In the abortion debate a lot of effort goes into addressing the exact point at which a legally relevant distinct human entity begins. Scientifically and Medically there’s not much question as to when a new living human organism begins, it starts at conception. Period. But the Roe v. Wade case, and much of the legal debate has not revolved around merely “human,” or “living,” status–though Roe v. Wade embarassingly calls the fetus “potential human life” when they had plenty of knowledge at the time to point out that it is already human life, and since then, there has been even more medical and scientific consensus agreeing that it is not “potential human life’ but “human life with potential.” Instead, the debate has revolved largely around the philosophical notion of “personhood.”
Usually I avoid this troublesome term since it’s not a medically or scientifically precise term, at least, not when it’s separated from demonstrably human life (as with the conceptus onward). There are dozens of different definitions of “person” in active circulation today, and it is difficult and problematic to force a narrowly held or otherwise highly disputed stipulated definition on a whole nation. When Roe v. Wade distinguished “person” from “human being,” it forced the conversation from the objective input of medicine and science, to the subjective realm of disputation and stipulation. Roe v. Wade dove into a contentious realm of “personhood,” and effectively sidestepped the best means for identifying an objective, scientific, and medical understanding of the “human” in “human rights.” Instead we are led to believe, by the Roe v. Wade decision, that humans aren’t deserving of human rights unless they are also “persons” in some sense agreed upon by the high court of the land.
Like I said, normally, I avoid the “personhood” debate altogether and focus instead on how “human rights” are predicated on the term “human,” regardless of personhood. Hence one must show that the “human” in question is not the kind of “human” that merits protection by “human rights” but is instead not a human at all or it’s so disqualified for “rights” status by way of its abject failure to measure up to ‘personhood’ such that its humanity is irrelevant.
I’m reading Frank Beckwith’s “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion” (2007), and noticed a clever and important observation he makes about personhood and continuity. And this point was so keen I had to reenter the “personhood” debate to report his argument. He says, using a cat as his example, “The feline remains the same particular feline over time from the moment it comes into existence. . . . Another way to put it is that . . . the organism as a whole maintains absolute identity through time while it grows, develops, and undergoes numerous changes” (pg. 49-50).
We can apply this logic to ourselves. I was once a conceptus, but before then I did not exist. I was once a newborn baby, before that I was a fetus, before that I was a zygote/conceptus, before that I didn’t exist. But what was that conceptus? That was me, and I was it. Was there ever a time in the development of my own biological history where that thing that would became an adult was not at that time, Me? No. It was me the whole time, despite all the changes and developments and eventual decay that I would undergo. It was always me.
One pro-choice tactic at this point might be to insert a conceptual wedge where I, the person, did not exist but only later existed. Some have suggested, for example, that the zygote or conceptus (fertilization stage) “dies” upon entering the next stage: “embryo.” But nothing is dying; it sustains all the defining features of life throughout (nutrition, movement, reproduction, etc.). It is a homo sapien during the whole process of growth. Moreover, saying that stage transitions constitute death would be like saying that the pre-pubescent child literally ‘dies’ when puberty hits. Besides these problem, the conceptual wedge between “human” and “person,” has an additional problem for the abortion advocate. The only point where that wedge can fit properly, reliably, and objectively–without any risk of arbitrariness, or allowing for things like infancticide or post-birth abortion–the most fitting place to put that wedge is just before conception. The sperm and egg were 2 separate sets of 23 chromosomes; at fertilization where conception occurs, 46 chromosome pairs occur, and my own biological beginning ensues. That is the only stage where a transition occurs from a non-human to a human, a non-individual to an idividual, where genetic uniqueness begins and a new human being ensues.