NRL News

The pro-abortion argument that the unborn is not ‘living and breathing’

by | Jan 4, 2016

By Paul Stark

13_week_ultrasound_3dreSometimes pro-choice advocates say that pro-lifers care only about the unborn (i.e., the human fetus or embryo) rather than “actual living, breathing human beings” (or variations on that phrase). Of course, pro-lifers do care about already-born human beings, and to suggest otherwise is an indefensible slander (and an ad hominem attack irrelevant to the ethics of abortion).

But here I want to address the implication that the unborn is not “living” and “breathing.”

The unborn is obviously living in a biological sense, exhibiting metabolism, cellular reproduction, reaction to stimuli, and rapid growth. Indeed, the unborn is not only living, but is a distinct, complete, self-integrating, self-developing organism, and a member of the human species. He or she (sex is determined from conception) is a living human being.

Perhaps the pro-choice advocate means “living” in a different sense — a social or moral one. On this view, perhaps, the unborn does not yet possess the qualities necessary for the kind of “life” that is deserving of moral respect and protection. But it seems misleading to use the term “living” in this way, since we commonly use that term in the biological sense to describe living plants, animals, insects, etc.

In any case, one must explain what “living” in this moral/social sense actually means, and offer reasons to think that it serves as a valid criterion for having the right not to be intentionally killed. It is far from obvious that we may discriminate between members of the species Homo sapiens on the basis of age/development and acquired characteristics, permitting the killing of some but not others. (I argue against such a view at

What about breathing? Breathing as we usually think of it, using the lungs, does not begin until birth (or shortly after). But the biological process of respiration, involving the transfer of oxygen, begins long before birth. The means of respiration is different for human beings still in the womb, but the fact of respiration is the same. The late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a prolific abortionist and co-founder of NARAL (before he famously changed his mind), explains:

“[A]t the end of pregnancy, [the fetus/newborn child’s] growth needs simply outstrip the ability of the placenta to supply food and oxygen, so the lungs and mouth must take over. The organism is put into a different physiological milieu — and nothing more. It is like switching from AC to DC current; the energy connection changes, but the basic mechanics remain the same.”

The change in the mode of respiration obviously does not change the kind of thing the unborn/newborn is (a living organism of the human species). No scientifically informed person would ever say so. Nor is it clear how such a change could possibly be relevant to whether someone has fundamental dignity and basic rights. Indeed, I have never seen anyone seriously argue that it is. A person who has become dependent on a medical ventilator, for example, is still a person who may not be killed without just cause.

So: The being killed by abortion is a living, respiring, fast-growing organism, a human being, a member of our species, like you and me, only at a much earlier stage of life. Defenders of abortion favor denying unborn human beings the kind of moral respect and legal protection that are owed to human beings at later developmental stages. They are free to make their case. But it simply will not do to claim that human beings in the womb are not “living and breathing.”

Editor’s note. Paul Stark is Communications Assistant for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, National Right to Life’s state affiliate. This first appeared at

Categories: Unborn Children