Category: bioethics

On Defining Personhood

Before I proceed, a bit of required reading. The linked article speaks about purposeful change or purposeful modification, which can be defined as self-actualizing or -optimizing change. Kevin Tobia, a Graduate student at Yale University, speaks about a self emerging from change rather than the typical self people speak of, namely the self that persists despite change. Purposeful change involve changes resulting in self-discovery or becoming a better version of yourself, be it socially, morally, or what have you.

With that in mind, I think Tobia has, perhaps inadvertently, identified the marquee difference between even infants and fetuses, and has thus tilted the scales even more in favor of the pro-choice position. Fetuses cannot and do not purposefully change or modify themselves, and that’s mainly because they do not exist in the world and therefore, do not have access to the experiences and sensations serving as impetus for such change. Newborns, on the other hand, can and do purposefully change and modify simply because they do have access to the sensations and experiences in the world. There’s also the fact that the parents and relatives of the newborn have expectations of the kind of purposeful changes they’ve already observed in themselves and other people they know, and they can thus extrapolate from such experience and impose such expectations on their newborn.

This definitely sets aside Singer’s argument for infanticide because Tobia has identified a clear demarcator between fetuses and newborns. Purposeful modification is the key component of personhood. What makes for a person is the fact that people self-modify. People, specifically in the absence of psychological or cognitive issues, are concerned with improving themselves. They’re concerned with being better socially. The average teenager, for instance, has insecurities and awkward quirks, many of which they foresee overcoming as adults. Speaking for myself, a lot of awkward quirks in my teens are simply not there anymore and that’s because I’ve purposefully modified them over time; there was this sense of having to grow out of such behaviors. The same goes for the bulk of my insecurities. Rather than recede into a corner during social events, I am more often the guy at the center of room drawing everyone closer because I’m more confident, interesting, and unafraid to introduce myself and hold conversations about a milieu of topics. I’m sure that many of my readers, even the ones who disagree with the pro-choice position, can make similar observations about themselves.

Ultimately, Tobias has provided pro-cholcers with the key component of personhood. In fact, it is both necessary and sufficient to adequately define what is meant by a human person. Of course it goes beyond biology and genetics. It is not enough that a human person is genetically human and related to its parents. There is more that constitutes a person and purposeful modification is clearly the most important identifier of what a person is. This is precisely why fetuses are not persons and are thus exempt from the rights reserved to persons. They are most certainly exempt from receiving these rights because they cannot receive such rights over and above the would-be mother who has a propensity for purposeful modification. That of course leads us into the well-established argument from bodily autonomy, but an argument from purposeful modification is clearly sufficient to dispense with the pro-life position. Fetuses are no doubt genetically human, but they are not one in the same with a human person, and that is because they cannot and do not have the capacity for purposeful change.

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Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, and What Really Matters

By R.N. Carmona

As a pro-choicer, I am used to hearing the worst arguments pro-lifers have to offer. In some cases, arguments aren’t offered. Their convictions are merely repeated (e.g. life begins at conception; abortion is the killing or murder of an innocent human being). Usually, no effort is made to justify these convictions. Of the arguments that pro-lifers could present, only one of the following arguments is commonly used. Given its common usage and given that I find it to be the weakest argument a pro-lifer can use, I will summarize it first. That will then be followed by arguments that I deem stronger. The arguments themselves are actual arguments put forth by knowledgeable pro-lifers who actually engage with the arguments offered by their opponents. The order in which the arguments will appear are in accordance with their degree of strength. Anyone is welcome to disagree with their order since, though I’ve thought about the arguments carefully, their degrees of strength remains a matter of opinion.

The most common, in fact, the only actual, argument pro-lifers put forth is an argument rooted in Franics Beckwith’s shared-value argument. Beckwith’s thought experiment is as follows:

Suppose your Uncle Jed is in a terrible car accident that results in his being in a coma from which he may or may not wake. Imagine that he remains in this state for roughly two years and then awakens. He seems to be the same Uncle Jed that you knew before he went into the coma, even though he’s lost some weight, hair, and memories. Was he an [intrinsically valuable human being (IVHB)] during the coma? Could the physicians have killed Uncle Jed — the living organism we refer to as ‘Uncle Jed’ — during that time because he did not exhibit certain functions or have certain present capacities? If one holds that IV depends on capacities that are immediately exercisable, it is difficult to see why it would be wrong to kill Uncle Jed while he was in the coma. Yet it would be wrong, precisely because Uncle Jed is identical to himself through all the changes he undergoes and that self, by nature, has certain basic capacities.

Consequently, the [Anti-Equality Advocate] cannot reply by arguing that Uncle Jed’s life was intrinsically valuable during the coma because in the past he functioned as an IVHB and probably will do so in the future. For we can change the story a bit and say that when Uncle Jed awakens from the coma he loses virtually all his memories and knowledge including his ability to speak a language, engage in rational thought, and have self-awareness. He then would be in precisely the same position as the standard fetus. He would still literally be the same human being he was before the coma but he would be more like he was before he had a “past.” He would have the basic capacities to speak a language, engage in rational thought, and have self-awareness, but he would have to develop and learn them all over again for these basic capacities to result, as they did before, in present capacities and actual abilities.1

Beckwith’s “Uncle Jed” example has been used, albeit not always directly. There are also variants to this argument. One pro-lifer brought up similar thought-experiments that replace Uncle Jed with a person that’s asleep or with craniopagus conjoined twins.2 The strength of this argument might be obvious to any pro-lifer; rather than asking pro-lifers to consider the weaknesses of the argument, I want them to think on why the following arguments are stronger.

However, prior to moving on to other arguments against abortion, I want to touch on a common variant of Beckwith’s shared-value argument and that is any argument that attempts to make abortion and infanticide analogous. This argument follows from Paul Ramsey who argued that there isn’t an argument in favor of abortion that doesn’t work in favor of infanticide.3 This argument is a shared-value argument because it assumes that fetuses and infants share properties in common.

It can be argued that the next two arguments have the same degree of strength. I, therefore, do not place them in any particular order. The first of the two I want to summarize is Don Marquis’ “Future-Like-Ours” argument. Marquis states his argument forcefully:

The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those  activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.4

Marquis is arguing that all that’s necessary is that we find a shared property between adult persons and fetuses. If this property is found, then we can confer rights on the fetus. That property is that a fetus has a future that resembles ours. This argument can be considered a variant of Beckwith’s shared-value argument since it also rests on values purportedly shared by adults and fetuses.

The next argument I want to focus on is what Earl Connee refers to as the Non-Reductionist conclusion. This view was first expressed by Derek Parfit. The Non-Reductionist conclusion follows from the following argument:

There must be a moment when I started to exist. … . [T]here must be a sharp borderline. It is implausible to claim that this borderline is birth. Nor can any line be plausibly drawn during pregnancy. We may thus be led to the view that I started to exist at the moment of conception. We may claim that this is the moment when my life began. And, on the Non-Reductionist view, it is a deep truth that all the parts of my life are equally parts of my life. I was as much me even when my life had only just started. Killing me at this time is, straightforwardly, killing an innocent person. If this is what we believe, we shall plausibly claim that all induced abortions are morally wrong, except those that save the mother’s life.5

This view is non-reductionist because it doesn’t reduce our personhood or humanity to functions, particularly brain functions. It’s based on the metaphysical proposition that our substance is pivotal to our identity. This conclusion is in keeping with religious belief in the soul.

Since they’re contrasted in Connee’s paper, I’ll go on a relevant tangent to touch on the Reducionist conclusion—which is a pro-choice argument. The Reductionist conclusion stems from the Reductionist argument which could be stated as follows:

On the Reductionist View, we do not believe that at every moment I either do or don’t exist. We can now deny that a fertilized ovum is a person or human being. … [The] transition takes time, and is a matter of degree … . We can then plausibly take a different view about the morality of abortion. We can believe that there is nothing wrong with an early abortion, but that it would be seriously wrong to abort a child near the end of a pregnancy … . The cases in between can be treated as matters of degree. The fertil- ized ovum is not at first, but slowly becomes, a human being and a person. In the same way, the destruction of this organism is not at first but slowly becomes seriously wrong.6

This argument rests on the non-ambiguity of a fetus’ moral status. Since I want this tangent to be brief, I’ll return to how this is established. Furthermore, I’ll attach the argument from the ambiguity of a fetus’ moral status, since it’s germane to the discussion.

The last argument in favor of the pro-life position, which is, in my opinion, the strongest, is the argument from potentiality. This argument is arguably best defended by Reginald William. He states the following:

[I]F all things being equal, the more valuable something is, the more we tend to condemn deliberately preventing its existence, it is also natural to think that when something is of but slight or modest value, we would not condemn just any deliberate act that ends up preventing its existence. It is plausible to think that, in such an instance, we would only condemn a deliberate act that results in there not being something which itself stood to engender the relevant object of value.7

The above is a clear statement of the argument from potential. William gives us several examples (e.g. the seed and food) arguing not only from potential but also from the value of the thing preceding that which we deem valuable. The reason this argument has the highest degree of strength is because it’s compelling and likely the most philosophically sound point that can be made. William tells us the following about people who encounter this argument:

Yet many people who encounter these criticisms, including Grade-A philosophy students and bona fide philosophers, end up endorsing the argument from potential at the end of the day.8

This isn’t surprising since strong arguments are usually convincing and/or difficult to grapple with. In other words, even them who disagree with this argument have to think carefully; their reasoning has to be clearer if they are to refute the argument. This isn’t always obvious, so acceptance can follow; if not, one might opt to remain agnostic on a given matter.

The above serves as a summary of the best pro-life arguments. In fact, these are the arguments we should commonly hear. Unfortunately, what we get is poisoning of the well, false analogies (e.g. abortion is murder), ad hominem, and appeal to emotion. Aside from misrepresenting pro-choicers and the case we’re making, they’re also damaging their own case. If any pro-lifer fails to see the strength the above arguments have over the usual mantras, propaganda, and outright lies put forth by some pro-lifers, it is a failure in reason. The arguments above aren’t only stronger, but they’re more conducive to the discussion. You’ll get further in a discussion on abortion if you choose to present one or more of these arguments rather than marginalizing your opponents and making sweeping generalizations about them.

With that said, let us return to the Reductionist conclusion and the points used to support the argument. McMahon argued that a fetus becomes a person at the onset of brainwaves.9 Given this, it can be said that the Reductionist conclusion is also a progressive conclusion since the argument attempts to show a clear path from non-person to person. McMahon isn’t the only person to argue this. Michael Gazzinga states the following.

Clearly, I believe that a fertilized egg, a clump of cells with no brain, is hardly deserving of the same moral status we confer on the newborn child or the functioning adult. Mere possession of the genetic material for a future human being does not make a human being. The developing embryo that becomes a fetus that becomes a baby is the product of a dynamic interaction with its environment in the womb, its postnatal experiences, and a host of other factors. A purely genetic description of the human species does not describe a human being. A human being represents a whole other level of organization, as distinct from a simple embryo as an embryo is distinct from an egg and sperm. It is the dynamics between genes and environment that make a human being. Indeed, most of us are willing to grant this special status to a developing entity long before it is born, but surely not before the entity even has a brain.10

I placed particular emphasis because that statement, in particular, demonstrates how there’s an underlying progression in the Reductionist Conclusion. Toward the end, he speaks of granting this special status to fetuses before birth; however, he states that we can’t grant them this status before they have brains. Another iteration was offered by Gertler:

GB Gertler proposed 22-24 weeks gestation, on the basis that the neocortex begins producing EEG waves at this time. Underlying this proposal is the view that human cognition is the beginning of cognitive capability and the point at which protection of personhood should begin.  In similar fashion, Burgess and Tawia defined functioning brain as one where there is identifiable activity of the kind that normal adult brains (cortices) indulge in.  They argue that what is required is a critical minimum level of structural organization, with functional components present and mature enough to perform.  On the basis of EEG readings, they conclude that a fetus becomes conscious at 32-36 weeks gestation.11

The Reductionist conclusion is therefore the result of an argument stating that personhood reduces to brain function. This is what is meant by the non-ambiguity of a fetus’ moral status. It’s status isn’t ambiguous since we can demarcate, on the basis of empirical conclusions, between a person and a non-person and therefore, between a fetus and a fully developed human being.

Pro-choicers who are unaware of these empirical conclusions can argue from the presumed ambiguity of the fetus’ moral status. They can argue that since we can’t establish whether or not a fetus is a person, it is best to side with precaution. Using this reasoning, Nathan Nabis offers his Precautionary Principle:

When dealing with a decision between the freedoms of choice and consciousness belonging to an actual woman as opposed to the uncertain moral status of a fetus gestating in her body, the most cautious option is to honor the physical and mental integrity of the woman and her best judgments regarding her own interests. This position requires the least amount of comprehensive assumptions.12

The Precautionary Principe, even in light of the fact that we can establish personhood, is compelling. Even if we agree that a fetus is a person, it is a very peculiar kind of person since its gestating the body of another person. If bodily autonomy is a chief unalienable right, then the right to choose should remain a legal option. This is closely related to what is arguably the strongest argument for the pro-choice position—the argument from bodily autonomy.

The argument from autonomy can, but does not have to, follow from the Precautionary Principle. Torcello argues “that where moral uncertainty is a factor, a society is not justified in enacting oppressive legislation that encroaches on the physical and mental autonomy to which free and equal citizens otherwise have a right in a just liberal society.”13 In other words, if the moral status of the fetus is uncertain, a government cannot infringe on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

In where it doesn’t follow from the Precautionary Principle, one could refer to Margaret Olivia Little who stated that “a person’s right to life is circumscribed at the point at which that life involves occupying and using another’s body.”14Or one could also cite Susan Sherwin who “argues that pregnant women can justifiably refuse to view their fetus as having full moral standing because of the ontological dependence of the fetus on the pregnant woman. The fetus would not even exist without this unique and intimate dependency on the pregnant woman.”15 One could also cite Judith J. Thompson’s marquee paper in where bodily autonomy takes center stage.16 It’s curious that pro-choicers make use of their strongest argument(s) whereas pro-lifers do not.

In any case, does this really matter? My response is that it does matter, but not as much as some of us may think. In arguing about the politics and ethics of abortion, some of us have lost track of the most important issue. If we can mitigate or put an end to something by merely focusing on its precursors, then why not focus on those precursors? Sure, pro-lifers and pro-choicers can’t find much common ground as we’ve seen; however, common ground isn’t impossible to find. I’m not alone in seeing that reducing abortion is a reasonable goal. Pro-lifers may add that they want to put an end to abortion. However, in order to reduce or put an end to something, the same steps have to be taken. This is where we find common ground!

I don’t have to agree with your reasons for wanting to put an end to abortion. I only have to agree with you in concluding that targeting the precursors of abortion is a valuable endeavor in and of itself. The decision to have an abortion is often due to multifarious reasons. Among these reasons are the fact that the woman can’t afford to raise a child, having a baby would dramatically change her life, or she doesn’t want to be a single mom or experience relationship issues.17 The first of these reasons is important because it leads us to a problem people, whether pro-lifer or pro-choicer, should be concerned about: poverty. The poverty rate for children was 19.9 in 2013.18 As of 2008, the abortion rate among poor women increased even though the overall rate decreased.19 If so many children are currently in poverty, how can we expect the mothers of those children to continue a new pregnancy in all cases? It’s only reasonable that some of them will choose abortion.

This leads, of course, to another issue we should be addressing. If one can’t afford a child at the moment, one should do everything in one’s power to prevent pregnancy in the first place. As statistics have shown, abortion decreases with age, particularly after the age of 19; that is to say that abortion rates are higher among younger women.20 This may imply an educational or literacy problem. More sex education is necessary. More preventative measures need to be available so that abortion rates continue to decrease. This, to me, is a reasonable goal no matter what your personal motives are.

Then there’s the issue of relationship issues. We cannot expect a woman to want to carry the child of an abusive significant other. Given that this is a problem according to statistics taken year after year, we should be focused on domestic violence. This is, no doubt, more difficult to address than the previous issue. Providing sex education is one thing, but convincing abusive men that abuse is wrong seems to be a more daunting task. Also, abusive men aren’t made overnight. There’s obviously something that needs to be addressed in overall male psychology.21 This implies taking therapeutic measures that aren’t always available. Regardless, this is something we should want to figure out.

This is why I argue that the abortion debate doesn’t matter as much as some of us think it does. The moral status of a fetus, potentiality, shared value, reductionism, and non-reductionism are merely smokescreens. There’s a real issue behind the plumes that deserves our attention. Limiting abortion by focusing on its precursors is a worthwhile goal. Whether one sees it as a worthwhile goal because of its inherent value or because one desires to put an end to abortion doesn’t matter. In other words, one’s religious, political, or personal motives for wanting to motion against the precursors of abortion makes no difference. This is common ground. This is where we can stand together. Reducing abortion is periphery when considering male psychology and domestic abuse, poverty, lack of jobs, and sex education or sex illiteracy. This will make a bigger impact—leave a deeper imprint; families would benefit more, abortion will be reduced, and more importantly, babies will be born into self-sufficient households. The arguments, whether for or against abortion, are entirely secondary when considering these issues. I can only hope that this is salient.

Works Cited

1 Wilcox, Clinton. “Arguments Against Fetal Personhood.” Secular Pro-Life Perspectives. 4 Feb 2013. Web. 21 Nov 2014.

2 See “On Personhood and An Informed Pro-Choice View”

3 Chapman, Stephan. “From Abortion to Infanticide”. Chicago Tribune. 22 Apr 1982. Web. 21 Nov 2014.

4 Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral”. Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, pp. 183-202. 1989. Print.

5 Connee, Earl. ”Metaphysics and the Morality of Abortion”. Mind 108 (432) (1998): 619-646. Print.

6 Ibid. [5] 

7 William, Reginald. “Abortion, Potential, and Value”. Cambridge University Press. Utilitas Volume 20 Issue 02 June 2008, pp 169-186. Print.

8 Ibid. [7]

9 Ibid. [7[

10 Gazzinga, Michael. “The Ethical Brain”The Dana Foundation. 1 Jul 2005. Web. 21 Nov 2014.

11 Jones, D Gareth. “The Problematic Symmetry Between Brain Birth and Brain Death”. Journal of Medical Ethic Issue 24:237-242. 1998. Print. Available on web.

12 Torcello, Lawrence. “A Precautionary Tale: Separating the Infant from the Fetus.” Res Publica Issue 15: 17–31. 2009. Print.

13 Ibid. [12]

14 Kaposy, Chris. “Proof and Persuasion in the Philosophical Debate about Abortion.” Philosophy and Rhetoric Volume 43, Number 2: pp. 139-162. 2010. Print.

15 Ibid.

16 Thompson, Judith J. “A Defense of Abortion”. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1. 1971. Print. Available on web.

17 Finer, Lawrence B., et. al. “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives”Guttmacher Institute. ND. Web. 21 Nov 2014.

18 “Poverty”The United States Census Bureau. ND. Web. 21 Nov 2014.

19 Wind, Rebecca. “Abortion Rate Increasing Among Poor Women, Even as it Decreases Among Most Other Groups”Guttmacher Institute. 23 May 2011. Web. 21 Nov 2014.

20 Ibid. [17]

21 Arkowitz, Hal. “Are Men the More Belligerent Sex?”Scientific American. 1 Apr 2010. Web. 21 Nov 2014.