March 17, 2017

Restoring our lost common sense about the killing of human beings

During the 19th century, scientists and physicians came to understand that the life of a human being (an individual member of the species Homo sapiens) begins at conception. The old idea that “quickening” was relevant to the nature of unborn children had been shown to be biologically mistaken.

“The true scientific position,” explained an essay published in 1866 in the United States Medical and Surgical Journal, “is this: from the moment of conception, when the spermatozoa coalesces with the cell-wall of the ovule, the ovum is a distinct human being.”

For Americans of this era, the humanity of unborn children settled the question of the morality of killing them. “Because the medical and legal establishment presupposed the moral axiom against killing innocent human beings,” writes Justin Buckley Dyer in his historical treatment of the subject, “the physicians involved with the anti-abortion movement in the nineteenth century thought a demonstration that life begins at conception was sufficient to establish the wrongness of abortion at any point during pregnancy.”

Unborn children are, as a matter of empirical fact, human beings. Intentionally killing innocent human beings is wrong. So abortion is wrong. Case closed. Unborn children deserve protection just like all other members of the human family. Consequently, in the mid- to late-19th century, states replaced the common law or earlier anti-abortion statutes with statutes banning all elective abortions, both before and after quickening.

But the commonsense view that killing innocent human beings is wrong isn’t as common now as it was back then.

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