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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