, “Why are politicians interfering with medical decisions?”). Just because something is medical doesn’t mean it’s outside morality or not ethically questionable. Saying “get your philosophy away from my scientific rights” is strong scientism at its worst. See our article on this argument,  “Abortion is Healthcare”: A Misogynistic Non-Argument.”
  • “It’s just a clump of cells.” But is it a “clump of cells” with value? Science alone can’t answer this, and we’re confident that philosophical arguments show that these “clumps” are incredibly valuable.
  • “The fetus is a cancer/parasite.” A clear example of scientism being anti-science. This statement is factually, scientifically false. But it sounds scientific, so it pretends to have authority to kick out other arguments. It, like the example above, is using rhetoric to devalue the fetus without backing it up with a real argument (or actual facts).
  • “We don’t know when life begins.” See above. We know that human life begins at fertilization with as much confidence as any science-based belief. This statement conflates biological life (science) with valuable life (philosophy), then pretends that science doesn’t have an answer.

How to Respond

So, what should you do when you run into this? Our first response to statements like these should be to ask clarification questions to make sure we have a firm understanding of what the person is really trying to argue. Language can be ambigious and miscommunication is practically inevitable during abortion conversations since pro-life and pro-choice people think very differently. Ask as many clarification questions as you need to so that both you and the other person understand their statement clearly. For most of these, you’ll need to deconstruct the person’s worldview insofar as it relies on scientism, as I talked about in the first piece, but you can’t do that until the worldview of scientism is exposed. When people make statements like the ones above, the underlying scientism is acting as a hidden premise that the other person is usually not even consciously aware of. It is incredibly important to draw it out into the light during the conversation before you begin to refute it.

For a few of these statements, you can actually use science to respond to scientism (at least at first)! If the person you’re talking to is making a factual error, gently correct them and show them evidence for why they’re wrong. You may still have to address scientism, but correcting the error could solve the problem enough to have a productive conversation.

Being able to correct errors brings us to the last point: the burden is on us as pro-life people to know our stuff and be able to give good answers to hard questions. We need to know the science and the philosophy well enough to refute incorrect statements and arguments. This is also why we want to point out problems not just in pro-choice thinking but also pro-life thinking. We want pro-life people to be as well-equipped as possible so our mistakes don’t prevent people from changing their minds on abortion.

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The post The Limitations of Science in the Abortion Debate: Why You Need Philosophy originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Director of Content & Research

Andrew Kaake (pronounced like “cake”) is the Director of Content & Research at Equal Rights Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classics and political science, cum laude, from Amherst College, where he wrote a thesis on the topic of C.S. Lewis and natural law philosophy. He completed his master’s degree in bioethics at Trinity International University, studying the philosophical underpinnings of controversies about life, death, and technology and trying to create ways to communicate that information to others. During his studies at Trinity, he worked as a research assistant for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

Andrew wants the pro-life movement to help foster a culture that seeks truth and embraces logical consistency. “What I believe about humanity and personhood clearly impacts what I think about abortion, but it also holds implications for how I should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) dialogue with other people who disagree with me.”

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