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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/4/22

Misunderstanding "person" and "human life" obscures the abortion controversy

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Embryo approximately 8-10th week from conception
Embryo approximately 8-10th week from conception
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In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), David Hume observed that when an important issue is endlessly disputed, "Nothing, one would think, could preserve the dispute so long undecided but some ambiguous expressions, which keep the antagonists still at a distance, and hinder them from grappling with each other." I would argue that this is true about the terms of the abortion debate.

According to Gallup, most Americans think abortion should be legal under some but not all circumstances. However, a hard core of 35% believe it should be legal in every case, and 13% believe it should never be legal. 58% oppose overturning Roe v Wade, while 35% want it overturned. The recent Supreme Court decision overthrowing Roe is seen by many as the latest manifestation of undemocratic minority rule resulting from the constitutional requirement that each state have two senators, which gives disproportionate power to low-population conservative states.

We must distinguish between abortion as a moral and as a legal/political issue. A person may (like President Biden) be morally opposed to abortion and still accept its legality as it was defined under 1973 Roe v Wade. The United States proclaims itself a pluralistic democracy that accommodates people with different moral codes. We should hesitate to use the coercive power of government to enforce a moral belief, especially when it is rejected by a broad sector of the American people.

The CDC received reports of 629,898 abortions in 2019, the last full year of available data. much less than the 1990 peak of 1.6 million. Many abortions are not reported. The U.N. and WHO estimate the annual U.S. total at 886,000. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that medication abortion now accounts for more than half of all abortions in the United States. The usual two-drug combination (mifepristone and misoprostol) can be used to induce an abortion during the first 9 weeks of pregnancy.

For people who see abortion as the moral equivalent of infanticide or murder, the large number of abortions represents an ongoing holocaust, and the Roe v Wade decision was an abomination. However, for supporters of Roe, laws against abortion rob a woman of control over her own body and its reproductive processes--a kind of enslavement. The arguments pro and con seem never-ending, and are hostage to misunderstood terms and the kind of exaggerated rhetoric exemplified in "pro-choice" and "pro-life."

The Catholic Church is absolutely opposed to abortion: "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person..." (CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, article 2270). Conservative Christian groups such as evangelicals and Southern Baptists are nearly as strict, but (inconsistently) make allowance for saving a mother's life or for rape or incest.

The opposite extreme is argued eloquently by The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt in her 2014 book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. She criticizes the apologetic tone adopted by many abortion supporters, contrasting it with "the 1970s, when activists proudly defended 'abortion on demand and without apology'." She rejects as a patriarchal relic and an affront to human dignity any law that seeks to control a woman's body through her reproductive system.

Pollitt claims that even if we grant personhood to a fetus, a law requiring a pregnant woman to continue her pregnancy in order to keep the fetal person alive would be like a law making a mother donate her kidney to her child if that were the only way to keep the child alive. But a supporter of the Catholic position would say this is a weak analogy because abortion is a direct act of killing a (fetal) person, unlike the refusal to donate a kidney.

Here we need to look more closely at the concept of a person. Personhood signifies membership in a legal or moral community, which implies the ability to participate in that community. This in turn requires the ability to be conscious of an obligation (legal or moral) and act according to it. That's why, although we think of pets as family, we don't regard them as legally or morally guilty of their misbehaviors. However beloved, they just aren't persons.

Personhood confers not only membership, but also a special kind of value, one that is intrinsic, unconditional, and equal in all persons. This is the value that our founders pointed to when they said in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...." The words "respect" and "dignity" are often used to express recognition of this value.

Adherents of the two extreme positions on abortion mistakenly treat personhood as an all-or-nothing attribute. For one side, personhood is entirely present from conception onward, whereas the other side implies that it is wholly absent until birth. However, we all recognize that the capacity for membership in the moral or legal community is not fully developed in children--for instance, we don't expect 5-year-olds to have a full consciousness of moral or legal obligation. From birth to late adolescence, they gradually acquire the full capacity for functioning as persons, and with it the full measure of respect and dignity appropriate to adults (equally). Adults are rightly insulted when treated as children.

As extreme "pro-life" advocates point out, there is a continuous process of development from conception to adulthood. There is no yawning gap from moment to moment in the development from embryo to fetus to infant, juvenile, and adult that would present a radical transition from zero personhood to being a person. Extreme pro-lifers want to see this seamless developmental continuity as a slippery slope: If we condemn murder and infanticide, there is no non-arbitrary point in pre-natal development at which the fetus or embryo is a non-person. Abortion is infanticide at any stage of a pregnancy.

This absolutist view results in a confused use of the terms "human" and "life" in the abortion controversy. There are on average 30 trillion genetically human cells in a human body. (In addition, each human body hosts a microbiome--a collection of 39 trillion living non-human cells, including bacteria that perform essential functions. However, these cells are much smaller, making up only .3% of the average body mass.) The 30 trillion human cells make up a vast community of living human beings--i.e., each exists, is alive, and is human. However, if I scratch a mosquito bite too hard and it bleeds, this loss of human blood-cell lives is not a mass homicide. 'Human lives' at this level of magnitude in the human body means something very different from 'human lives' lost in our familiar school shootings.

This is why it's so confusing to discuss the morality of abortion by asking when does "human life begin". Of course, it begins at conception. A zygote, the single cell resulting from the union of sperm and ovum, is indeed the beginning of an individual human person's life. It is the first occurrence of a human being with the specific genome that will be found in each of the 39 trillion other unicellular organisms making up an actual human person. It is this genome that will enable trillions of cells to jointly function as a person. The first zygote doesn't last a day before it divides into two, then four and so on.

Babies don't have many of the rights of persons. Adult parents carry them around, limit their mobility and make all kinds of decisions for them. Babies are nevertheless members of the community because (unlike fetuses) they are rapidly developing conscious personhood through interaction with other members, especially adults, a process that can't begin until birth. As nearly actual persons they are different from any other organism except mature human persons, and are valued accordingly.

There is nothing inconsistent in according greater rights to these nearly actual persons (babies) than to a human being whose body isn't developed enough to interact with a community. The latter can exist only inside the body of the mother, often an adult with full rights.

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Brian Cooney Social Media Pages: Facebook Page       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

I'm a retired philosophy professor at Centre College. My last book was Posthumanity-Thinking Philosophically about the Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). I am an anti-capitalist.

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