Saturday, April 16, 2011

The False Standard of Personhood

Watching my facebook feed today I saw this message appear from an anti-abortion fan page: "The abortion issue isn't about choice, but rather it's about this single question: Is an unborn baby a person?"

While I believe that an unborn baby probably is a person, I think that this actually weakens the position of the Pro-life argument rather than strengthens it. It plays into the hands of abortion advocates because it enters into ambiguous territory, where the waters are murky, when there is no need to do so.

The standard for what constitutes personhood is not a clear-cut issue and some conceptions of personhood wouldn't include a fertilized embryo. Because 'personhood' is a disputed concept which can be interpreted in a variety of ways--many of which include appealing to features that a 1 day old fetus doesn't posses, such as consciousness--submitting to 'personhood' as the proper standard for determining whether a being is worthy of legal protection against murder is an unnecessary concession on the part of the Anti-abortion position. It opens a door for the Pro-abortion position that should remain closed.

Alternatively, the standards for defining what constitutes a unique human life are unequivocal and a matter of scientific fact. If it is never acceptable to destroy an innocent, unique human life then abortion is murder. And a fertilized embryo, at the moment of conception, is all of those things factually: unique (it has its own DNA), innocent (clearly), human (product of the human reproductive process) and life (biologically). This standard affords the pro-abortion position no wiggle room as they literally, as a matter of fact, can't deny any of the descriptors that have been applied to the fetus. Therefore they are forced to concede that they think it is acceptable to forcibly destroy a unique, innocent human life--which any sane, moral person should loathe to admit.

Framing the debate in this way forces proponents of abortion to face just exactly what it is that they are advocating directly, without the vague, murky language of 'personhood' confusing the issue. If an honest person, when confronted with this argument, still wants to say "Yes, it's OK to destroy a unique, innocent human life as long as that life is very young" then I think we have come to a proper impasse. We can now, with a very clear conscience, write off this person's opinion as morally depraved.

This may sound a bit harsh, and I know that for some it is hard to accept that such a contentious issue could possibly be this straightforward with no real grey areas. But I've heard every argument in favor of abortion and none of them serve to refute the logic that I've just laid out.

As for the 'positive' arguments in favor of legal abortion, I can't find any that would be significant given the weight of the argument already laid out:

  • The 'right to privacy' cited in Roe is pure judicial invention and is rightly worthy of scorn.
  • Arguments that highlight the social benefits of abortion are moot because, even if the social benefits are great, that could also be true for infanticide, euthanasia and even genocide. In any of those cases we recognize that any social benefits derived from mass killings are irrelevant because the individual's right to live trumps all social considerations.
  • Focusing on the mother's rights gets you no where because--once we've established that the fetus is a unique, innocent human life--the right to life trumps the 'right to choose'.
  • Arguments relating to the mother's health, rape and incest are advanced on behalf of situational ethics and are not arguments in favor of keeping abortion illegal as such, but only arguments that these special considerations must be taken into account when they arise. Duly noted, but these can't be arguments in favor of legal abortion any more than the fact that sometimes killings happen in self-defense is an argument in favor of legal murder.

Slavery used to be a contentious issue in the U.S. Whether the Earth was flat or not used to be a contentious issue. Whether the Earth was the center of the universe used to be hotly contested. I truly believe, and believe that I can thoroughly demonstrate, that the issue of abortion is more qualitatively similar to these types of issues than truly ambiguous issues--such as what makes a 'person'.


  1. Definitely an interesting perspective, and a well-thought out article. In terms of framing the argument I would still think that the phrase "unique human life" is still subjective in the same way that someone on my side of the fence would argue against personhood; from a genetic sense, they may be made up of the same material, but I would still think that saying that this makes them the same would be similar to calling an egg a chicken, or a caterpillar a butterfly. The problem here is the exact same, which will be convincing people who view being qualified to deserve human rights have some prerequisites, such as being self-aware on even some basic level, that these rights should be extended unequivocally to the moment of conception.

    As a side note, what are your feelings on the "morning after" pill? I know that some of these pills work by preventing a fertilized egg from attaching itself to the walls of the uterus, and while I would assume that this would be viewed as a different issue, I wondered if you think that this should be considered as bad as abortion, or less so, as this also meets the aforementioned genetic description of a human being. Another random question, if a child becomes injured and is in a permanent vegetative state, is it always wrong to take them off of life support? Is it wrong to not find someone to carry the non-optimal embryos that were passed over in in vitro fertilization? Are there instances other than crime- or health-related abortion when an embryo can be ethically terminated?

    I agree with your parallel between self-defense killing and murder vs. abortion relating to health/rape/incest and abortions that people opt for as a result of bad decision-making, flawed birth control methods, drugs & alcohol, etc, and I agree that these should be used as separate issues, as the former is the result of a crime being committed against the mother, whereas the latter is not.

    Lastly, I agree things like abortion rights are contentious issues in the same way that slavery, gay rights, religious and political freedom, and many other ethical issues are debated, but I would say that it is a stretch to say that any ethical debate is as cut and dry as the shape of the Earth; this could only be a cut and dry issue if everyone adhered to the exact same reference for deriving their own morals, which they don't.

    You are a great writer, and I really enjoy reading this stuff, and throwing my undereducated two-cents in to offer up a different perspective. just so you know, I completely understand and respect all of the points that you are bringing up, even though I disagree with you on a few of them, but stuff like this really helps me better understand your overall perspective, as reading my responses is not intended to try and sway your opinion, but help you see how one could logically arrive at my conclusions based on different parameters.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I kind of feel bad taking the tone I did in the piece now since your comment takes a humble, non-combative approach. Whereas I approached the issue with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer.

    That said, the most substantive disagreement I have w/ your comment comes here:

    "from a genetic sense, they may be made up of he same material, but I would still think that saying that this makes them the same would be similar to calling an egg a chicken, or a caterpillar a butterfly"

    Of the 4 key descriptors I used to describe the fetus, the one you are referencing here is 'human'. After all, sperm is also 'human', right? Hair follicles off my head are 'human', but we don't care about destroying those. I understand your point, but I qualified 'human' with "unique", "innocent" and "life". Unlike a chicken's egg, a human sperm cell, or a human hair follicle none of these can be described as all 4 of those things accurately. While a fetus can be decribed in those ways accurately. You can choose to describe it in other ways if you wish, but if I characterize the act of abortion to be "the intentional destruction of a unique, innocent, human life", this is a statement of indisputable fact. I don't have to try to convince the abortion advocate of anything because there's nothing that is up for interpretation on that count. At which point the abortion advocate either must argue that this act that I've described is sometimes OK because of some other consideration (though I listed the ways that is typically attempted, but which don't work), or he must somehow argue that the fetus is not innocent, unique, human or life.

    This comment is already long. I will address some of your other questions in another comment.

  3. As to the morning after pill, I am against it on the same grounds that I oppose abortion on. I see taking someone off of life support as different because you are simply allowing the natural process of death -- which you interrupted -- to take back over. I think creating the non-optimal embryos for in-vitro in the first place, knowing that some will not be implanted or whatever, is wrong, just as wrong as any abortion. In summary, no I can't think of an ethical circumstance that would justify it other than something like the fetus endangering the life of the mother.