What is a Fetus?

I recently read a compelling post from Justin Taylor—executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway—on The Gospel Coalition blog. Please read the following excerpt, and return here next week for a follow-up discussion.


Philosopher Peter Kreeft of Boston College…makes the commonsensical point of formal logic that “either we do or do not know what a fetus is,” explaining:

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.


The first set is an ontological claim (what is or is not); the second set is an epistemological claim (what we know or do not know). The result yields four logical possibilities:

  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.

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What are the implications for these four positions? Kreeft analyzes them as follows:

Abortion in Scenario #1: The Fetus Is a Person and I Know That

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 Scenario #2: The Fetus Is a Person and I Do Not Know That

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’t either, so your act was literally the height of irresponsibility. This is the act Roe allowed.

Abortion in Scenario #3: The Fetus Is Not a Person and I Do Not Know That

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 Scenario #4: The Fetus Is Not a Person and I Know That

Only in Case 4 [you know that the fetus is not a person] 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.AbortionOptions

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