Abortion: Where does personhood begin?
This question is distinct from asking at what point ‘life’ begins. A foetus is clearly a living entity. We do not, in general, ascribe the same set of moral obligations to a foetus that we do to a person. For example, we find it quite unacceptable to terminate a person because they were the product of a rape, because they were deformed or abnormal, because they faced hardship in life or because they posed a threat to the safety of their mothers.
However, everyone accepts that a foetus has at least potential personhood. The dispute is about the point at which the foetus should be treated as a moral agent in and of themselves. This is a very tricky question to answer and opens up a set of philosophical questions to do with exactly what being a person involves. Let’s begin by considering some of the different stages of pregnancy.
Conception: On the grounds that all human life is sacred, many religions oppose the use of contraception on the basis that it interferes with the natural development of a person.
Zygotic: At this stage, the foetus is little more than a collection of cells and can still split into twins. It therefore seems that we cannot describe it as having any sort of personhood.
Anatomical: By now (8 weeks old), the foetus has developed into a recognisably human form with limbs. Some anti-abortionists argue that it is simply psychological conditioning (and rational failure) on our part to see this as significant, that the foetus is equally a human person before this takes place. There may be some truth to this. But is being anatomically human enough for us to consider the foetus a person? Notably, this is still 16 weeks before the legal time limit for abortion in the UK. The brain develops as a distinct part of the foetus between 9 and 16 weeks of gestation.
Viable: It might be argued that a foetus gains personhood once it is able to survive outside the womb. However, some babies have been started in test tubes, and there’s no reason to think that medical science might not one day be able to produe children from artificial wombs. In fact, human beings couldn’t be said to be capable of surviving on their own until they are much older. We require the co-operation of others to survive.
Birth: At birth, a foetus becomes part of the shared social world and we think of it as a baby rather than a bump. However, as a being it is not significantly different to what it was a few days earlier, or will be a few days later. Setting this as the boundary of personhood might seem rather arbitrary in this light, and suggests a very sharp boundary between killing a new-born (impermissable) and killing the same being a few weeks earlier (permissable).
Post-natal: Does a unique personality or identity develop only some time after birth through language, socialisation or the development of a sense of conscious identity? If so, it seems to lead to the unpallatable conclusion that infanticide is as permissible as abortion.
These ruminations raise a number of deep philosophical questions about identity and personhood.
Mary Ann Warren claims, for the sake of argument, that if the foetus is a person, then indeed there is a wide range of cases in which abortion is not permitted. But all depends on what a person is. So she wants to build a consensus by proposing a set of criteria for being a person with full moral status that she thinks both pro-abortionists and anti-abortionists could accept:
- consciousness of objects and events external and internal to the being, and in particular the capacity to feel pain
- reasoning — the capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems
- self-motivated activity
- a capacity to communicate
- the presence of self-concept and self-awareness
Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status
of Abortion,” The Monist, Vol. 57, no.4, 1973
Using these criteria Warren now contends that foetuses, even with their potentiality to become a person, do not sufficiently resemble a person to have a right to life. Thus she holds that, at least until birth, the fetus has no moral status and lacks a serious right to life. But she herself realizes that her argument, if logically followed, would justify infanticide. Although, according to her criteria the newborn infant would not have a significant right to life, she would not permit infanticide so long as, according to her, there are people who are willing to care and provide for the child’s well being. But then why permit abortion if there are people who want to adopt and take care of the new born?
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