A Review of Hendrik Van Der Breggen’s Critical Thinking About Abortion

Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion is a short, concise book that you could probably read in one day. However, it should be re-read several times. It is by Canadian author, Hendrik Van Der Breggen, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Waterloo. In this book, his goal is to untangle the knots that surround the abortion issue so that he can expose abortion for what it truly is: murder.1

In this article, I will do two things. First, I will briefly summarize the content of the book. Second, I will interact with it and give my analysis.

Summary and Analysis of Part 1

Part 1 is the longest section of the book. It covers 16 different counterarguments to the pro-life position about the ontological status of the unborn.2 These include: Chapter 1 The human fetus is merely a potential human; Chapter 2 an acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being, so abortion is no big deal; Chapter 3 a brick is not a house, so getting rid of a brick, or even a few bricks, is no big deal; Chapter 4 the human embryo at its early stage isn’t a human being because of twinning; Chapter 5 a zygote/fetus is no more human than a cluster of skin cells is human; Chapter 6 the fetus is a parasitic organism; Chapter 7 abortion is just another means of contraception; Chapter 8 abortion is simply the termination of pregnancy; Chapter 9 zygotes are not persons because they lack experiential, creative, and higher order capacities; Chapters 10-11 a fetus is not a person because it lacks consciousness, part 1 and 2; chapter 12 the burning fertility clinic thought experiment shows the unborn aren’t persons; chapter 13 when the pre-natal child is not viable, it’s not a person, and so abortion is justifiable; chapgter 14 abortion does not kill an innocent human being; Chapter 15 the reality of spontaneous abortions justify abortion (or weakens the fetus’s right to life; Chapter 16 Jonathan Dudley, MD, says Embryos don’t have Equal moral status to more developed human beings.3

I’ll outline a couple of his responses and evaluate them.

1)   In response to the claim that the human fetus is merely a potential

human, Van Der Breggen replies that “Contemporary science—embryology, fetology and biology—tell us that the human fetus is in fact a human being. It’s a genetically distinct, self-governing, whole, living organism/entity that belongs to the human species.”4 What this means is that it is not a member of a different species like a cat or a dog. 

More importantly, he points out that 95 percent of academic biologists agree that human life begins at conception. They are backed up by medical textbooks and peer-reviewed scientific literature. Therefore, the fetus is not a potential human but a human with potential.5

I agree with this chapter’s general argument. There is no question that the unborn are members of the human family. As far as I know, there are no instances of a human woman giving birth to whale. (Though some women have made it clear that it felt that way.) 

I believe the argument could be made clearer, however. Van Der Breggen did not define two of his terms: “self-governing,” and “whole.” I have familiarity with pro-life literature so I understand what he means. 

“Self-governing” refers to the fact the fetus directs his or her own development. “Whole” means that it’s programmed to develop in a certain way.6 But their meaning does not seem as self-evident as saying they are living and human. It may be confusing for beginners who are also part of the target audience for this book.

2)   Some pro-choicers like David Boonin say that if we grant the unborn a prima facie right to life because they are potential persons, then we should do the same for skin cells. After all, now that cells can be used for cloning, every skin cell is a potential person.

In chapter 5, Van Der Breggen puts such an argument to bed by demonstrating “A cluster of skin cells is part of a human being whereas the cell at conception—the zygote—is the first stage of a new living individual human being (which later has skin cells.)”8 The pro-life claim is that human organisms are already persons, not potential persons. 

Since the skin cell is not even a human organism, the reason for thinking it might be a person does not apply. Therefore, we have no reason for giving it a prima facie right to life.

Once again, I agree with Van Der Breggen’s argument. He also shows how this argument based on biological facts can be used against a variety of pro-choice arguments.

Summary and Analysis of Part 2

In Part 2, Van Der Breggen counters abortion rights arguments based on bodily autonomy. He takes on ten of them: Chapter 17 The fetus is part of a woman’s body, and women have a right to control their own bodies; Chapter 18 bodily autonomy alone is enough of a reason to keep abortion legal; Chapter 19 reproductive freedom justifies abortion; Chapter 20 the life-of-the mother verses the life-of-the-child situation justifies abortion; Chapter 21 rape justifies abortion; Chapter 22 rape is about power and control. So are abortion bans. Keep abortion safe and legal; Chapter 23 I’m not morally obligated to sustain another person with my kidney or body; Chapter 24 a woman has a right to consent to having sex without consenting to becoming pregnant; Chapter 25 abortion care prevents the heartbreak of infant mortality; Chapter 26 abortion is an essential health care service.9

One of the most relevant chapters right now is chapter 25. Van Der Breggen is responding to Terry O’Neil, “Former president of the pro-choice group NOW,” who said “abortion care, no less than contraception, is an essential measure to prevent the heartbreak of infant mortality.”10

Van Der Breggen’s response question is simple and direct: “Huh? Really?”11 That summed up my own thoughts as soon as I read the quote. He goes on to explain, “Notice the underlying principle implied by O’Neil’s view: If someone is going to die of natural causes early in their life, I should be free to kill him/her sooner to prevent my heartbreak.”12

O’Neil’s argument is compelling because it tugs at the heartstrings. Anyone who has seen the pain of a parent who has lost a child knows how heart-wrenching it is for them. We often wish we could have spared them that pain. But if they went and killed a born child who was sick to spare themselves the pain of him dying naturally, we would consider them selfish. So, why shouldn’t we view killing the unborn child for that reason in the same way?13

Van Der Breggen goes on to argue, “Also, if we accept O’Neil’s view, why stop at the heartbreak of infant mortality?”14 In other words, O’Neil’s view raises important questions: could I kill a born child who is terminally ill to avoid the heartbreak of child mortality? Could I go and kill homeless people to prevent heartbreak over seeing them strung out and hungry on my street?15

This is a timely chapter for pro-lifers to read, especially in light of what is going on down in Texas with a 31-year-old woman named Katie Cox. Cox was pregnant with a baby that she wanted. However, it was discovered that her baby had full trisomy 18, a chromosomal malady that causes the child to die before, or right after birth.16 

According to Steve Benen of MSNBC news, “Because Cox’s other children were delivered by cesarean section, this pregnancy creates a risk of serious medical issues — she’s already had four emergency room visits recently — so she went to court to get a judge-approved abortion.”17 There has been a large legal battle as she was subsequently denied an abortion; she ultimately ended up going to New Mexico to get her abortion.

Without getting into all that though, my read of the situation is this: The three cesarians she had already made getting pregnant again risky. However, she was willing to because she wanted another baby. However, that changed when she found out that this baby wasn’t going to live very long. Now, there are a lot of risks for little gain. So, she’d rather end the pregnancy now and have a chance to try again later for a baby who won’t die. In this light, Van Der Breggen’s comments about the selfishness of her kind of attitude seem to be spot on, even if it is completely understandable.

To add to the slippery slope, Van Der Breggen brought up, what if one of Cox’s other kids got in the way of her wanting another baby? What if one of them became ill and the cost of treatments made it financially untenable for Cox and her husband to bring another child into the world? Should she be allowed to kill her born child to make room for a new baby? If the answer is no, then the question is, why should she be allowed to kill her unborn child for the same reason? I would simply add here that what pro-choicers are arguing in this scenario presupposes their own view of the unborn: that they are not a person with a right to life and thus can be treated differently. They are ultimately begging the question.

There is one potential rebuttal I could see pro-choicers coming back with here. “Sure, she could be allowed to kill her born child. It’s called Medical Assistance in Dying. If the child is suffering too much, or he will die anyway, killing him that way would be more merciful.” If they believe that MAID is justified, then killing an unborn child in the womb would be no problem for them either. Van Der Breggen’s book would be a bit stronger with a response to that potential rebuttal.

Summary And Analysis of Part 3

Part 3 covers arguments such as: Chapter 27 Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Justifies Abortion; Chapter 28 we should support Planned Parenthood; Chapter 29 every child should be a wanted child; Chapter 30 Pro-lifers/anti-abortionists are anti-choice; Chapter 31 pro-lifers aren’t helping people after they’re born; Chapter 32 difficulty in policing and enforcing abortion law would render it useless; Chapter 33 it is inconsistent of pro-life groups not to wish punishment for women who have abortions; Chapter 34 you are a man, therefore your arguments about abortion do not count; Chapter 35 not allowing abortion imposes your morality on others; Chapters 36-37 abortion is a morally insignificant issue (parts 1 and 2).18

I’d like to focus on chapter 31. Van Der Breggen makes two important points for those who claim that pro-lifers are neglecting to help people after they’re born to consider. First, he gives some data that shows the opposite is true.

“Witness the proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers/pregnancy care centers. According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, in the US in 2017 there were 2752 such centers providing much help to the woman and their children. Apparently pro-life pregnancy centers served 2 million people and saved communities $161 M in 2017.”19

The unsung heroes of the pro-life movement deserve more recognition than they often get for the work that they do.

He moves on to the touching and deeply personal example of his wife, Carla, who has spent her life meeting the needs of mothers and their born children. She did home care for severely handicapped children. When she and her husband were living in a low-income, high-crime neighborhood, she began a community center to help their neighbors. She tutored some of her neighbors’ kids. She taught parents how to make nutritious but inexpensive meals. And she helped a woman who was caught up in an abusive relationship.20

His second response revolves around showing the logical problems with this pro-choice accusation. He writes, “Even if pro-lifers weren’t (contrary to the fact) helping people after they’re born, this would not make the killing of unborn children morally correct or permissible.”21 In other words, this is an ad hominem argument, or an attack on the character of pro-lifers. This is a logical fallacy that does nothing to address the arguments we’ve put forward for the personhood of the unborn and the moral impermissibility of abortion.

I was quite encouraged by reading this chapter. It assured me that pro-lifers are not the uncaring monsters that the media often portrays us as. It also challenged me to think about how else I could be helping mothers who decide to keep their babies. This may raise a question for others, however, about why they are not hearing more about this charitable work. 

As Van Der Breggen himself writes it is because “They are Good Samaritans who do not brag about their good deeds.”22 This may seem counterintuitive, especially in a culture where people think it is important to post what they had for breakfast on social media, let alone their “good deeds.” But it fits with the demographic since many pro-lifers, as the pro-choice side loves to point out, are Christians. That means we take Jesus’ commands seriously. One of those commands is “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:14) 

It’s enough for us to know that God sees what we are doing and honors us for it. When we do talk about the good works, its more equivalent to Paul’s foolish bragging in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. We’re not doing it for a pat on the back. We’re doing it to counter a false charge being made.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Van Der Breggen has written a sharp, dense, and concise book that cogently argues for the personhood of the unborn and the problematic nature of the arguments for keeping abortion legal. If the arguments do not spur you to action, perhaps the stats Van Der Breggens gives on the number of abortions vs. homicides in Canada will.

“Year 2014: homicides 523. Year 2015: homicides 610. Year 2016: homicides 615. Year 2017: homicides 666. Year 2018: homicides 641. That’s 613 homicides per year versus 95,457 unborn children destroyed per year.”23

If we believed born persons were being murdered at that rate, we would speak up. Shouldn’t we do the same for the unborn?

References

(1) Hendrik Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion: Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments (Amazon, KDP: 2020), 1.

(2) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 2.

(3) Van Der Breggen, Critcal Thinking About Abortion, 7, 10, 12, 15, 22, 24-26, 28, 33, 36, 44, 49, 52, 56, 57.

(4) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 7.

(5) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 7.

(6) Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, “Acorns and Embryos: On Bad Metaphors in Debates About the Beginning of Life,” The New Atlantis, https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/acorns-and-embryos, accessed December 28, 2023).

(7) David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 316-318.

(8) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 22.

(9) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 68-88.

(10) Quoted in Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 86.

(11) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 86.

(12) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 86.

(13) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 86.

(14) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 86.

(15) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 86.

(16) Steve Benen, “Why Texas’s Kate Cox Is Leaving Her Home State for Medical Care,” MSNBC, https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/maddowblog/texas-kate-cox-leaving-home-state-medical-care-rcna129123, (accessed January 5th, 2024).

(17) Benen, “Why Texas’s Kate Cox Is Leaving Her Home State for Medical Care,”(accessed January 5th, 2024).

(18) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 102.

(19) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About abortion, 102.

(20) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 103.

(21) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 103.

(22) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking about Abortion, 103.

(23) Van Der Breggen, Critical Thinking About Abortion, 119.

Cover Photo by Paola Aguilar on Unsplash

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Born in Vancouver, B.C., Chris has been married to Amy since 2017. He has a BA in Religious Studies (Youth Leadership), and an MA in Theological Studies (Apologetics). He enjoys acting, evangelism, and debates.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.