Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Abortion Rights? Personhood Misunderstood

A recent letter to the editor in the local paper presents several interesting arguments on the topic of abortion and politics. What surprises in the letter are both an admission and an assertion that bears need of more scrutiny than the writer would have the reader consider.

First, for a pro-abortion advocate, the writer surprises in his first paragraph by conceding the fact that life begins at conception. Despite the opprobrium of pro-abortion fanatics, the pro-life position is grounded on solid physical science. Far from being a question of imposing “my” personal religious beliefs on anyone, biological science clearly shows that an abortion ends a human life. The writer admits this fact at the outset.

In conceding this point, writer hopes to ground his pro-abortion stance on a more controversial question: “But at what point on that line can we say that we are dealing with a human person?” Surely, the writer must know that the question of what constitutes and defines the limits of “personhood” has vexed philosophers for over two hundred years. To date, most attempts to define personhood so as to include every human while excluding non-human creatures and devices like computers have proven fruitless. But this shift from a scientific and fact related discussion to a philosophical one suits his purpose.

The writer goes on to note several “striking facts” that he believes lend support for his pro-abortion stance. First, he asserts that “nature is an abortionist on a large scale”. In other words, if something occurs in nature, it must be morally acceptable. However, this ‘fact’ fails to distinguish between “miscarriage” and “abortion”. Miscarriages occur in nature, sparked by any number of biological causes: these cannot be seriously considered as relevant to moral decision-making. Only human actions or factors resulting from human interventions can impute a moral dimension to a miscarriage. The argument that nature itself is ‘acting’ murderously and that this should impact the position of pro-life advocates is a straw man and absurd. This argument also involves a fallacious appeal to common practice that would analogously require agreement with killing the sick on the basis that a large percentage of deaths occur due to sickness. Nature is not the guarantor of moral rectitude.

The writer next ‘reveals’ that “every religious faith allows some abortion”, which he seems to equate with a logical imperative to morally approve of all abortions. But this is a genetic fallacy failing to distinguish the relevance of specific, defined circumstances that impact the moral standing of certain particular cases of abortion versus the blanket assertion that all abortions must permitted. The argument is another straw man, cast in all or nothing terms, that presumes the existence of exceptions justifies abandonment of any limitation. It is worth noting that there is a real difference between an ectopic pregnancy that will end in the death of the child and the mother if the pregnancy is not terminated, and the pregnancy resulting from rape, in which an abortion kills a child that would otherwise live. This failure to distinguish the moral impact of specific circumstances would just as easily allow that if I am morally allowed to shoot someone who attempts to kill me, I should be allowed equally to shoot anyone I choose for any reason.

The writer next attempts a logical sleight of hand to confuse the position of the Catholic Church. In Catholicism, matters of belief and morals are held to be infallibly defined and confirmed by the Holy See. Yet the writer asserts, “While the Vatican holds firmly to its position, several Catholic theologians … have argued for setting the marker for personhood later than conception.” This is all well and good, except that these theologians and groups, in opposing the teachings of the Vatican, are opposing the teachings of Catholicism. In short, they simply disagree with Catholic teaching. The fact of their disagreement does not address the issue of the position of the Catholic Church at all.

This brings us to the final paragraph of the letter, which deserves full quotation:

“Finally, we need to see pregnancy as a dual operation, involving an egg and its
host — the woman. Robert Goldstein, a teacher of law at the University of
California at Los Angeles, suggested that we should continually think of the
"dyad" of mother and egg. Her needs and her rights should have weight as much as
those of an embryo. She needs the right to exercise choice.”
The issue of personhood returns with a vengeance: “We need to see pregnancy as a dual operation, involving an egg and its host.” At first blush, this would seem to coincide with the heart of the pro-life position - two beings are involved. But the writer subtly mischaracterizes the issue. Pregnancy involves a fetus and a mother, not an egg and its host. An “egg” by definition is unfertilized and has only the potential for life; a fetus is a living entity. Similarly, a “host” need not be ascribed to have any relationship whatsoever other than proximity to the one for whom it is host. Using this terminology at best obfuscates the issue; and at worst seeks to persuade through assuming the conclusion. This is begging the question.

By using the term “egg” the writer devalues consideration of the fetus's rights and attempts to lend credence to the view that unless the mother is accorded the “right to exercise choice” her needs and rights are being ignored. Only by ignoring or eliminating the rights of the fetus are the rights of the mother ensured. By having equated an embryo with an egg, the writer fosters the notion that the two humans involved (the mother and fetus) are intrinsically unequal. De facto, the writer denies the personhood of the fetus. Thus, the writer's desire to shift the argument to personhood is no more than a slightly more sophisticated denial of fetal rights - the same basic denial that has always been championed by pro-abortion advocates

The writer has, unfortunately, admitted a view of personhood that presents a slippery slope. At what point do we ascribe personhood? He does not directly answer this question, but presumably does not ascribe it to fetuses. However, it is logical to ask: if an otherwise healthy fetus is not ascribed personhood, then are other circumstances also to be equated as invalidating the attribution of personhood? Should Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, or other physical ailments invalidate one’s personhood? By what standards? By whose authority? It is not sufficient to say these are different circumstances; one must show why they are different and why similar considerations could and should not be given to the fetus.

Although pro-abortion supporters seek to prevent this from being considered, abortion’s denial of the personhood of the fetus is logically no different than viewing the fetus as property – the same mindset that allowed for slavery. In the “dyad” noted above, two human beings are claimed to have differing rights; the rights of the fetus are tacitly viewed as deriving from the fiat of the mother. Ultimately, then, the fetus has no rights because these ‘derived’ rights ipso facto deny the fetus's humanity and reduce its status to property (the status of slavery). This is the reality of the blanket claim that one human being’s rights take precedence over those of another. Such inequality stands in total contradiction to primary and historic US political theory (“all are created equal”). It is at the heart of tyranny as witnessed in dozens of regimes throughout history and around the world.

While pro-choice fanatics see opposition to abortion in terms of religious groups ‘imposing’ their beliefs on others; it is incontrovertible that the pro-abortion position is rooted in a denial of the direct evidence of science. Further, the pro-abortion stance rests on political and philosophical premises that are illogical, irrational and built on the tyranny of some over others. These premises arbitrarily limit the attribution of personhood by criteria that, as noted above, open the door to countless other discriminations.

In truth, the only non-ideological criterion to ensure even the question of personhood for all human beings is in returning to the scientific biological fact that human life begins at conception and ends at natural death. Thus, personhood is attributable to every human being, and all humans possess an equality of rights and dignity. Personhood is revealed to be a characteristic of human beings and not reducible (ultimately) to discriminatory attributes such as mental capacity, intelligence, etc. On this model, the rights of all individual humans are protected. Similarly, such a model solves the problem of non-human entities or computers that to which could be attributed person-like qualities. In these cases, either “personhood” is being ascribed analogously, or else hypostatically of another order of being.


Joe said...


Excellent analysis!

Anonymous said...

I recently read this article on the preference for girls in India (as is the case in China as well):
The online comments posted below it are also worth a look.

I reflected on the article in relation to how some women pro-abortion activists defend a woman's right to choose. But do they agree that it is a woman's right to abort her daughter rather than her son? Surely the same activists would decry this discrimination against their own sex and say that a woman has the same right to be born as a man. Is the personhood of a girl developing in the womb the same as the personhood of a boy?

"The real horror of the situation is that, for women, avoiding having daughters is a rational choice. But for wider society it's creating an appalling and desperate state of affairs". That comment by an ActionAid official reiterates how personal, "justifiable" choices and viewpoints in relation to personhood and equality have wider social repercussions.

However, it's easy to point the finger. If we're honest with ourselves, we're all guilty of "aborting" another person, not necessarily physically but rather mentally,emotionally, spiritually or socially, at different points in our lives. When do we reject, demean or ignore the personhood of another human being and when do we recognise and receive it as a gift?

So thanks for your post, Father. It's reminded me that I preach personhood and pro-life more than I practise it.