I Was Never a Fetus

It’s been a while since I posted anything.  “Life gets in the way,” and all that.  The amount of time I have spent away might make you think that the topic on which I’m writing must be very important, but I don’t know that it is.  It’s just something that’s been bugging me.

The debate about abortion is a topic about which many people have very strong feelings, and understandably so.  However, this post is not about abortion in general.  It is not about whether or not abortion is moral, immoral, or amoral.  It is about one, and only one, argument that I’ve heard several times when the topic has come up in private conversations and online.  The argument of which I’m speaking is goes something like this:

  • You were once a fetus.
  • You are a person.
  • Hence, a fetus is a person.

Once the personhood of a fetus is established, the idea is that all the rights and privileges that go along with such a status would apply to all fetuses.  I don’t know that such a thing does, in fact, follow, but that is not my big problem.  My big problem is that I just don’t think the first premise, “You were once a fetus,” is true in the sense that is needed for the argument to work.

Identity as it relates to persons is a pretty tricky concept.  Part of the reason it is so tricky is that it seems very straightforward.  There is quite a bit to the issue, but it should be fairly easy to demonstrate that when we talk about a person we are generally relying on one of two distinct concepts, one biological and one psychological.

The biological criterion allows us to say that our bodies are the things that make us “us.”  It allows us to point to individuals with certain physical characteristics and readily identify them as the same person at different points in time.  This is certainly the concept that those making the above argument have in mind when they claim that you were once a fetus.

However, that’s not typically the concept we have in mind when we think of what “we” are.  Here’s what I mean:  Think about the various movies, books, and TV shows that have had as an aspect of the plot some person getting a different body, like Freaky Friday.  In that movie a mother and daughter switch bodies, and, supposedly, hilarity ensues, and a lesson is learned at the end bringing the pair closer together.  Now, if you consider that plot, it should immediately become apparent that what we are not talking about when we point to the persons involved are the bodies.  Were that the case, the movie would make no sense at all.  No, in order for the story to work, we have to separate the person from the body.  In that case what counts for personhood is (probably) some particular psychology that continues through time*.  That is, what counts for personhood is something like psychological continuity.

With the distinctions above described it should be obvious where the problem with the “You were once a fetus” argument lies.  The problem is that it is just not at all clear that I or anyone else was once a fetus in the relevant sense.  As psychological continuity is what is important for personhood, psychological states are necessary before there can ever be a person.  Exactly where full-on psychological states begin is a matter of some contention, but even if those states begin while still in the womb, they clearly don’t begin until later in the gestation period.  As such, there is clearly some time where my body existed but “I” did not, where the fetus existed, but it simply was not “me.”  For this reason the argument as it is described simply cannot work.

I think I’ve been charitable to the proponents of this argument.  In fact, I’ve cleaned it up from the version I normally hear which is something closer to attempting to making people feel like they owe it to fetuses not to abort them since those persons themselves were not aborted.  That’s a trite play at emotions that I find kind of pitiful, so I didn’t present the argument in that way.  Even so, I just don’t see how this particular argument gets off the ground for the reasons given above.  It just turns out I was not a fetus, so attempting to piggy-back the rights of fetuses on the rights of full living persons in this way completely fails.

I’ll say once more that this is not an argument in favor of abortion, nor is it meant to suggest that no argument against abortion works.  That’s not what I’m doing here.  Rather, I just wanted to point out that this particular argument, one which I’ve heard repeated numerous times, relies on a clear conceptual error and does not work at all.

*There is some debate as to exactly how this gets cashed out, but for the sake of brevity I’ll rely on psychological continuity while readily admitting that the issue is more complex than is laid out here.

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13 Responses to “I Was Never a Fetus”

  1. Andiis Says:

    Dear ” you idiot “…hahaha..

    I have never heard that argument before.

    # You were once a fetus.
    # You are a person.
    # Hence, a fetus is a person.

    I have heard a lot of ‘ right to life ‘ arguments but not this logical fallacy.
    The main anti-abortion or right to life argument seems to be that once conception has been achieved then, unless God intervenes, that fetus has the divine right to become what it will. That we mere mortals have no right to intervene in the life process. So this is no classroom philosophy discussion my lad. You messin’ with GOD here !!

    So the argument is one of potentiality. However, depending on the legal definition in your Country or State, the judiciary, or in the case of the Theocratic State, your god representative, that potential is one defined by others.

    I fear your argument falls at the first hurdle, because you WERE a fetus. You were a single cell once. But wait !! there’s more… you, my son, were a thought. As Carl ( blessed be his name ) Sagan says ..” we are Star Stuff. ” He also said ” In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. ”
    Analogy beckons.
    The mighty Oak tree says ” I was never a seed ”
    The Butterfly say ” I was never a grub ! “.
    If your argument relies on psychological continuity, then what of the child born without the benefit of awareness, i.e. blind, deaf, mute? What of the autistic child who does not have psychological continuity, but rather develops on a random sporadic path, ever diminishing. Shall they not be afforded your compassion.

    Maybe this argument you deliver is just all about you !!

    • Jim Says:

      Huh. I thought I was pretty clear I was only talking about this single argument and no other. I even thought I said “this is not an argument in favor of abortion, nor is it meant to suggest that no argument against abortion works.” Pfft, shows what I know.
      I’d like to meet the Oak and Butterfly that talk to you.
      And, for the record, being blind, deaf, mute, and autistic does not prevent one from having psychological states that continue one from another. However, not having a brain capable of psychological states at all does.

  2. Liza Says:

    The potential argument is riddled with problems. Christians (and many others) pick out the moment that the sperm fertilizes the ovum as the moment when life begins, but the sperm and ovum each have the potential to become half of the genetic material of a developing fetus before fertilization. Once the ovum is fertilized it has the potential to grow into a fetus, but it also has the potential to get flushed out of the uterus (in fact, it’s probable), and of course, once the fetus begins to develop, it has the potential to be born into a person, but it also has the potential to be miscarried or stillborn. The relevant question is not whether a fetus is a potential person, the relevant question is whether that potential is enough to secure the fetus the rights of person.

    • Andiis Says:

      Potentiality does not require looking to the outcome, but merely allowing life to go on, moment by moment.. So the question asked is a legal, not a philosophical one. A question of rights. When does a fetus become a legal entity? When is a fetus allowed to sue OR be sued on a right to life/death decision? Can a child sue for unlawful life ? Did the mother and/or doctor have the right to allow life to continue ? Nothing to do with Freaky Friday really. The law books are the place to go and the courts are the place to argue your case. I imagine the system of Government under which you live is grappling with this one as is mine. We make tentative tilts at securing the rights of pregnant women to be in control of the outcome, but the system is flawed and the emotions raw on the topic of birth control …and I do mean control. As of this moment decisions are made according to the lawmakers of the day. I fear it will be ever thus.

      • Jim Says:

        Yea, Liza. The question is when can a fetus instigate a lawsuit. You and your stupid philosophy…dummy. Why don’t you do something like, like work in a homeless shelter?

        • Andiis Says:

          Jeez Jim, take a pill, you don’t like criticism much do you.
          Liza said..
          ” The relevant question is not whether a fetus is a potential person, the relevant question is whether that potential is enough to secure the fetus the rights of person. ”
          The rights of a person are established by law, that’s all I was saying. The law is codified in a government decree, and tested by the relevant court.
          Shit mate, you brought it up, not me. The Freaky Friday argument is lame , and then you use the plot to justify your position…
          ” Were that the case, the movie would make no sense at all. ”
          Well Jim, the movie makes NO sense at all. It’s Hollywood. They make shit up. Like your argument. There never was an argument that said ” you were a fetus , you are a person, therefore a fetus is a person. ” You made that up to use Freaky Friday in an article, bahahaha !! OK…you win.

          • Jim Says:

            Yay! The person who doesn’t understand Freaky Friday thinks I’m a winner!

          • Jasper Mackelroy Says:

            –There never was an argument that said ” you were a fetus , you are a person, therefore a fetus is a person. ” You made that up

            The argument about whether a fetus is a person is perhaps one of the most active arguments in the entire right to life debate. Please be informed before posting.

          • Jim Says:

            She or he does not understand how Freaky Friday, a movie made with children in mind, works. We can’t expect them to be aware of these kinds of debates or know how to use Google.

  3. The Body Knows: A Gnostic Eye View « Gnosis of an Alcoholic and Food Addict Says:

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  5. Arianna Garrison Says:

    Or if you do manage to convert the pressure in your personal injury claim in a lawsuit, will deliver his case to another lawyer who will go to trial.

  6. Aurelio Says:

    Hello there! This post couldn’t be written much better!
    Looking at this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I am going to forward this information
    to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!


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