ABORTION AND PERSONHOOD
My own views on abortion, I'm not on either pole of that and neither of the interest groups on either end of this issue would probably be comfortable with my views.
~ Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada (2006 to 2015)
I shudder to think of the consequences of prohibited abortion in our already oppressive society. Like arguments for legal prohibition of gay marriage, those who seek the same for abortion do not see the logical consequences of their campaigns: State intrusion into houses of religion and into medical institutions to assure compliance. It is ridiculous and terrifying.
In this piece, I will examine certain weak arguments concerning the nature of the prenate (as opposed to neonate) at any stage between conception and birth. Arguments that deny prenatal personhood are completely fallacious. But the silliest thing is that there are far more powerful arguments for legal abortion rights that address the real issue while prenatal personhood is taken for granted.
When does life begin? This is very poor wording of one of the central questions in the abortion debate. Life itself is a continuum. Cells are all alive. This means that a sperm and egg, as cells, are alive. But the question isn't about when life begins, it is about the identity and nature of the prenate. The pro-choice movement has bastardized embryology and logic in their attempts to dehumanize the prenate. Terminology must be addressed:
1. Human/Human being: A scientific designation, meaning a member of the species homo sapiens.
It is a biological fact that the prenate is a human being (i.e., the noun phrase, and not just describable with the adjective "human") from conception. It cannot be part of the mother because it has its own genetic code. It is merely attached. On page 10 of his "Evolution, Genetics, Man,1965 edition, published by New York: John Wiley and Sons," the famous geneticist (and atheist) Theodosius Dobzhansky says:
A human being begins his existence when a sperm fertilizes an egg cell
Major textbooks on embryology affirm this as well:
But is it a person? Above my definition gave the context of the issue of the person, but it did not define person specifically. For purposes of this piece, I am not going to define it. However, here are two pro-life views:
However, my objective here is to challenge the logical consistency of pro-choice views which dehumanize the prenate and deny its rightful status as a person.
Are you a person? If you are reading and understanding this article, you certainly are. However, what if someone looking at these letters was only a Mandarin speaker and cannot for the life of them understand what I am communicating? Are they not a person? No answer is necessary.
And for someone to ponder whether someone else is a person, that pondering entity must also be a person.
So you are a person and so am I. Since we have established the scientific fact that human beings exist at conception onward, our question becomes: when does a human being become a human person?
First of all, is there such a thing as a human non-person? Besides the prenate, are there any others (Pro-lifers claim a moral high ground in comparing abortion to slavery. I find this lacking, but slaves would indeed be considered human non-persons)? To pre-empt a possible argument regarding euthanasia of comatose or otherwise irreversibly incapacitated humans: It is illogical to refer to ending a specifically and awfully brain-damaged human person's vitals and then using that to justify that the developing human being in the womb is not a person in any case. Another red herring argument employed here is that a corpse is a human, as if this is a relevant critique. Decomposing bodies, however, are incomparable to a constantly developing prenatal body. Indeed, after abortion, the prenate becomes a corpse.
Second, how and why does location decide personhood? Why is the prenatal human not a person, not even until leaving the mother's womb? And why does it become such the moment after?
Third, "it doesn't have a brain." Brain waves are detectable by EEG at 43 days after conception. Most abortions, then, are still immoral by that definition. The logical end to this criteria is that pregnant women must walk into abortion clinics, have an EEG, and if there was brain activity, she is out of luck. Absurd.
Fourth, the dismissive "It doesn't even look like a human/person. It's just a blob of cells." But we are all blobs of cells. How many human cells must a blob have to make a person? And why are that many cells minus one not a person? And can it be more obvious that the prenate, at any stage of development, looks exactly how a human person should at that stage of development.
Fifth, some would say it is ridiculous to consider the single-celled zygote a person, and one might as well consider a human skin cell the same. The crucial difference, however, is that if placed in a womb (natural or artificial), no amount of time will allow a skin cell to grow as a human being. This ability is unique to a zygote, and is referred to as totipotency, the ability of a cell to develop the cells of all other systems in an organism. It is the only cell that will grow as a human being in a womb-like environment. And the reason it will grow as a human being is that it is a human being.
Finally, the issue of twinning. From conception to fourteen days on, the zygote (though after day 5, scientific specificity labels it as a blastocyst) may split. This is the origin of identical twins. It is argued that it is ludicrous to refer to a zygote as a person when it has the potential to split into two separate entities. This is really irrelevant. Even if the zygote splits later, that does not have any implications on whether it was or was not a person beforehand. As I argue that zygotes are persons, and the zygote in question was a zygote before it was two zygotes, then of course we can consider the zygote a person, in the same way we can consider a person who was the source of a clone a person before he was cloned, on top of considering the cloned individual a person as well, since they now exist. That's the point. Examples of the latter two arguments are found here.
I can understand difficulty in considering the zygote a person. However, there is no other reasonable marker for when a human person comes into existence, except when that human person comes into existence: conception (or twinning).
As Professor Kreeft (linked above) puts it:
There is a common premise hidden behind... these pro-choice arguments. It is the premise of Functionalism, [but c]ommon sense distinguishes between what one is and what one does.
To put it another way, rejection of prenatal personhood is based on a faulty premise, that only if an entity does something, it is a person. But how can an entity, as a non-person, behave personally in order to even change from a non-person into a person? An entity that behaves personally must have been a person from the moment that entity came into existence: conception.
On a related note, I have heard arguments that persons must have well defined personalities. But our personalities are constantly shifting, even slightly, throughout the day and every day. Personality as a criterion for personhood not only commits the functionalist error, but redefines the question of "is the prenate a person" into a measure of personhood, or degree of personhood. But that is silliness. Personhood is not subject to levels or degrees. it is a matter of demarcation between non-person or person.
Proponents on both sides believe it is worth it to lobby for its legality or prohibition. I do not. It is just a shiny ball for politicians to throw in the air to distract from the real and overarching issues such as war, debt, inflation, taxation, and the militarization of police.
To their credit, there are still pro-choice moral and legal philosophers, such as Judith Jarvis Thomson and Walter Block, who take the personhood of the prenate for granted. Those arguments are the only intellectually serious ones that address the actual issue: the bodily autonomy of the woman. It is not my purpose here to refute those arguments (I am unsure that they can be), but only to critique the dehumanization and denial of personhood for the prenate.
Rather than making abortion illegal, it should be made irrelevant. Both pro-life organizations (especially the Vatican) and pro-choice organizations should be pouring money into artificial womb research, also referred to as ectogenesis. Imagine abortion clinics becoming wings in Catholic hospitals. The question of who would take care of these children does not refute its superiority to legal campaigns. Besides, if pro-life organizations were committed to saving babies, they would be doing just this right now.
Unfortunately, it seems they are more interested in shaming young women already in emotional turmoil.