This post is part of a series of posts addressing arguments made against abortion. The format here is simple: I list a common argument against abortion and then open the floor for my readers to discuss. Without further ado, here’s today’s argument:
A zygote/embryo/fetus is a person
From the moment of conception, a zygote/embryo/fetus is (a) alive and (b) has its own unique human DNA, and is thus clearly a living, distinct human being. This makes it a person. In the past, people thought zygotes/embryos/fetuses were just blobs of tissue, but the advent of ultrasounds has allowed us to see that this is not the case at all. Things like hearts, brain waves, internal organs, fingernails, and even hair develop at a very early stage. The fetus’ heart starts beating only days after the mother misses her period. Numerous women who intended to have abortions have changed their minds after seeing an image of their fetus.
In addition to its own unique DNA, every zygote/embryo/fetus also has a soul planted in it at conception by God. People in the past thought that the fetus made its first movement at “quickening,” and that that therefore must be the moment when God gave it a soul. Now, however, we know that the zygote/embryo/fetus is active from the moment of its conception and cannot make such a distinction. Conception – not birth, not quickening – is the key moment.
Note that there are two arguments here – one scientific (DNA, etc.) and one religious (soul). Feel free to address either or both.
Also, note that this thread should deal with whether a zygote/embryo/fetus is a “person,” not with what that says about whether a woman should be allowed to abort it.
Please be civil and direct. Remember that I would like the comments section of this post to serve as a resource in the future. You are encouraged to link to articles elsewhere that help address this argument, or to studies or documentation. And don’t be afraid to respond to each other, to play the devil’s advocate, or to simply ask questions.
After a week I will close the comments sections on this post, and will choose the comments I consider clearest and most interesting and add them to the end of the OP (with full credit, of course).
The comments section on this post is now closed. I am adding some of the comments I found most interesting to the end of this post, and if you find these interesting make sure to read the rest of the comment section as there are many other interesting comments that I do not have room for here. Finally, I’ve also addressed this argument a bit myself in the past.
A placenta is made out of living cells and it has the same DNA as the embryo, but the placenta isn’t considered a person. Therefore their own definition of person requires something more than those 2 items.
Arguments of this sort frequently conflate humanity, life and personhood. This is actually particularly true when they take a more secular route and leave aside the “soul” issue. Many people will claim that the idea that embryos and fetuses are not persons has been “disproved by science” due to the identification of complex, differentiated structures in early development, the presence of a unique human genome, and other things that you mentioned.
But this argument is nonsensical, because science does not exist to prove or disprove philosophical concepts such as personhood. What these scientific data show is that the zygote/embryo/fetus is indeed ALIVE and GENETICALLY HUMAN. I know of no pro-choicer that disputes this and it is not necessary for us to do so because it does not follow that because something is alive or genetically human, it is a person. Many things are alive that many or most who oppose abortion have no issue with killing. If you have ever eaten meat, killed a spider or set a mousetrap, sprayed for weeds (or even eaten food that was grown using pesticides and herbicides) you have taken part in, or supported, the destruction of life. Many of the things we do on a daily basis as humans rely on the destruction of SOME sort of life so it is not enough to argue against abortion on the basis that the fetus is alive.
As for the fetus being genetically human, human tumors and cell cultures are also genetically human–AND alive as well, of course. Clearly the mere presence of human DNA does not confer a special moral status and why should it? Why should a human embryo which does not have thoughts, feelings, and experiences etc. be considered to have more moral worth than, say, an elephant which has all those things but lacks human DNA? Why should a non-sentient, genetically human organism be more valued than a sentient, genetically non-human organism? The only argument I can think of is the argument that humans are unique and set apart from other living things because they are specially created in the image of God. However, if you employ this argument, you have obviously backslid into religious arguments, which have no place in policy-making. There is no sound, non-religious argument that human DNA confers innate moral superiority.
The key issue is not life or humanity but personhood and this is not a concept that can be explored by science. It is a philosophical, moral concept that is usually defined by sentience–such things as self-awareness, the presence of feelings, thoughts, experiences, goals, values etc. These tend to be the kinds of things that pro-choicers consider to confer moral significance, although exactly what the definition is is, of course, still debated–in the proper philosophical setting, where it belongs. Therefore arguments that “science disproves” the non-personhood of a fetus suffer from a gross misunderstanding of terms and concepts. Insisting that “life begins at conception (duh),” or that “it has a beating heart” (so does a mouse), or that it has “its own unique DNA” (again, duh) is pointless because none of those things is the real issue.
No statement in that argument can be used to distinguish a person from things none of us value. Many things are alive that we don’t care one whit about (e.g. bacteria). And tumors also have their own human DNA, but even if benign not a one of us would have the slightest moral compunction in having one removed from our bodies. House flies have hearts, move, and have rudimentary brains. And hair? Fingernails? Why would those make a fetus a person?
Why not focus on things that actually matter for personhood? Why don’t we ask when a fetus starts thinking of itself as an individual? When it starts to have dreams of its own? When it starts to understand the feelings of those around it?
Because none of these things that we actually value in actual people are present until after birth. And if you’re worried about the fetus suffering, well, I sure hope you’re a vegan, because if you’re not you’re an abject hypocrite, because full-grown cows, pigs, and chickens have vastly more capacity to suffer than a fetus does. This is especially true before the nervous system has developed.
As an aside, the ambiguity of, “a very early stage,” is also very misleading. Many of these things (including the nervous system) don’t really start to develop until after10-12 weeks, and most people who abort do so before then anyway.
Finally, if you think a zygote has a soul, why not define what you mean by that and devise an experiment to test it. Because until you do, I have no reason whatsoever to believe you.
Just jumping in to address the “unique DNA” argument. There are 3 “case studies” that can be used against this, most of which have been addressed: 1) tumors (unique DNA, not a person), 2) identical twins (non-unique DNA, 2 persons), 3) chimerism (2 unique sets of DNA, 1 person). The third has not been addressed so I will briefly touch on it, because I think it’s good to have in one’s arsenal.
Some background: chimerism occurs when two zygotes/blastocysts fuse at a relatively early stage. This results in ONE person containing TWO sets of DNA. This is often benign but can result in some really weird stuff–if an XX zygote/blastocyst fuses with an XY, the person can have mixed genitalia, or if the parents are of different races, the child can literally appear as a patchwork between the two. (Another side note: this has resulted in some pretty ridiculous/convoluted legal situations.)
How I would frame this in a personhood argument: if ensoulment occurs at conception, how can two souls fuse? Does that mean god “knows” and that he only provides a soul for one blastocyst? If that were the case, would it then be just, if it were possible, to remove only one blastocyst and discard it, since the only thing protecting it is this concept of ensoulment? Should a chimera have double the human rights of a regular person–should they get two votes during election time, for example?
Personhood is a legal concept. Only legal “persons” have rights, and if a fetus is a legal person, the fetus has those rights as well. I have never seen anyone on either side fully address what happens to other laws if fetii have legal rights. A legal person can file suit, inherit and bequeath property, and must be protected from negligence. A cause of action – the right and power to file suit over a specific injury – is a type of property that can be bequeathed. So, if personhood attaches at fertilization, the estate of a zygote that failed to implant has the right to sue whomever caused it to be miscarried. In the case at issue, the woman who didn’t know she was pregnant who did any number of activities from breastfeeding her existing infant through vigorous exercise or training up to getting shit-faced drunk or high on speedballs. ALL of those activities can cause early stage miscarriage. Is in criminal negligence, or even simply civil negligence, for a sexually active woman to do anything, since anything might cause early miscarriage? How, precisely, is it possible to give a fetus any kind of personhood that means anything and preserve personhood for women?
Not only is this a non-starter for the reasons others have outlined above (i.e. that it completely ignores the reasons that we as a society have created the personhood class, that providing evidence that anything has a “soul” is, at best, problematic, that the other criteria (living; human DNA) apply to other things without them magically obtaining personhood, that uniqueness doesn’t grant a way out of this problem because we count twins as two persons, that being human qua Homo sapiens isn’t inherently more valuable than being another species of animal etc.), but it also ignores the logical consequences of the position.
A society that accepted personhood of a foetus would look different than ours does. Have the forced birthers really thought this through? I don’t think so.
Every miscarriage would have to be investigated for any signs of neglect or other contributing factors. Women could be charged with assault or other crimes for things like smoking, drinking alcohol or coffee, or eating poorly.
Biological fathers would have to pay for child support from conception, and would legally be jointly responsible for any medical expenses accrued by the foetus in utero. How would physical custody issues be resolved? Would a woman not be forced to remain in the same area as the biological father/sperm donor so that he could have visitation?
Citizenship laws would have to be overhauled–surely where a person’s personhood began would hold just as much if not more weight than where they were born. So anyone wanting their kids to have citizenship in a certain country could travel there to have sex. And of course, there would be many people who wouldn’t want to have sex on vacation in case any children conceived would end up being Mexican or Dominican or Costa Rican instead of American (substitute appropriate alternative countries, depending on circumstances). Pregnant women would have to get passports for their foetuses before travelling over international borders.
No more IVF or embryo banks, even for, say, couples who know they’re going to be sterile due to a medical procedure–legally that would be forcible confinement (kidnapping/false imprisonment etc) of a person to freeze them and hold them imprisoned in a freezer, let alone all the collateral loss of embryos in IVF procedures (for which the doctors and lab people would have to be charged with homicide).
As soon as conception occurs, the parents could buy life insurance and could collect on miscarriages–I’m sure the insurance companies wouldn’t mind paying out on about 80% of successful conceptions.
Most birth control would be illegal. Not just abortion, but IUDs and the pill too.
And wouldn’t pregnancy itself be against the law? After all, if a woman is pregnant, she’s keeping another person confined and imprisoned without their consent.
Conception is not a “moment” but a process that can take hours or days . If “personhood” is a simple black and white/ yes or no question and not a matter of development or shades of grey, then when precisely in this process is a new person created?:
-The egg and sperm membranes fuse (but the nuclei are still separate)
-The egg goes through chemical changes to prevent other sperm from fusing
-The egg finishes meiosis to become haploid and forms a polar body (which doesn’t happen until after the membranes have fused)
-All parts of the sperm except the nucleus dissolve
-The chromosomes from the egg and sperm replicate separately
-Both nuclear membranes dissolve
-Spindles form to bring all of the chromosomes together (approximately 3-4 hours after the membranes fused)
-The cell goes through mitosis ending in 2 cells (repeat many times)
-The embryo implants in the wall (approximately 9 days after the sperm and egg membranes fused)
It’s possible to imagine drugs that could interfere at any stage in this process (if they don’t already exist). Where is the line between “not a person” and “person”?