Welcome back for Part 3 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. To recap, in Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. In Part 2, I offered the following argument for the pro-life position:
- It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
- Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
- Therefore, abortion is wrong.
I then defended the second point with scientific evidence, demonstrating that the unborn is undeniably a human being. In this post, I’ll examine a further distinction that’s sometimes offered to justify abortion; namely, the distinction between a human being and a person. As we continue, I’ll offer reasons to think that this distinction cannot be sustained, and offer a better explanation of human value.
Do you believe that all human beings have a right to life? If so, then you should adopt a pro-life view on abortion. As we’ve seen, the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being, which means that if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. To say that someone has a right to life is simply to say that they have a right not to be killed without sufficient justification. Since elective abortion kills the unborn without sufficient justification, it follows that it violates his or her rights.
Of course, this entails that abortion is wrong—an undesirable inference for many. As such, pro-choice advocates have forged a path that avoids this conclusion. By abandoning the idea that all human beings have a right to life and embracing instead the idea that only some do, we can put the unborn in the category of “human beings without a right to life”, and thus deny that abortion violates those rights.
Do all human beings have a right to life?
When presented with this question, it’s reasonable to suppose that most people would intuitively answer “yes”. However, many ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that this isn’t the case. Rather, they propose a distinction between a human being and a human person. The former does not possess a right to life, while the latter does. As such, it is morally permissible to kill a human being but not a human person.
If we consider this line of reasoning in relation to pro-life argument offered above, we can see that it constitutes a denial of the first point (it’s wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being). Rather, proponents of this view hold that it’s morally permissible to kill human beings—as long as they’re not persons. Applied to abortion, this reasoning tells us that it is not wrong to kill the unborn human being if they are not yet persons.
This raises an obvious question: what makes human persons different from human beings? How can we tell the difference? In response, pro-choice advocates have suggested a number of criteria that ostensibly grant human beings personhood and thus a right to life. You’ve probably heard of a few of them: consciousness, brain waves, human appearance, size, viability, desires, etc. It’s argued that human beings who have brain waves, or who look like mature human beings, or who have the capacity for desires etc., are persons; all others are not. In this way, personhood is granted to human beings who perform some function or have some capacity. We can refer to this position as the “functional view” of personhood.
At first blush, the functional view may seem reasonable. However, many scholars contend that it leads to overwhelming difficulties. As it’s well beyond the scope of this post, I’m not going to address each of the proffered criteria of the functional view individually. Rather, I’ll point out a major problem with this view, and leave references in the endnotes for those who wish to pursue the topic further[i].
One of the greatest difficulties with the functional view is that the criteria offered to distinguish persons from mere humans either exclude obvious examples of persons, or include obvious examples of non-persons. Let me explain. If we know that an individual is a person, and a personhood-criterion excludes that individual, then the criterion must be mistaken. Similarly, if we know that an entity is not a person, and a personhood-criterion includes that entity, then the criterion must, once again, be mistaken. For example, if we know that a comatose human being is a person, yet our criterion tells us he/she is not, then we must abandon the criterion. On the other hand, if our criterion tells us that a cow is a person, and we know that it is not, we have ample grounds to reject that criterion.
The SLED Test
In his book The Moral Question of Abortion, Stephen Schwarz[ii] offers a succinct method of summarising and demonstrating this problem. His method is known as the SLED Test. In the SLED test, each of the various criteria proposed by proponents of the functional view are grouped into one of four categories: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Take the first letter of each of these headings, and you have the acronym SLED. By reflecting on these categories, we can see that none of these attributes (or the lack thereof) provide good reason to kill human beings at the foetal stage, but not at a further developed stage.
Some pro-choice advocates have suggested that the unborn is too small to be a person and therefore to possess a right to life. However, an 8-year-old child is smaller than a 30-year-old adult, yet it would be absurd to suppose that therefore the child has less of a right to life than the adult. I’m taller than my wife, my dad, my mum, and my sisters, but that doesn’t make me more of a person than they are. Defining personhood in terms of size would commit us to believing that I am, and therefore size is not an adequate criterion.
- Level of Development
Others argue that the unborn is not developed enough to be the subject of rights—perhaps the unborn isn’t a person because they haven’t reached a certain level of physical development. However, toddlers, teenagers, and adults are all more developed than infants—but that doesn’t mean they have a greater right to life. Furthermore, if physical development determines personhood, then what level of development is sufficient? If a particular stage or bodily state can be identified, why accept that stage/state rather than another? What’s unique about it that makes it the defining moment when a human being becomes a person with rights?
Another stage of development at which human beings are thought to gain value is the stage at which they become conscious/self-aware. It’s said that persons are human beings who are conscious, and, since the unborn is not conscious, the unborn is not a human person. However, if this is true, then infants and comatose adults aren’t persons either, as they aren’t self-aware. Furthermore, sleep is an unconscious state, yet it would be absurd to think we can kill human beings while they sleep because they lose their rights when they lose consciousness. Finally, many animals are more conscious than new-born babies. Are we to forbid killing the former but allow killing the latter?
Another distinction said to disqualify unborn human beings from personhood is environment or location. According to this view, the unborn is located within another person’s body, and therefore is not a human person. However, we know that your value as a human being doesn’t change when you cross the street, fly to China, or roll over in bed. Why, then, should we think that the unborn suddenly becomes a human person when she travels through her mother’s birth canal? A new-born infant is, after all, identical to herself before birth, except she’s in a different location. Moreover, on this view a 39-week unborn child would not be a person, but a prematurely delivered 25-week infant would be. This, however, seems arbitrary and counter-intuitive, indicating that environment is irrelevant when determining value.
- Degree of Dependency
Finally, others have suggested that human beings become persons when they become viable; that is, when they don’t depend on others or on certain equipment or medication for their survival. Thus, the unborn is only a person once it can survive outside the womb. Once again, however, this criterion excludes an array of human beings whom we know are valuable persons. On this view, the patient whose life depends on insulin or kidney medication would no longer be a person, elderly folk who require the assistance of carers would no longer have rights, and conjoined twins who share bodily systems could be killed without justification.
To compound the problem, viability is technologically dependent. With current technology, foetuses are viable at an earlier stage of development than they were before the modern era. Are we to think that foetuses developing in modern times are persons at 22 weeks of pregnancy while foetuses at that same stage prior to modernity were not? Surely not. As such, viability is not a good reason to attribute value to the unborn.
A Better Explanation[iii]
Clearly the functional view of personhood raises numerous questions and poses apparently insurmountable difficulties. It seems inadequate due to its inability to account for our moral intuitions regarding human value. By “moral intuitions” I mean moral truths that we perceive without having to extensively reflect or deliberate about it; for example, that it’s wrong to kill people in comas, or people who depend on medication for their continued existence. Rather, it makes more sense to say that humans are valuable persons with a right to life in virtue of the type of creature they are. Human beings have intrinsic value simply because they are human. On this view, comatose persons are valuable because they are living human beings. Infants, though not self-aware, nonetheless have a right to life because of the kind of creature they are. The unborn, though smaller, less developed, in a different environment, and more dependent than other human beings, is a valuable person in virtue of its humanity.
If the case I’ve offered in Parts 1 – 3 of this series is sound, then abortion is wrong. As we’ve seen, the moral permissibility of abortion depends on what the unborn entity is. If the unborn is a human being, and it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings, then abortion is wrong. Science demonstrates that the unborn is a human being, and therefore if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. Finally, the inability of the functional view of personhood to account for our intuitions suggests the following: if we want to embrace human equality, then we should ground it in the only thing that all humans share equally, namely, their human nature. We should embrace all human beings, defending most vigorously the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable among us—the unborn.
[i] Helpful resources include Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, session 4 of Making Abortion Unthinkable, an audio set by Stand to Reason, Chapters 2 – 4 of Scott Klusendorf’s book The Case for Life, and Christopher Kaczor’s book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.
[ii] Schwarz, S. D. (1990). The moral question of abortion, pp. 15-19. Chicago: Loyola University Press.
[iii] For more on this view of human value, see Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, or click here for an informative lecture by Scott Klusendorf.