“Pro-Lifers Don’t Really Believe That Zygotes Are Persons”

A New Yorker review, summarizing a key argument of Katha Pollitt’s 2014 Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, proclaimed that “No person actually imagines that a zygote is a person.” (Meaning that certainly the pro-lifers who say that it is don’t actually imagine that.) The recent Newsweek article “America’s Abortion Wars (and How to End Them)” came to the same conclusion. A 2007 article by a law professor focused on pro-lifers who make an exception for rape; the logic offered in the article leads to the conclusion that some such pro-lifers (though not all) “take the position that abortion kills an entity that is something less than a full person. The earlier in pregnancy an abortion occurs, the greater the appeal of this position for many.” Under a Huffington Post article, the commenter CourtDecisions once told me that according to his legal knowledge, “. . . the advocates of fetal personhood don’t really believe in fetal personhood.”

While there is another segment of pro-choicers who go to the opposite extreme and claim that pro-lifers are a religious cult who worship fetuses, the above voices represent probably the bigger and more serious group, and advance a sometimes thought-provoking case. They usually adduce two kinds of evidence for their claim:

1. They say that pro-lifers’ actual public-policy recommendations, and pro-lifers’ claims about personhood, are deeply inconsistent.

After “No person actually imagines that a zygote is a person,” the New Yorker review goes on:

If they did, they would actually equate murder and abortion, and their conduct – only the tiniest fringe is willing to advertise comparable penalties for both – shows that they know perfectly well that they aren’t the same. . . . One would have to oppose capital punishment. . . . One would find it difficult to support any war or military action at all.

Meanwhile, the law professor opens her reasoning with the observation that pro-lifers who would allow the abortion of an unborn child of rape, would not allow the infanticide of a born child of rape. She then proceeds to eliminate some of what might appear to be explanations for this distinction, and at the end we find that out of all the possibilities of explanation she has provided, the explanation in the case of some such pro-lifers must be the view that the unborn is less than a full person. CourtDecisions wrote that “even the advocates of fetal personhood believe that abortion should be legal for rape, incest and fetal abnormalities. Consequently, the advocates of fetal personhood don’t really believe in fetal personhood.”

(The New Yorker and the law professor then proceed to think up reasons why pro-lifers may actually oppose abortion: “religious dogma,” “misogyny,” “intercourse as a sin.”)

I would agree that pro-lifers who would allow abortion for incest or fetal abnormalities, unless they would also allow euthanasia or eugenic killing of born children, don’t really believe that the unborn are persons. But the argument against those pro-lifers fails against pro-lifers who do not support those exceptions, and some of the other arguments also fail against a particular group of those who don’t: they fail against the group of pro-lifers who support a consistent life ethic.

The argument about a rape exception, however, seems more challenging, at first sight, for those pro-lifers who happen to advocate that exception, and the “comparable penalties” argument is challenging for most pro-lifers.

At this point let me mention that I am only personally acquainted with a small number of active pro-lifers and not with hundreds or thousands, and I would not be surprised if there are some pro-lifers who genuinely do not perceive zygotes as equivalent in moral value to born persons. And I would not be surprised if out of those who do not, there are a few who claim that they do. But that is not the point. I don’t think that moral truth is always determined democratically. What I will aim to do here is to represent the views of very thoughtful pro-lifers, as I understand them.

I think that most such pro-lifers do not want to give twenty-year prison sentences to women who abort – if they would even award such sentences to all abortionists without exception. Let’s look now at that “inconsistency” in awarding penalties. I think there are four factors at work, any one of which explains that “inconsistency” better than does the idea that pro-lifers secretly devalue the unborn:

First, I think that many pro-lifers, particularly those who have arrived at their own pro-life thinking only through a process of study and reflection over a period of years, can understand that the humanity of the unborn may not be immediately obvious to all; moreover, they give due credit to the efficacious campaign of dehumanization of the unborn that has gone on, in the US and some other cultures, for the last fifty years. Author and abortion-rights advocate Naomi Wolf admitted 20 years ago that “Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the fetus isn’t a person, and this, over the years has developed into a lexicon of dehumanization. . . . service staffers referred to the fetus . . . as ‘material’ (as in ‘the amount of material that had to be removed…’)” Unmentioned by Wolf, but perhaps still more effective in dehumanizing or simply erasing the unborn, were cunning bits of verbal engineering that assured women that only one “body,” theirs, was involved in any abortion. I think that often pro-lifers feel that many pregnant women simply do not know, or have been misled not to know, what it is that they are aborting. Pro-lifers do not demand harsh treatment for that reason. (This obviousness-of-humanity factor is also discussed, along with some possible factors that I will not touch on here, by Christopher Kaczor in his article “Equal Rights, Unequal Wrongs,” and was the subject of a Secular Pro-Life blog post not long ago.)

Second, it may more often be hard to determine that an abortion was not medically necessary than to determine that the killing of a born person was not self-defense. Abortion cases may more often be foggy in an evidentiary way, resulting in a cautious approach toward the prosecution of all abortion cases in general.

Third, when a crime of any kind is very common, prosecuting all cases might overwhelm the courts. An alternative might be to make examples by prosecuting only the “big fish” – in this case the abortionists.

Fourth and perhaps most importantly, pro-lifers, like anyone else, respect the mental sense of body ownership that underlies the concept of bodily rights. The importance accorded to that sense rests on a kind of intuition, and hence the importance varies somewhat from person to person, but I don’t think there is a night-and-day difference in that regard between pro-lifers as a group and pro-choicers as a group. To put it simply, pro-lifers as well as pro-choicers believe in “bodily rights.” So pro-lifers feel that as a moral starting point, or as a default moral principle, everyone has a right to refuse to let their body be used unless they give permission. Certainly one’s body cannot be used for just any purpose under the sun. Where pro-lifers differ from pro-choicers is that pro-lifers are likely to feel that a woman does not have that right when her body is the only hope for survival of a new human being – a situation that they feel confers some degree of responsibility on her – and when her pregnancy is not expected to be unusually rough or dangerous. And the responsibility is all the greater if she became pregnant through consensual sex.

But the belief in a default principle of bodily rights has two important consequences:

a. Many pro-lifers, given that default belief, may feel that a woman does retain the right to refuse the use of her body if serious health consequences are expected for her – even though her situation is not life-threatening. Most pro-lifers might say that even in such a situation she should not abort, but many would feel that she has the right to do so. So many may be ready to permit abortion for the sake of the woman’s health, even at the cost of the baby’s life.

Does this mean that they deem the unborn to be less human than the woman? Not at all. Remember that the default principle is simply: anyone has a right to refuse to let their body be used. That one can lose that right under any circumstances at all (such as a pregnancy that is expected to be relatively smooth) testifies to the fact that the unborn is considered fully human. But even though the unborn is fully human, the woman’s bodily rights mean that she retains a right to refuse to let her body undergo truly dire kinds of suffering.

b. It is similar regarding the prosecution of abortion cases as something less than murder. Abortion is less than murder not because the victim is not fully human, but because everyone has bodily rights such that in many circumstances, one would have a right to kill in order to defend their body. We could almost say that by default, one does have a right to kill to prevent the unconsented use of one’s body. I have written elsewhere, and others also have written elsewhere, on why there should be no such right in the case of a normal pregnancy, but the point here is that there almost is such a right. Abortion is not extremely far removed from such self-defense. For a woman, the offense of abortion, once abortion is illegal, will be the offense of not letting her default right to kill be offset by other considerations present in a pregnancy. That offense may not even be defined as a crime; and if it is so defined, it will not be murder. Even what the abortionist himself does may or may not be murder, because the abortionist can be seen as simply assisting the woman in an excessive assertion of her bodily rights.

According to the moral intuitions of many pro-lifers, in the case of pregnancy the value of a human life (the child’s) does override what would normally be the woman’s bodily rights, and therefore abortion should be illegal. But if a pregnant woman violates the law and claims what would normally be her bodily rights, it is, though a defiance of the law, something considerably less than murder.

(And the more so if the pregnancy resulted from rape. The law professor I have quoted actually mooted bodily rights as a possible explanation for why a pro-lifer might make a rape exception in spite of considering the unborn as a person, but rejected that explanation – too hastily, I think.)

And if a woman is sorely tempted to ease the anxieties of her own brain with alcohol at a time when she happens to have a child inside her, that is not morally the same as plying her newborn with alcohol without any similar temptation – though the results for the child may be the same.

Few pro-lifers would say that the validity of the pro-life position is an open-and-shut case. I think most feel that it involves a balancing of different values in which the balance does not fall overwhelmingly on the pro-life side, though it falls clearly enough.

2. They claim that thought experiments reveal that pro-lifers do not highly value the early unborn.

The Newsweek article, which contained numerous bad arguments, also contained this thought experiment:

A building is on fire. On one floor, five healthy babies are in cribs. On another, 10,000 embryos are in petri dishes, being grown for 10,000 women who want them implanted (new scientific advances guarantee that all the embryos will survive until birth). Because of the rapidly advancing flames, you have time to evacuate only one floor: Either five babies will die or 10,000 future humans will be destroyed. Which do you choose?

Hopefully, the answer is obvious – anyone who decides to rescue globs of cells over living, breathing babies is a monster. But this hypothetical exposes the absurdity of the claim that women who choose abortion are “murdering” babies or that a human being pops into existence at conception, even though a zygote or embryo is no more sentient than a sperm.

The author clearly does “hope” that the answer is obvious, but also clearly understands that there may be those to whom it might not be obvious, and thinks he’d better ensure the obviousness. He proceeds to pull out the stops with pejoratives for the poor embryos, and hyperbolic insults for the poor reader who might see things differently than he does. Should all that fail, at the end he reminds us of the old sentience argument.

One reason the author is right to brace himself for disagreement is that his thought experiment has stacked the deck: despite the concession that all the embryos would survive until birth, he has selected a means of death that will be painful to the born babies and not to the embryos; and we are likely to imagine that some adults have already bonded with the born babies, unlike with the embryos.

But what if we leveled the playing field, so that the born babies as well as the embryos would die in some painless way, and so that none of the sadness that we might feel in either case comes from any personal bonds that have become strong over time?

First let me say that for myself, though I might conceivably save the five babies if I had no time to think, I would definitely save the embryos if I had time to think – and the number would not have to be 10,000. For me the ratio could be very close to 1:1. And the importance of the time factor to my behavior indicates an element that the thought experiment depends on for whatever degree of success it may have with different people: the element of emotion.

It seems that we are biologically programmed to see babies and small children as cute and to feel protective toward them, and to feel emotional when they are threatened. I would guess we are also biologically programmed to feel protective toward a woman who is obviously pregnant – to feel protective, that is, toward anyone who seems to need protection, but more so toward a pregnant woman. Maybe we do not automatically feel equally protective when a woman shows us the results of a very recent pregnancy test, but then how could we be programmed in such a way? Our biological programming took place on the savannahs of Africa at a time when we lacked pregnancy tests, microscopes, and ultrasounds. Such programming would require cues (such as the cuteness of a born baby or the obvious bump of a developed unborn baby), while for embryos and zygotes there simply would not in those days have been any cues. Moreover, nature may have seen less need for such programming than in the case of the born, because for the unborn, the mother’s body was present as the first line of defense – unlike for born babies whom the mother or father might not tend at every moment.

But as Javier Cuadros has written:

Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the earth looks like it is stationary . . .

The Newsweek author wrote that “anyone who decides to rescue [embryos] is a monster.” If he had written, before 1492, “anyone who decides to go east by sailing west is an idiot,” it would have struck a chord with the people of that time. But in a century of frequent flyers, not only does it seems to us truthful that we can do just that, it seems to us so in a way that is reflexive and completely natural.

Some of us pro-lifers have been thinking about embryos and embryology for a long time, and I suspect that the Newsweek author has not. Though it did not happen in my thinking overnight, to me a human life seems like one seamless process that has to start somewhere. I no longer feel surprised to think that it may have to start small. If we set aside the possibility of feeling pain or fear, and set aside the memories about a child that may have formed in the minds of others who have bonded with it, then from my perspective, anyone who can see a big difference between the death of a 4-year-old and the death of someone who will be a 4-year-old soon enough, simply hasn’t thought about it or otherwise lacks vision in the matter.

(With some effort, I can see how someone could develop the idea that if there has never been any sense of self, then nothing can be lost to any individual. But neuroscience tells us that the self is an illusion anyway. So what actually counts is a bundle of independent pains and pleasures, fears and hopes, that has an illusion of self seemingly tying it all together. What counts is whether such a bundle that would have existed is lost. Whether or not a particular illusion has occurred is not something that can count.)

Above I have responded to the two main arguments that I have seen for the claim “Pro-lifers don’t really believe . . .” But there is another argument as well that deserves to be looked at.

3. Some point out that pro-lifers are not doing all that they could do to save zygotes from natural death.

In a blog post called “No 5k for the biggest killer – so does anyone really believe it’s a killer?,” Fred Clark quotes from a book called Broken Words

. . . between 50 percent and 75 percent of embryos fail to implant in the uterus. . . . Surely, a moral response to a pandemic of this magnitude would be to rally the scientific community to devote the vast majority of its efforts to better understanding why this happens and trying to stop it. Yet the same pro-life leaders who declare that every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child have done nothing to advocate such research. … One could say that this massive loss of human life is natural, and therefore, humans are under no obligation to end it. But it is not clear why the same argument could not be used to justify complacency in the face of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and other natural causes of human death

– and then comments:

That suggests one of two things. Either these pro-life advocates are complacent monsters every bit as callously unconcerned with saving unborn babies as those they oppose. Or else, just like those they oppose, these folks do not really believe that “every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child.” [Emphasis mine.]

I think that Clark has a point, and I think that consistent pro-lifers should be much more alarmed about those deaths than they presently are. But I think that again, bodily rights is at work, and the rest is a partially pardonable lack of awareness; and triage; and an understandable, if not completely pardonable, tendency to shrink from what could be a monumental sacrifice. I do not think that pro-lifers “do not really believe.”

Unlike with any kind of cure for AIDS, cancer, etc., saving those zygotes and embryos would require treating not the body of the victim, but the body of another person – the victim’s mother. When abortion is proposed, pro-lifers feel that the life of the embryo should normally override the bodily rights of the woman, and therefore that a justified infringement of her bodily rights is appropriate. But that infringement by society takes the form of preventing a pro-active act of violence on the part of the woman – it is not society pro-actively obliging a woman (a woman who plans no conscious and pro-active act) to ingest some (yet-to-be-developed) chemical or undergo some treatment that would trick her uterus into being more receptive to an embryo. Such an act by society would be a more intrusive infringement on her rights. And even before that infringement, society would have to pro-actively oblige her to submit to tests for the presence of an embryo whose presence would not otherwise be known – probably not even known to her.

I think that we should R&D some treatment that many women might wish to undergo voluntarily. But this lack, on society’s part, of a right to make sure, once the treatment is developed, that it would ever be used and would ever save lives, would be one reason that we do not passionately pursue its development.

I mentioned a “partially pardonable lack of awareness.” There must be many pro-lifers who do not know enough embryology to be aware of these deaths at all. But the pro-life leadership must certainly be aware, and does nothing to educate people. They must certainly be aware; but I feel it may all remain somewhat abstract even for thinking people, because the knowledge is purely statistical. When a sidewalk counselor sees a woman walking into an abortion clinic, that counselor sees a specific case of a life that (seemingly, at least) need not be lost; but we would not even know that the “between 50 percent and 75 percent figure” (assuming that is correct) is a reality, had not technologically-enabled investigations been made, followed by extrapolation from the findings.

“Triage”: I think that we should respond to those little one-celled or 800-celled sisters and brothers of ours exactly as we would respond to our born little sisters and brothers if they were under any threat. But we can expect most of those children whom we will save to be born sickly, and if a billion of our born little sisters and brothers each required the most costly, resource-intensive, and personnel-intensive kind of medical support during their lifetimes of whatever length, our moral obligation to save them by depriving everyone else would have some limit. The pro-choice argument about quality of life is not wrong; their mistake is to apply it discriminatorily, saying that it is particularly one group who must die to free up resources for others.

And finally, I mentioned “an understandable, if not completely pardonable, tendency to shrink from what could be a huge sacrifice” (a mild version of Clark’s “callously unconcerned”). Triage would only justify inaction about those deaths up to a certain point. I think that consistent pro-lifers should be ready to minimize their own expenditure and recreation to do something about those unborn children and everyone else in the world who is seriously suffering, and I don’t know if we’re all ready to do that yet.

I think that consistent pro-lifers should be much more alarmed about the natural deaths of zygotes than they presently are. But I think that if we look for the reasons they are not alarmed, a failure to “really believe” that they are persons is not among those reasons.

© 2016

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

What’s Wrong with Killing?

Among all who get involved in discussions about moral issues, killing and violence seem to have, in general, a bad name. How many times have you heard the remark, in refutation of some view, “By that logic, it would be okay to kill someone” – ? Killing is the default that we turn to when we need some example of doing wrong.

One would think that in the abortion debate, agreement on the wrong of killing would give us some common ground. But it turns out that although killing is universally disreputable, it’s disreputable in a nebulous way. When we say “Killing is wrong,” we don’t all mean the same thing. We disagree on exactly what is wrong with it.

1. To my moral intuitions, it is clear that what is most wrong with killing is that it deprives an organism of its future conscious life (which in the case of human beings usually includes a chance to improve morally). If I don’t deem it to have much of a future life or don’t deem that its future life will be very conscious, as I don’t in the case of a mosquito, then killing it is less wrong. I think it’s permissible to kill a mosquito for a provocation or even a threat that would not justify my killing a human being.

2. But many people think that what is most wrong about killing relates to the species of the victim without regard to its future conscious life. They say that the lives of all human beings are exactly equal in value and that human lives are special. Thus the worst wrong is to kill any innocent human being. (Well, there are some who say only, “The lives of all born human beings are exactly equal in value;” but the fundamental assumption is the same – those who say that simply don’t apply the assumption to the unborn.) Thus the life of a person in an irreversible coma (even granting the assumption that we really know beyond doubt that the coma is complete and irreversible) is as valuable as your life or mine.

Many Christians think in this way because of a belief that any human being, yet only a human being, is an imago dei.

I disagree with vesting all belief in what is wrong with killing in the simple humanity of the victim, because my moral intuitions tell me that in a triage situation – for instance if that person in a coma were in a hospital where there was not sufficient life-support equipment for two patients, and there was another patient in need of the equipment who was conscious or expected to regain consciousness – I would clearly prioritize the second person, though that person is not more human.

I think I would even preserve the life of a dog who could expect to have years of conscious life ahead of it (I believe dogs to be among the animals with highest consciousness), rather than that of a human who was sure never to come out of a coma.

The life of any human being is very important to me. We should not take anyone off life support if we can help it (unless they wrote an advance directive). But I wonder if some of my concern for even a human being in an irreversible coma, stems from my knowledge that humans in general are highly conscious.

3. Some think that what’s wrong with killing is that it frustrates a desire, on the part of the organism, to live.

I was lucky enough not to have to try to analyze this particular view on my own. An analysis of it co-authored by Kelsey Hazzard of Secular Pro-Life, and me, appears as a post on the SPL blog. Here I will just add a couple of further comments:

In the blog post, we remarked about that view, What is being said here is that an organism’s caring about its future life is important, but the future life itself that the organism cares about is not important. One more way to put “what is being said” would be: “Beings’ future lives don’t matter, but if they cherish a desire to live based on the illusion that their lives really do matter, then that foolish desire matters.”

We have implied in the post that an equation between caring about living (wanting to live) and caring about one’s future life; but can there really be much debate about that equation? For myself, I think that people who don’t want to live are invariably people who don’t want to go through the future life that they expect; and people who do want to live have at least a little hope for a little future happiness.

Also, in using expressions such as “the only harm that we can see in the frustration of a desire for one’s future life” in relation to the topic of the wrong of the killing, we have suggested that wrong involves harm. If there is any moral wrong unrelated to harming somebody, it seems to me that it would be a very abstract wrong compared to the wrong of harm.

And, it might be worth identifying a possible difference between the frustrates-a-desire-to-live view that we mainly discuss, and Peter Singer’s view, which we also mention. Singer focuses on the importance of a capacity to care (to hold preferences, as he puts it), but I’m not sure whether he ever singles out the importance of caring about life. Thus his thesis may not undermine itself as much as does the other, which inadvertently implies the importance of future life. Yet he equally ignores the relevance of future life when we consider killing someone.

(And lastly, in that article we said, “. . . okay, it’s true, embryos haven’t yet started to care about their future, and probably won’t for some years.” But were we 100% correct in saying that? The fact that they are biologically programmed to do everything possible to live, and that that biological longing is designed to ensure that the later conscious longing will have its day, means something to my personal moral intuitions. But let’s leave that aside for now.)

I think of the above as the three main competing views as to what is wrong with killing. In addition, there are some views as to what may at least add to the wrong of killing:

4. Killing may involve inflicting pain. On the wrong of inflicting avoidable pain, there is almost complete common ground in society. Even hunters who kill for fun do not find as much fun in it if they inflict significantly more pain than usual. Even pro-choicers who do not see anything wrong with killing the unborn in itself would like it to be done as painlessly as possible. Even if there really exist proponents of the “sovereign zone” bodily-rights argument who say that a pregnant woman should have a legal right to torture her unborn (because she is doing what she wants with her body and its contents), they would probably say that it would be morally wrong for her to do so.

5. Killing will often involve emotional distress for people other than the victim. It will particularly cause distress if the victim had in their life developed positive relationships. This has some small relevance in the abortion debate, because a born person, unlike an unborn, may have developed such relationships. Killing the unborn may be less wrong in that particular way.

6. Killing will often involve a loss of a utilitarian kind. And again, it is only born people who may be confirmed to be making a positive utilitarian contribution to society.

If we are to consider people’s utilitarian value in assessing their worthiness to live, we have to note that the utilitarian value of some born people will be greater than that of others, and that the contributions of certain born persons have been confirmed to be negative. Still, if carrying a pregnancy to term might negatively impact a woman’s ability to take care of her born children, that would assign a certain negative utilitarian value to her unborn child, and if there is no one who can help with the born children, that would be a factor to some degree, for the permissibility of abortion in that particular case.

 

In relation to the “frustrating a desire” belief about the wrong of killing, I wrote, “Ultimately we can’t argue logically with moral intuitions.” Logical arguments can be very important in helping people find better intuitions in themselves, but ultimately we can’t reject, on logical grounds, any of the above intuitions about the wrong of killing. I have written elsewhere regarding how I think differences in moral intuition ultimately resolve.

And I have said a number of things here indicating that I don’t give equal value to all human lives. Philosophically I don’t and probably many people don’t, but it would not be wise for society to try to implement, in practice, some objective calculation of value. Because if it were known that everybody was being rated in terms of their expendability, that would cause tremendous tension in society. We have to maintain the existing social convention “everyone’s life is of equal value,” and continue to codify that convention in terms of equal legal rights. (Except in a triage situation where the rubber meets the road and we have to make some differentiations.) I also think that the existing social convention should be upgraded so that “everyone” includes the unborn. I think that mainly because the unborn, also, have a future conscious life.

© 2015

Abortion as Problem-Solving through Might Makes Right

 

Secular Pro-Life has published an article of mine under their paid blogging program.

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Personhood

If we are to pinpoint the moment of beginning of personhood that has the best scientific grounding, out of all the moments that are candidates, that will certainly be the beginning of the single-cell stage. A minute before, there were two spatially-separated haploid cells, each with insufficient genetic information ever to become anything resembing a full-grown person; a minute after, there is a single definable organism with the exact genetic information that it will carry throughout life, at 1 month of gestation, at 4 years, at 60 years.

Here Dr. Maureen L. Condic writes:

Structures capable of new functions are formed throughout embryogenesis. For example, grasping becomes possible once hands have formed. But the fundamental process of development proceeds continuously, both prior to and after hand formation, and the onset of this function reflects an ongoing developmental process. Given the continuous nature of development, to argue that embryos and fetuses become humans once some anatomical or functional landmark such as “consciousness” has been achieved is to assert some kind of magical transformation; i.e., that at some ill-defined point, a non-human entity spontaneously transmogrifies into a human being, without any change whatsoever in its behavior, its molecular composition, or any other observable feature.

I reject this argument. For something actually to transform into a different kind of thing, a change must take place in its composition or in its pattern of biological activity. For example, sperm and egg are two specific human cell types that fuse to produce a distinct cell (the zygote) with unique molecular composition and with a pattern of organismal behavior that is distinct from the behavior of either sperm or egg. A clear, non-magical, scientifically observable transformation from one kind of entity (two human cells) to another kind of entity (a distinct human organism) has occurred. . . .

Building the complex architecture of the brain is a continuous process that is initiated at sperm-egg fusion and proceeds through orderly steps under the direction of a ‘builder,’ that is, a human organism that is present from the beginning. The presence of an agent capable of constructing the mature body, including the brain, is the only sustainable definition of a human being. This agency should not be misconstrued as some kind of mystical or spiritual element that is merely attributed to an embryo or fetus based on personal or religious belief. The fact that the embryo acts as an agent is entirely a matter of empirical observation; embryos construct themselves. . . .

. . . science does not dictate that citizens have a right to equal protection under the law, but. . . . science has clearly determined when human life commences, and this determination legitimately dictates that equal protection under the law must extend to human beings at embryonic and fetal stages of development.

For more scientific sources attesting to the personhood of the zygote, see Appendix 1.

Though the beginning of the single-cell stage has the best scientific grounding among all the moments that are candidates for the beginning of personhood, some will debate against defining “personhood” in this way. And “personhood” or “person” is not the only word that can be debated. While some will maintain that a zygote is “a human being, but not a person,” others, since they can’t deny that it belongs to the species Homo sapiens, will insist, with an equally straight face, that it is “human, but not a human being.”
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