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(Last Updated: 24 Aug 2000 )
What follows is the text of a speech I made in a debate held recently in my home-town. The topic for the debate was Abortion - A Basic Human Right. My team represented the negative. My part in the debate was to discuss the personhood of the unborn child. My speech, although it contained a few additions of my own, was largely a summary and adaptation of an excellent article by Peter Kreeft, called Human Personhood Begins at Conception, available online at the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. I present my effort below, but I strongly recommend you see Kreeft's article as well.
Now, regarding the status of the unborn: I think we would all agree that fetuses are alive; if they werenít alive, then abortion would be no worse than a tonsillectomy.
And it is really easy to see that a fetus is human; theyíre not a carrot or anything else, right?
So the debate comes down to whether the unborn is a person. If so, then abortion is wrong for the same reason that murder is wrong. And really, thereís only one reason why people even argue about this: because some people want to justify abortion.
This is maybe the most crucial issue of the whole debate, ícos if the fetus is not a person, abortion is not the deliberate killing of an innocent person; but otherwise, it is. All the rest of the arguments are relative to this one; like, women have rights - but only over their own bodies and not over other person's bodies. And the law has to respect a "right to privacy", but killing another person is actually something public. Persons have a "right to life", but non-persons (like cells, tissues, and organs) donít.
The basic pro-life argument can be put like
Because the fetus is obviously human, but according to pro-choicers not necessarily a person, I wonder if there are any other human beings who arenít persons? If there are, then killing them might be OK, like killing warts. Some of the people who have been put in this category in the past are Jews, blacks, slaves, unbelievers, and counter-revolutionaries. But pro-choicers donít include these groups as non-persons. Some pro-choice people might say that very retarded or handicapped humans, or very old and sick humans, are non-persons, but most of us still think this is pretty morally shocking. So to avoid this shocking position, most pro-choicers only include fetuses as members of this newly invented class of human non-persons, (or, non-personal humans). But you know what? It looks very suspiciously like this category was invented to justify the killing, ícos its only members are the humans we happen to be now killing and want to keep killing and want to not feel bad about killing. So this is worth looking at. Are there any humans who are not persons?
The arguments that Phil has presented would say that there are, like those who canít think, love, choose, know, communicate, and so on. Or that personhood develops gradually and does not begin suddenly at conception. Or that personhood is not clear and no-one can really say when it begins.
But thereís a common thought behind all of these pro-choice arguments. Itís the idea of Functionalism; defining a person by his or her functioning, or behaviour.
This goes against common sense, because we can tell the difference between what someone is and what they do, between being and function. You canít function as a person without being a person, but you can definitely be a person without functioning as a person.
Like when you are asleep, or in a coma, or in early infancy, nearly everyone will say that you are a person, but you canít see any of the specifically human functions that Phil pointed out, like reasoning, making choices, or language. The fact that Leon, for example, can function as a person is only a sign that he is a person. The problem with judging things functionally, based on what they do, is that it becomes easy to confuse the sign with the thing that itís a sign for, like thinking that the smoke is the fire.
This can be seen in the way the old "Sanctity of Life Ethic" is being replaced by the new "Quality of Life Ethic." In this way of thinking, a human life is judged to be valuable and worth living if and only if the judgers decide that it performs at a certain level.
To say that some human beings are not persons is to say that only achievers, only successful functioners, only intelligent enough performers, qualify as persons and have a right to life.
Instead of saying that a fetus is not a person because she canít do certain acts, the truth is that she grows to have this ability because she is already the kind of thing that grows to have this ability - in other words, a person. Does that make sense? An animal wonít grow up to function like a person because itís not a person. But a fetus will, because she is.
Once a person is defined in terms of functioning, then zygotes (the new life formed right after conception), and fetuses and even normal newborns are no longer fully persons. Of course this justifies abortion, but also infanticide, killing little babies after they are born. There is no argument like this to justify abortion that doesnít also justify infanticide at the same time.
Now, pro-choicers will look at a zygote, and say things like, the zygote has no brain, it canít feel pain, how can it be a person? But the zygote does have what will grow into a brain, just like an infant doesnít have speech but he has what will grow into speech. Within the zygote is everything he needs for full individuality, from sex and ageing and eye colour to a dislike for spinach. The personhood of the person is already there. Besides, you have to be a human being to grow a human brain anyway.
Something else pro-choicers say is that itís stupid to think that personhood begins suddenly, at conception, because they think that personhood develops gradually, so before someone has developed into a real person, itís OK to kill them.
Now, development is gradual - after conception. Conception is the break, and itís the only clear line you can draw. Any person you can see was the same being from conception on. Otherwise we wouldnít talk about the growth and development of that being. Once, that person was an infant. They were born. Before that, they were in their mother's womb. The person's functioning develops only gradually, but their person-ness had a sudden beginning, at conception. So once again, we see the pro-choice position confusing being a person with functioning as a person.
Besides, if personhood only develops gradually, then we are never fully persons, because we continue to grow, at least intellectually and emotionally. There was a 71-year-old who once said, "I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up." If we are only partial persons, then murder is only partially wrong, and itís less wrong to kill younger persons than older ones.
If it is more OK to kill a fetus than to kill a born baby because the fetus is less of a person, then for exactly the same reason itís more OK to kill a seven-year-old than a thirty-year old, because the seven-year-old has not yet developed his reproductive system or a lot of life-skills. This is what happens when we define a person functionally. No other line besides conception can be drawn between pre-personhood and personhood.
Now, people sometimes suggest that birth would be a good place to draw that line. But birth is only a change of place and of relationship to the mother and to the surrounding world; how could these things create personhood? And why have a neonatal unit at a hospital? Why try to save premature babies if theyíre not persons?
Other people suggest that viability, the point when the preborn baby can survive by itself, is another place to draw the line. But viability depends on outside factors like available technology (such as incubators) or the quality of care the mother can afford. What I am in the womb (a person or a non-person) canít be determined by what machines there are outside the womb! But viability is determined by such things. Therefore, personhood cannot be determined by viability. Besides, my three-year-old niece probably couldnít survive without someone to look after her. Is she "viable"? If not, is she a person?
Then thereís the "The fetus is only a potential person" argument. But, if the fetus is only a potential person, it must be an actual something in order to be a potential person. So what is it? A monkey? There are no "potential persons" any more than there are potential monkeys. All persons are actual persons, just like all monkeys are actual. Actual monkeys are potential swimmers, and actual persons are potential debaters. The being is actual, the functioning is potential. Here we see pro-choicers confusing "a potential person" with "a potentially functioning person" - they seem to do this a lot.
Another pro-choice argument is that personhood is not clear. And Phil talked a lot about things we donít know; he said we canít communicate with the fetus, we canít know if they love or feel or think. But hey, if we canít communicate with them, weíre not gonna know are we? But thatís beside the point. The pro-choice position says that there is no universal agreement on just when someone becomes a person. Because itís so unclear, different people define it differently, and itís all a matter of "choice".
But if pro-abortionists are unclear about when someone becomes a person, shouldnít they hold off for a bit and find out? If youíre driving along a dark street and you see a person-shaped lump on the road, do you just drive straight over it because itís unclear whether itís actually a person?
I guess personhood is unclear if youíre defining it functionally. It becomes really hard to answer questions like these: Which features count as proof of personhood? Why? How do we decide? Who decides? What gives them the right to decide? How much of each feature is necessary for personhood? And who decides that, and why them? Then youíve got the problem of measuring all these performance-qualifications for personhood. Pro-choicers would have us use the unclear, not-universally-accepted, hard-to-measure functionalist concept of personhood to decide the sharply controversial issue of who is a person and who can be killed. They are trying to clarify the obscure by the more obscure - itís like trying to clean a window with peanut butter.
Besides, whenever it is in the interest of those in power to kill a certain group of people, history shows us that these people will be defined as non-persons.
And then thereís the "Fetus is just a part of the motherís body" argument. Well, if this was true, think about what that means. The mother would have four arms, four legs, two complete sets of feet and hands with different fingerprints, two heads, two complete and totally different sets of DNA, and half the time she would have a penis too!
Another pro-choice argument that was mentioned before was the fact that miscarriages happen, that unborn children sometimes die naturally in the womb, so maybe abortion isnít so bad after all. But people die naturally outside the womb too! This doesnít mean that itís OK to go round poisoning them or cutting them into little pieces. The difference between a spontaneous miscarriage and an induced abortion is precisely the difference between natural or accidental death, and murder.
The fact is, every surgical abortion stops a beating heart. The point that I want to make is that that heartbeat belongs to a person, and you need to decide whether or not you want to protect that person. Having an abortionist stop that heartbeat is as wrong as if they stopped your own.
I spoke about how the fetus is a person, and how pro-abortionists try to get around the fact that killing an innocent person is wrong by saying that the fetus is not a person. They do this by defining personhood functionally, but we know that being a person is what you are, not what you do.
We have shown you that since an unborn child is a person, that personís right to life outweighs any other considerations, because the right to life is the fundamental right. Although women have rights over their own bodies, those rights donít allow them to take the life of another person. We have also talked about abortion in the case of rape, and how it is unfair to punish the child for an act that is totally not their fault. Beside, rape is a trauma, and abortion is another trauma, so how can that be therapeutic? Abortion doesnít un-rape the woman. We have to always be sensitive to the feelings of the mother in this difficult situation, but the violence of abortion is not the right solution. We have also pointed out that the "choice" to have an abortion is not always made strictly by the mother, and furthermore, she is not always as informed as she should be, both on what happens in an abortion and on the potential side effects.
We have talked about the "quality of life" issues related to abortion. We have pointed out that itís not always easy to accurately diagnose, in the womb, some of these diseases used to justify abortion. Besides, "quality of life" is a really unclear and arbitrary measure to use for deciding whether to kill someone or not. We've discussed societyís double-standard: we make parking spaces for handicapped people and cheer them on in the Special Olympics, but when theyíre in the womb, we say "Letís kill the little monsters". We pointed out that the really difficult cases are actually very rare, and to say that abortionís OK for severe deformities or for children who will be born into abusive relationships is to say that abortionís OK (period). And that is exactly the situation that has lead to our current position where abortion is available practically on demand.
So here you have a whole bunch a really good arguments to prove that abortion is a clear evil. But just suppose all these arguments are still inconclusive. Suppose abortion isnít a clear evil. Suppose abortion really is a difficult, obscure, uncertain problem.
Because we think that the personhood of the
fetus is the central issue of this debate, maybe it would help to look
at it like this:
In case (3), abortion is manslaughter, which is killing an innocent person not knowing and fully intending murder. It is like driving over a man-shaped pile of clothing in the street, which may be a drunk or may only be an old coat. It is like shooting at a sudden movement in a bush which might be a deer, or might be your hunting companion. If the victim is a person you have committed manslaughter.
Even in case (4), even if abortion kills what is not actually a person, but the killer does not know for sure that it is not a person, we have criminal negligence, like seeing the coat on the road, driving over it anyway, and being lucky that thereís no-one in it. This sort of negligence is condemned as immoral and criminal; and murder and manslaughter, are of course condemned even more strongly, right? We donít argue politely over whether that sort of behaviour is right or wrong. We strongly condemn it, even when we donít know whether there is a person there, because the killer didnít know that a person was not there. Why donít we do the same with abortion?
What should we do? Well, the least
we can do is to speak up and make some noise to get people thinking about
the evil that abortion really is. Weíre lucky that we can make some
noise. If the babies that are being cut to pieces in abortion clinics
could be heard, theyíd be doing exactly the same thing.
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