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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Abortion, Eugenics, and Human Rights

In this post I make the argument that the practice of eugenics is common and generally not morally problematic.  I make this argument in order to motivate another point about the rhetorical dishonesty of anti-abortion activists.  Though I will make the argument that anti-abortion activists are deceptive in their use of the rhetoric of eugenics, I will not make an independent argument for or against the claim that abortion is wrong.  For the purposes of full disclosure, I will state for the record that I do not think that abortion is wrong.  However, my personal view has little bearing on this broader point which is about the conflation of two distinct cases for moral personhood.

Abortion is an ethically murky issue.  If we have a moral obligation to refrain from harming (or killing) other persons, then it is fair to say that other persons have a "right" to our restraint, a de facto "right to life."   For this reason, the debate about abortion hinges on the question of whether human fetuses are persons to whom this obligation, and the corollary right, extends.  Generally speaking, Christians (and many other religious people) believe that fetuses are persons because they believe that the criterion for personhood consists of having a soul and that fetuses become soul-bearing entities at the moment of conception.  But you do not have to believe in a soul to worry that the distinction between a mostly-developed fetus and a recently-born infant is morally arbitrary.  However the criterion for personhood is cashed out, it will have serious implications for the broader moral theory and the political rights and laws that extend from it.

Because the concept of personhood is so closely tied to moral and political rights, some members of the pro-life constituency have allied themselves with activists for certain politically disenfranchised groups, including the mentally and physically disabled.   Both pro-life and disability rights activists share the common belief that some groups of persons have moral rights which they may not be able to defend on their own, and they find common cause in their perception of themselves as defenders of these rights.  For this reason, it is not surprising that many pro-life activists have adopted a rhetoric that appeals to the social-justice values of other activists, rather than religious rhetoric about the sacredness of human life.  For example, some pro-life activists have begun using the politically-loaded term “eugenics” to describe certain common pre-natal tests that give pregnant women information about the health and development of their fetuses.

Pro-life activists argue that the practice of testing fetuses for Downs Syndrome, Tay-Sachs, and other genetic disorders or diseases amounts to eugenics because pregnant women are likely to abort fetuses that are not normal or perfectly healthy.  Of course, on a purely definitional level, this is true.  Any practice that seeks to promote good or improved offspring is eugenic, including the practice of non-random mate selection, in which nearly every reproductively active human participates.  If a pregnant woman could undergo some sort of treatment that could alter the chromosomal mutation of her in utero fetus rather than aborting it, the practice would be equally eugenic; it just wouldn’t involve abortion.

Were there a procedure available to suppress or alter genetic disorders so that a fetus with such a disorder could be born as a normal, healthy baby, most mothers would undergo such a procedure.   For example, if a pregnant mother-to-be learned that she was carrying a fetus with Downs Syndrome, and the doctor gave her the option of a procedure which would guarantee that her fetus was born a “normal” baby or the option of aborting the fetus and trying again, it is likely that the mother would undergo the procedure to make her baby normal.  No such procedure exists, of course, but this hypothetical possibility is relevant because it illuminates the crucial distinction between pro-life activists, and disability rights activists.  Pro-life activists have no reason to oppose a procedure that improves the fitness, health, or life expectancy of an in-utero fetus, and they have a good reason to support such a procedure if it is an alternative to abortion.  They can (and probably should) support eugenics of this type.  Some disability rights activists, on the other hand, do have a reason to oppose a procedure like this (and, in the case of some disabilities, they have), because eugenics of this type poses the threat of extinction for the population they mean to protect.

If no children were born with disabilities, older people with disabilities would, as a matter of course, become a smaller and more politically vulnerable minority, and eventually people with certain disabilities might die out entirely.  Many people without disabilities do not find this a worrisome or problematic possibility, but those who believe that the existence of persons with disabilities adds valuable diversity to society at large do worry about it, just as most of us worry that the extinction of a minority race or ethnicity of people -even through entirely voluntary, non-genocidal, reproductive choices made by individuals- would be bad.  In fact, the endangerment of a minority group of people is the outcome that gives the practice of eugenics a negative moral connotation.

It is disingenuous for pro-life activists to use the word “eugenics” with full awareness of this negative moral connotation to make an argument against abortion.   Virtually everyone practices some form of eugenics when they participate in selective mating with the intended purpose of producing healthy offspring with the traits they value.  Pro-life activists do not care about most of these eugenic practices, and there is nothing in their position that commits them to valuing the continued existence of some vulnerable minority group within society.  The only eugenic practices they want to restrict are those which terminate the life of a fetus, regardless of what kind of life that fetus might grow up to live.

“Who counts as a person?” and “what obligations do we have to other persons?” are two of the fundamental questions of moral theory.  Insofar as any of us care about preserving a minority group’s rights we must be concerned with these questions because people in virtually every minority group have been denied equal rights in society when their status as equal persons under the law was denied.  But our interest in protecting the rights of minority groups composed of those we do count as persons does not commit us to the claim that fetuses are persons who should be afforded the same rights.  Pro-life activists cannot motivate their case by drawing an analogy between the unborn and other historically politically vulnerable minority groups without first making an independent argument that the cases are relevantly similar.  In other words, they need to make the case that fetuses are persons.  Without that, their rhetoric of human rights is empty, and their talk of eugenics is a rhetorical red herring.

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