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Socrates on Abortion


Note: I will delete comments that are insulting and make no attempt at rational dispute. Feel free to disagree, but do so politely.

Malignant Stupidity and General Wickedness

I recently had the experience of participating in a debate on abortion. I’ve never made a secret of my stance: I am against it. My contribution to the discussion was received, shall we say, critically – and in no uncertain terms. It came as no surprise to me: if you throw your hat into the abortion ring, you are likely to be thrashed by all sides, and so I was. What was most interesting to me was that the characterizations of my multitudinous and self-evident defects fell into two categories: 1. religious dogmatism and 2. masculinity. I’ll ignore the accusations of malignant stupidity and general wickedness. The second argument is incontrovertible and there is no denying that I am, in fact, a man; and apparently that is a disqualifier for disagreeing with women on “women’s issues”. But the first argument was of real importance: the unquestioned opinion that ONLY retrograde religious zealots could possibly be against what is obvious to everyone with any sense: a woman’s right to control her own body and make her own reproductive choices.

Anytime an argument is made so categorically, it is either a mathematical proof or likely to be dogma[1]: and that is the end of all possible conversation and dialogue. Theology depends upon belief, not evidence; it is therefore impossible to overcome what is “incontrovertibly true” by any means short of New Revelation. Abortion might therefore be thought of as the frontline in a clash between two faiths in America: a religious faith and a secular faith, both equally rigid about certain articles of belief.

There is no reason why the topic of abortion cannot be made to yield to rational arguments, without recourse to the divine. I will reiterate my opposition to the use of theological arguments. I will use no arguments that require a belief in any divinity whatsoever. A basic knowledge of high school biology and genetics is all that will be required. I will not ask you to believe anything: you will agree or disagree with scientifically provable arguments. The only “article of faith” I will admit to is my belief in the universality of human rights, admittedly a very Western concept. But since only a handful of nations[2] have not signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I will hold even this question to be settled.

If we consider abortion as a question of conflicting rights, rather than as an element of doctrinaire theology, perhaps it can be examined through the prism of logic. That got me to thinking: “What would Socrates say about abortion?”

“Whoa….it’s So-crates, dude!”

Socrates, as everyone knows, was a classical Greek philosopher and the Father of Western Philosophy. He is also one of the only three or four philosophers[3] most Americans could name without prompting, if only from his appearance in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.


We actually know very little about Socrates. He was born in Athens in the 5th Century B.C. and died in 399 B.C. just after the Peloponnesian War had ended. Either the philosopher wrote nothing down, or else nothing of his has survived the ravages of time. Both possibilities are entirely feasible. What we know of Socrates is therefore second-hand accounts from his student Plato, and contemporaries Xenophon and Aristophanes. Far from providing comic relief, the picture that emerges of Socrates is that of a cantankerous and argumentative man[4] who constantly challenged every pre-conceived myth, belief, and custom of his fellow Athenians. He was, in Plato’s words, a “gadfly” to his compatriots. In his pursuit of wisdom and the examination of moral concepts, he continually ran afoul of the first citizens of the city, who were often made to look foolish by the incisive Socrates. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Father of Western Philosophy was charged with blasphemy and corrupting the minds of youths and sentenced to death.

Socrates’s principal means of searching out the truth was a dialectic method of inquiry now known as the Socratic Method, the elenchus. This process breaks down the problem into a series of questions, each of which through a positive or negative response brought the investigator closer to an understanding of the validity or falsity of the hypothesis. This also makes Socrates the Father of the Scientific Method. I don’t know what Socrates would have actually argued regarding abortion, though I like to think that he would have ridiculed both sides mercilessly for dogmatism and sloppy thinking, but I do propose to borrow his technique and apply it.

Socrates on Abortion

The dialogue – Socrates, Harry and Henry[5]


Socrates: In my travels across your country, I have been struck by how partisan and intransigent many of your positions are, even as if the Athenians and Lacedaemonians of my own time were brought together to form one people. And of all these, I have noted the most polemical to be the subject of abortion. Fellow travelers, may I ask: why is abortion permitted in your land? What are the reasons for its acceptance?

Harry: The Supreme Court has recognized in Roe v. Wade and in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that a woman’s right to control her own body cannot be subjected to government control. It based its decisions fundamentally on three concepts: that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to personal privacy encompasses a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; that a fetus has no rights due to a lack of viability outside of the mother’s womb; and that no law of Congress should override the judgment of a physician in the exercise of their profession regarding the health and well-being of their patient.

Henry: Court rulings have consistently maintained the state’s interest in protecting the life of the unborn child as the pregnancy advances, which is why it proposed a “trimester test” in Roe v. Wade that allows the individual states a progressively increasing role in regulating and even prohibiting abortions as the pregnancy advances. Yet this “trimester test” has not changed to reflect advances in medical technology which have rendered it obsolete.

Soc: Mr. Henry argues from particulars to overturn the whole, but it seems that a return to the first principles will be more useful in our investigation. Will it distress you to continue?

Harry & Henry: Not at all.

Soc: Let us proceed then by questioning the basis of Mr. Harry’s argument, and investigate each justification in turn. You have indicated that there are individual rights in question: the right to privacy and the right to security of one’s own person?

Harry: That is correct. These are codified our Constitution under the Fourteenth Amendment: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”

Soc: These then are natural rights?[6]

Henry: Certainly. Our Constitution was founded upon the recognition of certain natural rights, endowed by our Creator, and inalienable. Among these are the right to life, liberty, freedom of conscience and privacy.

Soc: So natural rights are inherent to the condition of being human? All humans everywhere and under all circumstances possess these rights, nor can they be denied them by any legal means?

Harry: Yes, these rights are recognized universally. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person;” and Article 6, Part III of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights also states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

Soc: Are natural rights limited or absolute? Am I free to exercise my rights to any extent I choose?

Henry: All rights are limited by their nature. You are free to enjoy your rights to the extent that you do not violate the rights of others or to committing illegal acts.

Soc: So my right to privacy does not extend to turning my home into a laboratory for manufacturing illegal narcotics? And if I am sick, my right to life does not permit me to murder someone else in order to avail myself of a needed organ?

Harry & Henry: Certainly not. It is legitimate to take life in self-defense or time of war, but not otherwise.

Soc: I can then assume that a person’s right to the control of their own body would be similarly limited, should it conflict with another person’s natural rights?

Henry: It certainly would be.

Soc: Let us explore another question. Your medicine is much advanced from that which was practiced under my good friend Hippocrates. Yet I presume certain truths to remain unchanged, being of their nature so fundamental to our species. When a human egg cell is fertilized by a human sperm cell, can this process be reversed? Has any fertilized egg ever spontaneously expelled the sperm cell and returned to an unfertilized state?

Harry: I believe that this is not possible.

Soc: What are the possible – natural – outcomes of the process once an egg cell has been fertilized? I mean, without any other human intervention.

Henry: There are only two possibilities: either a live birth or a miscarriage. More than 1 in 10 pregnancies terminate in a miscarriage, usually in the first trimester.

Soc: So this marks an irreversible process? There has never been a case of a fetus reverting to a blastocyst, of a blastocyst reverting to a fertilized egg, or of a fertilized egg reverting to an unfertilized egg?

Henry: That is correct. The process in unidirectional and must end in the birth or death of a child.

Soc: I see. And how many times has this process resulted in the birth of a cabbage? Or of an orangutan, a rhinoceros or a platypus?

Harry: Never, of course. Those are biological impossibilities.

Soc: So we can state with confidence that 100% of human pregnancies result in either the birth of a human child or the death of a human child, never in anything else?

Harry & Henry: Yes, we agree.

Soc: And natural rights are those which are inherent to the condition of being human? They are not attributed to cabbages, or orangutans, or rhinoceroses, or platypuses?

Harry & Henry: That is true.

Soc: And your own Constitution states that the right to life is an inalienable natural right? As well as the other international conventions mentioned.

Harry: This is true, but before you continue, let me state that the Courts have considered this question and determined that the lack of fetal viability during the earliest stages of pregnancy means that no right to life can be assumed. The developing fetus could not survive independently of the mother outside of her womb.

Soc: That is an important point that I shall address in a moment, Mr. Harry. Nevertheless, we all agree that the right to life is inherent to the condition of being human, and that a human pregnancy is an irreversible process that will always result in a human being, and never in anything else?

Harry: There can be no argument with this statement, sir.

Henry: You continually emphasize the word “irreversible” and I am curious to your motives.

Soc: It is a good question, Mr. Henry, and strikes at the heart of the argument. If a pregnancy were reversible, if a fertilized egg might spontaneously revert to an unfertilized state, why then it would be quite logical to suspend the association of rights to the fetus until it entered an irreversible state. After all, an unfertilized egg is only a potential human being; but a fertilized human egg is guaranteed to be a human being by the fact that it is involved in an irreversible process.

Henry: But do you not consider that a miscarriage might interrupt this irreversible process of yours?

Soc: Not at all Mr. Henry. You or I may drop dead in the next 5 seconds, but that fact does not strip us of our rights. Death is the inevitable result of life, and equally inherent in the human condition, but that end state does not imply that we lack rights while we live. A human child is a future human adult, and a human fetus is a future human child, and a human blastocyst is a future human fetus, and a human fertilized egg is a future human blastocyst. Thus, as my good friend Pythagoras proved long ago, if A=B and B=C, then A=C: a human fertilized egg is a future human adult unless death intervenes.

Henry: I agree with you, sir, though Mr. Harry appears to harbor objections.

Soc: Yet if the proof above is true, then the termination of a fertilized human egg is equivalent to the termination of a human adult, without due process of law.

Harry: These are very strong arguments, sir, but you have not yet addressed my issue of viability.

Soc: Mr. Harry, if I dropped you in the middle of the Great Libyan Desert, how viable would your life be?

Harry: Not very viable, but I hardly think this is an appropriate example.

Soc: The world outside of a mother’s womb might seem very much like a desert to a premature baby, but it could survive with the aid of other people, just as you could survive with the aid of knowledgeable locals.

Harry: But I would not need assistance in the most basic functioning of my body, in my breathing and in my heartbeat. A sufficiently premature fetus would need these things; that is the condition of unviability, not the need for food, water and shelter.

Soc: I see. So I am to understand that, in your society, those members who have suffered traumatic injuries that require life support, such as an iron lung or artificial heart, are no longer considered human? They are without rights?

Harry: Certainly not.

Soc: Yet they cannot regulate their own breathing or heartbeat, as you so eloquently explained. They are “unviable” according to your definition.

Harry: That is true.

Soc: In your society, do those near death lose their natural rights? People with terminal illnesses? People requiring life support? People over the age of 65? Or 80?

Harry: No, their rights are protected until their natural deaths.

Soc: So, as I understand it, the one and only condition in which a living human being is denied their natural rights on the basis of “viability” is exclusively that of the prenatal state?

Henry: Leaving aside those who have been found guilty of crimes, who may be denied their liberty and even their lives by a court of law; yes, that is the only condition.

Soc: In my time, “viability” began days after the infant was born. Now I am informed that you can save fetuses in very early stages of development. As medical technology advances, it is conceivable that even a fertilized egg might be fully developed in an artificial womb should mischance befall the mother.

Henry: It might be possible in the future, though it is not possible today.

Soc: But irrespective of the state of medical technology, it seems clear to me that even on the basis of first principles, viability is no argument for denying rights to a human being, at any stage in their development. It is a completely arbitrary basis.

Harry: Nonetheless, it is not for the state to interfere in the private lives and choices of a mother, and in her right to decide if and when she has children.

Soc: You raise two important issues, Mr. Henry, but I will address them separately, if you don’t mind.

Harry: Please proceed.

Soc: You have alluded to the right to privacy and how your Constitution prohibits the government from interfering in the private affairs of its citizens.

Harry: That is correct.

Soc: It is an entirely salutary principle. But we have already established that no right is absolute, have we not?

Harry & Henry: We were all in agreement.

Soc: You have mentioned that, among my natural rights, the right to privacy and the right to freedom of conscience were protected, is this not so?

Henry: Those were among the fundamental principles expounded by our Founding Fathers.

Soc: In my time, our barbarian Carthaginian neighbors[7] had the religious custom of tossing their first-born sons into a furnace as a sacrifice to Baal-Pteor. Were I a modern Carthaginian, in the free exercise of my rights, could I toss infants into a furnace in the privacy of my own home as a sacrifice to Baal-Pteor?

Henry: Certainly not.

Soc: Yet on what basis could the government justify interference in my private life or in the free exercise of my religion?

Henry: The state has an overriding obligation to defend the rights of her citizens, and the practice of human sacrifice violates the rights of the victims.

Soc: And what of my right to privacy?

Henry: The right to privacy cannot be used as a cover for illegal actions.

Soc: So neither the right to privacy, nor any other right, allows me to violate the rights of other human beings?

Henry: That is exactly right.

Soc: And have we not established that a human fetus is a human being, that it will never be anything else, nor revert back to an unfertilized egg? And that the question of viability is entirely arbitrary, being applied in the sole and exclusive case of prenatal humans?

Harry: These arguments are difficult to contradict.

Soc: Then we must conclude that the inalienable right to life is inherent to a human being from the moment that they being their irreversible progress through a human life, from first cellular division to aged infirmity, with the sole possible and inevitable interruption of death. All other divisions are purely arbitrary. The state therefore has an obligation under law and your Constitution to protect the rights of all people within her jurisdiction, and the exercise of other rights cannot supersede this duty.

Harry: But surely you do not argue that the right of the fetus to life is an absolute?

Soc: It incurs the same limitations as all other rights, Mr. Henry. The right of a fetus to life cannot supersede that of a mother’s right to life. Therefore, in those cases where a pregnancy places a mother’s life at grave risk, there is an unresolved conflict of rights which only the mother herself – with the advice and assistance of her physician – is in a position to decide the outcome.

Harry: That circumstance is already recognized in existing rulings. Are there any other cases where you feel your argument of fetal rights cannot be applied?

Soc: Can rights be established by illegal acts? If I steal your property, do I then have a legal claim to it?

Henry: Not at all. Illegal acts, like theft or piracy, can establish no claim to the stolen property, which must be returned to the owner upon its recovery.

Soc: This was also the law in Athens, with the exception of enemy property seized in time of war. Therefore, I would argue that rape constitutes a violation to a woman’s – or a man’s! – right to choose their sexual partners; as such, it cannot create rights. Pregnancies resulting from the sexual violation of a woman would then also be at the discretion of the mother to terminate or carry to term.

Harry: How is this different from the case of consensual sex? In neither case does the woman intend to become pregnant. It seems you are splitting hairs, Socrates.

Soc: Sometimes the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, legal and illegal is as thin as a human hair, Mr. Harry. Consider this: I become inebriated, and enter into one of your fascinating “automobiles.” In my drunken stupor, I inadvertently hit and kill another person. It is sufficient legal defense for me to claim that it was not my intention to injure anyone when I entered the vehicle?

Harry: No, it is most certainly not. The law establishes a legal maximum to your blood alcohol content, and any excess of this level provides sufficient grounds for sanction.

Soc: Yet even that argument does not go far enough. Let us assume that I am not inebriated, but in complete control of my faculties. What then, if in these circumstances, through carelessness or distraction, I inadvertently kill another person?

Harry: Even then you could be prosecuted for manslaughter, for the unintended death of another human being.

Soc: But why is this? I have already established that I intended no harm to the victim.

Henry: Yet mortal harm was done, sir, and the law admits your intentions only as a factor in determining the severity of the charge. Manslaughter is a less severe crime than murder, for example. As a rational adult, you are responsible for your actions, whether they are intended or not.

Soc: I see. So similarly we could argue that, as a rational adult, I should be legally responsible for the intended and unintended consequences of engaging in sexual relations? That both the male and female partner should be held responsible?

Harry: It would seem to be so. Yet how do you judge this from the point of view of a woman’s right to determine if and when she becomes pregnant?

Soc: The right of a person to control their own body, free of coercion, is indisputably a natural right, inherent in our condition of humanity. And reproductive rights are also fundamental to this condition; life is defined by its capacity to reproduce copies of itself. I endorse the proposition that no man or woman can be forced to reproduce, or prevented from it, as if they were cattle. Yet you have stated that “intention” does not remove the burden of consequences from the actions of rational adults; and the possible consequences of sexual intercourse are not a mystery to anyone.

Harry: Do you not consider that one of the two partners bears a much heavier burden, sir?

Soc: This is certainly true, for the man bears only a financial burden, whereas the woman must carry an enormous physical and emotional cost. Yet it bears mentioning that there is also consideration of a third party, for the human fetus faces possible death. Which of the three burdens is the greatest then?

Harry: And how do you make provision for these different burdens in the law?

Soc: Firstly, by recognizing that differences in burdens are not sufficient reasons to abrogate natural rights. Secondly, by the state using its power to more equitably share the burdens imposed: the natural father must be made to carry the majority of the financial burden for the costs of the pregnancy and the raising of the child. Thirdly, by making available public means to both reduce unwanted pregnancies and to reduce the costs of childcare. Free and easily available contraceptives for both males and females, when used correctly and in combination, reduce the probabilities of unwanted pregnancies to a vanishingly small number of cases. Free sexual education that reinforces the consequences of unprotected sex at an age when sexual activity is likely to begin is also a necessary tool. The provision of subsidized child care has been proven in many nations to bring substantial benefits to society, and not only to single parents. Faster and easier adoptions would also allow many unwanted children to find a home among those couples who are physically unable to have children. All these are tools which a government could employ to more equitably share the unequal burden of pregnancy and child rearing that women bear.

Henry: What you propose could be very costly.

Soc: Taking care of the elderly is costly, Mr. Harry. Taking care of invalids, those with long-term illnesses and mental disabilities is also costly. Do you propose that we should execute them in order to save society from the cost of their care?

Henry: Certainly not!

Soc: Yet you seem quite content to use this as an argument for ending unwanted pregnancies rather than facing the consequence of them, both as individuals and as a society.

Henry: Not I, sir!

Soc: It would be more expedient and less costly to eliminate trials by jury; indeed to eliminate trials completely. Let the police be judge, jury and executioner; for a court system is very expensive. It would be expedient and less costly to eliminate everyone over the legal retirement age, for they are then an economic burden to society, are they not?

Harry: That would be inhumane and a violation of their rights.

Soc: So it would be; as would the expedient termination of a pregnancy without any sort of due process be a violation of the unborn child’s rights. Rights which we have established as an inherent condition of human life, regardless of arbitrary distinctions based on age or viability.

Harry: I must ponder these arguments a while yet, sir.

Soc: I hope you may, Mr. Harry. Fellow travelers, we have come to a fork our road. I must take the road down to my shadowy realm and so cross Lethe into forgetfulness. But your nation lives on, and you must take the higher road towards a brighter future and more just society. I have enjoyed your company, your courtesy and your conversation.

Harry & Henry: And we yours, sir.

Thus concludes my imagined dialogue of Socrates on Abortion, with my due apologies to Plato for so flagrant an abuse of his style and works. I don’t expect it to change hardened opinions by an iota; but if it shows that even this passionate topic is open to rational – even courteous – debate between thinking people, then it will have done some good.


Sources and Notes

[1] dog·ma noun \ˈdȯg-mə, ˈdäg-\ (1) a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted; (2) a belief or set of beliefs that is taught by a religious organization. Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

[2] Non-signatories include: Antigua and Barbuda, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Fiji, Kiribati, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Oman, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, Tuvalu, and United Arab Emirates. North Korea signed the covenant, but has since withdrawn from it. Non-member states of the U.N. are also not included: Republic of China (Taiwan), Kosovo, and Vatican City.

[3] The others being Plato (his student), Aristotle (Plato’s student) and Friedrich Nietzsche.

[4] Yet no one doubted his bravery or devotion to Athens. Socrates fought in the Athenian phalanx in three land battles of the Peloponnesian War, at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium; where he was credited with exceptional service by the generals in command of those battles, Alcibiades and Laches. Socrates is reported to have said contemptuously of his final courtroom adversaries, that they were wrong to think he would retreat from the trial if he did not retreat from battle.

[5] Other than Socrates, these names are entirely fictional and bear no relation to anyone living or dead

[6] In America, we tend to use the word as if there were no possible doubt as to the meaning; but in fact, there are considerable differences in meanings. Rights can be defined as principles of entitlement – what individuals are allowed or not allowed to do; they can be defined as a privilege or a claim; they can be defined as natural or legal rights. For my purposes, I want to focus on natural rights.

[7] There were Greek colonies on the east coast of Sicily who shared the island with Carthaginian colonies such as Lilybaum.

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