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Part 19 Answering the objection the unborn is not a person

Some pro-abortion advocates admit the unborn is human but say the fetus is not a person and therefore can be killed. In the following article pro-life president of the Life Training Institute Scott Klusendorf will provide some clarity to this issue.  For additional arguments on the person-hood of the unborn I suggest reading my answer to my atheist friend Tom on January 18th in the comment section of “Defending the Life of the Unborn part 5.”

Confusing human value with human function[1]

Abortion advocates like Mary Anne Warren claim that a “person” is a living entity with feelings, self-awareness, consciousness, and the ability to interact with his or her environment.  Because a human fetus has none of these capabilities, it’s not a person. Warren makes two assumptions here, neither of which she defends.  First, she doesn’t say why should anyone accept the idea that there can be such a thing as a human being that is not a human person.  What’s the difference?  I’ve never met a human that wasn’t a person, have you?  Second, even if Warren is correct about the distinction between human being and human person, she fails to tell us why a person must possess self-awareness and consciousness in order to qualify as fully human.  In other words, she merely asserts that these traits are necessary for personhood but never says why these alleged value-giving properties are value-giving in the first place.

In his article “Why Libertarians Should be Pro-Choice Regarding Abortion,” Libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson makes points similar to Warren.  His larger purpose is to tell us who is and is not a subject of libertarian rights.  He argues that humans have value (and hence, rights) not in virtue of the kind of thing they are (members of a natural kind or species), but only because of an acquired property, in this case, the immediate capacity to make conscious, deliberate choices.  Because fetuses lack this acquired property, they have no rights.  A woman’s choice to abort, then, does not negatively affect the fetus or deny it any fundamental liberties.

But this can’t be right.  Newborns, like fetuses, lack the immediate capacity to make conscious, deliberate choices, so what’s wrong with infanticide?  What principled reason can Narveson give for saying, “No, you can’t do that?”

Peter Singer in Practical Ethics bites the bullet and says there is none, that arguments used to justify abortion work equally well to justify infanticide.38 Abortion-advocates Michael Tooley and Mary Anne Warren agree.  For example, if the immediate capacity for self-consciousness makes one valuable as a subject of rights, and newborns like fetuses lack that immediate capacity, it follows that fetuses and newborns are both disqualified.  You can’t draw an arbitrary line at birth and spare newborns.  Hence, infanticide, like abortion, is morally permissible.

Lincoln raised a similar point with slavery, noting that any argument used to disqualify blacks as subjects of rights works equally well to disqualify many whites.

You say ‘A’ is white and ‘B’ is black.  It is color, then: the lighter having the right to enslave the darker?  Take care.  By this rule, you are a slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again: By this rule you are to be a slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own.

But you say it is a question of interest, and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another.  Very well.  And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

In short, if humans have value only because of some acquired property like skin color or self-consciousness and not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, then it follows that since these acquired properties come in varying degrees, basic human rights come in varying degrees.  Do we really want to say that those with more self-consciousness are more human (and valuable) than those with less?  As Lee and George point out, this relegates the proposition that all men are created equal to the ash heap of history.

Philosophically, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature.  Humans have value simply because they are human, not because of some acquired property that they may gain or lose during their lifetimes.  If you deny this, it’s difficult to say why objective human rights apply to anyone.

Go to part 20 here


[1] Klusendorf, Scott, “Five Bad Ways to Argue about Abortion,”   http://www.prolifetraining.com/Five-Bad-Ways.asp

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