Inconsistency in the abortion debate
Harlan B. Miller
Miller, of Blacksburg, is a member of the Voices of the Valley panel.
In his column, "Now grant personhood to fetuses" (Jan. 27), Cal Thomas argued that the Supreme Court, having extended the rights of artificial corporate persons, should recognize the personhood of unborn humans.
The headline added to the column was a bit misleading, for Thomas' position appears to be that while the personhood of corporations is something granted, that of unborn humans is not granted but recognized. That is, that unborn humans are full-fledged persons from which legal recognition has been wrongly withheld.
The claim that the human conceptus/embryo/fetus is a person with a right to life is basic to the arguments of those who would ban abortion. Those who would permit abortion often avoid responding to it directly. But the claim shouldn't be left unchallenged, for it is false. Fetuses (I'll follow custom and use this term for all gestational stages) aren't persons.
The word "human" is sometimes used as a synonym for person, but this is unwise. On the one hand, we have a biological category, the species Homo sapiens. On the other hand, is a moral/political category: a person is one that can act, can be held responsible, has interests that are deserving of consideration, is aware of itself and so on.
Not all members of the species Homo sapiens are persons. Anecephalic neonates, the very very severely intellectually impaired, and those in true irreversible comas are members of the species, but they cannot and will not be able to function as persons. Probably there are persons who are not members of our species. Christians believe in a Trinity of three persons, at most one of whom is a member of the species Homo sapiens. Probably there are nonhuman persons on other planets, and perhaps on this one.
It is very easy to take human and person as equivalent, since (theological exceptions aside) all the persons you know are probably humans, and almost all the humans are persons. A human fetus is a potential person. That is, if all goes well, that organism will develop into a person. But a potential person is not therefore a person. Acorns are potential oak trees, but that does not make them oak trees.
In late stages of gestation, the fetus probably possesses at least some sort of awareness and can experience pain and some sort of pleasure. But no human fetus is as aware of its environment or itself as a steer or a hog. We slaughter these animals for no more important reason than our preference for certain tastes.
Abortions, in contrast, are undertaken only for very serious reasons in the lives of real, unquestioned persons. A consistent opponent of abortion should also be a strict vegetarian.
Of course few of us are consistent all the time. In fact most American opponents of abortion do not really believe that fetuses are full persons with a right to life as strong as yours or mine. It is generally agreed that a ban on abortion must have exceptions. Usually these exceptions are when abortion is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman and when conception is the result of rape or incest.
The first of these exceptions makes sense only if the right to life of the fetus is weaker than that of the woman, and the second and third make sense only if the fetus effectively has no such right at all. Obviously the fetus is not responsible for the circumstances of its conception. A great wrong has been done, but not by the fetus.
Suppose a gang of thugs invades your house, steals and destroys your goods and horribly brutalizes you. Then as they leave they deposit one of their earlier victims, battered and bleeding, on your living room floor. You are responsible neither for her condition nor for her being in your house. But you can't just toss her out in the street. She's a person and you have to help, at the very least by calling 911.
If, in the analogous rape case, you think it is permissible to abort the fetus, then you cannot really believe that fetuses are persons. Your opposition to abortion must -- consciously or unconsciously -- be based on something else, perhaps a belief that sex is sin and women -- but not men -- deserve punishment for it.
My consistency argument does not touch those who insist on a prohibition of abortion with absolutely no exceptions. They are consistent. And they are wrong. Fortunately, they are also a decided minority.
Absolute Arbitrariness in the Abortion Debate
Re: “Inconsistency in the abortion debate” (Harlan Miller, Editorial, 02/09)
Miller admitted that his central argument is impotent against those he defined as consistent pro-lifers. As one so defined, I appreciated his demand for consistency.
Philosophically speaking, however, Miller’s position was perfectly capricious. He aborted common moral sense, insisting that not all humans are persons. The consequence? Answer: It’s never inherently wrong to kill human beings per se. Not until a human achieves or performs certain intellectual and psychological objectives, can killing him/her be morally relevant.
Humanness is a mode of personhood, however, despite there being non-human persons. For being a person is a necessary precondition for functioning as one.
Miller offers some arbitrary criteria for judging which humans he would allow person-ship. Why not skin color? There’s no consensus. Neither over how developed each function must be. Furthermore, how might we empirically test which “interests...are deserving of consideration”?!? Ad nauseam.
If Miller’s correct, then it would be morally irrelevant if your surgeon intentionally killed you while under anesthesia—you’d be a non-person. No one’s safe from being defined out of personhood, and thus killable.
Even granting that “consistent pro-lifers” are “a minority,” thankfully, we far outnumber those like Miller!