The Right to Life is not an Achievement

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English: Personhood NOW banner flies in front ...

English: Personhood NOW banner flies in front of the United States Supreme Court during the 2009 March for Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I saw another cartoon defending women’s so-called “reproductive rights,” asserting that they concern a woman’s own body and no one else. Besides being based on a radically individualistic premise, the claim begs the question regarding the status of the fetus (“fetus” is used here as shorthand to refer to any stage between conception and birth). Slogans–on both sides of the abortion camp–hide the real issue of the personhood status of the fetus. Moral rights apply to persons. Thus, removing a human being from the category of human personhood serves to deny it the moral right to life. With no moral right to life, there need be little or no protection for the human being who lacks personhood.

The problem with such views of personhood derived from Locke’s view that human personhood supervenes over the human being is that these positions are based on the notion that a human being accrues personhood as the result of an achievement of some kind. Some deny personhood to the fetus until the possibility of twinning and other divisions of the fertilized egg into multiple organisms. Bonnie Steinbock believes that personhood supervenes on the human being when the nervous system reaches the level of sophistication to allow sentient experience in the fetus. Justice Harry Blackmun in Roe v. Wade placed the point of personhood at viability, when the fetus can survive outside its mother’s womb. Judge John Noonan considers the fertilized egg to be only a potential person, but with such a high degree of probability of becoming a person that it deserves legal protection. Mary Anne Warren believes that some ability to reason is essential before a human being can be labeled a “person.” Peter Singer and Michael Tooley hold that personhood only begins after the child is born and has lived a few years.

It is interesting that those who propose an achievement view of human personhood disagree so radically with one another on the nature of the person-granting achievement. Despite over forty years of debate, this issue remains unresolved. The answer given depends on what the philosopher him/herself values as being important in human life. For Singer and Tooley, the ability to reason and consider alternative courses of actions is what makes a person a person. Steinbock, following Bentham, holds that sentience, the ability to feel pleasure or pain, is what is essential to personhood. How can those positions be reconciled? How much achievement is necessary before a human being becomes a human person? Given such radical disagreement, would it not be safer to follow the most conservative position possible in order to avoid the chance of killing a human person?

It is also important to point out that the achievement view can be applied at any point in life, since a person can be injured and lose the ability to reason or the ability to have sentient experience (though it is difficult to know when these properties have been lost given our ignorance of the subjective conscious experience of the injured individual–some would argue it is practically impossible to determine level of consciousness, sentience, or reasoning ability, especially since some individuals have normal cognition with only a small amount of brain tissue [see the link at http://www.flatrock.org.nz/topics/science/is_the_brain_really_necessary.htm%5D). Thus if a person loses the ability to reason, then on a Singer/Tooley/Warren account, the individual loses personhood as well. But then we are thrown back to the intractable debate over which achievement is the person-granting one–and taking the most conservative position possible is best to avoid killing someone who may well be a human person.

Now if the person is constituted by a formed, functioning organic body, as Aristotle and Aquinas believed (note that both matter and form–form being the “soul” of a living thing, are essential, and the organism is a soul-body unity), then human personhood begins from the first moment of a formed organic body. That takes place at conception in which a new genetic code is formed and a new organism comes to be. Growth and development are filling in the patterns already found in the form through protein coding by genes. If someone argues that there is not a true organic body until a short time after conception, it is still best to take the most conservative position possible and affirm that human personhood begins at conception and that killing a zygote is as much murder as killing an innocent adult. If that is the case, then a fetus is not merely a part of a woman’s body, and the rhetorical argument based on the woman’s rights to her own body fails.

 

“Stop all that Negativity”

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I have read a number of online posts on controversial topics such as abortion or the nature of marriage. Almost invariably, when a traditionalist posts against abortion or in favor of marriage being only between a man and a woman, a liberal will protest, “Stop all that negativity!” This is another tactic that social liberals use to cut off rational debate. Instead of taking the time to think through the issue of when human personhood begins or the nature of marriage, these “liberals” attempt to stop debate with a rhetorical ploy. “Negativity” is an emotive word; it has the connotation of opposing everything, even good things. Americans like positive people, and thus the screed, “Stop all that negativity” appeals to emotions and poisons the well against the person allegedly presenting the “negative” message.

Of course any rational person realizes that issues such as abortion and the nature of marriage should be discussed based on the best scientific, philosophical (and in the case of people sharing a religious tradition), theological reasons both sides can present. Such issues are far too important for one side to try to intimidate the other with the “negativity” label. If the social liberal is confident in his position, he would argue based on empirical and rational arguments, and he would avoid using such an emotive and below-the-belt rhetorical tactic to halt debate before it can begin.

This is not to say that conservatives cannot be guilty of the same crime. They also have a duty to rationally and empirically debate issues rather than using only appeals to emotion or attempting to cut off debate. But lately it has been the social liberals who have been most guilty of this particular appeal to emotion by labeling social conservatives “negative” people. And in that respect, they should change their tactics or admit that their positions are irrational, based only on their emotional wants.

 

Are Graphic Ads of Aborted Unborn Children the Way to Present the Pro-Life Message?

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Our Pro-Life Statue Blessed Mother Teresa of C...

In Washington, DC, a candidate for public office has run graphic ads on television showing images of aborted fetuses. Although I understand, as someone who believes abortion to be one of the most morally reprehensible and evil practices of the contemporary era, the frustration of pro-lifers, I do not believe that graphic ads are a good way to present the pro-life message.

One difficulty is that while some people may be persuaded by such images to believe that the fetus is a human person, this approach may harden others against the pro-life cause. The other major difficulty is that when pro-lifers appeal to emotional images, this is no better than pro-abortionists showing images of clothes hangers or of a woman’s physical damage from illegal pre-Roe v. Wade abortions. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander–the pro-abortionists will fight emotion with emotion.

People with a conscience who will listen to reason may be persuaded by a rational pro-life case, along with pro-lifers being engaged with service to women in difficulty pregnancies through crisis pregnancy centers. This approach has worked well thus far; there are 200,000 fewer abortions in the U. S. each year than at the height of the post Roe v. Wade era, abortionists are looked down on by other physicians, and for the first time in many years, more people describe themselves as “pro-life” rather than so-called “pro-choice.” As long as pro-lifers continue to appeal to both empirical and good rational arguments, they will have an impact in reducing the moral outrage of abortion. But graphic images will only inflame emotions, bring out more aggressiveness in an already overly-hostile press, and may, ironically, result in more abortions in the long run. Pro-lifers, for the most part, have taken the high road thus far. They should continue to do so, and with God’s help, more unborn children will be saved every year.