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Abortion Ethics 2

February 18, 2012

Is the fetus a person?

In the previous post we set out part of the pro-life case as follows:

Killing innocent people is wrong
The fetus is a person  
Therefore abortion/killing the fetus is wrong.

In this post we examine the claim that The fetus is a person.  First we need to define person. Let’s be circular, and define it as a “being who may not be unjustly killed”.

The obvious answer is humans, members of the species homo sapiens.  On that definition the fetus is a person and, on the face of it, abortion is wrong.

But, although it makes intuitive sense, the homo sapiens claim does not bear close examination. It is speciesist, in the same sense as it would be racist to claim that only whites are persons.  They are both distinctions based on morally irrelevant criteria, namely skin colour, or species membership. The reason we don’t immediately perceive the speciesist claim as such, is that on this planet the only undisputed contenders for personhood are members of the species, homo sapiens.

We need a thought experiment to clarify things.  Here goes:

Imagine a spacecraft landed outside your house one day. How would you decide in what sense to have the occupants to dinner?  Get it? Would you eat them, or sit down together and share a meal?  Before you answer, remember they are making the same decision about you.

The answer is obvious. You would not decide on the basis of their species. You would assess their mental state. Are they conscious, self-aware, do they want to live, would they be deprived of anything by painlessly dying? If the answer is yes, you should not kill them, and if they’ve made the same judgment about you, they also should let you live.

So now we have our definition – consciousness, self awareness, wanting to live, stuff like that, are what makes people people. For now we need not go into the precise definition any further. We can already see that the fetus does not make the cut. Or if it does we are already being unfair to many other animals.

On this definition personhood/non-personhood is a continuum.  Some higher animals, primates, dolphins and whales probably also fulfil some criteria for personhood.  Maybe they are conscious, aware of themselves and grieve when their family members are killed.  This is a strength of our definition; we should be careful how we treat such higher animals.

But however we look at it, the 12-week fetus is not even a borderline person on this definition, so abortion is permitted.

Not so fast!  You can already see many obvious objections. In Abortion Ethics 3 we look at some of them.

Jim Thornton

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