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Everyone Thinks The Unborn Are Persons. Saying Otherwise Is Just Denial


I am going to ask a favor from those of you with pro-choice inclinations. I ask that you answer these questions to yourself quickly and instinctively before you see where this is going. We all have a tendency to deny a premise simply because we do not like the conclusion it leads to.

More often than not, if we are to be intellectually honest, we should consider each premise on its own merits of plausibility and if it leads to a conclusion we find unpalatable, so be it. After all, the truth is not dependent on whether we like it. Successful discourse can never occur if we are only defending conclusions. I admit I also have a relentless desire to deny the opposing conclusion. I am no better. I only ask that you try.

Now, on to the questions: Were you ever a fetus? Were you ever in your mother’s womb?

If you answer yes to either of these questions, then you affirm the personhood of the unborn.

Some Explanation Before the Argument

To go further we need a brief explanation of what philosophers call accidental and essential properties in relation to personal identity over time. Accidental properties are things about us that can change, or we may even lose completely, without us ceasing to exist. For example, if you cut your hair, or even lose an arm, you will still be you. In other words, you have not lost anything essential to your identity.

On the other hand, essential properties are things about us that are necessary for our existence. If we lose them, we cease to be. An example of an essential property of our identity is our humanity. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel gives a great illustration of this in his famed essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the bat from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion. Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

In other words, we can never experience what it is like to be a bat, because if we became a bat, we would have changed something essential about our identity. It would require a substantial change. We would cease to be ourselves.

A more obvious example of an essential property of your identity is the fact that you are a person. This is where the argument begins.

Here’s the Argument

You cannot be “you” without being a person.

You were once a fetus.

Therefore you, as a fetus, were also a person.

To state again, an essential property of what makes you “you” is the fact that you are a person. It doesn’t make any sense to say that you once were an inanimate object. If you are essentially a person, and you were once a fetus, it follows that you as a fetus were also a person.

Just as we recognize we could not become a bat without ceasing to be ourselves, we cannot become an impersonal thing without our existence ending. I cannot become, nor could I ever have been, a rock or a toaster oven. Yet when we reflect upon it, we recognize that we were in our mothers’ wombs. We cannot deny this without going against all of our intuitions about ourselves.

Someone reading this article right now has the unfortunate knowledge of the specific circumstances in which he or she was conceived. Now, when your parents were telling you this story, your initial reaction was not to say, “Mother, don’t you know that I was not conceived at all?” Rather, your reaction was, “Dear mother, why did you burden me with the circumstances of how I came to be conceived?” We acknowledge that, like it or not, we all have a conception story. This is only intelligible if we were the person that was conceived.

Biologically, We Are the Same Being That Was Conceived

Biologically speaking, it is clear that our life begins at conception. “Patten’s Foundations of Embryology,” which is described as one of the standard texts in the field of embryology, states that “The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.”

In other words, the scientific data tells us that each of our lives, as an individual, began at conception. This is beyond an affirmation of the second premise. If personhood is necessary for each of us to exist as an individual, and our individual lives began at conception, the scientific evidence only works to confirm that we have been persons from conception.

As Patrick Lee, Christopher Tollefsen, and Robert P. George point out in their article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy titled “The Ontological Status of Embryos: A Reply to Jason Morris,” the unborn maintains his or her identity over time:

A human organism, irrespective of its stage of development, is a dynamic substance, an entity that exists in itself instead of inhering in another entity; its size and location are accidents (characteristics that inhere in a substance). Its (i.e., his/her) coming to be or ceasing to be is a substantial change which is distinct from changes in its size, location, and other accidental characteristics, where the organism persists but acquires new accidental characteristics such as size, location, and others. As a consequence, a human organism must begin to exist at a definite time.

The point of conception is this definite time.

Inherent in the concept of “development” is the notion that a being goes through a series of accidental changes, rather than essential ones. When a human being develops from the embryonic stage to a fetus, then on to an infant, at no point do the changes transform the entity from one being to another kind of being.

If the unborn was not the same being at all these stages of change, the term “development” would not be appropriate. The biological terms themselves suggest a human being maintains the same identity over time. A fetus is to an infant as an infant is to a toddler. If a fetus develops into an infant and then to a toddler, this is one and the same being that goes through this development. Given the first premise, this would only be possible if the fetus is a person.

Denying Personhood to the Unborn Is Metaphysical Claim

Denying the status of personhood to the unborn is a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one. To be clear, metaphysical claims are valid. In fact, they are unavoidable. One side just seems more aware of this than the other.

The fact that humans have tendencies to reduce things, including personhood, into scientifically accessible categories, does nothing to show personhood is merely chemical reactions and synapses firing. The assertion that the unborn are not persons is no more scientific and no less metaphysical of a claim than the belief in human souls.

As philosopher Alexander Pruss argues in his essay, “I Was Once a Fetus,” “I now need a simple metaphysical principle. If an organism that once existed has never died, then this organism still exists. I will not argue for this principle. Someone who thinks that something can exist at time A and not exist at a later time B, without having ceased to exist in between, is beyond the reach of argument. The crucial question now is: Has … the embryo ever died?”

The biological answer to this question is no. If you are looking for a view that is least dependent on metaphysical claims, then we are brought back to the biological fact that we are the same individual organism that was conceived.

This Brings Us to the Fourteenth Amendment

The implications of this are considerable. The Fourteenth Amendment says no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Given that the unborn are persons, it is clear that this most vulnerable class of human beings should be provided this equal protection under the law. Our jurisprudence should reflect this reality.

Some may now decide to deny they were ever in their mother’s womb in order to avoid the conclusion that the unborn are persons. This is a mistake with one exception; namely, a reductio ad absurdum argument. These are conclusions that seem so absurd that there is warrant to go back and reexamine the truth of the premises.

As you have guessed, I don’t think concluding “the unborn are persons” meets this criteria. I have found that premises that lead to absurd conclusions do not seem to have strong plausibility on their own anyway. In fact, it is the denial of these premises that leads to an absurd conclusion.

If you don’t believe you were ever in your mother’s womb, you must believe that you did not exist until you were born. The circumstances around your own birth seems to clearly involve an accidental change (a difference of location) rather than an essential one. In other words, it is absurd to believe cutting the umbilical cord is the act that furnishes every human being with the status of “person.”