Abortion and Human Continuity

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.”

See also: “A Defense of Fetal 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.


17 thoughts on “Abortion and Human Continuity

  1. This is at best an oversimplification as is proven by the fact of identical twins and human chimera. One of the identical twins certainly did not begin at conception, but when that first cell divided in two.

    Science and medicine can tell us what is human, but not what deserves rights. That is why we need to address this difficult, complex issue of personhood.

    1. Your second point is an important one–medicine and science do NOT tell us what deserves to be treated as having rights. But there’s a rather simple, direct, route there–“human rights” predicates rights of humans. Personhood might matter in some sense, perhaps with more complicated, maturity contingent rights or privileges like voting or home ownership, but “human” rights are known to apply to humans with the burden of proof being on the skeptic who wants to deny some class of humans access to ANY supposed rights. We as a nation have done this in the past, denying women and slaves access to human rights interpreting “person” and “equal” in qualified (and suspect) senses.

      As for your first point you still have not rebutted the thrust of my argument. A totipotent embryonic stem cell can achieve any number of whole human beings through natural or technological means, but whether that number is 1 or 1,000, there is no debate as to what kind of organism that individual thing is–it is a human being. That human being can “bud” and reproduce asexually thereafter within the womb using the same genetic material (not counting a few mutations here or there). If it does “bud”/split into twins, and the mother kills both of them for the sake of convenience (as opposed to medical threat to her life) then at that point she’d be ethically responsible for two deaths. Before that point its one human being, after twinning it’s two. To achieve your point you need to show that the organism or organisms in question are not biologically human, and you have not done that.

      1. I do not refute that it is human. My hair is human, I do not commit murder when I cut it. I was making a simple point. You cannot simply say all human persons start at conception and from that moment on deserve the same rights as the born. Both twins cannot both start at conception, one starts at mitosis. The line isn’t as clear as you think.

      2. Your hair is not genetically distinct, nor is it an organism, nor is it alive, nor will it become a full grown human being by natural process if given enough time and nourishment. You “kill” when you destroy an organism, not when you destroy a tissue or an organ (hair would be more akin to tissue than to an organism). Pro-choicers seem quick to trivialize the fetus but have to resort to disanalogies to do it. It is a human being from conception, and it can twin into more human beings after that, but only if it were not EVEN ONE human being at conception would the destruction of an embryo fail to be “killing a human being.”

      3. I wasn’t actually suggesting my hair is a legal independent person deserving of rights. I was just demonstrating, as you have confirmed , that one needs to prove more than just biological “humaness” to get to a rights endowed being. genetic independence has nothing to do with it. See the chimera.

      4. I’m looking at the chimera and I don’t see how an individual human being with MORE than one distinct genetic code constitutes anything relevant to your case. Now if you could show that the being was not human then you’d have a clearer case. You could also try to show that it does not have a “creation” point where begins its rights-laden equality with all men (Decl. of Indep.). But then you’d have to show that it’s first developmental stage is not at conception. But you’d have a hard time showing that since conception is when the creature first becomes a distinct human being, and from there it proceeds through natural processes to develop into a genetically different human being through unusual genetic conditions. Never in the process does it cease to be a human being, yet the burden of proof is on the abortion advocate to show that human beings are somehow not “created,” not human, not a distinct human being, not alive, or that the Declaration of Independence is wrong.

      5. Fair point. But I am just pointing out that it is not so simple as at conception we have a single human being. Sometimes that human divides in two, sometimes two join into one. To me it seems like the distinct human with rights starts later than the moment of conception.

      6. 42Olon, a lot of people want to agree with you, but it’s been very difficult to find a non-arbitrary demarcation for when that point begins, and lacking such a point, the benefit of the doubt should ethically always favor human life over human choice. Abortion-rights advocates cannot rest showing simply where distinct rights-laden life MIGHT begin, they must show where it does begin, and they’d do well to have science and medicine on their side and not just philosophy or theology. If there’s a rustling in the bushes and it MIGHT be a deer, you don’t shoot, even if you intend to hunt deer; you need to KNOW it’s not another hunter, or an endangered species, or something else that cannot ethically be hunted.

      7. >>not so simple as at conception we have a single human being.Sometimes that human divides in two, sometimes two join into one.

        Successful conception creates a single human being. The fact that that human being might asexually produce another human being doesn’t mean there wasn’t a single human being there to begin with. You sort of say that yourself “Sometimes that human divides in two”.

        Consider cloning. If i take one of your cells and manipulate it to create another human being (pretty much a twin of you), would that mean that you didn’t already exist as an individual?

        Regarding the rejoining of two embryos into one, this also doesn’t deny the existence of the two individuals. If i take the clone of you that I created and managed to integrate him with your body so that he became part of you, that wouldn’t mean that he wasn’t an individual human being during his brief life. Consider it a form of cannibalism.

  2. You have seriously misunderstood the decision in Roe v Wade, “personhood,” and reason the unborn do not have it.

    First, uses of the word “person” in the Constitution and in federal legal cases where the issue of rights comes up in direct relation to the unborn show that the unborn were never recognized as persons. The issue is not when human life begins: human ova and sperm and skin cells are human and can be classed as alive or dead. The issue is not unique DNA, for complex reasons, including the fact that a human corpse can have unique DNA but has no legal standing as a person. Nor is the issue one of merely being a live human organism.

    Where the text of Roe v Wade speaks of state “interest in the potentiality of human life” and the fetus as representing “only the potentiality of human life,” it is not saying there is no fetal life, but rather that fetal life represents only the potentiality of human life after birth as a “person.”

    The Bible itself, in its original Hebrew, has made a similar distinction, for the ancient Hebrews did, as did the Jews at the time of Jesus Christ and afterward. “Nephesh” refers to the breathing human being, and it is this being that is the equivalent to “person” in English, at least in law.
    A person has life in himself or herself. An embryo or fetus does not.

    The human blastocyst implants in the woman’s body precisely because its own short natural life span of 8-10 days is coming to an end. If we could legally grow it in a petri dish, we could double its natural span by using a supernutrient base, as has been done with other mammalian blastocysts. But it would not continue living beyond 16-20 days even with such a base. As an implanted embryo/fetus, it is able to live as part of the woman’s body, receiving necessary oxygen, nutrients, and antibodies from her blood as do her limbs and organs. But if she dies before it attains viability, it always dies, as do her limbs and organs and other parts of her body, because the extension of its life span and its growth depend on, derive from, her particular life. She has life in herself, but it has life in her.

    When a fetus attains viability, that means its organs have been developed by the woman’s life and body to such an extent that it has the means to life outside of and in separation from her life and body, the potential to have life in itself. As birth occurs, there is a remarkable transformation of functioning and even structure of the fetus, and upon being removed and disconnected from the woman, the fetus is transformed into a complete child, a person. This is proven by the child’s first breath. If it can breathe, taking oxygen from a common source available to all equally (whether air or artificial oxygen in a hospital), it can vocalize using oxygen from that common source, and it can take in nutrients from a common source available to all equally, then it lives equally, and demonstrates life in itself, which comes from God for those who are Christians, and not from some particular human person in a derivative way. At that point, it can live whether or not the woman dies, even though her continued life would certainly benefit it. It does not need any particular person save itself. Anyone and everyone can care for it. That is being a nephesh, a person.

    I hope this might give fresh meaning to a key statement of Jesus for you: “The flesh is nothing. The words which I speak to you, they are life.” This is someone who was quite willing to lay down his life for others, to die, to let others eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, but he never laid down his liberty to decide whether or not to do that. And it is for that reason that I will never try to take away from other female persons their liberty to decide whether or not to share their life, flesh, and blood with the unborn. Because to enslave them, control them, would be to take away their rights and dignity as persons.

    1. Your list of disanalogies does not make your case, but illustrates the confusion that I have been working hard to avoid.

      Sperm or ovum–neither are genetically distinct from the “parent,” neither are unique organisms from the parent but derivative parts of the parent organism. These are not a “new” life.

      Skin cells–ditto. They were never genetically distinct, organisms, nor living organisms.

      The zygote is genetically distinct and is the first-stage of development for the human being. It does not “die” as you describe it when it develops into the next fetal stage, it still sustains the functions biologically defined as “life” hence there is no death involved in the transition from developmental stage to developmental stage. Instead, you were still you, even when you were just a zygote.

      As for your clarification of the Roe v. Wade ruling, you are right to certain extent. They were clearly looking not for “human life” but for some nuanced sense of “personhood” where it does not matter what the biological status of the organism may be. Had they been interested in its biological status (at least moreso than the Blackmun ruling lets on), they would have been more concerned with the findings of science than those of (misrperesentative) historical/cultural surveying. The ruling contradicted actual history. Namely, Blackmun relied on 2, TWO! measly sources for his history and both of them were prejudicial and have since been discredited as cherry-picked misleading stories. The biggest problem was that they treated the “Quickening” definition of human life as if it was every significantly/widely held in the era of modern genetics. When it became known that the individual human being begins at conception by the mingling of two different genetic codes, the national and state laws quickly shifted to accomodate the abiding state interest in the protection of life as soon as human life begins. The “quickening” views were vestiges of primitive and antiquated science where fetal movement was their best guess about when life began. By resorting to the “quickening” as if it were relevant to modern scientific understandings of fetology was either intentionally deceptive or ignorant on Blackmun’s part.

      Your use of “nephesh” commits the etymological fallacy. The idea of an “animating breath” giving life to humans is fine, and I think there’s truth to it, but it has to be handled carefully lest we artificially impose a theological interpretation of natural facts as, instead, a theological dismissal of natural facts. The concept dates back to Adam where he was formed asexually and animated by God’s direct breath. In primitive science, breath was a matter-of-fact understanding of life along with movement. Both were perfectly fitting and true as long as they weren’t applied too strictly. Hence, there was the “quickening” view of fetal life, and there is a “not-breathing” view of death. Any subsequent use of “breath of life,” either borrows from that sense of the first nephesh, or it treats synecdoche as some elaborate statement on biological life (Synecdoche is where part of something is used to refer to the whole. I.E.: “Get your butt [and the rest of yourself] over here,” or “I counted 22 heads [of people]”).

      Moreover, your understanding of “child” contradicts already established legal precedent; namely, the Webster 1989 ruling and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004. Both of which identify the preborn fetus as a “child.” You are arguing, therefore, that killing children for the sake of maternal convenience is ethically justified. Do you really want to accept that?

      You’re going to have to explain how the reference to Jesus is relevant to this debate. Your explanation so far doesn’t seem to address the issue at hand. You have cherry-picked from scripture ignoring the overwhelmingly pro-life message of Scripture, inserting fairly disputed and unnecessary interpolations about “personhood” that are not outlined in Scripture, and tried to say that that justifies pro-choice Biblically. People used Scripture more faithfully than you just did, but in arguing for chattel slavery. And clearly, chattel slavery is evil.

  3. “There are dozens of different definitions of “person” in active circulation today, and it is difficult and problematic to to force a narrowly held or otherwise highly disputed stipulated definition on a whole nation.”

    I don’t agree with this statement. But perhaps, you don’t either. It seems to me that we can and should “force” a definition on the nation when the definition is the one that’s best supported by the evidence.

    In addition, as you know, “person” isn’t only a philosophical concept but a legal one. The 14th Amendment protects persons. So, “person” must have a single universal definition even when that definition is “highly disputed”, as any definition would be. Otherwise, we would not know how to apply equal protection under the law.

    You make the case that the universal legal definition of “person” should include human beings from the beginning of life. I agree. I’d like to re-post this post at PersonhoodUSA.com.

    1. Drew, there’s a sense in which I agree with you. I could have been more clear in the article. It is unwise or problematic to legally arbitrate what is established or otherwise defined elsewhere. Proposed “personhood” definitions have included: (1) mind, will and emotions, (2) mind and will, (3) self-awareness, (4) individual viability of a human, (5) ability to feel pain, (6) human-like appearance, (7) implantation, (8) birth, (9) breathing-thing (derived from “nephesh”), (10) having a spinal cord/nerve sensation, (11) any combination of these in terms of their capacity [not actuality], (12) fertilization, etc. etc.

      I think Roe v. Wade made a very bad and unnecessarily arbitrary decision in separating “humanity” (or “potentially human life”) from “personhood,” since they had to defy well-established legal precedent, obscure and misrepresent the scientific and medical data, mishandle the historical data, and problematically reinterpret “human rights” as not applying to a whole class of humans. So, yes, I agree with you.

      Taking Roe v. Wade as an established precedent, however, personhood is a forbidden status to preborns. And though it has traditionally been the prerequisite for legal protection and ‘rights’ bearing status, the proliferation of state bills curtaining abortion, it has become obvious that the Roe v. Wade distinction of “person” and “human” is a troubling one, and makes more problems than it solves, namely, what qualifies a genetically, biologically, scientifically, and medically human being to be recognized as a legal human, with human rights? By even requiring that question, the pro-life position has lost the best ground it could have had–judicially speaking. It shifts the burden of proof and the benefit of the doubt away from the default abortion advocates who aim to kill children, and shifts it onto the person who wants to protect human beings. We now must make that case that human beings have human rights, as if that was someone left out, overlooked, or ignored by the framers of the Decl. of Indep, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are CREATED equal.” Scientifically and medically speaking, we now know that the creation of the individual human being begins at conception. The Roe v. Wade decision is a murky confused document that ventured into uncharted unethical waters and has been sinking there ever since.

      1. “By even requiring that question, the pro-life position has lost the best ground it could have had–judicially speaking”

        Blackmum’s decision did exactly that. He shifted the burden of proof in an unjustifiable way. If there is a hell, i hope he’s enjoying it.

        Excellent work.

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