Pro Choice supporters who claim it isn’t do themselves and their cause a disservice. Of course it’s alive. It’s a biological mechanism that converts nutrients and oxygen into energy that causes its cells to divide, multiply, and grow. It’s alive.
Anti-abortion activists often mistakenly use this fact to support their cause. “Life begins at conception” they claim. And they would be right. The genesis of a new human life begins when the egg with 23 chromosomes joins with a sperm with 23 chromosomes and creates a fertilized cell, called a zygote, with 46 chromosomes. The single-cell zygote contains all the DNA necessary to grow into an independent, conscious human being. It is a potential person.
But being alive does not give the zygote full human rights – including the right not to be aborted during its gestation.
A single-cell ameba also coverts nutrients and oxygen into biological energy that causes its cells to divide, multiply and grow. It also contains a full set of its own DNA. It shares everything in common with a human zygote except that it is not a potential person. Left to grow, it will always be an ameba – never a human person. It is just as alive as the zygote, but we would never defend its human rights based solely on that fact.
And neither can the anti-abortionist, which is why we must answer the following questions as well.
2. Is it human?
Yes. Again, Pro Choice defenders stick their feet in their mouths when they defend abortion by claiming the zygote-embryo-fetus isn’t human. It is human. Its DNA is that of a human. Left to grow, it will become a full human person.
And again, anti-abortion activists often mistakenly use this fact to support their cause. They are fond of saying, “an acorn is an oak tree in an early stage of development; likewise, the zygote is a human being in an early stage of development.” And they would be right. But having a full set of human DNA does not give the zygote full human rights – including the right not to be aborted during its gestation.
Don’t believe me? Here, try this: reach up to your head, grab one strand of hair, and yank it out. Look at the base of the hair. That little blob of tissue at the end is a hair follicle. It also contains a full set of human DNA. Granted it’s the same DNA pattern found in every other cell in your body, but in reality the uniqueness of the DNA is not what makes it a different person. Identical twins share the exact same DNA, and yet we don’t say that one is less human than the other, nor are two twins the exact same person. It’s not the configuration of the DNA that makes a zygote human; it’s simply that it has human DNA. Your hair follicle shares everything in common with a human zygote except that it is a little bit bigger and it is not a potential person. (These days even that’s not an absolute considering our new-found ability to clone humans from existing DNA, even the DNA from a hair follicle.)
Your hair follicle is just as human as the zygote, but we would never defend its human rights based solely on that fact.
And neither can the anti-abortionist, which is why the following two questions become critically important to the abortion debate.
3. Is it a person?
No. It’s merely a potential person.
Webster’s Dictionary lists a person as “being an individual or existing as an indivisible whole; existing as a distinct entity.” Anti-abortionists claim that each new fertilized zygote is already a new person because its DNA is uniquely different than anyone else’s. In other words, if you’re human, you must be a person.
Of course we’ve already seen that a simple hair follicle is just as human as a single-cell zygote, and, that unique DNA doesn’t make the difference since two twins are not one person. It’s quite obvious, then, that something else must occur to make one human being different from another. There must be something else that happens to change a DNA-patterned body into a distinct person. (Or in the case of twins, two identically DNA-patterned bodies into two distinct persons.)
There is, and most people inherently know it, but they have trouble verbalizing it for one very specific reason.
The defining mark between something that is human and someone who is a person is ‘consciousness.’ It is the self-aware quality of consciousness that makes us uniquely different from others. This self-awareness, this sentient consciousness is also what separates us from every other animal life form on the planet. We think about ourselves. We use language to describe ourselves. We are aware of ourselves as a part of the greater whole.
The problem is that consciousness normally doesn’t occur until months, even years, after a baby is born. This creates a moral dilemma for the defender of abortion rights. Indeed, they inherently know what makes a human into a person, but they are also aware such individual personhood doesn’t occur until well after birth. To use personhood as an argument for abortion rights, therefore, also leads to the argument that it should be okay to kill a 3-month-old baby since it hasn’t obtained consciousness either.
Anti-abortionists use this perceived problem in an attempt to prove their point. In a debate, a Pro Choice defender will rightly state that the difference between a fetus and a full-term human being is that the fetus isn’t a person. The anti-abortion activist, being quite sly, will reply by asking his opponent to define what makes someone into a person. Suddenly the Pro Choice defender is at a loss for words to describe what he or she knows innately. We know it because we lived it. We know we have no memory of self-awareness before our first birthday, or even before our second. But we also quickly become aware of the “problem” we create if we say a human doesn’t become a person until well after its birth. And we end up saying nothing. The anti-abortionist then takes this inability to verbalize the nature of personhood as proof of their claim that a human is a person at conception.
But they are wrong. Their “logic” is greatly flawed. Just because someone is afraid to speak the truth doesn’t make it any less true.
And in reality, the Pro Choice defender’s fear is unfounded. They are right, and they can state it without hesitation. A human indeed does not become a full person until consciousness. And consciousness doesn’t occur until well after the birth of the child. But that does not automatically lend credence to the anti-abortionist’s argument that it should, therefore, be acceptable to kill a three-month-old baby because it is not yet a person.
It is still a potential person. And after birth it is an independent potential person whose existence no longer poses a threat to the physical wellbeing of another. To understand this better, we need to look at the next question.
4. Is it physically independent?
No. It is absolutely dependent on another human being for its continued existence. Without the mother’s life-giving nutrients and oxygen it would die. Throughout gestation the zygote-embryo-fetus and the mother’s body are symbiotically linked, existing in the same physical space and sharing the same risks. What the mother does affects the fetus. And when things go wrong with the fetus, it affects the mother.
Anti-abortionists claim fetal dependence cannot be used as an issue in the abortion debate. They make the point that even after birth, and for years to come, a child is still dependent on its mother, its father, and those around it. And since no one would claim its okay to kill a child because of its dependency on others, we can’t, if we follow their logic, claim it’s okay to abort a fetus because of its dependence.
What the anti-abortionist fails to do, however, is differentiate between physical dependence and social dependence. Physical dependence does not refer to meeting the physical needs of the child – such as in the anti-abortionist’s argument above. That’s social dependence; that’s where the child depends on society – on other people – to feed it, clothe it, and love it. Physical dependence occurs when one life form depends solely on the physical body of another life form for its existence.
Physical dependence was cleverly illustrated back in 1971 by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson. She created a scenario in which a woman is kidnapped and wakes up to find she’s been surgically attached to a world-famous violinist who, for nine months, needs her body to survive. After those nine months, the violinist can survive just fine on his own, but he must have this particular woman in order to survive until then.
Thompson then asks if the woman is morally obliged to stay connected to the violinist who is living off her body. It might be a very good thing if she did – the world could have the beauty that would come from such a violinist – but is she morally obliged to let another being use her body to survive?
This very situation is already conceded by anti-abortionists. They claim RU-486 should be illegal for a mother to take because it causes her uterus to flush its nutrient-rich lining, thus removing a zygote from its necessary support system and, therefore, ending its short existence as a life form. Thus the anti-abortionist’s own rhetoric only proves the point of absolute physical dependence.
This question becomes even more profound when we consider a scenario where it’s not an existing person who is living off the woman’s body, but simply a potential person, or better yet, a single-cell zygote with human DNA that is no different than the DNA in a simple hair follicle.
To complicate it even further, we need to realize that physical dependence also means a physical threat to the life of the mother. The World Health Organization reports that nearly 670,000 women die from pregnancy-related complications each year (this number does not include abortions). That’s 1,800 women per day. We also read that in developed countries, such as the United States and Canada, a woman is 13 times more likely to die bringing a pregnancy to term than by having an abortion.
Therefore, not only is pregnancy the prospect of having a potential person physically dependent on the body of one particular women, it also includes the women putting herself into a life-threatening situation for that potential person.
Unlike social dependence, where the mother can choose to put her child up for adoption or make it a ward of the state or hire someone else to take care of it, during pregnancy the fetus is absolutely physically dependent on the body of one woman. Unlike social dependence, where a woman’s physical life is not threatened by the existence of another person, during pregnancy, a woman places herself in the path of bodily harm for the benefit of a DNA life form that is only a potential person – even exposing herself to the threat of death.
This brings us to the next question: do the rights of a potential person supercede the rights of the mother to control her body and protect herself from potential life-threatening danger?
5. Does it have human rights?
Yes and No.
A potential person must always be given full human rights unless its existence interferes with the rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness of an already existing conscious human being. Thus, a gestating fetus has no rights before birth and full rights after birth.
If a fetus comes to term and is born, it is because the mother chooses to forgo her own rights and her own bodily security in order to allow that future person to gestate inside her body. If the mother chooses to exercise control over her own body and to protect herself from the potential dangers of childbearing, then she has the full right to terminate the pregnancy.
Anti-abortion activists are fond of saying “The only difference between a fetus and a baby is a trip down the birth canal.” This flippant phrase may make for catchy rhetoric, but it doesn’t belay the fact that indeed “location” makes all the difference in the world.
It’s actually quite simple. You cannot have two entities with equal rights occupying one body. One will automatically have veto power over the other – and thus they don’t have equal rights. In the case of a pregnant woman, giving a “right to life” to the potential person in the womb automatically cancels out the mother’s right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
After birth, on the other hand, the potential person no longer occupies the same body as the mother, and thus, giving it full human rights causes no interference with another’s right to control her body. Therefore, even though a full-term human baby may still not be a person, after birth it enjoys the full support of the law in protecting its rights. After birth its independence begs that it be protected as if it were equal to a fully-conscience human being. But before birth its lack of personhood and its threat to the women in which it resides makes abortion a completely logical and moral choice.
Which brings us to our last question, which is the real crux of the issue….
6. Is abortion murder?
No. Absolutely not.
It’s not murder if it’s not an independent person. One might argue, then, that it’s not murder to end the life of any child before she reaches consciousness, but we don’t know how long after birth personhood arrives for each new child, so it’s completely logical to use their independence as the dividing line for when full rights are given to a new human being.
Using independence also solves the problem of dealing with premature babies. Although a preemie is obviously still only a potential person, by virtue of its independence from the mother, we give it the full rights of a conscious person. This saves us from setting some other arbitrary date of when we consider a new human being a full person. Older cultures used to set it at two years of age, or even older. Modern religious cultures want to set it at conception, which is simply wishful thinking on their part. As we’ve clearly demonstrated, a single-cell zygote is no more a person that a human hair follicle.
But that doesn’t stop religious fanatics from dumping their judgements and their anger on top of women who choose to exercise the right to control their bodies. It’s the ultimate irony that people who claim to represent a loving God resort to scare tactics and fear to support their mistaken beliefs.
It’s even worse when you consider that most women who have an abortion have just made the most difficult decision of their life. No one thinks abortion is a wonderful thing. No one tries to get pregnant just so they can terminate it. Even though it’s not murder, it still eliminates a potential person, a potential daughter, a potential son. It’s hard enough as it is. Women certainly don’t need others telling them it’s a murder