A friend who thinks abortion is wrong and should be prohibited nevertheless said to me, “People aren’t entirely devoid of moral understanding.  Yet everywhere we look, the penalty for committing abortion is less than the penalty for committing murder.  Doesn't this show that though abortion is wrong, it’s less wrong than killing someone who is already born?”

No, it doesn’t.  Persons just after conception, just before birth, just after birth, and three years after birth are equally human, equally innocent, and equally alive, and the deed in each case is equally deliberate.  If the underlying principle is that deliberately taking innocent human life is wrong, it is hard to distinguish among them.

For purposes of discussion I will take my friend’s word for it that most nations do treat the killing of born and unborn persons differently in criminal law.  But then why do they?

Well, there’s my reason for treating them differently:  The intrinsic wrong of the deed is not the only consideration in punishment.  From the fact that the killing of born and unborn persons is equally dreadful, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the culpability of persons committing the deed is also equal.  In other words, even if the deed is just as bad, the degree of guilt for it may not be.

Women who allow themselves to be led into abortions usually do so from weakness and desperation.  Afterward, they often punish themselves much more cruelly than any law could do.  By contrast, abortionists are predators who prey on weakness and desperation.  More is to be accomplished by counseling women, and by providing them with prenatal and postnatal care, than by punishing them.  As to the abortionists themselves:  They should be punished as the murdering predators that they are.

Besides weakness and desperation, other factors may affect culpability.  For example, the true nature of conception was not even discovered until the 1870s.  We now understand that the union of an egg and a sperm produces a unique human individual, complete in the sense that he already possesses everything he needs for his development and growth; we didn’t know before.  Has this fully sunk in?  Perhaps not in all cases.  Confusion does not make the act okay, but it may affect culpability for it.  Notice that this doesn’t affect the culpability of abortionists.  They know how conception works.

Consider too that human imagination is limited, and the unborn child is not visible from the outside.  Abortionists know what the unborn child looks like; in fact they have to, because after slicing him up, they have to reassemble all the pieces to make sure they have extracted them all from the uterus.  By contrast, many women can’t visualize the baby, and prior to a certain point in development, they don’t feel the baby moving either.  This is why ultrasound pictures of the children living in their wombs tend to produce such enormous changes in the outlooks of women considering abortions – and why the abortion industry doesn’t want women to see them.

We could go on about things that may affect culpability.  A more direct response to my friend’s argument has to do with how widespread abortion itself is among human cultures.  She is right that all human beings have some moral understanding.  The problem she overlooks is that the human condition is marked by two universals, not one:  Universal moral knowledge, and the universal desire to evade it.  The first one we owe to our creation; the second we owe to our fall.

So even if the killing of unborn persons has been treated as less serious than the killing of born ones almost everywhere – I don’t know this to be true, but I will take my friend’s word for it -- consider all the other dreadful evils that have been tolerated to one degree or another almost everywhere.  Torture and enslavement of enemies.  Lying to strangers.  The sexual double standard.  Polygamy and mistreatment of wives.  Warring for nothing but power and territory.  Political assassination.

Would we say that because the torture and enslavement of enemies has been practiced almost everywhere, it must not be as bad as torture and enslavement of fellow tribesmen?  Or that because political assassination is treated differently than ordinary murder almost everywhere, it must not be as terrible?

I don’t think so.