Pro-Life Consequentialism


With the passage of the pain capable bill in the US House of Representatives, I have had several interactions with representatives from various pro-life groups promoting this bill.  One such interaction began with me asking this question:

Did you know that fathers in Rome had the legal right to kill their own children? What would you think of the Christians at that time if they had tried to pass a law saying that no father can kill his child unless he kills him before the child’s fifth birthday with the exception that the father can kill his child at any age if he finds out that the child is illegitimate? Would you have supported such a law if you had lived in that time period?

My friend responded in part by saying:

Your “test” question is absurd. National Right to Life has saved over 9 million lives by promoting public education thru laws that ban procedures … If the law would have reduced the number of lives lost yes I would support it while continuing to work toward reducing the killing – until it could be eliminated.

This claim that the goal is to save as many lives as possible is a common response from pro-life leaders, and it sounds very good and noble on the surface.  Unfortunately, this is actually an expression of a very dangerous philosophy known as consequentialism.  It is the same philosophy that is used to justify shooting abortionists or bombing abortion clinics.  If consequentialism is true, then the end justifies the means.

The consequentialist will argue that vigilante action against abortionists is justified by the end result of saving the lives of a few babies who were scheduled to be killed.  We all know intuitively that consequentialism produces the wrong answer in this scenario, and I realize that every major pro-life organization denounces vigilante action, but we often overlook the fact that the incremental plan followed by the majority of the pro-life movement is based on the very same philosophical foundation of consequentialism.

Here is the response that I made to my friend’s consequentialist argument:

What you’re advocating is a philosophy called consequentialism. Consequentialism is the idea that the end justifies the means, ie, that the rightness or wrongness of a given action is determined by the results of that action.

You are proposing that the action of banning abortions after 20 weeks except in certain cases is a good action because it will produce the result of fewer babies being killed by abortion. That is a perfect example of consequentialism.

There are several flaws inherent in the philosophy of consequentialism, and those flaws are apparent in your reasoning.

1) Consequentialism is severely limited in its ability to judge whether any given action will produce a good result.

For example, you claim that 9 million babies have been saved because of laws like the pain capable bill, but you are not capable of knowing how many babies would have been saved if National Right to Life had focused all of its efforts on a total ban of abortion rather than on mere regulations. Had NRTL chosen a different path, they may have been able to save many more babies than the have saved through these regulations. Maybe they would have saved more, and maybe they would have saved less. You do not have enough knowledge to state which it would have been. Therefore, you cannot possibly know whether the path chosen by NRTL has produced good results or if it has produced bad results.

2) Consequentialism is severely limited in its ability to predict the future.

You are predicting a future in which pain capable legislation causes fewer babies to be killed in abortions per year than are being killed now, but you cannot tell us whether passing this legislation would enable abortions to continue for more years than it would have continued without pain capable legislation. If NRTL were to devote all of its effort to a complete ban of abortions, then maybe they could achieve that goal within the next 10 years, but if they continue to promote regulations like the pain capable bill, then maybe abortions will continue for another 100 or 200 years thus causing more babies to die than would die under a different approach. You can argue that we don’t know for sure how many babies would survive under either method, but that is exactly my point. You don’t know enough about the future to say whether the results of any action will ultimately be good or bad.

3) Consequentialism assumes the existence of an independent standard of good and evil.

You claim that pain capable legislation is a good thing because it will save babies and saving babies is a good thing, but there is no way to use consequentialism to prove that saving babies is a good thing. To prove that, you must have an external standard like the Bible which establishes the objective truth that intentionally killing innocent children is wrong.

Now, you may be tempted to think that this provides the consequentialist with a means of using his philosophy in conjunction with Scripture, but in reality, this means that the Bible provides us with a more sure measure of determining what is right and what is wrong than consequentialism does. If an action is deemed to be good according to consequentialism, but it is proclaimed to be wrong in the Bible, then that action must be wrong regardless of how many good results we may think that action will produce.

We can apply this final point to pain capable legislation in the following manner

A) If the Bible teaches that it is wrong for the government to allow innocent children to be intentionally killed, then pain capable legislation must be wrong regardless of any good results that we think it may produce

B) The Bible does teach that it is wrong for the government to allow innocent children to be intentionally killed.

 C) Therefore, pain capable legislation is wrong.

I don’t expect my friend to be convinced any time soon.  The consequentialist mindset is just too deeply ingrained in her life, but I hope that she will one day come to realize her mistake and adopt a more biblical approach to outlawing abortion in our nation.  In the meantime, perhaps our conversation will help others overcome this error that has pervaded the pro-life movement for the past forty years.

Click here to learn more about some of the other flaws in the pain capable bill.



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