Brief Reply to a Pro-Lifer


International status of abortion law UN 2013 report on abortion law. (Blue is legal.)

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, 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 …”

To her credit, Ms. Griffin seems to recognize that the scientific argument doesn’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 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 is not a person.

Sensing that personhood rather than biologically humanity is the key point, Griffin offers the following in reply to those who focus on consciousness as the key to personhood. “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.” However, this argument is especially fatuous.

First, the analogy between the persons she describes and a zygote or fetus doesn’t hold because the former have brains and previous conscious experience while the latter (except in late stages of fetal development) doesn’t. Neurological functioning is one of the necessary conditions for personhood, but it is one that early-term fetuses don’t usually satisfy. And it is hard to see how any entity that has never had conscious experience is a person in any usual sense of the word. Moreover, as is well-known in the literature, fetuses satisfy none of the other criteria for personhood as well.

Second, her 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.

Now 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.

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9 thoughts on “Brief Reply to a Pro-Lifer

  1. The distinction between “human” and “person” is misleading at best, if not outright “evil” (and i explain below). It is like racist arguments (racism is a result of collonialism, btw), that people(=humans) of other color, ethnic group, gender(sexism), are not humans after all. It is a non-argument, a kind of “no true Scotchman”. It has no basis. Why? For one reason it fails to define “human” objectively in the first place. As such it is highly unscientific, not even applicable literaly in the area it is supposed to be applied (= our own). And (pseudo-)consensus will not make it one. if reality were mere make-believe (as consensus-ists claim in a way), then, for example, we could feed our hunger (or other need) with mere fiat, or wishful thinking. This is NOT so. Reality is indeed real. As such, the whole argument is simply non-argument (to avoid using another word here).

    Furthermore, the argument from biology (and survival), leads to our understanding of each other, at least in some way, and our common humanity. People, even for the need of survival, in fact know they have to do with other people. This is an argument from biology and survival. Acknowledging this is of biological importance, among others, and “moral principles”, for example against murder, directly stem from this. Whether this is honestly acknowledged as such is another issue, unrelated to this, and pointing to hypocrisy as regards to acknowledging part of reality, in no way diminishes what is stated here.

    In line with what is stated above, one can discuss the issue of abortion, in its full extend. However i will leave this at this point in this small comment.

    Nikos M.

  2. Am going to take a position based on the lack of importance of abortion. (For a moral opinion, one could query a learned Catholic philosophy and theologian.)

    Prior to the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973, abortion as you know was not legal. The ensuing 45 years have demonstrated how abortion is insignificant.
    The world of 2018 differs little from the world of 1972 regarding abortion. In ’72, ‘back alley’ abortion and the use of abortifacients were common.
    ————————————————————–
    Gay marriage became legal in 2015– but changed things little/not at all. These sort of issues are blown out of all proportion

  3. “ She says the philosophical argument “is that all human beings have the right to life because they are human,” “

    A fallacy in the form of a circular argument. Quite frankly, anyone who would start her “philosophical dissertation “ in this way, would not even get it read from me. It really puzzles me: I myself have found so far several people who “studied” philosophy and even proclaim themselves to be “philosophers”. I see all kind of trash in their “arguments”, matched only those of the commonest people, i.e. all kind of fallacies. Or, no argument at all, just a bald statement. “This is so” and “that isn’t so”. Wow. If their talents as philosophers are that lacking after they studied philosophy in a university, can you imagine how bad and weak they were as philosophers before they learned anything?

    The mind boggles. Of course, your argument completely destroys hers. But, I’ll give it a try, too.

    “all human beings have the right to life because they are human”

    Ignoring the horrid circularity of this extremely weak argument, which is too big a concession to give to someone who proclaims themselves to approach philosophy , even the premise itself is dubious, for example I approve of the death penalty for the gravest crimes, for example, when someone denies someone else the right to life when they had absolutely no right to do so.

    Your arguments were brutally logical and sound.

  4. “ I approve of the death penalty for the gravest crimes, for example, when someone denies someone else the right to life when they had absolutely no right to do so.”

    I’ll elaborate my own argument a little more.

    “Rights” are defined as “ the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled”. But who is to say that “human life” has a “right” to life in every context? No one, and the death penalty seems a pretty good example of that. In certain places it is lawful. When people say that life ‘is a right’, it is assumed that it is innocent people whom we are speaking about.

    So not only Ms. Griffin’s premise is simplistic, but also untrue. Life is not a right in every context, or everywhere, for everybody.

    As regard the abortion debate, I see also other implications in it than just being an issue of whether or not life is a “right”. For example, would anyone have been willing to be born accidentally because of a porn movie, and live their life knowing of such origin?

    Even if we were to consider the fetus a person, then being a person, we would have to ask this person if it had been better to painlessly never having been born, or, I assume painfully, to have lived as a person.

  5. and there’s more issues that come to mind. For example, unwanted children who are abandoned, who grow in an orphanage where they suffer serious abuses. I have read an autobiography by Paul Connolly, who was abandoned – with the trash- by his mother, who grew in an orphanage. He was probably the only one who got out of there who did not end up a drug addict, a criminal, or did not commit suicide. Yet, as undoubtedly and incredibly strong as he has been and is (I am pretty sure I myself would have not made it) he still paid a very high price. His best friend, Liam, killed himself.

    Why don’t these “pro-lifers” ask mothers who do NOT want a child, if they wanted to abort. Again: painless non-existence, because it never started, and a painful one, which ended in tragedy after long years of physical, psychological, existential, and spiritual pain.

    Schopenhauer asserted that ALL human life “had better never have been”. I cannot say it should apply to all of it, but I can certainly say that some poor devils would have been far better off to never have been born in the first place.

    Why don’t the “pro-lifers” learn about these people who were born but were dumped in a street and were left to their fate? And a very cruel one.

  6. “He was probably the only one who got out of there who did not end up a drug addict, a criminal”.

    I mentioned the word “criminal” because I have read of other people who were abandoned and grew up in orphanages, and they became serial killers. But this aspect has nothing to do with the story of Paul Connolly, his friends, or the kids who grew up where he grew up.

    In other words, I am not badmouthing anyone who grew up in an orphanage, I am just saying that in a few cases some of these people did bad stuff. Would they have done so if they had grown up in a loving household? Probably not, although there have been instances of people who did grew up in good households and had a good childhood, who then did bad things.

    I don’t believe any of us, given the choice, would, as a fetus, claim a “right” to life, only to live a hell as soon as we come out of the womb.

    And this argument about how the fetus is a “person”, seems preposterous, for none of us even remembers the first day when we were born, let alone when we were forming in the womb.

  7. So, ultimately: even if it were true that “human life is a right” for everybody in every circumstances, which seems dubious, as I have indicated before, who is to say that everybody – wanted – to claim this right?

    For a right can only be a right when one can choose to claim it. If it is forced upon someone who would have never wanted to claim it in the first place (and I believe there’s plenty of such cases, as mentioned before), then it is clearly not a right, but an imposition.

    The first and foremost right is to be able to choose. If I cannot choose, and you try to shove YOUR decision down my throat, then it can’t be a right. And since no one can interview a fetus and ask what their choice is (which itself shows a fetus is hardly the person some say it is), then how can these “pro-lifers” say that to be born is a “right” ? They are making the choice, not the “person” they talk about. They are choosing for others, not even the mother, but even the fetus, and call it a “right”.

  8. also, we call it a “right” when it is assumed that the person who “benefits” from it, actually wants it. But how do the pro-lifers know that the fetus would like to claim this right, EVEN if the fetus knew that their lives would not turn out to be bad?

    Even in the best of case, at the end of it there is death. In the best of cases, one lives to be old, but soon or later, illness will set in, because of old age. One can only hope the illness will be something that lasted a few days, then it’s over.

    Who can say that if a fetus could know all this, and given the choice to be born or not, would not still refuse to be born?

    Which is pretty much Schopenhauer’s argument. It might seem strange, but he saw life as a DISTURBANCE in between a dreamless state of non-existence. Would not any of us be at least a bit suspicious of coming out of the womb shouting :”Geronimooooo!” with a smile on our faces?

    The point is that being in a painless limbo and deciding, with the awareness of a person, to come to life, is a pretty big jump in itself. At the very least, it would be a personal decision. It seems rather absurd that the pro-lifers seem to know what someone else’s, who has not been born yet, ultimate choice would be. Then to decide in their stead, and call it a “right”. The right of whom? The choice was not made by the “person” they say has this “right” they say it has, but they speak for the fetus, decide for it, and call it a “person”.

    Rather strange! It seems to me more like a story that someone like Kafka would write!

  9. Luigi

    thanks for all your thoughtful comments. I like the way you tackle the question from the perspective of whether being born is a good thing for you. Many philosophers have challenged this notion, most notably David Benatar. You can read a summary of his work here:

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/10/13/david-benatar-why-it-is-better-never-to-have-been/

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2018/11/14/summary-of-david-benatars-the-human-predicament/

    I have also written quite a bit about abortion, the selections below are representative:

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2019/05/19/professional-ethicists-rarely-oppose-abortion/

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/07/12/christianity-and-abortion-scripture-and-church-tradition/

    Finally, I have written many posts about Schopenhauer if interested, although you seem to know his thought better than I do.

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