Whether or not we regard the unborn child as a fully human person can completely change the way that we perceive abortion. Consider these excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Preamble and Article 3) (emphasis added):
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/)
The moment we acknowledge the embryo or foetus as a fully fledged member of the human race, we also acknowledge that abortion is a severe and unjust infringement on the humans rights of this being. That is why the biological and philosophical status of the unborn child is pivotal to the abortion debate, and why those on both sides must be able to justify fully their position on this point in order to justify their position on abortion.
The Embryo/Foetus is Human
An unborn child has:
- Human parents
- Human cells
- Human DNA
- Progressively distinct human physiology
It is difficult to see how the inclusion of the embryo/foetus as a member of the human race can even come into question. One might ask: what would the alternative be?
The Embryo/Foetus is Alive
There are certain biological properties that help us to define what is alive and what is not. A living organism displays a variety of these properties
The embryo/foetus has a structure that shows visible order; the cells act together in a coordinated fashion to give regular and predictable results; they show distinct and ordered patterns of gene expression.
The embryo/foetus maintains boundaries between itself and the outside environment, distinguishing itself from it and enabling its recognition as a distinct entity.
The mitochondria of embryonic and foetal cells use aerobic and anaerobic respiration to generate ATP – the energy molecule needed for biological processes.
According to environmental input, embryonic cells can alter gene expression, alter intracellular signalling, undergo metabolic stress and undergo apoptosis. Once the appropriate systems have been developed, the foetus can react to sound and noxious (painful) stimuli.
Growth and development
In a suitable environment, the embryo/foetus goes through undeniable growth and development from the very moment of conception.
The embryo or foetus is obviously not capable of sexual reproduction, but an mind-boggling number of cell divisions take place as a single cell replicates and divides to become trillions of cells.
The Embryo/Foetus is a Person
Is the embryo or foetus human? Yes. It is alive? Unquestionably. But then, so is my appendix. And yet it’s not an issue if I choose to have it removed. So what is the difference between an appendix and a embryo or foetus?
The most obvious difference is that, left to its natural course without interference, an appendix will not manifest as a newborn infant in nine months time. The acknowledgement of this potential allows us to distinguish the embryo or foetus from other organised structures within the human body; from its conception it is unique. However, it is important not to wholly define the embryo or foetus by its potential, as this is a denial of its intrinsic and current properties (of which more will be said).
The majority of those who accept or advocate abortion argue that there is a distinction to be drawn between the embryo or foetus and the newborn infant*. Once the child is born and, in some cases, has drawn its first breath, then and only then can it be acknowledged as a life to be valued and protected (some are a little more generous and allow that the foetus should be protected from a certain time-point onwards; perhaps when it could be viably born, or perhaps when it can theoretically feel pain). These points of view rest upon the idea that until a certain transition has occurred or a certain stage of development is reached, the embryo or foetus is not a person, and hence not entitled to the rights and protection that all reasonable human beings ought to extend to other persons.
What defines a person? The straight answer is that there is no consensus. The difficulty with this is that, though it is unmeasurable, we cannot allow personhood to be subjective. If personhood is in the eye of the beholder, what right have we to criticise the mother who wraps her newborn child in a plastic bag and leaves it in a dumpster? Instead we recognise that there can be a legitimate moral imperative to restrict the actions of individuals, regardless of their personal opinion. Thus it is also true that we cannot allow our treatment of the unborn child to rest on what individual people do or do not believe.
Generally speaking, thoughts on the topic tend to fall into one of two ways of thinking: a person is defined by their capabilities (functionalism), or a person is defined by their nature (essentialism). To put it simply, functionalism says, “I think and feel, therefore I am person”, whereas essentialism says, “I am a person, therefore I think and feel.”
To some extent, the functionalist approach is irrational, being that we do not confer or withhold personhood from any born person on the basis of their capabilities – it is enough that they have been born as human offspring to human parents. An example of a functionalist definition is to say that unless an individual is capable of rational thought, they are not a person. Obviously this excludes the unborn child. The dangers inherent in such an approach to defining personhood, and hence how an individual is to be treated, should be obvious:
- Any capability-based definition of personhood that excludes the embryo or foetus will inevitably exclude other distinct groups, such as newborn infants, the mentally disabled, those on life support, etc.
- Denial of the personhood of the embryo or foetus on the basis of capability leads to unpalatable, and yet logical conclusions, such as the diminishment of the moral status of the newborn and the acceptability of infanticide.**
On the opposing hand, essentialism argues that personhood is possessed by virtue of simply being a human being, without regard to capabilities. This is an inclusive approach, acknowledging the human race as a whole without distinction or prejudice. An important point to note when considering this is to realise that although the physical structure of the embryo or foetus changes as it undergoes development and maturation, the nature of the unborn child does not. The nature the embryo or foetus possesses is the same nature it will possess as an infant, a child, an adolescent and an adult. It is this nature, present from the first moment of existence, that entitles the embryo or foetus to be acknowledged as a person.
* Please note that there are who those advocate that no such distinction should be drawn, and that the life of the unborn child and the newborn is equally disposable.
** The beginnings of which are already seen in countries such as the Netherlands, where euthanasia of infants is permissable by law.
It is an honest, and yet hard to understand, abortion supporter who can acknowledge the true nature of what is occurring in the “termination of a pregnancy” and “removal of the contents of the uterus”. My hope is that you will take the time to consider what it means to deny admittance to the human race, and therefore the most basic of human rights, to the smallest and most vulnerable among us – what it means when we define what it is to be human according to our own prerogative.
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