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Can Atheists Defend Abortion Without Defending Infanticide?

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Baby

NOTE: The following post, the first of two from Trent Horn, is excerpted from a new book he will publish in September defending the pro-life position.


 
Let's begin by noting that while not all atheists are pro-choice, a sizable majority are. In fact, a recent Gallup poll revealed that those with no religious attachment are the most likely demographic to identify as pro-choice.

With that in mind, let me present what I think is the strongest argument for the moral and legal permissibility of abortion, often made by atheists:

“Pro-life advocates say that abortion is wrong because the fetus or embryo has human DNA. However, merely possessing human DNA doesn’t make it wrong to kill something because then it would be wrong to kill gametes (sperm and egg) or tumors that also have human DNA. Instead, it is wrong to directly kill innocent persons.”

But what is a person?

“A person is any being who is capable of rational thought and/or self-reflection. Since fetuses and embryos are clearly not persons due to their inability to engage in rational thought, it follows that abortion is not immoral and should remain legal.”

Sounds like a familiar argument so far. What makes it hard to refute is if you tack this part on to it:

“Yes it’s true that newborn infants cannot engage in rational thought that surpasses higher-order animals like pigs or dogs, which are also not persons. But this only means that newborn infants are not persons. Just as it is not immoral to euthanize a pet because it is unwanted, it is simply not immoral to euthanize an infant that’s unwanted because infants aren’t persons.”

Michael Tooley famously defends this view in his 1982 book Abortion and Infanticide. Peter Singer defends a limited view of infanticide and several years ago the issue came up in the media with the publication of a journal article defending “after-birth abortion.”

What makes this argument hard to refute is that it is consistent. You have to dig deep with the argument’s metaphysical assumptions about persons to show what’s wrong with it instead of just pointing to a repugnant conclusion of the argument.

But what about the pro-choice atheist who thinks infanticide is wrong? Can he consistently defend legal abortion without opening the door to infanticide? I don’t think so and here’s why.

The Worst Pro-Choice Arguments

 
The following arguments that defend abortion without allowing for infanticide are very bad and pro-choice philosophers know it. Even still, they are common so I’d like to get them out of the way right now.

Abortion should be legal because women have a right to choose.

If by “right to choose” you mean “right to have an abortion,” then you’re using circular reasoning. You’re saying, “Abortion should be legal because women have the right to have an abortion.” The conclusion is being used to support the premise and the argument is now invalid. However, if by “right to choose” you mean something like “right to control one’s body” then see my comments on bodily rights arguments at the end of this post.

Abortion should be legal to help alleviate overpopulation, poverty, and child abuse.

Should we also kill the homeless and the disabled in order to alleviate those problems as well? Unless the pro-choice advocate can show the unborn are not persons while born people are persons who can’t be killed to ease social problems, then this argument just assumes it’s permissible to kill fetuses and not permissible to kill infants (and other born people). It’s missing a reason that justifies killing fetuses because the world is overpopulated, but not born people.

Don’t like abortion, don’t have one!

If you don’t like firing someone because they identify as being gay then don’t fire them, but don’t take away another person’s right to choose to discriminate against these people. See what I did there? If we don’t have the right to discriminate against, harm, and especially kill, born persons, then we don’t have the right to do the same to the unborn unless one can show they are not persons.

The unborn are not human like an infant. They’re just embryos/fetuses or a clump of cells.

If by “human” you mean “person” I’ll get to that in a moment. If by “human” you mean “an individual member of the species homo sapiens,” then this is just patently false. David Boonin, in his book A Defense of Abortion writes,

“Perhaps the most straightforward relation between you and me on the one hand and every human fetus on the other is this: All are living members of the same species, homo sapiens. A human fetus after all is simply a human being at a very early stage in his or her development.”1

Peter Singer also holds this view and writes,

“It is possible to give ‘human being’ a precise meaning. We can use it as equivalent to ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’. Whether a being is a member of a given species is something that can be determined scientifically, by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms. In this sense there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being . . .”2

Finally, embryo and fetus refer to the stages of development in a human being’s life, so they don’t disprove an entity is not a human organism. Likewise, the unborn are not “clumps of cells” but complex cooperating cellular units that develop for the good of the whole organism. If the unborn are clumps of cells, then so are we.

Abortion should be legal otherwise women will die in back alley abortions.

How does the danger involved in a bigger person killing a smaller person justify making legal for the bigger person to kill the smaller person? The pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren says of this argument, “The fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that restrictions are unjustified since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of prohibiting it.”3

You’re a man.

So men can’t have an opinion on this issue? (No, they just can’t have an opinion that takes away women’s rights!) Oh . . . so they just can’t have a pro-life opinion since you would not be upset at a man speaking out in defense of abortion (like the nine male justices who decided Roe v. Wade). In any case, just pretend I’m a woman making the same arguments.

The main issue: What is a person?

Now, for a lot of these arguments a pro-choice reader might be screaming, “But killing toddlers, the homeless, and the disabled is different than killing fetuses!” This is because many pro-choice advocates believe the former are persons but the latter are not. But do they have an argument to justify that belief? More importantly, can they consistently show the unborn are not persons without showing that newborns are not persons either?

Let’s try out some sample definitions of what a person is and see if they work:

Before I get started I want to point out a bad way of defining “personhood” that I often see among pro-choice advocates. Instead of offering a definition for personhood they will just offer a disqualification. They might say, “A person can’t be the size of a grain rice”; “A person can’t be an immobile unthinking blob of cells”; or “It’s just obvious embryos aren’t persons!”

Okay, but don’t tell me what’s not a person; tell me what is!

In order to say fetuses and embryos are not persons you already have to know what a person is in order to disqualify them from being considered persons. For example, we can say a snake is not a mammal because it lacks the traits a mammal must possess (like being warm-blooded). We only know snakes aren’t mammals because we already know what mammals are.

Likewise, we have to know what a person is in order to say embryos and fetuses are not persons. So are there any definitions of what a person is that excludes embryos and fetuses without excluding infants?

A person is any being that can engage in rational thought.

This definition excludes the unborn along with the newborn (and the long-ago born) who can’t engage in rational thought.

A person is any being that has the potential to engage in rational thought.

This definition includes the newborn as well as the unborn so it can’t be used to defend abortion. You might counter that newborns have primitive brains while embryos do not have ay kind of brain at all (fetuses have a small, primitive brain). According to Nature magazine, a newborn’s brain increases from 56 trillion synaptic connections to 1,000 trillion at nine months after birth. If we grant newborns are persons even though their brains still have a lot of developing to do, then why not grant the same status to the unborn that also just have more of the same kind of developing to do?

How could the amount of time it takes to grow a fully functioning brain affect one’s moral status? Why does the newborn’s undeveloped non-rational brain grant it special rights but the fetus’ undeveloped non-rational brain, or even the embryo's genetic code to make a rational brain, not grant those beings the same rights? Why does the stage of an undeveloped organ’s growth change a being’s moral worth?

A person is any being that can feel pain.

This definition excludes most embryos and fetuses, as well as adults suffering from congenital insensitivity to pain. Also, it includes non-human animals like rats. It makes running over a chipmunk and fleeing the scene a felony.

A person is any being that is born.

Cats and dogs are born. Are they persons?

A person is any being that can survive outside of the womb.

This definition has the same problem as the previous two definitions.

A person is any human organism that can survive outside of the womb.

This is just circular reasoning at its finest. “A human organism that can survive outside of the womb” is the same thing as “not a fetus” (this also applies to the definition of personhood being “any human organism that is born” as well). This argument just says, “A person is not a fetus because a fetus is not a person.” But that’s like saying women aren’t people because a person is any human that has a Y-chromosome.

In the absence of any supplemental reasons to justify the claim that birth or Y-chromosomes matter, these arguments are simply fallacious.

A person is any human organism that does not depend on the body of another human organism in order to survive.

Why should we believe this criterion is correct? How does the way a person survives change their moral status?

In the year 2000, a British court had to decide what should be done with two conjoined newborns named “Jodie” and “Mary.” Mary could not survive without being connected to Jodie’s heart and lungs while Jodie could survive without being connected to Mary. Unfortunately, Jodie’s organs were expected to fail after a few weeks due to the strain of supporting both herself and Mary. The court decided that the most ethical decision was to separate Mary from Jodie so that at least Jodie would survive. But the court emphatically stated that Mary, in spite of her complete dependence on Jodie, was still a person with a right to live. The court said,

“All parties took for granted in the court below that Mary is a live person and a separate person from Jodie . . . in the face of that evidence it would be contrary to common sense and to everyone’s sensibilities to say that Mary is not alive or that there are not two separate persons.”4

A human organism gradually becomes a person over time.

This critic says that there is no precise moment when a human becomes a person, but by the time a fetus is born it obviously is a person. But this just assumes newborns are persons without giving a reason why they are persons. Once again, we need a definition of what a person is besides, “A person is who I think a person is.”

Alternative Responses

 
So I think I’ve shown that any defense of the claim that unborn humans are not persons will either entail that newborns are not persons, or include non-human animals as persons as well. It seems that there is no consistent way to deny the personhood of embryos and fetuses and affirm the personhood of newborn infants. As Peter Singer says,

“[P]ro-life groups are right about one thing: the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make such a crucial moral difference. We cannot coherently hold that it is all right to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive.”5

But maybe there is another way pro-choice advocates could defend abortion without defending infanticide. One way would be to concede that newborns are not persons but claim that there are other reasons that make infanticide immoral.

I’ll confess though that I haven’t found those reasons to be very persuasive (e.g. our species couldn’t survive if we killed too many babies, infanticide might make us heartless, etc.). They seem to be very “ad-hoc,” or cited just to support people’s emotional revulsion to infanticide. Due to space issues I will probably comment on them in a future post if the discussion warrants it.

The other way would be to use what are called bodily rights arguments in defense of abortion. While infants live outside of a woman’s body, fetuses live inside of it—which could be a morally relevant difference between the two cases. Even if the fetus is a person, perhaps abortion can still be justified based on the woman’s right to control her body.

I’ll take a look at those arguments on Wednesday in Part 2 of this series.
 
 
(Image credit: Fast News Release)

Notes:

  1. David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2003) 20. I will admit I think that Boonin’s “desire-based” argument against fetal personhood is the best attempt at defining abortion to exclude fetuses, exclude non-human animals and include newborns, but due to the length of this post I have not included it. I am willing to do that in a future post.
  2. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 73. And before you link to it, I’m familiar with Ophelia Benson’s post on this quote. Singer goes on to say, “ . . . and the same is true of the most profoundly and irreparably intellectually disabled human being, even of an anencephalic infant – that is, an infant that, as a result of a defect in the formation of the neural tube, has no brain.” But this doesn’t refute my point. Boonin and Singer admit that any human organism, even a dying anencephalic one (or an adult who blew the top of his head off with a shotgun) are human organisms or biological human beings. The question of whether they are persons is a different issue.
  3. Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” The Monist, 57, no. 4, 1973.
  4. In Re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) [2001] Fam 147, Court of Appeal, Ward, Brooke And Robert Walker LJJ, Page 182. PDF)
  5. Peter Singer and Helen Kuhse,“On Letting Handicapped Infants Die,” in The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy ed. James Rachels (New York: Random House, 1989), 146.
Trent Horn

Written by

Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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  • jakael02

    Interesting topic. I'm curious of people's definition of 'person" because I don't have a precise definition established at this point.

    • Whatever the definition, should it be based on fact or opinion? Scientifically, human life begins at conception as an objective and observable fact. To say the first stage of one’s life begins at some other threshold of consciousness or viability is subjective; a matter of opinion. To declare something as important as this on something subjective is irrational, especially when something objective is available.

      • jakael02

        Well put. This should be based upon fact & not subjective opinions.

      • David Nickol

        Scientifically, human life begins at conception as an objective and observable fact.

        But nobody denies this. Human life begins at conception, but there is a difference between human life and a human life. The former does not necessarily imply personhood. The latter often does.

        The question is whether in the early stages after conception the embryo or fetus has rights at all, and if it has rights, does it have all the same rights as a newborn child or an adult.

        • Agreed. If it is about personhood, let’s make it personal. Are
          you a person? If yes, when did you become a person? Would you like people to answer these questions based on objective data or subjective data?

          • David Nickol

            I am almost certainly a person, although I think the idea of having a number of selves explains a lot. However, personhood is a philosophical concept, and all the "objective" data in the world cannot decide a philosophical issue. There is no way to "scientifically" arrive at a definition of personhood.

            Assuming there is really such a thing as multiple personality disorder (as in The Three Faces of Eve), can it be said definitively that one body is one and only one person? If a human being exhibits two or more distinct personalities, some of which are not even aware of the others, is that one person?

          • Michael Murray

            Are you the same person you were yesterday ? Can you stop being that person by meditation ?

          • Martin Sellers

            "can it be said definitively that one body is one and only one person?"

            Does it matter? I think for purposes of this discussion we are only interested in when "person hood" (be it multiple single or changing) begins and can be established by law.

            Interesting concept though about multiple personalities though- How does the law currently regulate such things? If one personality commits a murder, is the whole body culpable?

          • Guest

            In order to distinguish one thing from another we make observations and/or gather data, we analyze and interpret the observations/data and then we reach conclusions. To distinguish living Thing 1 as a person and living Thing 2 as a non-person, it becomes scientific in part whether we like it or not. A question then becomes… what data do we to use and why are we using it?

          • In order to distinguish one thing from another we make observations and/or gather data, we analyze and interpret the observations/data and then reach conclusions. To distinguish living Thing 1 as a person and living Thing 2 as a non-person, it becomes scientific whether we like it or not. A question then becomes… what data do we use and why are we using it?

          • David Nickol

            To distinguish living Thing 1 as a person and living Thing 2 as a non-person, it becomes scientific whether we like it or not.

            All the scientific/empirical data in the world will not yield a definition of the concept of person. If I say having a brain and a certain kind of measurable brain waves makes a human being a person, the presence of the brain and the measuring of the brain waves are empirical matters. But science cannot prove or disprove that my definition of personhood, or some other definition, is correct. That is a philosophical question. Science doesn't answer philosophical questions. If science could answer philosophical questions, they wouldn't be philosophical questions. They'd be scientific questions.

          • TANGENT ALERT:
            When discussing the existence of God, atheists insist on scientific/empirical evidence. When discussing the existence of Personhood, atheists insist we cannot use scientific/empirical evidence. Seems some employ science only when helpful to their world-view. I'm not picking on you; it's just a general observation. Reality consists of both the material and the immaterial. We should consider both.
            Peace.

          • David Nickol

            When discussing the existence of God, atheists insist on scientific/empirical evidence.

            Just for the record, I am not an atheist.

            When discussing the existence of Personhood, atheists insist we cannot use scientific/empirical evidence.

            I think you are confusing the issue. One might invent a philosophical definition of personhood that made use of some empirically verifiable criteria. I might argue, for example, that for a human being to be considered a person, a nervous system with a certain minimal level of functioning must be present. So the scientific verification of the nervous system functioning at that minimal level would confirm the existence of a person, according to the philosophical definition. However, science could not be used to verify the definition of personhood. That is a purely philosophical argument not open to proof or disproof by science. (Also, it is not a matter of discussing the existence of personhood, but the definition. It does seem to me, thought, that it could be argued that no such "thing" as personhood exists. One might say it is a useful concept, but it has no objective existence, and there are gray areas where it is debatable where and whether the concept applies, for example, an baby born without a brain.)

          • Even if only a philosophical question we circle back to “what
            data should we use and why”? A nervous system with a certain minimal level of functioning? Who would define the minimum level? How about the observation of a new set of human DNA, alive & growing, with a genetic mother and father? What could be less ambiguous than that? We live our lives in stages. The moment of conception is simply the earliest stage. To say you had no right to be alive when you were in your earliest stage amounts to no more than a brutal kind of age discrimination.

          • David Nickol

            How about the observation of a new set of human DNA, alive & growing, with a genetic mother and father? What could be less ambiguous than that?

            Just because it might be unambiguous doesn't mean it is a good definition of a person.

            Robert George, speaking of the number of early embryos that die, says:

            To be a complete human organism, a human being, the entity must have the epigenetic primordia for a functioning brain and nervous system, which may be lacking as a result of a severe chromosomal defect.

            Certainly with our current technology, the only way to tell if a fertilized egg or early embryo has "the epigenetic primordia for a functioning brain and nervous system" is to let it grow and see if a functioning brain and nervous system develops. So according to Robert George, at least your definition is inadequate. It will identify as persons a large number of early embryos which are too genetically defective to develop into persons and hence are not even potential persons, let alone actual persons. In fact, more than half of early embryos that you would identify as persons might turn out not to be persons.

            It cannot be said with any certainty at all that a person is present from the moment of conception. Most early embryos will die, a great many of which very likely because they didn't have the necessary genetic material to grow for more than a few days.

            What you are saying is that because we know that you and I and everybody we know started as a fertilized egg, then fertilized eggs are persons. But that is somewhat like saying that all babies are future adults. Of course, they aren't. Only the babies that will live long enough to be adults are future adults. But we have no way of knowing which babies will live to adulthood. So it is only looking back from adulthood that you can say any baby was a future adult.

          • David Nickol

            One further point. Theists (and many others) would no doubt argue that philosophy precedes science. You can make scientific arguments without metaphysical assumptions.

    • mriehm

      It's a red herring. Trying to define personhood is impossible. But it is not the issue at stake.

      • Martin Sellers

        how would you define the issue?

        • mriehm

          A baby develops from zygote to nine-month fetus. At the stage of a one-month zygote abortion poses no ethical problems. After nine months the ethical problems are overwhelming in the vast majority of cases.

          Where, in this continuum, do we draw our line?

          • Martin Sellers

            Well, many want to draw that line at the point where "person hood" (whatever that means) is established. Not everyone believes defining person hood is impossible, and those people believe that a definition of person hood can be reflected in law. So in terms of the discussion I'm not sure trying to define what person hood is is a red herring.

          • mriehm

            It can be defined. Anything can be defined. But because of the continuum in development, it is a mistake to view it as a black-and-white transition from one clear state to another.

            Many theists in this discussion, including the OP, are exploiting the inherent greyness of "personhood" to extrapolate and apply that label all the way back to a single-celled zygote.

            I do not think that is reasonable.

          • Martin Sellers

            Agreed. However, like pro- life advocates, pro-choice advocates are also exploiting that greyness of "personhood" to extrapolate and apply the label at other stages of growth, such as birth. Goes both ways.

          • mriehm

            Yes, it is abused in both directions. To support abortion at 38 weeks is an abomination.

  • Steven Dillon

    I find it curious that Trent doesn't mention one of the oldest arguments used to show that zygotes/embryos and early fetuses aren't persons, but that newborns are, especially since Thomas Aquinas was one of its most able defenders.

    The argument defines a person the same way Trent undoubtedly does: an individual substance of a rational nature.

    It's been called the argument for delayed ensoulment, and is still held by many Thomists today.

    Consider that matter comes in all kinds of forms: organic, liquid, solid, sub-atomic, etc, and that a piece of matter must reflect the form it instantiates. E.g. A chunk of brick cannot be instantiating the form 'liquid'. Let's call this principle the 'reflectivity of matter'.

    It follows that if some parcel of matter is instantiating the form of an individual substance of a rational nature, then it is reflecting that form.

    But, the matter of zygotes/embryos and early fetuses manifestly do not reflect such a form. Instead, they manifest vegitative and animalistic organs and functions, but certainly not rational ones.

    The principle of the reflectivity of matter shows that they are only potentially persons. Note, any ambiguity in identifying when the change takes place does nothing to undermine the basic metaphysical principle at work here, a principle which is acceptable to both theists and atheists.

    [I should add that it's begging the question to say if an organism is biologically human, it's metaphysically human as well. Biological species is determined by biological characteristics, metaphysical species by metaphysical characteristics, and it's only the latter that are relevant to determining 'personhood'.]

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Steve, Aquinas was ignorant of biological facts about the early stages of human development in the womb. They thought it was at first a composite of semen and menstrual blood.

      Who are these "many Thomists" who believe the fetus is not animated from the moment of conception?

      • Steven Dillon

        But, the metaphysics behind Aquinas' erroneous biology seems to do the argumentative work here: 'every matter is configured to its form' - SCG 2, 89.

        I'll have to get names when I'm home (on my phone atm), but it's something I've gathered from discussions with Thomists and reading guys like Fr. Joseph Donceel.

    • TomD123

      I think though the question is more complicated. Certainly when someone is asleep he does not reflect his rational capacities. Does his form change during the hours of the night? Also, a disabled person (make the disability as severe as you wish as long as the human is still alive) would lose his human form, but that seems very odd.

      I am not offering a solution, only saying that the reflectivity of matter doesn't show as much as you are saying alone. Other premises would be necessary.

      (on a side note, from a biological perspective, the reason why the early human cannot exercise certain rational capacities has to do with brain development, not the type of thing that it is)

      • Steven Dillon

        Well, sleeping and disabled people retain their forms. If they didn't, they'd die, since death is just the separation of form from matter. Their rational capacities simply go dormant, perhaps for a short time, maybe for life.

        But, their matter nevertheless reflects the rational soul: it's the only possible way they have the typically advanced human brain, or other organs which rely on such a brain to function properly.

        We simply cannot say the same things for zygotes/embryos and early fetuses. The reason they do not have developed brains is because they're not reflecting a form which fulfills its rational capacities through use of a developed brain: it's because they're not actually persons that they don't yet have the biological machinery of persons.

        • TomD123

          You could argue however that the DNA is the biological machinery or that the human body considered itself is. If we are going to say that actually exercising rationality is not necessary for reflecting the form, then we must find something else

  • Chee Chak

    Can Atheists Defend Abortion Without Defending Infanticide?

    Very poor choice of words for the title of an article. Since 50 percent of Catholics apparently support pro choice. The title of the article seems a bit inflammatory, and construed at first glance to be "baiting" atheists.

    The title should instead read...Can Those who defend Abortion do it without Defending Infanticide?

    Poll: 50 percent of all Catholics support abortion in ‘all or most cases’
    http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/poll-50-percent-of-all-catholics-support-abortion-in-all-or-most-cases

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I agree that the real question is, what principle can let one defend abortion without defending infanticide? I also agree that whether one is a theist or atheist is not relevant to such a question.

    • Martin Sellers

      agree

  • Greg Schaefer

    Trent.

    You ask: "Can he [a "pro-choice atheist"] consistently defend legal abortion without opening the door to infanticide?"

    The answer, of course, is "yes." That is because a number of other considerations and "rights" are implicated in the context of abortion; for many of us, it's not as simple as proclaiming that every human blastocyst, once conceived and implanted in the uterus, has a "right" to the full protections given to "persons" under US law.

    David Boonin, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, mounted just such a defense in an April 30, 2014 debate at the University of Minnesota with Prof. Peter Kreeft. I haven't seen the video of that debate posted to YouTube as yet, but they also debated each other back in 2010, and I believe a video of that debate is available on YouTube.

    For a deeply thoughtful, book-length treatment, see Prof. Ronald Dworkin's "Life's Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia and Individual Freedom" (1993). Prof. Boonin also has a book on the subject, "A Defense of Abortion" (2002).

    • Trent Horn

      Greg,

      You say "of course" but don't offer any specific reasons to justify that conclusion or attempt to define what a person is.

      I'm familiar with Dworkin and Boonin's work and even cited Boonin in this post. I think Boonin's argument, while intricate and well-thought out, ultimately does not succeed either in it's critique of fetal personhood or it's defense of limited bodily autonomy.

      • Greg Schaefer

        Hi Trent.

        I posted my original comment when I reached that point in your article and before I'd read down to the section where you mention Prof. Boonin. I'm happy to see that you did at least mention him and that you also cited his book, " A Defense of Abortion."

        I've noted in another comment I posted a few minutes ago why defining "what a person is" strikes me as an unproductive way to advance the discussion in this country over abortion, so I won't repeat that here.

        I'm not surprised that you ultimately reject Boonin's (and, Dworkin's, presumably) analytical framework. Otherwise, you'd have come to a different conclusion than you have on the abortion issue. But, my point was that those who have come to a conclusion on the abortion issue different than yours (or the Catholic Church's doctrinal position) might have arrived at their conclusion based on serious, thoughtful consideration and on the basis of deeply-held moral views.

        Everyone has to decide these matters for themselves. And, every society has to come to a decision on how to resolve the competing rights, considerations and values implicated by abortion. My hope is that some readers at Strange Notions who simply cannot imagine how any serious, thoughtful person could ever arrive at a moral "pro-choice" position will read Dworkin's and Boonin's books to come better to understand those on "the other side" and to reject the reflexive demonization of "pro-choicers" so characteristic of some on the "pro-life side."

        • Trent Horn

          That's fine Greg. I appreciate your thoughtful tone and would enjoy seeing it shared by more commenters and agree we shouldn't automatically demonize opposing positions. However, I don't reject Dworkin and Boonin's analytic approach, in fact that's my favorite approach in philosophy. I just don't think their argument's succeed.I also think that it's fine to have a multiplicity of views, but when it comes to human rights sometimes one position shoudl be endorsed if it has the best arguments because human lives are at stake.

          • Greg Schaefer

            Trent.

            It is certainly the case that human lives and human rights are involved in the abortion debate and, at least from my perspective, it does a great disservice to the "pro choice" cause that some pro choice advocates ignore that.

            I do not take lightly the reality that each decision to abort results in the termination of a human life. That, of course, is all the more reason why society would be better off if we were to do more to ensure that every child that is conceived is wanted by its parents, and if we had a greater societal commitment to seeking, for all babies once born, more access to decent medical care, greater support for their parents, more equal opportunities for meaningful education, and better conditions in which to nourish human flourishing.

            After all, human rights are also implicated, and the course of human lives can likewise be materially impacted, when all women are forced to give birth to all fetuses in light of what we know about overpopulation not to mention the statistical fate of so many children who were not wanted by their parents or brought into this world by parents who lacked the requisite skills, resources, judgment, maturity and support (and sometimes even normal parental love) to effectively nurture and raise them.

            And, thank you as well for the respect and charitableness of your tone in the context of our discussion!

          • Martin Sellers

            I heard someone say once that "rather than seeking an end to abortion, we should seek an end to REASONS people want abortions."

            That always struck a chord with me.

          • David Nickol

            From the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document Declaration on Procured Abortion:

            23. On the contrary, it is the task of law to pursue a reform of society and of conditions of life in all milieux, starting with the most deprived, so that always and everywhere it may be possible to give every child coming into this world a welcome worthy of a person. Help for families and for unmarried mothers, assured grants for children, a statute for illegitimate children and reasonable arrangements for adoption - a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honorable and possible alternative to abortion.

          • Martin Sellers

            Thanks for that.

          • June July

            This is an amaging post. For information go Signs of Pregnancy

  • TomD123

    I agree with most of what the article says, but I struggle with the title. Atheism denies the existence of God. There is no direct and obvious connection between this belief and favoring legalized abortion. Even though the article points out that most atheists favor abortion, this doesn't definitively tell us anything about the nature of atheism itself. Even if it did, it wouldn't explain why atheism is a position that is more logically compatible with legalized abortion.

    Now, there may be a question of how atheism relates to morality itself. That much is a reasonable question. I think there are complex issues in play there because a world picture without God has drastic implications. But that is a different question. If atheism (or any other position) is incompatible with objective morality (not something I am arguing right now), then it follows that killing anybody for any reason is okay. So I don't think that this article really addresses that. If atheism entails that it is okay to kill early infants and fetuses but not adults, then this only raises the question as to why belief in God somehow makes killing fetuses wrong.

    I think we need to be careful about using the term atheism and talking about its implications. Some things aren't as simple as "Atheist vs Christian."

    • Jonathan Brumley

      I suspect the title of the article was chosen to narrow the scope so that religious arguments against abortion are excluded from the conversation.

    • Pretty much spot on from the atheist point of view. I would say atheism does not entail anything. It is a single response in the negative to the question of whether any gods exist.

      • TomD123

        Well, views can entail other views still, even if they are negative. Atheism entails that Catholicism is false for instance.

        That said, yes it is a single response to one question and it is not a group of views

        • Doug Shaver

          Atheism entails that Catholicism is false for instance.

          Only insofar as Catholicism talks about God. If the church's only argument against abortion is that God forbids it, then atheism must deny that. But if the church has any other reasons to oppose abortion, then an atheist could find at least one of them convincing.

  • Greg Schaefer

    Trent.

    One major structural concern with your approach is that, at least under US law, deciding to characterize a human blastocyst, embryo or fetus as a "person" is effectively question-begging. That is because the US Constitution (and many state constitutions) and other federal and state laws explicitly give legal rights and protections to "persons." That is (at least one reason) why the so-called "pro-life" position seeks to frame the debate by defining human life from the moment of conception as being "persons." Because then the "pro-life" position "wins" the debate simply by definition.

    But, that approach ignores why the abortion debate has proven so intractable in the US over the past 40 years. People of good faith (note, I am not using "faith" here in the sense of religious faith but in the more generic, vernacular sense of genuine, sincere and respectful beliefs/values) can be found at all points along the spectrum in the abortion debate based on the weight they give to the various competing "rights" and moral considerations involved and how they balance those rights and considerations in thinking about what it means to live a meaningful human life. That extraordinarily broad and complex mix of deeply-held views is why this country remains so deeply divided over whether and to what extent a developing human being inside the mother's body should be accorded legal rights that trump competing legal rights of the mother.

    Unfortunately, the public policy debate on this subject in the US has devolved in the past few decades into far too much heat and far too little light, with too many partisans on the extreme ends of the spectrum resorting far too often to simplistic sloganeering and name-calling and pillorying of deeply-held moral positions of others simply because they arrive at a different position based on how they balance all the competing considerations.

    • Trent Horn

      Thanks for your reply Greg and I agree there has been much heat and too little light on this issue. But I don't think that the conflict of deeply held views shows that there is no right answer or that the "pro-choice" view is de facto correct. An absence of consensus does not equal an absence of truth.

      I also disagree that reaching the conclusion the unborn are persons is question begging. It would be if you had no good argument to reach that conclusion. But if you had independent reasons to believe in a definition of personhood that happened to include the unborn, then such an approach would be valid. In the post I tried to show that most definitions of personhood that exclude the unborn simply don't work.

      • Greg Schaefer

        Hi Trent.

        I'm not saying that the "pro choice" position is de facto correct. But, by the same token, I'd reject the contention that the "pro life" position is de facto correct, either.

        While institutional religions are free to define their own doctrinal beliefs on this issue, from the perspective of secular societies like the US, comprising an exceedingly diverse and disparate mix of believers in countless faith traditions as well as non-believers, this is not an issue in which it makes any sense to conceive that there is some metaphysically "correct" or "right" answer. Rather, every such secular society can arrive at different answers as to whether abortion will be permitted and, if so, under what circumstances based on how that society chooses to weight and balance a number of competing considerations.

        The so-called "pro-life" position -- perhaps more objectively characterized as "pro-birth" -- privileges the perspective of the blastocyst/embryo/fetus over all others and invests it with a legal "right" to be born.

        The "pro-choice" position recognizes and/or accords greater weight to a woman's right of bodily autonomy, the ability/right of women to make decisions they believe to be in their own personal and perhaps also the other members' of their families best long-term interests, and the sense of autonomy and ability to self-determination and self-control over the course of our lives, rather than allowing basic biological processes necessarily to dictate significant portions of the life paths of many of us.

        The reason I admire Prof. Dworkin's book, and commend it to others here -- as well as why I find Prof. Boonin's approach a better balancing of the competing interests involved than Prof. Kreeft's and the Catholic Church's -- is because Profs. Dworkin and Boonin recognize and treat with respect the moral views that inform and animate people all across the spectrum on the abortion issue. Societies that set policy and prescribe rules without recognizing deeply-held but differing moral views among their citizens and which do not seek to the greatest extent feasible to give deference to the rights of each of their citizens to live their lives in accordance with their consciences, autonomy and ability to chart their own live's path cannot thrive and cohere over the long-term.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I think the question is not when a human life becomes a person.

    Person simply means a kind of living being with reason and free will. Human beings are in principle this kind of being.

    We are human beings the moment our lives begin, no matter what term is used to describe us (zygote, embryo, fetus, newborn . . . octogenarian), until we are no longer alive.

    Soul just means "that which makes a certain kind of living being that kind of living being." As stated above, we are that kind of living being with reason and free will. So, we become persons the moment we become human beings. We become a human being the moment we become alive. This new life undoubtedly begins at conception, according to modern biology. Can anyone think of some other time human life begins?

    • David Nickol

      Person simply means a kind of living being with reason and free will. Human beings are in principle this kind of being.

      In what sense can a fertilized human egg be said to be a "living being with reason and free will"?

      You say the "question is not when a human life becomes a person," but then in your second sentence you give a definition of person that you clearly intend to include all "human beings" from the moment of conception.

      I think the concept of a spiritual soul actually complicates the issue. The Catholic Church says a human person consists of both body and soul. As I understand it, the Church does not claim to know for a fact the moment of ensoulment. Now, if human beings really do have spiritual souls, then clearly the moment of ensoulment is the moment a human being becomes a person. That, of course, is one religious view among many. And it leaves room to argue that abortion would not be the killing of a person if it is done prior to ensoulment.

      As I always note in these discussions, Judaism has a different religious belief as to when full personhood begins, and that is at birth. This is why, within Judaism, although abortion for most reasons is a serious moral issue, abortion to save the life of the mother is not merely permissible, but arguably mandatory. The life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the unborn, because the unborn is not fully a person.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        You might find this hard to believe but I am not advancing a religious argument at all. I was very surprised to discover that in the Aristotelian/Scholastic philosophy, soul is simply the life of a certain kind of being. When it is there the life form is alive and when it is gone that life form is dead. This is why they could say plants and animals also have souls (vegetative and sensitive souls, respectively).

        The kind of soul or life that human beings have is one which can reason and has freedom of choice. One kind dumb way of putting it is, it is what it is, and it is that from the beginning, even if a new born baby can't talk or think abstractly.

        • David Nickol

          You might find this hard to believe but I am not advancing a religious argument at all.

          How can you not? As a Catholic, you believe the only explanation for the human ability for rational thought is the existence of an immortal, spiritual soul. Aristotelian philosophy doesn't apply.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Yes it does. Aristotle thought the soul was spiritual (non-material) and might be able to survive the body for that reason.

            The origin of the human powers of rationality and freedom are one thing. The fact that they exist are another. Catholic philosophers argue that the human soul is non-material and hence immortal on the basis of reason, due to what the soul can do.

            Does that adequately explain "how I can not"?

    • Chee Chak

      This new life undoubtedly begins at conception,

      This "new life" with all it's human potential.
      I don't think that anyone can seriously contest that fact.That much at least seems obvious.

      However, when that human life becomes a "person" by whatever definition, with all the rights that entails, seems to be the unanswerable question.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        At what point before a living human body is 21 is he not a human being and hence not a person? Recall, that person and human being really mean the same thing and both of them mean a living member of our species. The idea of personhood determining rights was frankly some bullsh!t cited by the majority opinion of Roe v. Wade.

        At what point after 21 is this individual no longer a human being/person?

        The only rational point is when the life starts--at conception--and when it ends--at death.

        • Chee Chak

          At what point before a living human body is 21 is he not a human being and hence not a person?

          I have no definitive answer for your question and I am far from being alone in that.
          Unfortunately there's no agreement in medicine, philosophy or theology as to what stage of foetal development should be associated with the unconditional right to life.
          Personally I believe that the foetus is a member of the homo sapien species through all stages of pregnancy, and I also personally do not support the abortion legislation as it stands at this time, especially in the case of late term abortions. Until the bioethicists the, doctors the rest come to some agreement on this matter, then any political movement or solution to the dilemma will not be forthcoming anytime soon.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So, we are like the antibellum South. Slavery is such a thorny issue, who knows if coloreds are really people? Even the Supreme Court can't tell us for sure.

          • Doug Shaver

            The Supreme Court never suggested they might not really be people. It just said they had no legal rights even if they were people.

        • mriehm

          No, this is very misleading. "Personhood" and "human being" cannot be equated. I do not believe that a single-celled zygote is a person. And yet I do believe that a seven-month-old fetus is a person.

          I believe that it is fairly clear what a "human being" is: a distinct organism with human DNA.

          "Person" is a label with no clear boundaries.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Then personhood is a meaningless concept. If fact, it is being used to deny the right to life of the unborn.

          • David Nickol

            Then personhood is a meaningless concept.

            I think perhaps personhood is impossible to define exhaustively. It is a little bit like life. For example, there is an ongoing debate about whether viruses are alive. You can make arguments both ways. Life and alive are not meaningless concepts, but that does not mean there may not be cases where perfectly reasonable people of good will disagree about their application.

            I think it is possible to argue that the definition of person might very well reasonably apply to some animals.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Meanwhile, persons just like you once were are slaughtered with impunity by their own mothers and others in collusion with them.

          • Doug Shaver

            "Person" is a label with no clear boundaries.

            Then personhood is a meaningless concept.

            There is no clear boundary between day and night. That doesn't make those words meaningless.

          • mriehm

            No. The imprecision of that label is being misused by the theists here, including the OP, to make a case against abortion at any stage in the development of the fetus.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I'm trying to use the term person in a non-arbitrary way.

            Why?

            If personhood is arbitrarily made the basis of rights, and people with power determine when personhood begins (that is what the Supreme Court did), then not only are the unborn unsafe, so is every other human being, because your personhood can be arbitrarily defined away.

          • mriehm

            I'm not trying to discuss legal definitions. I'm trying to discuss ethical rights and wrongs. Ultimately laws have to be crafted, and so labels (perhaps "person") have to be defined. And it would be most unwise to apply such labels arbitrarily. That's why we have science, so we can avoid arbitrariness.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Okay. How can personhood be defined scientifically non-arbitrarily?

          • mriehm

            Part of me wants to be flip and say, "I don't know, I'm not a developmental neurologist." ;)

            If you read my various comments in this article, you'll see that the point I am trying to make is that it is a mistake to apply the label "person" at all. So I don't want it to be defined scientifically. I think it is best left out of the discussion entirely.

            Instead, let's get knowledgeable scientists to talk about things like neurons, cognition, sensation, and pain.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Okay. Then on what basis do you have the right not be be murdered but an unborn human being at some stage in its development does not?

          • mriehm

            I don't believe that the failure in viability - whether natural or induced - in a one-celled human zygote is ethically wrong. I do not believe it is murder.

            I believe that the ethical wrong of forcing a woman to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term, and bringing a possibly-unwanted child into life, is greater than the ethical wrong of terminating a one-celled homo sapiens zygote.

            I also believe that the ethical wrong of causing undue suffering in the higher animals is greater than that of terminating a one-celled human zygote.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Planned Parenthood and NARAL applaud you.

          • Michael Murray

            And Catholics for Choice

            http://www.catholicsforchoice.org

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You mean the Bolsheviks for Democracy?

        • David Nickol

          The idea of personhood determining rights was frankly some bullsh!t cited by the majority opinion of Roe v. Wade.

          It has been years since I read Roe v. Wade, and I don't want to go back and reread it. But clearly only a person can have legal rights, and the unborn are not recognized as persons in our legal tradition, which goes back hundreds of years. This is why pro-lifers attempt to get "personhood amendments" passed—because the law does not recognize the unborn as persons. In the New York State penal code, for example, we have:

          1. "Person," when referring to the victim of a homicide, means a human being who has been born and is alive.

          Would you have citizenship, for example, determined by where a baby is conceived instead of where it is born? Should the unborn own property? There are very good, very practical reasons why, legally, personhood begins at birth.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The law?

            "Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life
            begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy,
            and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

    • mriehm

      Actually DNA is "that which makes a certain kind of living being that kind of living being".

      • Kevin Aldrich

        No. There is DNA in corpses but it is not capable of animating that body.

  • David Nickol

    As has been brought up recently in other threads, there are estimates that as many as 60% to 80% of human embryos conceived die within a few days as a result of their failure to implant. Let me be careful to say that if human life (personhood) begins at conception, this staggering loss of life would not in any way justify induced abortion. Certainly no one would argue that the higher the infant mortality rate, the more morally acceptable it is to kill newborns. But this enormous loss of early life does, it seems to me, raise the question of when it is reasonable to consider personhood to begin. "Theologically," there is certain a question as to why God, who (according to the old Baltimore Catechism) made us to know, love, and serve him in this world and be happy with him forever in heaven, arranged it that so many human beings never live "in this world." It seems quite possible that those of us who actually exercise intellect and will are a minority. Ethically, it raises serious questions about what our obligations are to that 60% to 80% who die within a few days. As Michael Sandel has pointed out, if comparable numbers of newborns died within a few days, it would be a medical emergency demanding immediate attention and uncounted billions of dollars for medical research to discover the reasons for the immense losses and to do whatever possible to prevent them. Yet early embryo loss is not considered a problem in humans and gets far more attention in cattle, where efficiency in reproduction makes it an important issue.

    It seems clear that whatever philosophical arguments one may devise, we do not have a sense that early embryos that die are "real" human beings. Also, Michael Sandel has pointed out (as have others) that it would be a rare individual who, in the event of a fire in a fertility clinic, would opt to save canisters containing large numbers of frozen embryos instead of saving, say, one nurse threatened by the flames.

    I would also note that many in the pro-life movement (especially, it seems to me, politicians) who oppose abortion and even claim that the right to life begins at conception, nevertheless support embryonic stem-cell research. Philosophical arguments can be devised to "prove" that fertilized human eggs are "persons," but (rightly or wrongly) a great many of us find it intuitively bizarre to claim that an entity of one, two, four, eight, or sixteen cells, visible only under a microscope, is a person.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      This is a terrible bigotry based on size and appearance. A person's a person, no matter how small, remember?

      Actually, do you know any women who have had miscarriages? These are heartbreaking to many of them.

      • David Nickol

        This is a terrible bigotry based on size and appearance.

        I wonder how many people who claim their hearts bleed for unborn babies are doing everything in their power to see that refugee children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, are sent back to the miserable and dangerous conditions in their own countries as quickly as possible. Which are more important, unborn children or "post-born" children.

        Thank goodness the Catholic Church is on the side of immigrants and their families!

        • Kevin Aldrich

          That's an old and false rhetorical trick. "Don't dare to talk about x until you prove your sincerity by doing something about y."

        • Martin Sellers

          "Thank goodness the Catholic Church is on the side of immigrants and their families!"

          Are you being sarcastic? To my knowledge the Catholic church is one of the leading forces in the world for social justice/ immigration reform/ and the defense of human dignity.

          • David Nickol

            Are you being sarcastic?

            No, I was not being sarcastic. I admire the way the American bishops stand up for the welfare of immigrants (including illegal immigrants).

    • Martin Sellers

      "Ethically, it raises serious questions about what our obligations are to that 60% to 80% who die within a few days."

      This question had bothered me as well.

      However, ("IF" we consider an embryo a human life) I think there is something to be said about the a possible ethical obligation over the death of embryos by natural causes in the womb (even if they are staggering numbers) and the ethics of a conscious CHOICE to dispose the embryo for personal reasons.

      • David Nickol

        As I have said, the apparently enormous loss of life in the few days after conception can in no way justify abortion, any more than a high infant mortality rate could justify killing newborns. But if you believe life begins at conception, how can you just ignore the extraordinarily high rate of early embryo loss? It is a matter of consistency.

        • mriehm

          One of the things which makes me a hardcore atheist is the suffering and deaths of infants and women in childbirth. Also of children. The old theodicy problem. I cannot reconcile these issues with the notion of a loving god.

          The very-high rate of early embryo loss also contributes to my feelings. Not that there is any suffering or tragedy in this - it is just a fact of nature. In fact, it is the banality of it that speaks against god.

          I'm not trying to divert the discussion by saying this. It's more of a lament.

  • Jonathan Brumley

    "A person is any being that can engage in rational thought."

    This definition would exclude anyone who is _temporarily_ unable to engage in rational thought.

    • David Nickol

      This definition would exclude anyone who is _temporarily_ unable to engage in rational thought.

      I don't see why. Would you claim that an attorney is an attorney only when practicing law? Or that LeBron James is a professional basketball player only when he is on the court playing basketball?

      • Jonathan Brumley

        I was thinking of the case where a person is knocked unconscious. During a period of unconsciousness, a person _cannot_ engage in rational thought. The potential is there, yes, but there is presently no ability.

        Your examples would seem to refer to a different definition, a person is someone who is "licensed to engage in rational thought", or "someone who has engaged in rational thought in the past".

        • David Nickol

          To say "A person is any being that can engage in rational thought" is not the same as saying "A person is any being that is in the process of engaging in rational thought."

    • mriehm

      And it might include other apes and dolphins, and perhaps other animals.

  • David Nickol

    You’re a man.

    And so am I. And so, it appears, at least so far, is everybody who has weighed in on this thread. (I have never seen a discussion online about abortion where men didn't predominate.) I don't think it is the case that men ought not to express opinions on abortion, but it does seem to me that a discussion about abortion without the perspective of women, preferably women on both sides of the debate, is going to be missing something important. A couple of things I read from women's points of view have stuck in my mind. The first one comes to mind because I notice that we have been discussing abortion here almost as if pregnancy did not exist. But of course, for every abortion there is obviously a pregnant women. Regarding pregnancy, I remember this from Vox-Nova:

    radicalcatholicmom PERMALINK
    January 14, 2009 3:43 pm

    You know, one conversation I really enjoy having is speaking with elderly women about their feelings about family, birth control, and what they believed before contraception became readily available. I know that I have been shocked at the numbers of women (my gym, my Grandma’s retirement community, etc), who tell me how THRILLED they were to have birth control finally. My friend’s Grandma, a good Catholic woman, said that every time she got pregnant, she would go and weep in her bathroom and fantasize about how to make “it” go away naturally. I have to think, then, that there is a huge disconnect.

    Men ought to think about what it's like to be pregnant. Of course, a wanted pregnancy can be a wondrous thing, but an unwanted pregnancy can be a personal catastrophe.

    I can't now find the second comment, but it was on abortion to save the life of the mother, and there had been arguments (as always) about how we should "err on the side of life." One of the women pointed out that when a woman has a life-threatening pregnancy, we know the pregnant woman is a living, breathing human being. It does not make much sense to only consider the fetus and "err" on the side of its life.

    We tend to forget in discussing abortion that pregnancy is a unique situation, and while there may be some analogies that are helpful in working out the morality of abortion, pregnancy is nevertheless totally unique. It is a case of one human being being inside of, and completely dependent on, an adult woman who has a life of her own. It is not immediately apparent (to me, at least) that an unborn human being, even if it is a person, should necessarily be treated the same way as a "post-born" human being. Pregnancy is a unique situation, and the rules that apply to it may be quite different than the rules that apply to any other situation.

    • Michael Murray

      Pregnancy is a unique situation, and the rules that apply to it may be quite different than the rules that apply to any other situation.

      Indeed, this is the point that is always ignored.

    • Martin Sellers

      This a good point about input from women and the notion of pregnancy being ignored.

      Thanks for the link above about perspective following the advent of widely used contraception.

      However, I think there is another side to the coin. My grandmother for example was coerced/forced into using contraception for much of her marriage by my grandfather who didn't want to have any more children. I agree many women experience freedom from widely available contraception, but there may be others who feel oppressed by societal/marital/family expectations that contraception will be used.

  • mriehm

    The argument presented by Trent can be summed up as this:
    1) It is immoral to kill a person;
    2) It is impossible to define the boundaries of personhood;
    3) Therefore abortion is immoral.

    One problem with this argument is that it is rooted in the definition of the label person. Trent does a good job showing that finding a clear demarcation of "personhood" is not easy. Drawing that line is also difficult in cases of coma.

    But so what?

    Back in my days studying math and physics, we would often look at the boundary conditions to a problem. How does it behave in the extreme?

    In this case, the extreme is a one-celled zygote, immediately after fertilization. The organism has no nervous system. No brain. No thoughts. As discussed in previous articles on this site, countless numbers of these organisms are created naturally, all the time, and they fail to become viable. In other words, they die. There is no ethical issue with the deaths of those organisms.

    The other extreme, mentioned in the original article, is a fetus one week before natural birth. Healthy and completely viable. I do not argue that there would be a severe ethical issue were that fetus to be killed.

    So on the one extreme, we have no ethical issue, and on the other extreme, we have a definite issue.

    In between? In between, we have greyness. No black, no white. No clear ethical choice. Sorry, but that is the way our world often is, and trying to lump everything into black or white results in extremism.

    The fact that we cannot clearly define personhood is simply a recognition of the greyness of this issue (and many others).

    The best we can do is to recognize the fundamental greyness of the problem and come up with arbitrary boundaries. I'll trust in the developmental neurology community to do that.

    • Raul88

      "Greyness" implies that, at some point, you have a human being that is, let's say, 50% the value of one "complete" human being. (In math terms, a consequence of the Intermediate value theorem) If you find the concept of "half value human beings" unacceptable, then you have two options. 1) you accept there is a moment when some tiny change (one extra cell, one minimum brain wave, etc) gives the unborn the "complete value" or 2) You accept the "complete value" comes from the very beginning.

      • mriehm

        Thanks for the straw man, but I reject it. It is far too simplistic.

        • Raul88

          No straw man.

    • Jakeithus

      Viewing the idea of personhood as a spectrum as you are attempting to do simply seems like begging the question to me.

      May I ask why you're trusting the neurology community to come up with a boundary for personhood? What is it about being an expert on the nervous system that makes them any more qualified to make the determination of when personhood begins?

      On one hand, it seems like you're saying we cannot adequately define or explain what personhood is, but then you're turning around and saying personhood has to do with the development of the nervous system. I don't see how one can have it both ways.

      You seem to be approaching the issue of personhood as a spectrum, but are not providing any reasons for why that should be the case. In order to say something is a spectrum, you should be able to measure that something at different points along the line, but without being able to define what you are measuring the whole framework falls apart.

      • mriehm

        I'm not arguing that personhood is a spectrum. I'm arguing that fetus development is a spectrum. Personhood is a label, and we can debate forever about labels and where to apply them in the spectrum of development.

        I believe it to be absurd to speak of a single-celled zygote as a "person". I also believe it to be horrific to contemplate the abortion of fetuses at 39 weeks. And this is based on the development of the fetus. Somewhere along that developmental timeline, we should draw a line, based on science.

        By casting his arguments around the label "person", the OP was manipulating the discussion. So I'm saying we should drop the label, and let scientists determine reasonable criteria, based on our scientific understanding of fetal development. And probably the nervous system is a pretty good place to start.

        • Jakeithus

          "I believe it to be absurd to speak of a single-celled zygote as a "person""

          But since you state we cannot define personhood, how can you state with any level of confidence that it is absurd to speak of a single-celled zygote as a person?

          So we should only drop the label when it conflicts with what you would like to be true in this case, but if scientists can come up with a way to use the label that fits with how you feel we should apply it, then it's ok to use the label once again?

          I'd rather not let scientists determine the criteria for personhood; it seems to be far outside their area of expertise.

          • mriehm

            The use of the term "person" on a single-celled zygote is disingenuous. Look up, for example, the OED definition.

            The word "person" has a sense of someone we can interact with. If you had a crowd of 10 people, 2 of whom were noticeably pregnant, and if you asked 100 people at random to count the number of people, most would say "10", not "12".

            This article is using the word "person" deliberately, because it is more... well... "personal" than "human" or "fetus" or "zygote". It is disingenuous, because most people would not use the word in that way in their day-to-day lives.

            A zygote, yes, it might be okay to abort that. But a person? Never!

          • Jakeithus

            I don't think the OED supports your point.

            Person: A human being regarded as an individual
            Individual: A single human being as distinct from a group, class, or family.

            Neither one eliminates a human zygote.

            I have fond memories of interacting with my son prior to his birth. I guess he was a person using your criteria. (and before you say that kind of interaction doesn't count, does that mean my Dad was no longer a person when his pain medication and illness left him unable to carry on the kind of interaction you have in mind?)

            A little over 100 years ago, if you had a crowd of 10 people and 2 of them were women, it is very possible the answer to the question count the number of people would be "8" not "10". If this was 200 years ago, and half of them were black in the American south, care to guess what the answer would have been?

            The article is using the term person deliberately because it is important, and because human history shows us that we are following a path of expanding personhood to people whom it had previously been denied.

          • Maxximiliann

            And at what moment precisely does a zygote become a human baby?

    • Mriehm - I've read through your comments in this thread and it seems to me that you're trying to have your cake and eat it too.

      Notice that in one comment you write:

      "The point I am trying to make is that it is a mistake to apply the label "person" at all."

      Then in another:

      "And yet I do believe that a seven-month-old fetus is a person."

      In one comment:

      "Trying to define personhood is impossible."

      Then in another:

      "[Personhood] can be defined. Anything can be defined."

      Have you considered a career in politics? To my mind, this equivocation reinforces Trent's overall thesis: that the logic facilitating the unborn's exclusion from personhood, when pressed, necessarily excludes the newborn for the same reasons, but our (I think justified) horror at infanticide - paired with our desire to justify abortion - keeps us in a state of doublethink on the matter. Peter Singer and Michael Tooley, to their credit, are clear and consistent thinkers. I disagree wholeheartedly with their premises, but their logic is sound and their conclusions follow. But it seems like you're not even sure what you're premises are!

      I'd press you and ask: what is a person? What characteristics make a three-week old zygote, a three-month old fetus, a three-month old baby, and a three-year old a person or non-person, respectively? To throw your hands up and say "who knows, it's all gray and relative anyway" is a risky business. I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't want someone in a position of power to rely on a fuzzy intuition when it came to my own right to live.

      • David Nickol

        I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't want someone in a position of power to rely on a fuzzy intuition when it came to my own right to live.

        I will leave it up to mriehm to justify his apparent contradictions, but what I will say is that while I think it is important to have a definition of person or personhood, I don't think it is possible to prove with mathematical-like certainty which definition is "correct."

        I'd also point out that Peter Singer and those who believe personhood begins at some point after birth are at the extreme end of the spectrum, with most people (I would assume)—pro-life or pro-choice—agreeing that an unborn child after the point of viability is a person whose life should be protected. I believe if somehow a grand compromise could be reached based on the will of the citizenry of the United States, the resulting law would prohibit all abortions after viability except when necessary to save the life of the mother. I think the American people would probably accept a fairly conservative limit (say 12 to 14 weeks) on the gestational age at which abortion was permitted to allow abortions only well short of viability (roughly 24 weeks).

        So in general, I think given the competing definitions of personhood (excluding those by Peter Singer and others at his extreme), virtually everyone but the unborn in the earliest stages of pregnancy is "safe."

        So generally speaking, arguments about the definition of person are, for all practical purposes, arguments only about abortion. Consequently, those who are pro-choice have a vested interest in placing the beginning of personhood early in pregnancy (say, before 24 weeks), and those who are pro-life have a vested interest in defining personhood to begin at conception.

        It may be impossible to determine—or so it seems to me—whether even one's own position on personhood is determined by one's gut feeling about abortion, or whether one's gut feeling about personhood determines one's position on abortion.

        It seems to me the only possible way of achieving a meeting of the minds is to discuss the definition of person without discussing abortion. For example, if one believes in God or angels, what is it that makes them persons. Or perhaps what criteria would we use should we encounter extraterrestrial life to determine whether a non-human being from elsewhere in the universe is a person with a right to life.

        • David Nickol

          Or to put it much more succinctly, your answer to the question "What is a person?" is much more likely to be determined by your position on abortion than your position on abortion is to be determined on your answer to the question "What is a person?" And there is very broad agreement on the answer to "What is a person?" except when the entity in question is a human egg, embryo, or pre-viable fetus.

        • Hi David - Long time no talk! I'm glad to see you're still active here at SN.

          Here you write:

          There is no crisis caused by competing definitions. No one need feel unsafe (e.g., the disable, the sick, the elderly, etc.). Anyone that is capable of worrying about the definition of person is in no danger with the prevailing definitions. So arguments about the definition of person are, for all practical purposes, arguments only about abortion.

          Notice that you say "anyone that is capable of worrying about the definition of person is in no danger." I wonder who that excludes right off the bat?

          Setting that aside, I completely disagree in principle and I think the evidence is strong against you here. First, as Trent notes, there are infants. Several pro-choice philosophers have argued that infants are not persons for the same reasons certain unborn humans are not persons. This is not a mere theoretical exercise: in China and Inidia the practice of sex-selective infanticide is widespread.

          Then there are persons with disabilities. In places like the Netherlands and Belgium, euthanasia is becoming increasingly common - in the latter case even for children. Of course, the amount of pressure being put on people with disabilities to formally request assisted suicide and the effectiveness of "controls" in place is untold, and the frightening history of compulsory euthanasia rightly has advocates not only for the disabled, but for the ill and the elderly, very concerned.

          The legal and cultural artifacts of history, too - with its multitude of episodes of enslavement, eugenics, and genocide - show us that debates surrounding personhood are far from limited to abortion, a reality represented in classic films like Schindler's List ("I realize that you are not a person in the strictest sense of the word") and 12 Years a Slave ("A man does how he pleases with his property"). One is reticent to "go there" (especially online), but the fact is that this debate surrounding which human beings are persons cannot be seen as a mere chess piece in the culture wars, but as a much deeper and broader question with huge implications for the voiceless and powerless.

          • David Nickol

            Notice that you say "anyone that is capable of worrying about the definition of person is in no danger." I wonder who that excludes right off the bat?

            Well, it doesn't necessarily exclude anyone, since it does not necessarily imply that those who can't worry about the definition of personhood are in danger. My point in making that statement was that I believe it it is alarmist and false to make slippery-slope arguments implying arguments about the personhood of the unborn put everyone in danger: "Watch out, you who claim a first-trimester fetus is not a person, because some day you may be declared a non-person yourself!" There is simply no sign of a slowly narrowing definition of personhood that put those arguing about the issue in any kind of danger.

            Several pro-choice philosophers have argued that infants are not persons for the same reasons certain unborn humans are not persons.

            I think you are correct here. Several pro-choice philosophers have made that argument. But there is no sign that the vast majority of philosophers are moving toward that position, and the general public is horrified by the thought. There is no sign at all that the United States or any other country that I am aware of is moving toward legalization or moral approval of "third trimester abortion."

            This is not a mere theoretical exercise: in China and Inidia the practice of sex-selective infanticide is widespread.

            Actually, it is my understanding that the recent problems are sex-selective abortions, not sex-selective infanticide. So there are undoubtedly fewer instances of infanticide in India and China than previously. And in any case, Wikipedia says, "China has a history of female infanticide spanning 2000 years," and, "Female infanticide in India has a history spanning centuries." Nothing about the abortion-related debate regarding when personhood begins is responsible for female infanticide in India or China. Also, Indian and Chinese laws are aimed not only against infanticide, but also sex-selective abortions. There is no approval, either official or tacit, of infanticide or sex-selective abortion by either the Indian or Chinese governments.

            Granted there may be a growing acceptance of "euthanasia" (although I think it would be more accurate to say "assisted suicide"), but this has nothing to do with the debate over when life begins or who is a person. As a matter of fact, I think the objection of "pro-life" advocates to assisted suicide is not that it diminishes the notion of personhood, but that it takes the idea of personal autonomy too far. Assisted suicide today is not about declaring someone a non-person and disposing of him because non-persons have no rights. It is (whether rightly or wrongly—and I am uneasy about it personally—"empowering" people to decide for themselves when they want to die. Even the Terri Schiavo case was handled by trying to determine what she would have wanted under the circumstances. I don't think euthanasia has anything to do with the personhood debate.

            The legal and cultural artifacts of history, too - with its multitude of episodes of enslavement, eugenics, and genocide - show us that debates surrounding personhood are far from limited to abortion

            I believe the questions of slavery, eugenics, and genocide have little or nothing to do with the question of who is a person. They may have to do with what rights people deemed "inferior" have, but I think the current debate about when personhood begins, or who is a person, is largely irrelevant to slavery, eugenics, and genocide.

            I can find no evidence that when it came to slavery in the Americas, the argument that slaves (or black Africans) were not persons played any significant role in pro-slavery argument. Of course what did play a very significant role in pro-slavery arguments was the Bible:

            Now, there are many ways to look at pro-slavery. Deep, deep in the pro-slavery argument . . . is a biblical argument. Almost all pro-slavery writers at one point or another will dip into the Old Testament, or dip into the New Testament—they especially would dip to the Old—to show how slavery is an ancient and venerable institution. Its venerability was its own argument, some said. It's always been around. Every civilization has had it. All those biblical societies had it. You can read Jeremiah and Isaiah and some of the great Old Testament prophets in some ways as defenders of slavery. You can therefore assume it was divinely sanctioned. You can also look in the New Testament for examples of it, justifications of it. "Slaves, be honorable, be dutiful"—be obedient is usually the word in the King James—"Slaves, be obedient to your masters." Slavery is all over the Bible, in one way or another. The Bible, of course, can breathe anti-slavery into a situation and it can breathe pro-slavery into a situation.

            I would say that the idea of "dehumanizing" people—which is what I take you to be talking about—and the idea that some human beings are deemed not to be persons according to a philosophical definition of personhood are almost entirely unrelated.

  • Trent,

    Thanks for the article. I think you make a good point about the arbitrariness of attributing personhood to a particular group of cells after it exits the womb, and not before. This is one of the reasons I am both pro-life and pro-choice. I set the cut-off at the development of brain waves. I'm happy to discuss my own position on this issue here, but my position isn't the target of the article since (a) I'm not an atheist and (b) I don't think all abortions are defensible.

    I do think it is possible to defend abortion at any stage without defending infanticide. The most formidable such defence for abortion is Judith Jarvis Thomson's A Defense of Abortion. This defence begins with the concession that a foetus is a person, but that people connected to other people against their will can be ethically disconnected, even if the result of that disconnection is the loss of that person's life. I recommend reading the argument. Although this argument is not a good defence of abortion under any circumstances, it is a good defence of abortion at any stage of foetal development. If a woman is raped and becomes pregnant, she can ethically disconnect the human person from herself, even though that person's death will result. Once that person is no longer directly dependent on her mother's body for her survival, then that person can no longer be so disconnected. The argument allows actions that result in the death of the child before birth, but not after.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I see this as is kind of perverted version of the principle of double effect. If a pregnant woman's uterus is cancerous, one can licitly remove the uterus even if it results in the fetus' death. The death of the fetus was not directly intended. Curing the disease was.

      In your example, you treat the other helpless, innocent human being as some kind of trespasser to whom the woman owes nothing.

      It is also a grasping at straws. People can get to the point at which they must admit an unborn person is a person--finally seeing the obvious. Yet there must still be a reason they can do what they want, which is to get rid of the pregnancy.

      • David Nickol

        In your example, you treat the other helpless, innocent human being as some kind of trespasser to whom the woman owes nothing.

        Whatever conclusion I might come to about abortion, I do not think I would ever have the chutzpah to tell a woman pregnant from having been raped that she could not decide for herself whether or not to continue the pregnancy.

        I think in some sense, a baby conceived as the result of rape is a trespasser.

        There is something just a little too underhanded in making emotional appeals about "helpless, innocent" embryos. The "innocence" of an embryo or fetus is not some endearing or virtuous quality. The unborn are "innocent" in the sense that they haven't done anything because they are totally incapable of doing anything. Additionally, according to Catholic theology, the unborn are not in a state of grace and have the "stain" of Original Sin on their souls. Up until 1969, the Catholic Church even included exorcism in the baptismal ceremony! And of course up until quite recently, every Catholic schoolchild was taught that the unborn or newly born who died without baptism could not go to heaven, but instead went to Limbo. (Yes, technically that was not an official teaching of the Church, but millions and millions of well educated Catholics were stunned when Limbo was "abolished.") Even now the Church does not teach that they are saved. It just says there is cause to hope.

        There is, among some pro-lifers, a suggestion that the unborn are better than we are, and that aborted babies are martyrs, a notion that had to be dispelled by the Vatican.

      • What does a woman who did not choose to become pregnant owe to the child?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          What did the Samaritan owe to the man whom he found beaten and robbed man on the side of the road?

          • Not as much as he freely chose to give.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I could argue that what we really owe to other persons is love. This is due to the solidarity that ought to obtrain in the human race. I would also argue this on the basis of reason, not divine revelation (though divine revelation in the Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches this, too).

          • It is also interesting to ask what the samaritan does not owe. The samaritan does not owe the beaten man the use of his organs. If a kidney transplant would allow the beaten man to survive, the samaritan could choose to give the man his kidney. But it isn't immoral for him to keep his own kidney. And he shouldn't be legally compelled to give his kidney up.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The Samaritan *did* owe the beaten man the use of his organs. He used his eyes to see him. His arms and back to lift him on his donkey. His hands to dress his wounds.

            Is someone demanding the mother have her uterus removed from her body so she does not have it anymore?

          • Did you read the article I linked? I think that's the more analogous case.

            The Samaritan did not give the beaten man the use of his organs, not in the sense I intended.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            You mean Thomson's?

          • Yes.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I skimmed it, but for you I will read the whole thing.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I have not had time to read the whole thing but my brother, who has a Ph.D. in moral theology, is visiting and he said she fails to make a basic distinction between positive and negative moral norms. There is no absolute requirement that one must do everything possible to help an innocent person, whether that person is a famous violinist hooked up to my kidneys or a child in my womb.

            However, there are certain things, negative norms, that I must never do, and in this case it is to directly act to kill an innocent person.

            So, if a pregnant woman is gravely ill, she can undergo any legitimate medical regimen to protect her health, even if it would harm her baby, even kill it indirectly, like in the case of removing an ectopic pregnancy. If she wants, she can forgo medical treatment to protect her baby and even cause her own death in the process, if she chooses that. [By the way, if I have garbled any of this or gotten it wrong, that's my own fault.]

            However, she may not directly kill it for any reason.

          • So any procedure to improve the health or wellbeing of a woman who did not choose pregnancy would be acceptable so long as it did not directly harm the child, such as removing the umbilical cord, or ejecting the child, otherwise unharmed, from the womb. This would have the unintended but foreseen effect of ending the life of the child. This may change the method then of the procedure, then, but does not seem to have a substantial effect on the argument itself.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I do not understand your comment.

            Even if a woman chooses pregnancy, she is not morally required to do everything for the benefit of that child. She is not required to give up her life for the child. However, she is never allowed to directly kill it or to ask someone else to do it for her, even to save her own life.

          • Removing the child from the womb is not directly killing the child.

          • It seems then that if she chooses, a woman could have the child removed from the womb. The change in environment would kill the child and this would be the unintended but foreseen consequence.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            No. The intent is to end the pregnancy. It is directly killing the innocent.

          • The intent is simply to remove the child from the mother, in order to protect her health (mental, physical, emotional). The unintended but foreseen consequence of the removal is probably the death of the child. If somehow the child could be preserved in life apart from the mother, as is sometimes the present case and as may be the case generally in the future, then the child should be preserved. But often this will not be possible.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            It is a specious argument and a grasping at straws.

            I love granny but she is driving me crazy and I can't afford a rest home and no one will take her. I'm removing her to the garage in order to protect my mental health. If somehow granny could take care of herself and stay warm (its January, darn it), her life could be preserved. Her demise is unintended but foreseen.

          • David Nickol

            It is a specious argument and a grasping at straws.

            I am not sure you are correct here, at least according to Germain Grisez (Is Abortion Always the Wrongful Killing of a Person?):

            For example, suppose a woman suffering from kidney disease becomes pregnant and wants to avoid the health problems that will result from carrying the child; or a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape and wants to be freed of her ongoing suffering. In either case, and perhaps in a few others, in seeking abortion the precise object of the pregnant woman’s choice might be, not the baby’s death, but the termination of pregnancy as the necessary means to the end in view: a benefit expected to flow from the baby’s removal rather than from the baby’s death or any consequence of it. On this assumption, the proposal adopted is, not to kill the unborn baby, but to have him or her removed from the womb, with death as a foreseen and accepted side effect. An abortion carrying out such a choice would not be an intentional killing.

            However, he goes goes on to say:

            Someone might object that this analysis opens the way for everyone involved in abortions, even abortionists, to say they do not intend the baby’s death, but only accept it as a side effect of terminating pregnancy. Many involved already claim abortion is only pregnancy termination and deny that they are killing babies; however, what matters is, not what anyone says, but what is really included in the proposal adopted when abortion is chosen as a means to some ulterior end. For reasons already sketched out, most people choosing abortion probably do regard killing the baby as necessary to their end; they consider the alternatives, find getting rid of the baby less repugnant than any other option, and rationalize choosing that option as a lesser evil. Furthermore, nonintentional killing is one thing, justifiable killing quite another.

            c) Abortion, even if not intentional killing, usually is wrong. Even if the proposal adopted in choosing abortion does not include the baby’s death, that death almost always is unjustly accepted. People are generally prepared to sacrifice anything but their moral integrity to save their own lives or the life of someone they love, and they generally want others on whom they and their loved ones depend to pay a very high price rather than accept their death. So, it is unfair to accept any innocent person’s death, especially that of a dependent, in order to avoid lesser burdens, including those imposed by pregnancy and giving birth, short of a threat to the mother’s own life. Therefore, even if an abortion to bring the experience of rape to an end or to solve some health problem posing no immediate threat to the mother’s life does not carry out a choice to kill the unborn, it still involves wrongfully accepting the baby’s death.

            The foreseen but not intended death of granny is not an act of direct killing. If granny really is a serious threat to your mental health (rather than an a nuisance or an annoyance or a giant pain in the neck) you may be justified in confining her to the garage as a last resort. A very rough analogy may be to turning away people from an already-full lifeboat. It may be that doing so will inevitably result in their deaths, but it is not intentional killing.

          • I don't think that the proportionality of goods quite works out there. See my response to David.

          • David Nickol

            The intent is simply to remove the child from the mother, in order to protect her health (mental, physical, emotional). The unintended but foreseen consequence of the removal is probably the death of the child.

            The answer (in my opinion, backed up by Catholic ethicist Germain Grisez) is that while there may be no intentional killing involved here, and the death is unintended but foreseen, the removal of the child is still morally impermissible. Accepting an unintended but foreseen death is not always morally permissible, and in fact it is usually morally prohibited. There are strict moral principles that must be adhered to in order for a foreseen but unintended death to be acceptable.

            Suppose, for example, police are trying to apprehend an armed suspect in a very crowded shopping mall, and it is certain that innocent civilians will be killed in the crossfire if a gun battle takes place. Civilian deaths would be foreseen but unintended, but it would have to be an extraordinary situation for the police to accept many civilian casualties in order to capture a suspect under the circumstances.

            So you are right that removing a pre-viable unborn child from the womb to end a pregnancy is not always intentional or direct killing. However, accepting unintended but predictable deaths is not automatically morally acceptable just because the deaths are unintended.

          • I agree that there's a proportionality of goods also involved here, as is typically involved in the principle of double effect. The trolley problem, for example, wouldn't work if it were one person on the track, and switching the track would kill ten.

            This is why the intension of having the child is also important. If the mother intended at one point to have the child, then I think that the argument would not work.

            As it is, if the mother never wanted the child, never intended to have a child, then her autonomy and mental and physical well-being justifies her stopping a child from unwanted use of her body.

          • David Nickol

            However, she may not directly kill it for any reason.

            There is confusion about the difference between a direct and an indirect abortion, and I am not going to attempt (here and now, at least) to clear it up. It has to do philosophical notions of intention and action. The difference is not, however, whether the unborn child is touched. For example, it is universally agreed that if it is necessary to remove the cancerous uterus of a pregnant woman (prior to the time the baby is viable) to save her life, this is an indirect abortion and is morally permissible. It is true that the baby is not touched or "directly" killed, even though it will certainly die. However, removing the healthy uterus of a pregnant woman at the same stage of pregnancy for the purpose of ending the pregnancy is a direct abortion, even though the unborn baby is not touched or "directly" killed.

      • David Nickol

        Yet there must still be a reason they can do what they want, which is to get rid of the pregnancy.

        Is it your contention that anyone who is pro-choice really and truly believes, deep down inside, that a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus really is a human person, but they either fool themselves or lie to others and pretend they really don't believe what you are sure they do believe?

        I have had many an argument with many a pro-lifer about whether or not women should be punished for procuring an abortion if abortion is criminalized. I can't tell you how many times I have heard the argument that women have been duped by the abortion industry into believing the baby they are carrying is "just a clump of cells," and such women should not be punished because they didn't really know what they were doing when they had an abortion. If everybody knows, deep in their hearts, that the unborn are full fledged persons with a right to life, then certainly women who have abortions must know it just as well as anyone else.

        It seems to me rather difficult to maintain that everybody knows abortion is the deliberate taking of an innocent human life and at the same time maintain that "every abortion has two victims."

        • Kevin Aldrich

          The example to which I was referring was abortion advocates.

          Women who have abortions do so for many reasons and with all kinds of degrees of deliberation. On one end is the woman who knows exactly what she is doing and deliberately does it and on the other end is the woman who is confused and coerced.

          And of course sometimes these women are mere girls who are being used by evil men (with the help of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers).

          • David Nickol

            Of course, according to the Catholic Church, girls who are used by evil men and become pregnant are obliged to have the baby—even 9-year-old girls raped by their stepfathers.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            The Catholic Church does not oblige anyone. The moral law obliges everyone not to kill the innocent.

  • Thanks for the piece. I actually agree with much of what Trent says. But you need to note that my position on abortion and infanticide does not have anything to do with my lack of a beleif in any gods. It has nothing to do with my atheism. I don't think Trent has made this link. Indeed, I think we need to acknowledge that there are some anti-choice atheists and many pro-choice theists.

    Secondly, the question of personhood is a legal question.
    Basically under the law it is murder to kill a person. Person does not mean at law, a biological human being. A corporation is a person under law.

    The question here seems to be whether it is immoral to end an infant's life. I actually tend to agree with Singer that a newborn has no self-awareness and no interest in whether it lives or dies and that where there is near certainty that the child will live in constant severe pain, it is not immoral to kill it. I don't think I could ever do this because, despite this cold logic, I still have a powerful empathy towards newborn mammals, especially humans, and would feel intense trauma at its death, so would most people I expect. In fact, to follow Singer's utilitarianism through, I think a good case could be made that the harm from allowing infanticide, even in these circumstances, does not outweigh the lessening in suffering by ending the life. But I am conflicted on this. I feel like two sides of me are pulling against each other and both are right. I would seem to be not alone (http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/) it may be that there are two regions of my brain that evolved for different functions that are in conflict.

    Of course, virtue ethics could also be a non-theistic moral reckoning of why infanticide is wrong.

  • Here's an opinion from a mother. After years debating "personhood," I realized that what we're really talking about with the unborn is "childhood," and mother's ought to love their children unconditionally.

    Thank you Trent for an excellent essay.

    • Doug Shaver

      After years debating "personhood," I realized that what we're really talking about with the unborn is "childhood"

      In ordinary usage, a child is a person. If you call a fetus an unborn child, you beg the question.

      • Not true. Oxford Dictionaries records how words are used.

        The less formal dictionary (Oxford Dictionary Online, ODO) focuses on current English and includes modern meanings and uses of words. Where words have more than one meaning, the most important and common meanings in modern English are given first, and less common given down the list. (I'm quoting.)

        Here's the first entry: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/child?q=child

        child:

        1A young human being below the age of puberty or below the legal age of majority.

        1.1A son or daughter of any age.

        1.2An immature or irresponsible person.

        1.3A person who has little or no experience in a particular area.

        As you can see, the word in modern, common usage refers primarily to a "human being". The reference to "person" is secondary, as a matter of maturity and responsibility. I.e. "She's such a child!"

        The more formal dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary, OED) is a historical dictionary and it forms a record of all the core words and meanings in English over more than 1,000 years, from Old English to the present day, including many obsolete and historical terms. Meanings are ordered chronologically, according to when they were first recorded in English, so that senses with the earliest evidence of usage appear first and more recent senses appear further down the entry. (Still quoting more or less. http://public.oed.com/about/the-oed-and-oxford-dictionaries/)

        The last entry (#16) refers to "childbearing" and "childbirth." The first entry states:

        With reference to state or age.

        1.a. An unborn or newly born human being; a fetus, an infant.

        There are references to "person" in definitions in between #1 and #16, but in biblical usage or as "young person" or "young man or woman" or "pupil."

        But in ordinary usage the word does not now, nor has in the past, been synonymous with "person."

        • Doug Shaver

          As you can see, the word in modern, common usage refers primarily to a "human being".

          That doesn't contradict what I said.

          • Only if you equate "human being" with "person." In the U.S., the law does not name the unborn human being a person, but it does name the unborn human being a child.

          • Doug Shaver

            In the U.S., the law does not name the unborn human being a person, but it does name the unborn human being a child.

            Only in some jurisdictions. Besides, I don't rely on the law for my moral guidance.

          • Wrong. It's U.S. Code› Title 18 › Part I › Chapter 90A › § 1841; 18 U.S. Code § 1841 - Protection of unborn children. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1841

          • Doug Shaver

            Federal jurisdiction is not all jurisdictions. And I don't get my moral guidance from the federal government any more than I get it from state government or any other government.

          • I'm talking facts and definitions, not where you get your morals from. Please don't change the subject.

          • Doug Shaver

            The subject of this thread is the morality of abortion.

            OK. It is a fact that the U.S. federal government says that a fetus, in certain situations, is a child. And therefore, what?

          • No, the law says an unborn human being is a child, but not a person. Hence my original comment.

        • In a Winter's Tale "childe" meant female baby. "Is it a boy or a childe?"

          These are labels, they tell us nothing about whether it is right or wrong to end a pregnancy.

    • It doesn't matter what label one uses, we know what the entity we are talking about and it doesn't become more or less moral depending on the label we use.

      The person issue is relevant only in the legal context, as I would expect that homicide is defined as intentionally causing the death of a person.

      Maybe not, as corporations are legal persons. Interestingly, in Canada homicide is defined as:

      222. (1) A person commits homicide when, directly or indirectly, by any means, he causes the death of a human being.
      [...]
      223. (1) A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother,
      whether or not
      (a) it has breathed;
      (b) it has an independent circulation; or
      (c) the navel string is severed.

  • I don't know if Trent reads this but if he does, in drafting his second part he would need to deal with the following bodily rights argument which is stronger than the one he raises in the second last paragraph.

    It is more of a legal or political argument opposing criminalizing abortion. It goes:

    People have near absolute sovereignty over their bodies. We do not allow any interfere with a human body except in exceptional circumstances, such as the involuntary taking of blood or DNA samples in criminal prosecutions. We certainly never require others to donate their bodies in any way to sustain the life of another. No one, not even a mother is required to give a kidney or blood to their child even when we are near certain this would save the child's life.

    Mothers have zero obligation to keep and care for their children after giving birth, they are legally allowed to give them up for adoption immediately. She may take on this responsibilities by keeping the child, but the decision or mistake to have the child does not mean she is obliged to keep it alive. Even if an unborn human is a legal person, to be consistent, the law should likewise not require the mother to sustain the human with her body before birth either. Pregnancy and childbirth are very safe in western societies, but not risk-free and any pregnancy could result in death. So could an abortion, but they are much more safe. Therefore, unless we are going to start requiring people to use their bodies to keep others alive, or to not stop using thief bodies for this, we should not prohibit people from ending pregnancies, even if it results in the death of a human person.

  • Mike

    As many others have I'd like to thank Trent for his essay. However, I take issue with part of his premise. I'm not sure that this issue necessarily needs one to believe in God. I think this is a good example of a topic that can be discussed, even passionately, without needing to invoke belief (or lack thereof) in God.

    That said, I have always wondered why one would want to distinguish between a human person, and a human being. For the sake of argument I'd concede that there may be a difference between the two, I don't believe it, but I don't see it's relevance. If this is really truly a hazy distinction why not error on the side of granting personhood in error rather than denying it in error.

    Throughout history those in power have refused to recognize the rights of our fellow man, based on race, gender, sexual identity, appearance, etc. I note this with sorrow, and feel as though we may be mistaken in not recognizing the humanity of each of us in the little embryo.

    I also think this topic is multifaceted, and logically should be taken step by step. I feel like we can discuss the rights of a child aside from the rights of the mother.

    • David Nickol

      I feel like we can discuss the rights of a child aside from the rights of the mother.

      I don't think so, when the child is inside, and totally dependent on, the mother. Imagine that somehow a person gets inside you. Would you really want that person's rights discussed without taking you into account? You simply can't get away from the fact that for both the mother and the unborn child, pregnancy is a totally unique situation. The fate of both mother and unborn child are inextricably bound. You simply can't consider the child without considering the mother or the mother without considering the child.

      • Mike

        No, because an embryo can be created outside of a mother, see invitro fertilization. In that case I can discuss the rights of an embryo in complete absence of a mother's rights.

        I feel like we should first determine the rights on an embryo, and then we can determine the rights of the mother, and whether one should trump the other.

        • David Nickol

          When an embryo exists outside the mother, abortion isn't an issue.

          What are the rights of an embryo created by in vitro fertilization?

          • Mike

            Well, we could determine if an embryo is a human person, without considering another person's rights, say a mother. If an embryo is it would be entitled to the basic rights any human rights with which all human persons are entitled.

            We could then have a separate conversation about which sets of rights should have precedent.

  • David Nickol

    I do not think it is necessary to believe personhood begins at conception in order to oppose abortion. It could certainly be argued that an unborn child is a potential person, but a potential person is not nothing, and deserves legal protection.

    Peter Singer, who believes that both abortion and infanticide can, under some circumstances, be moral, nevertheless believes that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and believes that it should be decided by the people, in a democracy like ours, whether abortion is legal or illegal. As must be pointed out every time we have this discussion, banning abortion on the theory that the unborn have a "right to life" is a new idea. Prior to Roe v. Wade, in the states where abortion was illegal, it was never considered homicide. American law (and British law before it) never classified abortion as the taking of a human life.

  • Doug Shaver

    Trent raises many issues I wish I could address. I will try to confine my remarks to the title question, but when this issue comes up, some digressions are unavoidable.

    I'm going to call the position I defend "pro-abortion." Both of the conventional labels for the two sides of this controversy -- "pro-choice" and "pro-life" -- are rhetorically loaded and irrelevant to the real issue. If abortion is tantamount to murder in some relevant sense, then nobody should have a right to do it. It is not a choice anyone should be allowed to make. But to oppose the notion that abortion is murder is not to oppose life. I defend the position that abortion is not morally equivalent to murder and is therefore morally unobjectionable, and that is all I mean when I say I am pro-abortion. I certainly do not mean, and will vehemently deny, that I am anti-life.

    So, then, can atheists defend abortion without defending infanticide? Well, of course they can. Most of them do. And so do quite a few theists, including many Christians, including more than a few Roman Catholics. But as the essay makes clear, the real question is whether they can do so consistently. What Trent is really asking is whether a pro-abortion argument based on the non-personhood of a fetus would not also, by logical necessity, entail the moral acceptability of infanticide.

    No, it would not. But to see why, we need to have a look at sorites paradoxes. For an example, let's consider not personhood but maturity. This is something the law has to deal with, for example, in setting a minimum age for voting. Now, the question of who should be allowed to vote is not just about deciding who is mature. We don't allow young children to vote, and nobody thinks we should. Neither do we deny the vote to 30-year-olds on ground that they are immature, and nobody thinks we should. We have a continuum of age. At one end, let's say age 5 years, a person is uncontroversially immature. At the other, say age 50, a person is uncontroversially mature. At some point between the ages of 5 and 50, an immature person becomes a mature person. Now, where is that point?

    Most of us agree that it varies. Some people mature faster than others. Most of us know some 16-year-olds we wouldn't mind letting vote. We also know some 30-year-olds that we wish would never cast a ballot. But at this stage in our history, we could not possibly decide this case by case. We need a law that says: You may vote when you attain the age of X years, and not before. And no matter what X we pick, we will unavoidably do one of two things we'd rather not do. Either we will award the franchise to some people who should not have it, or else we will deny the franchise to some who should have it, and for any reasonable choice of X, we will do both.

    Here is where the sorites paradox comes in. We have stipulated that a 5-year-old is not mature. Most of us will also stipulate that if a person is immature at any age X, then that person is not mature at age X + 1 day. From these two premises, it logically follows that no 5-year-old can ever become mature, no matter how long they live. And the same argument works from the other end. If a person is mature at age X, then they were mature at age X - 1 day, and therefore they were never immature, even on the day they were born.

    Are we then being illogical if we establish a particular voting age? Some say: Yes, and this proves that we sometimes have to be illogical. Others say: No, but we do need to tweak the laws of logic to accommodate these situations. I say: Logic cannot tell us what the words we use are supposed to mean. Words are defined by usage, which means that we, the people using those words, decide what they mean. Having made the decision, then, and only then, we can use logic to see whether we are using them consistently. We might discover that we are not being consistent, and in that case we might decide to change our usage (and thus our definition) to make it consistent. That is not a problem for anyone who is not a semantic essentialist.

    One problem remains: Most of us have a problem with arbitrariness in these situations. We may accept that the choice of a voting age is arbitrary to some degree. Any argument for setting it at 18 would have justified setting it at 17 years and 9 months, or 18 years and three months. But the decision in the United States to lower it from 21 to 18 was not made arbitrarily. The American people in the late 1960s had come to believe that there were good reasons to think that the typical 18-year-old was indeed sufficiently mature to cast a vote. One of those reasons was that 18-year-olds were regarded, uncontroversially, as mature enough for military service. I am not here endorsing the "old enough to fight, old enough to vote" argument. My point is just that it was a relevant consideration that reduced, without entirely eliminating, the arbitrariness of the decision about where to set the voting age.

    A truly arbitrary choice is essentially a random choice. That is why we don't like moral choices to be random. We think that an arbitrary reason for a moral choice is really no reason at all. Or, maybe more to the point, it usually seems indistinguishable from personal preference: "It's OK for me to do X because I want to do X."

    Now we can get back to personhood.

    I'm glad Trent cited Peter Singer. I've read the book he got that quote from, and I agree with much of what Singer says in it, though I don't accept all of his conclusions. I'll get back to him in a moment.

    The question is whether I can justify abortion without also justifying infanticide. It is not about the cogency of my defense of abortion or my opposition to infanticide. It is just about whether I can say, without inconsistency or pure arbitrariness: "Abortion is morally acceptable, but infanticide is not."

    I begin by affirming that: To be a proper object of moral concern, it is necessary that a living creature have a certain level of cognitive functioning. I won't try here to define that level, but it has something to do, though not only to do, with the capacity for suffering. I do not simply equate moral wrong with the infliction of suffering, but I do affirm a consequentialist view of ethics that regards the suffering of sentient creatures as the only relevant consideration when moral questions arise. From this it follows that a zygote, human or otherwise, since it is not sentient, is therefore not a proper object of moral concern.

    In discussions about personhood, it is commonly observed that the level of cognitive functioning that we're talking about is not present in infants, either. Few of us think they are not sentient, but sentience seems not to be sufficient. Moral arguments based on personhood, at least when they are used to justify abortion, tend to eliminate infants from the moral equations.

    Let suppose now that, whatever we think we mean by "person," we would include a 2-year-old. There is this story about a king who ordered all the 2-year-old children in Bethlehem killed, and everybody agrees that this was an extremely immoral thing for him to do. The challenge to me, then, is to nonarbitrarily justify the granting of personhood to a 2-year-old while denying it to a zygote.

    But why is that supposed to be such a challenge? Because, we're told, it gets us into a sorites paradox. Consider the 2-year-old. (It doesn't matter what age we pick. The argument works as well if we start with a 12-year-old or a 22-year-old.) If a 2-year-old baby is a person, then so is a baby 1 day younger, and a baby 2 days younger, and so on back to a baby 1 day old. But why stop there? Let's bring Singer back into the conversation. As he notes, a day before being born, the infant was just in a different place. So far as we know, a fetus one day before birth is, in terms of cognitive function, indistinguishable from a newborn infant. We can run the clock back to the day of conception and never find a day on which the fetus's cognitive development makes the transition from non-person to person, no matter how we might define "person."

    According to Singer, therefore, I cannot nonarbitrarily pick a day between conception and 2 years of age when a person comes into existence, because "the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make such a crucial moral difference." Well, not just because he says so. He is saying in effect that the event of a child's birth is of no moral consequence. In his moral universe, childbirth is not just trivial. It is a nonevent: It might as well not even happen for all the moral difference it makes.

    I think I'm justified in thinking Singer is wrong about that. I don't think I'm being arbitrary, or capricious, or otherwise unreasonable in saying that the difference between a person and a non-person, all else being equal, is that one has been born and the other has not. The moment a baby is born is not an arbitrary moment in time, not for the baby, and most certainly not for the mother. It is objectively definable, not just to the day but to the minute, and it is unique for every individual.

    If there will be a judgment day, we can all argue until then about when a person becomes old enough to vote, or old enough to fight, possibly to the death, in defense of their country. But there can be no argument about when they were born, and I don't see a problem with claiming that on the day of their birth, but not before then, we all acquired a moral obligation to keep them alive.

    • Raul88
      • Doug Shaver

        Could I bother you to explain how that article is relevant to anything I said?

        • Raul88

          You said: " I don't see a problem with claiming that on the day of their birth, but
          not before then, we all acquired a moral obligation to keep them alive." So, you don't see a problem, during those 87 days, to kill Katie. At the same time, "we all acquired a moral obligation to keep them (her twin sister Amy particularly) alive".

          • Doug Shaver

            So, you don't see a problem, during those 87 days, to kill Katie.

            In that situation, I don't see a problem for my argument.

          • Raul88

            Abortion is just discrimination. And discrimination ALWAYS need to define nonsense limits. (How many Jews grandparents makes someone Jew ?) This case just makes evident how nonsense is yours.

          • Doug Shaver

            I'm a conservative. I don't consider discrimination per se to be a bad thing. There is justifiable discrimination and unjustifiable discrimination, and I think I'm capable of knowing the difference.

          • Raul88

            So you find yourself capable of discriminating "justifiably" who lives and who dies between those twin sisters. And you do it in a way even Peter Singer consider nonsense.

          • Doug Shaver

            You can ridicule me, or you can address my arguments. I assume you are capable of deciding which to do.

          • Raul88

            I don't ridicule you. I find ridiculous the argument that, during a 87 day period, there is right to kill one of these little twin sisters and it's a crime to kill the other. The unjustifiable discrimination by development that abortion involves is changed by an even more unjustifiable discrimination by location. Maybe someone defending bodily rights arguments can argue about "the right of the mother" to decide when she want the second girl born. But to cut her in pieces with extreme pain as in late term abortions ?

          • Doug Shaver

            I find ridiculous the argument that, during a 87 day period, there is right to kill one of these little twin sisters and it's a crime to kill the other.

            I might agree it's ridiculous if you offered a reason. You haven't done that yet. All you've done is say, "It's ridiculous."

            The unjustifiable discrimination by development that abortion involves is changed by an even more unjustifiable discrimination by location.

            It's not unjustifiable just because you say it is. I have presented my justification. The ball is in your court to explain what is wrong with it. The fact that you don't like it is logically irrelevant.

          • Raul88

            The only argument you gave about birth time is because "It is objectively definable, not just to the day but to the minute, and it is unique for every individual " That one moment if "objectively definable" and "unique for every individual" is not enough for something of such deep consequences. The appareance of the first tooth is also "objectively definable" and "unique for every individual". To be or not to be a person CANNOT depend on location. If, in a prenatal surgery, the unborn gets out of the womb for a while. It becomes a person and cease to be it when put inside again ? You are looking for an ARBITRARY moment and you take the one the best feet your preconcept. You fill bad about jutifying infanticide, but you are OK if the same bloody and painful procedure occurs when just a thin skin layer hide it from you. We become a person when be become human beings. And that occurs at conception. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. Art 6 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

          • Doug Shaver

            The only argument you gave about birth time is because "It is objectively definable, not just to the day but to the minute, and it is unique for every individual "

            I also explained why that was important: to avoid arbitrariness.

            You are looking for an ARBITRARY moment

            Did you pay any attention to what you were reading? I was quite emphatic about finding a moment that was not arbitrary.

            but you are OK if the same bloody and painful procedure occurs

            You are grossly misrepresenting what I said. I gave you no reason whatsoever to think I'm OK with any painful procedure.

          • Doug Shaver

            You might trust the bureaucrats of the United Nations for moral guidance. I don't.

          • Doug Shaver

            We become a person when be become human beings. And that occurs at conception.

            You say so. And when you do, you change the subject, as I explained in the post that you're pretending to respond to.

    • Jakeithus

      "The moment a baby is born is not an arbitrary moment in time, not for
      the baby, and most certainly not for the mother. It is objectively
      definable, not just to the day but to the minute, and it is unique for
      every individual."

      - Does not everything you have just stated above equally apply to conception as to birth?

      • Michael Murray

        - Does not everything you have just stated above equally apply to conception as to birth?

        Only in some abstract way. Most of us would be hard pressed to pick which act of intercourse led to which child. Even if we could the timing of conception after ejaculation would be variable. Also the uniting of sperm and egg is a process and you would have to decide on some point during that process to set as your moment of conception. The cutting of the umbilical cord is a well-defined moment in time if you want such a thing.

      • Doug Shaver

        Yes, it does, although without some very invasive procedures, the moment of conception cannot be known as accurately as the moment of birth.

        In the presentation of my argument, though, I explained why I believe a person does not yet exist when conception occurs.

        • Jakeithus

          "Yes, it does, although without some very invasive procedures, the moment
          of conception cannot be known as accurately as the moment of birth."

          This is more due to a lack of know how on our part than anything to do with the process of conception or birth. Theoretically technological advancements could allow us to pinpoint the moment of conception with the same accuracy.

          "In the presentation of my argument, though, I explained why I believe a person does not yet exist when conception occurs"

          I didn't miss that part of your argument, but I do think it's pretty clear that the suffering of sentient creatures is insufficient as the sole determiner of moral significance or of personhood.

          In any case, I'm not sure I buy your argument that birth is a non-arbitrary point where it makes sense to apply personhood, that does not apply to conception in the same way. If the level of sentience is not sufficient to say without question that a newborn is a person, I don't see anything in your argument unique about birth that does no also apply to conception.

          • Doug Shaver

            If the level of sentience is not sufficient to say without question that a newborn is a person, I don't see anything in your argument unique about birth that does no also apply to conception.

            I was responding to a very specific challenge: Justify abortion in a way that does not also justify infanticide. That being so, the conclusion of my argument had to be: Abortion is justified and infanticide is not justified. If I had reached that conclusion while stipulating that personhood begins at conception, I would have been contradicting myself.

            I get it that you are convinced that abortion cannot be justified, but the point of my argument was not to refute that opinion. It was only to demonstrate a certain consistency in my own opinion.

          • Jakeithus

            Fair enough. For what it's worth I think you did an admirable job trying to differentiate between abortion and infanticide and why one is justifiable and the other not, although my thought is the same reasoning you use to claim birth is a non-arbitrary, important step in personhood is just as strong if used for conception.

  • Mike

    Great synopsis of the main arguments but you may have missed the most important one: abortion is hidden, easy and quick and therefore...very very very appealing as a quick out of sight out of mind solution to what is a very very daunting "thing", namely a new human being with feelings, wants etc.

    Our throw away culture is the real issue here.

    • Chee Chak

      abortion is hidden, easy and quick

      Oh really?.....excuse me while I gag....I cannot think of a more insensitive comment for anyone to make.

      • Mike

        I am 100% pro life...i am was just trying to explain how many pro-choicers think...i don't like it either but the temptation to sin is ever present.

  • "In order to say fetuses and embryos are not persons you already have to
    know what a person is in order to disqualify them from being considered
    persons."

    I'm not sure this is correct. Some counter-examples- I don't know exactly what "science" is- it's a complex issue. But I can say with high certainty that doing push-ups is not science. Or take the classic example of pornography. It's hard to define precisely what it is, but there are many things we can effectively rule out as not pornography.

    Similarly, it's hard to define what a person is, but I think we know enough about personhood to say that rocks are not persons, even without "knowing" what a person is.

    So I think it's possible, at least in principle, to say a zygote is not a person, even without knowing precisely what a person is.

  • Michael Murray

    I wonder sometimes, in all this discussion about personhood, why we never discuss how wonderful this Catholic Utopia with no abortion and no contraception is going to be. What the legislative framework will be like ? What the punishments will be ? To get a glimpse I recommend the third of Jennifer Worth's wonderful Midwives series. Farewell to the East End. It takes you back to the East End of London in the 1950's pre the pill and pre legalised abortion. It's got nun's in it so not an atheist tome. Anglican nun's mind you.

    • Michael Murray

      So nobody is willing to talk policy implementation ? You really should in a democracy if you are proposing political change. What are you going to do with the unwillingly pregnant women (UPWs)? There will be lots once your laws banning "artificial" contraception go through. My thought is camps to concentrate the UPWs. There could be a large statue of the BVM who was, in her own way a somewhat unwillingly pregnant woman. What about a sign over the camp entrance saying "Labor Makes You Free"?

  • Angela Richardson

    Consciousness arises from the cortico-thalamic system, which forms during weeks 24-28. I'd guess that's the age when the fetus can be considered a person.

    • Michael Murray

      That's a useful fact. It still doesn't resolve the conflict of rights between the fetus person and the mother person.

  • This post seems like it is directed against pro-choicers generally, not just atheists. Regardless, many people who advocate animal rights would have no problem saying they're persons too even if early term fetuses or embryos aren't. Then as for the other reasons against infanticide, they seem like some perfectly good consequentialist ones, although they could be used against abortion too.