A Threat of Deadly Force against an Innocent Engenders a Moral Duty to Defend


For nearly fifty years now, opponents of abortion have been making increasingly weak claims. I do not mean to say that the central argument on the anti-abortion[1] side (i.e., that a fetus is a human being worthy of protection) has been watered down or adulterated; rather, I mean to contend that the anti-abortion side has been decreasingly forceful in condemning abortion and often all but silent when it comes to the necessary, logical consequences of what anti-abortionists believe. I intend to address both of these issues with this article.

There are six premises upon which the conclusions of this article rest (and I do intend the plural). I staunchly believe that none of the premises are controversial (or even truly debatable in the core sense of each), and yet I recognize that some will object to my fifth (and final) moral premise. Consequently, I have written two conclusions: one for those who accept all six premises and one for those who accept only five. I do not believe that anyone can, in good faith and clean conscience, reject my conclusions. If, however, you find that you reject any of the premises, then you will almost certainly also reject the conclusions.[2] In such a case, my argument may not be for you. This argument is meant for those who 1) believe in the Natural Law[3] and 2) believe that human life begins at some point prior to birth[4]. If you, incorrectly, believe that either of the foregoing points is untrue (or if you are the sort of person who likes to double down on mistakes and believe them both untrue), I, nevertheless, invite you to continue reading, even if only for the sake of curiosity.


The conclusions of this argument, infra, rely, as stated supra, upon a number of premises. In total, there are five moral premises and one factual premise[5]. Conclusion One rests upon premises one, two, three, four, and six; Conclusion Two rests upon all six premises. You do not, in fact, need to accept all of the premises of this argument to agree with the conclusions, but if you do accept all six premises, then you must necessarily accept both conclusions, for they inevitably flow from the premises. (If you accept all but premise five, then you must necessary agree only with Conclusion One.) Now, our premises:

Moral Premises

  1. Right to Life
    • Human beings enjoy a fundamental and inalienable right to life.
  2. Right to Self-Defense
    • Human beings enjoy a fundamental and inalienable right to self-defense.
      • The right to self-defense may be extinguished.
      • Where one has committed, is committing, or will commit a moral wrong, he may not claim the right to self-defense as against others who attempt to punish, to stop, or to preclude such wrongful act and who use reasonable means to do so.
  3. Right to the Defense of Others
    • The right to self-defense may be transferred to or assumed by a third party and thereby transformed into the right to the defense of others.
      • The right to the defense of others is neither stronger nor weaker than the right to self-defense.
  4. Murder[6]
    • Murder, under the Moral Law[7], is the wrongful killing of one human being by another.[8]
      • Only moral warrants may render a killing justified.
      • A killing may be morally justified only where the moral warrants for the action or actions resulting in death outweigh the general moral prohibition against killing.
  5. Duty to Render Aid
    • There is a general moral duty to render aid, where possible, to those incapable, whether due incapacity, inability, or other disability, where transitory or permanent, of exercising their right to self-defense[9].

Factual Premise

  1. Human Life
    • There exists a definable[10] point at which human life begins[11].


Murder Is Immoral

This may seem, at least to many, like the sort of thing that goes without saying. However, there are some who would actually disagree with the premise that murder is morally wrongful (which is, of course, what we mean when we say "immoral"). Typically, these individuals are nihilists, and there is quite literally no point in having a moral discussion or argument with them. There is no point in discussing the color (or the colors) of the sunset with someone who adamantly insists that both colors and the sun do not exist.

For the rest of humanity, this is merely the starting point of the argument and a moral precept of fundamental importance. Any system that does not accept this basic moral premise is doomed to chaos, disorder, and evil. At this point, no sane, moral human being can have abandoned the logic of this argument.

At Some Point, a Fetus Becomes a Human Being

Whereas the header of the previous section stated a moral fact, the header of this section states a simple fact. Necessarily, fetuses[12] develop into human beings, else there would be no human beings. We all started as fetuses, we are all now human beings.[13] Of course, the simple fact that fetuses develop into human beings is not the contentious or debatable part of the header — "[s]ome [p]oint" is.

When does a fetus become a human being? This is, necessarily and obviously, an exercise in line drawing (as are many moral and political issues). There are two extremes: conception and birth.[14] For many on the Left, the fetus must become a human being as late as possible (birth) so that the 'sacrament' of abortion will not be infringed; for many on the Right, the fetus must become a human being as early as possible (conception) so that abortion can be restricted as much as possible (or outright banned). In this case, the Right has the superior argument.

I will defend my conclusion with five arguments.

Uncertainty and the Rule of Caution

First, and foremost, we must recognize that we are (at least potentially) dealing here with homicide. If the fetus is a human being and we yet permit abortion, then we have sanctioned murder. There is room for neither imprecision nor uncertainty in this matter, at least where either could lead to unjustified homicide (i.e., murder). Therefore, we must err on the side of caution wherever we are not absolutely certain. To be clear: If there is any chance that a fetus is a human being, then we must prohibit abortion in that specific (and in any unclear) case.

Line Drawing and the Slippery Slope

Second, we are faced here with an actual slippery slope. Whereas the slippery slope argument is often employed as a fallacy (and probably more often as a fallacy fallacy[15]), here we run the very real risk of an over-inclusive or over-permissive law, the result of which would be numerous homicides. This risk increases if we do not build our laws upon a solid foundation. If we were merely to arbitrarily define human life as beginning at a given point during pregnancy, then there would be no reason not to alter this definition in the future.

If a human fetus 'becomes' a human being at six weeks because we simply define this as being true in our laws, then there is no compelling reason not to revisit this definition in the future and change it to, say, four weeks — or thirty[16]. We must have adequate warrant for our foundation, and, further, such warrant must be unchanging. Only two points in any given pregnancy are truly comparable (as all pregnancies progress at different rates): conception and birth. These two points are unchanging all (successful) pregnancies begin at conception and end at birth.

However, we must now step back and ask a more fundamental question: What defines a human being?[17] Historically, this question has been a difficult one to answer. With the advances of modern medicine, we can now say with some certainty that brain activity is the truest and most reliable indicator of a living human being[18]. So, our definition of human begins with the following:

Brain activity commensurate with being human is the only viable, rational metric for determining if a life is "human".

Of course, we now have a new term that we must define (i.e., "brain activity commensurate with being a human"). Let's go with this:

"Brain activity commensurate with being human" means such brain activity as is necessary to maintain consciousness that enables at least a minimum of awareness of self[19].

This is, admittedly, a bare minimum definition of what it means to be a human being, but we must have a definition that can encompass edge cases (e.g., those in comas and the very young). An under-inclusive definition would result in excluding certain human beings from the definition of "human being" while an over-inclusive definition would result in including certain non-human beings in the definition of "human being"; neither an under-inclusive nor an over-inclusive definition would serve our purposes (or anyone else's, really[20]). So, armed with our objective, rational definition, let's return to fetuses.

When does a fetus achieve the level of brain activity we set as our definition of "human being"? The science, while not completely settled, is fairly consistent. In general, human fetuses achieve the level of brain development and brain activity that would fit the definition of "human being" sometime in the first or second trimester[21]. So, should we draw our line between permissible termination[22] and impermissible abortion here? No.

We cannot rationally draw our line at brain activity. Why? First, there is presently no reliable way to determine when a fetus reaches this stage in development. Of course, this is merely an objection based on the current state of technology and, thus is weak, and may eventually disappear as technology progresses. Consequently, this warrant, whereas it is not trivial, is time sensitive and insufficiently compelling in the world of the abstracted hypothetical. So, let us assume that we can determine exactly the moment when a fetus reaches the level of brain activity that would 'transform' it into a human being under our definition, supra. Would it, then be acceptable to permit all abortions that take place prior to such point in development when such level of brain activity is achieved? Still no.

Given time (and an absence of external interference), a fetus will inevitably develop into a human being[23]. This is morally salient. That a fetus will become a human being means that the fetus should enjoy the same protections that a human being would enjoy — in essence, the fetus, though distinct in terms of development, is not distinct in terms of moral salience, and should, therefore, not be treated differently in terms of legal protections, et cetera. This is analogous to[24] the case of a coma patient who will recover. We would not advance that it is morally acceptable to run through the coma ward shooting patients[25] on the grounds that we do not believe them to be human beings; similarly, we should not argue for abortion on the grounds that fetuses are not yet human beings.

Though similar to, this argument is also distinct from that advanced under "Uncertainty and the Rule of Caution", supra. Under the Rule of Caution, we avoid unnecessary risk by drafting our definitions and drawing our lines carefully. Here, we deal specifically with the risk of drawing lines on a slippery slope. Backing away from the edge, we draw our line on the solid, level, and stable ground of conception as the point where human life begins. We do this because to do otherwise would be to run the risk of our definition of "human being" being susceptible to constant revision. What it means to be a "human being" does not fundamentally change, and neither should our definition of the term.

Psycho-Social Considerations

Third, there is nothing more damaging to the female psyche than the loss of a child, and this is only heightened when the woman herself is responsible for that loss. Abortion is anti-life, and it is specifically and most deeply anti-woman. Abortion strikes at the very core of what it means to be a woman; it subverts and upends the natural order; it turns woman away from her natural role as nurturer and protector of children into an empty-hearted and soul-deadened destroyer. But it is not just women[26] that abortion destroys — abortion inflicts a soul wound on all who are involved, on men and women alike. To wantonly destroy a child is to deny that human life has any meaning, and to deny that human life has any meaning is to deny that anything has meaning.

The society that permits abortion will inevitably coarsen with time. The fundamental indifference to human life that is displayed in, even flaunted by, abortion will, in time, pervade the whole of the society that permits it. There is no future for the society that destroys its children — no future for any people who deny the intrinsic, fundamental, and inalienable value of human life.

There is a price to pay for human actions. Many wish to avoid the consequences of their actions by resort to abortion, but they quickly find their chosen 'cure' is far worse than the blessing they viewed and treated as a disease. The cost of abortion is measured in lives lost and lives destroyed, and that cost extends far beyond the aborted babies themselves.

Unique DNA: Conception, Death, and Pure Reason

Fourth, (taking a brief detour between arguments dealing primarily with moral or spiritual concerns[27]), we now examine a set of more or less purely rational warrants for our conclusion that we must treat human life as beginning at conception.

First, conception creates a unique human being with unique DNA[28]. We may debate whether or not all unique combinations of DNA are valuable (they are not), but, at the very least, we must recognize the potential value of each human being. Absent a sufficient warrant, destroying anything is wrongful[29], and this holds all the more true in the case of human beings.

Second, any delineation of human life that does not begin at conception (i.e., the creation of unique DNA) and end at death (i.e., the destruction of the aforementioned unique DNA[30]) is, ultimately, arbitrary. We should categorically not be in the business of setting arbitrary boundaries around the term "human being" — down that path lie misery and atrocity. Any attempt to define "human being" as having any beginning other than life or any end other than death is not rational and objective; rather, such definitions are expedient and subjective — means seeking ends instead of dispassionate assessments.

Imago Dei

Fifth, human beings are made in the image of God. Though many in the (increasingly) secular West have forgotten this truth, all of our theories of human rights, our most fundamental assumptions about the value of human life, flow from this Christian concept. If we are made in the image of God, then all human beings have value, then there is a fundamental worth — a worth that cannot be diminished or destroyed by man — to each and every human life. To proclaim that the unborn are outside the protection of our laws or our system of ethics is abhorrent, and more — it is the zenith and the nadir of blasphemy. To deny the image of God in a child is to deny the image of God in man, and to deny the image of God in man is to accuse God of mendacity.

To support abortion is to deny that the image of God exists in the unborn, that the image of God exist in man at all.

Once a Fetus Becomes a Human Being, Killing It[31] Is Murder

Killing a human being is murder[32]. A fetus becomes a human being at some point in its development, and, under our reasoning, supra, is considered a human being from conception. Ergo, killing a fetus is murder. The logic of this is only slightly more complicated than 2+2=4[33]. Whereas some may wish to debate the definition of "human being" (and objective challenges based in reality are, of course, always welcome), the simple logic of this section is virtually tautological; it is not open to challenge.

Self-Defense, Defense of Others, and Killing

It is one of our basic six premises that human beings enjoy a right to self-defense. Such right to self-defense flows from the right to life. Having a right to life would be utterly meaningless if you did not have a parallel right to defend that life when it is threatened. Necessarily, the right to self-defense includes force up to and including lethal force if necessary to repel an attacker[34].

The right to the defense of others is a derivate right from the right of those same others to self-defense. In essence, if B has a right to self-defense, A has a right to pursue such right to self-defense on B's behalf. The right to the defense of others primarily, but not exclusively, arises when such others are incapable, for whatever reason, of exercising their right to self-defense. The right to the defense of others is neither weaker nor stronger than the right of such others to defend themselves.

Necessarily, the right to self-defense attaches only when its exercise would be rightful[35]. A murderer who is resisting law enforcement efforts to arrest him is not exercising his right to self-defense. A law enforcement officer who shoots a murderer who is violently resisting arrest and, in so resisting, is putting the life of the officer or his fellows in danger is exercising his right to self-defense or his derivative right to the defense of others.

There Is a Moral Duty to Render Aid

There is, in many places, no positive law duty to render aid. We are, however, not here concerned with the positive law. You may be fully within your rights under the positive law to walk by a drowning man and leave him to his fate; you may even be within your rights to stop and watch him drown. Whether or not your actions in either case would be moral (no) is a question separate from whether or not your actions would be legal (often, yes).

Under the Moral Law, there is a positive duty to render aid. This duty is actually broader than our narrow premise concerning self-defense (and, derivatively, the defense of others). Our premise:

There is a general moral duty to render aid, where possible, to those incapable, whether due incapacity, inability, or other disability, whether transitory or permanent, of exercising their right to self-defense.

Our premise is limited as our purposes are limited. We are not dealing with the general duty to render aid, we are merely dealing with the duty to aid one whose ability to exercise his right to self-defense has been compromised. This duty is not absolute, and it does take into account circumstances (e.g., you are not required to jump into the ocean to save a drowning man if you, in fact, do not know how to swim). There is a reason the premise includes "where possible" in its phrasing.

There are few members of our society who are more vulnerable than a fetus[36]. A fetus depends entirely upon others for its feeding, sheltering, and protection. A fetus is entirely at the mercy of those around it. The moral duty to render aid is most compelling when it serves to protect those who are most vulnerable. The fetus is most assuredly a prime example of those vulnerable members of society who are protected by the moral duty to render aid.

Punishing (Would-Be) Murderers Is Moral

The point of this section is a nuanced one. It would not, for instance, be moral to travel back in time and kill Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili[37] as a baby in his crib. Yes, we know from history that little baby Ioseb would grow up to do unspeakably terrible things and slaughter millions both by arms and by policy, but as a baby he bore no guilt. Punishment, in order to be morally rightful, must be meted out in the presence of mens rea[38]. A man who innocently trips and accidentally strikes another in his descent to the pavement bears no criminal liability for his fall[39]. Actus reus[40] alone is insufficient to warrant punishment.

So, how then can we morally punish a man who has not yet acted? Again, we look to mens rea. Intent is the more important of the intent-plus-action combination that yields criminal liability. Further, words can be sufficient to constitute an actus reus. If a man appears with a knife and proclaims that he is going to start stabbing anyone he can catch, would any sane person for even half a second believe it morally wrongful to shoot that man? No, of course not. By proclaiming his intended actus reus and demonstrating his mens rea by words (i.e., stating that he's going to begin stabbing people) and his capability by actions (i.e., brandishing a knife), this hypothetical homicidal maniac has rendered fully morally justified the actions of anyone who stops him from pursuing his goals.

What does this have to do with abortion? It's simple, really. An abortion doctor who proclaims his intent (mens rea) to continue performing abortions (actus reus) opens himself, morally, to punishment for his actions.


Positive Law versus Natural Law

Under the positive law, abortion, at least in many countries, is legal. This matters not at all to the Natural Law. Under the Natural Law, abortions are necessarily murder. This flows undeniably and indisputably from our premises. If the premises are correct, then abortion is murder.

Conclusion One: It Is Morally Permissible to Kill Abortionists

Some will not agree with our fifth premise (i.e., that there is a general moral duty to render aid). For some, this will mean a disagreement with Conclusion 2, infra, insofar as it contends that there is a moral duty to kill abortionists. However, not all who disagree with the fifth premise will object to Conclusion 2. It is entirely possible to believe that there is no general moral duty to render aid, but that there is a specific moral duty to punish murderers[41]. Regardless, those who agree with premises one, two, three, four, and six, must necessarily agree with the heading of this section, which is to say with Conclusion 1: It is morally permissible to kill abortionists.

A counter-argument is sometimes raised that killing abortionists is murder and, therefore, this conclusion is incorrect. The logic underlying this counter-argument is unpersuasive. To advance that killing abortionists is morally impermissible is to advance that self-defense does not encompass the right to use lethal force, which is to effectively advance that the right to self-defense does not exist at all. This is pacifism, and pacifism is not a morally serious position.[42]

The most notable counter-argument having been highlighted, refuted, and dismissed, there stands nothing between our premises and this conclusion. If there are rights to life, to self-defense, and to the defense of others and our definitions of murder and of human life are accurate, then it necessarily follows that is it morally permissible to kill abortionists. If you, further, believe that there is a general moral duty to render aid, then Conclusion 2, infra, is your final stop.

Conclusion Two: There Is a Moral Duty to Kill Abortionists

The conclusion is almost superfluous, but a slight qualification is necessary. From the premises and the argument, it is obvious that abortion is murder. However, there is, contained in the title of the article, a small qualification: abortionists.

The foregoing argument does not contain within its scope those doctors who perform truly medically necessary abortions[43] — such doctors are not, in fact, "abortionists". That aside, abortionists are still human and enjoy the right to life just like every other human being, and killing an abortionist without warrant would be unjustified (and therefore murder). However, the term "abortionist" assumes within itself sufficient warrant to render the killing of one such as being in accordance with the Moral Law. Further still, it is actually the case that an abortionist must be killed if we are to act in accordance with the Moral Law.

Abortionists are murderers[44]. The Natural Law is clear on this. As a human being, the baby enjoys the same rights, privileges, and protections as the rest of the population. It is the duty of all moral persons to render aid to such a vulnerable member of society as it is eminently clear that a baby cannot defend itself. Such rendered aid falls squarely within the bounds of the right to the defense of others, a right that includes the use of lethal force where necessary.

Further, and finally, the proper punishment for murder is death.

  1. And I do believe it appropriate to call those who oppose abortion not merely "pro-life", but also "anti-abortion". ↩︎

  2. Assuming, anyway, that you do not arrive at the same destination via an alternate route. ↩︎

  3. Or who at least believe that murder is wrong. ↩︎

  4. And there exists no sane, objective human being who rejects this premise for anything other than expedient, political amoral reasons. ↩︎

  5. Additionally, there are six moral subpremises (not to be confused with submoral premises) to clarify three of the moral premises, but these are not absolutely necessary to either of the conclusions. ↩︎

  6. Granted, this premise is really more of a definition, but it is included for two reasons: 1) arguments, like debates and lawsuits, are often won or lost upon definitions (and definitions, therefore, are often actually premises) and 2) the subpremises shade away from "definition" and solidly into "premise". ↩︎

  7. Where capitalized (the case for all instances in this article), I use "Natural Law" and "Moral Law" interchangeably. ↩︎

  8. This may also be formulated as: A killing is wrongful (i.e., it is murder) where it is insufficiently warranted under the Moral Law. ↩︎

  9. As to why this premise is limited to self-defense, see "There Is a Moral Duty to Render Aid", infra. ↩︎

  10. And, perhaps, discoverable. ↩︎

  11. For our purposes, it would actually be sufficient to go with the more limited "It is possible to define a reasonable point at which human life begins.", which, while supporting the conclusions, would not go far enough, to my mind anyway. ↩︎

  12. I am, of course, using "fetus" as shorthand for human fetus"; I should hope that we all understand that each species reproduces after its own kind (e.g., dogs do not give birth to cats). ↩︎

  13. It seems a fair assumption that, if you are reading this article, then you are, in fact, a human being. ↩︎

  14. After all, the term, changes from "abortion" to "infanticide" after birth (and is called "contraception" before conception). ↩︎

  15. i.e., the employment of the term "fallacy" in a fallacious sense, often sophistically employed to foreclose or silence debate. ↩︎

  16. Or even sixty. ↩︎

  17. Quite clearly, we are dealing with a trivial sense of this question here, and not the substantially more profound "What is man?" or similar. ↩︎

  18. After all, pretty much all of the rest of your organs can stop functioning, but you'll continue right along existing so long as your brain remains operational. ↩︎

  19. n.b., this definition includes those in a coma who may be revived, but (almost certainly) excludes those in a persistent vegetative state. ↩︎

  20. Except the purposes of the purely political or the ideologically driven, of course. ↩︎

  21. n.b., this means that a fetus becomes a human being well before the third trimester and as early as the first. ↩︎

  22. I use "termination" as a value-neutral term indicating the ending of a pregnancy, which differs from "abortion", which I use almost exclusively in the negative (except, e.g., where modified, such as in "spontaneous abortion", which, as a synonym for "spontaneous miscarriage" cannot be considered anything but morally neutral). ↩︎

  23. We assume, arguendo, that there are no serious defects that would preclude such development from proceeding normally, and such edge cases are not directly addressed in this article. ↩︎

  24. Even if imperfectly so. ↩︎

  25. Whereas this particular argument is limited to coma patients who will recover, it is assumed that few would be willing to argue it should be permitted to run through a coma ward shooting those who will not recover. This is not, however, pertinent to the logic of this article. ↩︎

  26. That abortion destroys babies is sufficiently addressed by the rest of this article, and so is not restated here. ↩︎

  27. Although, granted, the "Psycho-Social Considerations" section also addressed 'practical' considerations. ↩︎

  28. We use "DNA" here as shorthand for all the unique information that makes up a particular human creature. ↩︎

  29. This entire article is a moral argument — this section is just less strictly so. ↩︎

  30. We deliberately ignore, here, the fact that DNA, and other information, may take some time to degrade and disappear after the human creature dies. ↩︎

  31. I am not "dehumanizing" the fetus by referring to it as "it"; I am merely using English:
    it 1 |it|

    pronoun [third person singular]

    1. used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified: a room with two beds in it | this approach is refreshing because it breaks down barriers.
    • referring to an animal or child of unspecified sex: she was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face.
    • referring to a fact or situation previously mentioned, known, or happening: stop it, you're hurting me.
    1. used to identify a person: it's me | it's a boy!

    — New Oxford American English Dictionary ↩︎

  32. More fully (and to head off any unnecessary comments and emails): Killing a human being without sufficient warrant is murder under the Moral Law. I am well aware of the fact that murder under the positive law is the unlawful killing of one human being by another with malice aforethought. We aren't dealing with the positive law here, so that definition doesn't apply. ↩︎

  33. Except for large values of 2, naturally. ↩︎

  34. A right to self-defense would be relatively worthless if it ended as soon as lethal force became necessary to exercise it. ↩︎

  35. Mistake is another, and complicated, matter. ↩︎

  36. Perhaps some particularly vulnerable members of the elderly community would be comparable to a fetus in this regard. ↩︎

  37. Better known as Stalin. ↩︎

  38. mens rea |menz ˈrēə|

    noun [Law]
    the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.

    — New Oxford American Dictionary ↩︎

  39. This example intentionally includes innocently to avoid the issue of negligence. ↩︎

  40. actus reus |ˌaktəs ˈrēəs, ˈrāəs|

    noun [Law]
    action or conduct that is a constituent element of a crime, as opposed to the mental state of the accused.

    — New Oxford American English Dictionary ↩︎

  41. A number of similar or related formulations would also be sufficient to sustain Conclusion 2. ↩︎

  42. The next time you encounter a self-proclaimed pacifist, slap him in the face — if he does not react, slap him again. ↩︎

  43. Of which there are vanishingly few. ↩︎

  44. And those who, specifically, perform third-trimester abortions are often unrepentant murderers who gloat over their crimes and revel in their defiance of the Moral Law. ↩︎

There should be a zeroeth footnote for this article, appended to “Right” in “Right to Life”, but I have not reworked the Markdown/HTML of this article to get it to appear correctly. Until such time as I do so, here is the text of that footnote:
Arguendo, I am using the term “right” — although I do not believe in rights — because this article is not the proper place to debate and define the difference between duties and ‘rights’, as doing so would detract from the purpose and force of the article. If I were to be more precise, I would say, instead of ‘there is a right to life’, that there is ‘a duty not to unlawfully or impermissibly take life’ (or something similar), and then build the argument from there.