While writing my last post on abortion I came across an anti-abortion piece written a few years ago by a Harvard undergraduate, Ms. Aurora Griffin. Having taught philosophical ethics to undergraduates for 30 years, I’m always happy to see an undergrad bold enough to wade into the philosophical waters. However, knowing the ins and outs of the argument in great detail, it is easy to see where Ms. Griffin’s argument goes awry.
Ms. Griffin argues that there are arguments from both philosophy and science that support her pro-life position. She says the philosophical argument “is that all human beings have the right to life because they are human,” and the scientific argument is “[human] life … begins at conception” because then “it has human DNA …”
Ms. Griffin does seems to recognize that these arguments don’t work because there is a difference between being biologically human, or having human DNA, and being a person who is a member of the moral community. Perhaps she has read Mary Anne Warren’s devastating critique of John Noonan’s notoriously weak argument, where Warren points out that being biologically human doesn’t mean you are a person, nor does the lack of a human DNA mean that you aren’t a person. There may be things that are biologically human but not persons—like zygotes, the recently deceased, and people in persistent vegetative states—and there may be things that aren’t biologically human but are persons—like intelligent aliens, cyborgs or robots. So having human DNA doesn’t mean that you are a person or a member of the moral community. After all, a swab of human saliva has human DNA but it not a person.
Sensing that personhood rather than biologically humanity is the key point, Griffin offers this argument. “If the human is a person only when neurologically functioning as a human, then by that same argument it would be permissible to kill people while they are in deep sleep, in comas, or mentally handicapped.” This argument is especially fatuous.
First, neurological functioning may be one of the necessary conditions for personhood, and one which the zygote without a brain clearly does not satisfy. It is hard to see how any entity that completely lacks consciousness is a person in any usual sense of the word. And, as is well-known in the literature, fetuses satisfy none of the criteria for personhood till well along in their development.
Second, the argument is a disguised version of a well-known informal logical fallacy known as the slippery slope. Ms. Griffin appears to believe that if we allow abortion in the early stages then sleeping and mentally handicapped people will be killed. Of course this doesn’t follow, since the sleeping and mentally challenged clearly have neurological activity—it is not as if they completely lack consciousness like early trimester fetuses.
All of this leads to Ms. Griffin’s conclusion that only “if the fetus is not a person and we know it definitively, is abortion morally permissible.” Of course we do know that the early fetus does not satisfy any of the criteria of personhood by any reasonable philosophical definition of the word, and we also know this beyond any reasonable doubt based on the science of embryological development.
Finally we might note that the majority view among ethicists by a large margin is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief not grounded in science or philosophical ethics.