Personhood and Citizenship

(This post, first published August 1, 2013, is an explanation of why there should be no termination without representation.)

The unborn babies of the world today, November 15, 2013, are living their lives just as you and I were living our lives a short time ago, and as each of us may, in the view of many, soon be living our lives again. What you are today is you as you are today, and what you were not long ago was the same you, as the unborn baby that you were then. An unborn baby is a typical person, operating as one would expect a typical person to operate at its age. It should be considered a citizen of its respective nation or nations, or a citizen of the world, with the rights of a citizen. The era in which we treated the unborn, legally and otherwise, as second-class and “other,” will in future be seen like the dark ages.

One can define personhood, or define anything, in any way one likes. But to view any object of the universe, not to mention an unborn child, with disregard of its potential, would be a very reductive and disconnected way of seeing reality. Full human potential exists at the zygote stage.

And yet, an unborn baby is “a citizen who complicates the life of another citizen.” Let’s look at an example of what this means:

A man who desperately needs a job is taking care of his one-year-old while his wife works. The older kids are at school. Suddenly the man gets a call about his dream job — “Can you come for an interview right now?” He leaves the one-year-old at home, or takes it with him and leaves it in a hot car. He gets the job. The child dies.

We hear about such incidents from time to time. Can that man claim, “I have the right to take care of my own body. So this is a ‘men’s health choice.’ Don’t interfere. I needed the job to maintain my health and that of my older kids” — ? No, he should and will be prosecuted. And yet he did not even kill the child intentionally, as aborting parents do.

The baby in the above example is a person, a citizen, who complicates the life of a man. An unwanted fetus is an example of a person, a citizen, who complicates the life of a woman (and sometimes of other people as well). The first example helps make clear that just because citizen A complicates the life of citizen B, citizen B does not automatically have the right to kill or even endanger citizen A. Citizen B has a responsibility for citizen A (as do others in the society as well). Civilized sensibilities require that person B be prepared to make some sacrifices for the sake of person A.

A person who physically resides in a room within another person represents an extra degree of complication for the second person, opening up the possibility of exceptional measures by the second person under some circumstances. But that is because of the first person’s exceptional location and demands on the second person, not its stage of development. It is not any less a person.

Justice Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court wrote in Gonzales v. Carhart : “[Women's] ability to realize their full potential . . . is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’” (Here “their ability to control their reproductive lives” signifies, in biological terms, the ability to reproduce, then kill that which they have reproduced.)

I know little about Justice Ginsburg, and everything else she has done and said may be unexceptionable. I do not even necessarily maintain that she was on the wrong side in this case, where the only issue was whether to allow more or fewer gruesome options for dispatching the unborn. But a statement such as this, saying that no one should be expected to make the least sacrifice of their individual goals to spare the life itself of their unborn child, is a truly chilling advocacy for an atomistic, bloodless and dehumanized society, disconnected from the deepest nature of our species. It is an argument that the Justice might have picked up from Ayn Rand, author of The Virtue of Selfishness.

Remember that the man in my above example did nothing more than put “the realization of his full potential” ahead of his responsibility for his baby.

Justice Ginsburg went on to say: “Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures . . . center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature…” The fallacy in citing unequal citizenship stature for a woman who is restricted from a certain style of killing, is to assume that men are NOT often restricted from killing, or that abortion procedures are not killing, both of which ideas can be easily dismissed. And the Justice makes no mention of the highly unequal citizenship stature of unborn children, under her prescriptions.

It is not unusual that one person complicates the life of another. Most often it happens in pregnancy, but not only then. When one person complicates the life of another, what we have is two human beings, two citizens, both equally deserving of due process.

If the life or well-being of any citizen is in danger, that person is equally as deserving as any other citizen of all possible protection by its human family. (Or if any citizen is less deserving, that is beyond the ability of society to judge.) Yet we do have some situations, some unavoidable win-lose or lose-lose situations, where person A complicates the life of person B; that is, the life or well-being of person B is threatened, in some important way or less important way, unless he or she risks or “terminates” the life of person A. Sometimes there is no happy solution.

The obvious need of society in such a situation is to find the right balance between its two responsibilities — its responsibility to each of the two persons. And in the endeavor to find the right balance in the treatment of two human beings — a just and sensitive balance between two lives of equal value — one extremely counterproductive smokescreen that we sometimes encounter is formulations referring specifically to abortion as “women’s right to control their own bodies,” or “women’s health choices/issues” — formulations that cunningly and deliberately obscure the rights and the very existence of one of the two main parties involved.

1) Such formulations say that one of the persons in the equation, the baby (who also has a body and would like control over it), does not deserve any consideration. And 2) such formulations do not even say this openly, where it might be challenged, but simply obscure the very existence of that tiny human being by appealing to a sentiment that anyone would reflexively feel if they did not analyze carefully. That is, if it were really only the woman’s body involved, anyone would immediately support her right to control it — but hers is not the only body involved. And except to an atomistic view, every woman and man of the universe has a legitimate concern for the welfare of each of their unborn brothers and sisters, and has even a moral duty, like it or not, to make sure that their voiceless and otherwise-helpless little kin receive appropriate representation and fair consideration.

If we were to get into the game of deciding who is more deserving than whom, let us remember that both Ginsburg and Rand try to make out an argument for “women’s choice” based on human potential. But an unborn child has an as-yet-unrealized potential for many beautiful childhood expressions, whereas its mother, its parents, have irretrievably lost that potential. Moreover, due to medical advances, the child can be expected to live longer than the parents in absolute terms. Clearly an unborn child has more potential for experience, for achievement, for living than either of its parents. But let’s think twice, in an inclusive society, before getting into the game of deciding who is more deserving than whom.

Whenever, in any society, a proposal is made to perform an abortion, the extremely adverse consequences for the baby are clear, and uniform in nature. Any benefits for the parents, or any avoidance of adverse consequences, on the other hand, are less clear (often largely dependent on future forecasting, and on the role of society), and variable in nature. This reality will always inform the effort to find the right balance. This explanation is not about who is more deserving, but about the probabilities of adverse or positive consequences.

In any society, the decision should be made (except in a medical emergency) by a judicious and sensitive panel. It would be desirable for all the panelists, or at least all who directly speak with the woman involved, to be women, as long as those women represent all people, including all men, who empathize with the sometimes heart-rending plights of the parents, particularly of the mother, but who also regard the unborn, with a human instinct of protectiveness, as their little sisters and little brothers.


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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

Abortion and Problem-Solving

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