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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2 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

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