The Argument From Creating Brainless Children

In a chapter I recently published– “The Human Being, A Person of Substance: A Reply to Dean Stretton,” in Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, edited by Stephen Napier. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), 67-83–I respond to criticisms of an argument I have used in several venues, including my 2007 book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press). My 2011 defense of that argument–”the argument from creating brainless children”–as it is appears in my chapter in the Napier book is reproduced as follows (notes omitted):

In Defending Life I argue that given the dominant understandings of personhood in the literature, understandings that connect a human being’s moral worth to certain presently exercisable mental abilities, it is difficult to account for the wrongness of intentionally creating mentally handicapped fetuses. For example, suppose that Mr. Jones clones himself. That clone, X, is then implanted into a womb and it begins to develop normally. However, at a certain point in his gestation Mr. Jones orders that X’s neural tube be stopped from developing so that X may not acquire the higher brain functions that are necessary for X to exercise his rational and moral powers. That is, a healthy embryo is manipulated so that he develops into an anencephalic child.22 Mr. Jones issues that order because he wants to harvest X’s body (which has Mr. Jones’s genome) so that if and when any of Mr. Jones’ organs become diseased or less functional, he can replace those organs with X’s healthy ones.

But, as Dan W. Brock points out, “Most people would likely find this practice appalling and immoral, in part because here the cloned later twin’s capacity for conscious life is destroyed solely as a means for the benefit of another”….What I suggest is that this intuition is best grounded in the substance view of persons. That is, only if the fetus is entitled to his higher brain functions does it make sense to say that the cloned twin has been wronged. Remember, the substance view is a perfectionist view, which means, as I noted above, it sees the maturation of a human being’s intrinsic ends or purposes as perfections of its nature. So, for example, the whole human being is harmed if her brain is not allowed to develop as a consequence of ailment or assault. Thus, if the embryo’s brain development is intentionally obstructed so that she does not achieve higher brain function and thus cannot exercise her natural powers for rational thought and moral reflection, the human being has been morally harmed because a good to which she is entitled has been prevented from coming to fruition. But if that’s the case, then any act intended to disrupt or compromise the human being’s proper end, including abortion, is prima facie immoral. After all, if it’s wrong to prevent the embryo from acquiring her higher brain function by blocking her neural tube, it’s wrong to do so by killing her via abortion.

In response to my argument, Stretton writes:

["]To the contrary, this case seems to refute the substance view. To render a normal adult anencephalic would be tantamount to murder; surely then the same is true of unborn human beings, on the substance view? Yet our intuition is not that the creation of anencephalic clones is tantamount to murder. Our sense is rather that the deliberate creation of disabled beings is prima facie wrong (though well short of murder) even where those beings are not harmed by being created. . . .This intuition, however, provides no support for the substance view….["]

Stretton… is misconstruing my argument. He reads into it something I do not defend. In no place in which I offer this argument do I suggest, imply, or claim that creating an anencephalic child is tantamount to murder. That belief plays no role in the argument’s logic nor in the reason why I offered it. What then was I trying to accomplish with the argument?

Let us start with the moral claim “it is a prima facie wrong to intentionally create an anencephalic human being.” For someone who holds the substance view this
moral claim makes sense, for the human being whose brain is intentionally obstructed from normal development is being denied that which he is by nature entitled, since a functioning brain is a perfection of his nature. Stretton, however, concedes that intentionally creating an anencephalic human being is a prima facie wrong even if the intervention to alter the human being’s brain development occurs before he develops what Stretton and others … consider the properties that impart personhood to the human being. So, what precisely are the grounds by which Stretton issues this judgment? He does not say. Is it because the fetus is entitled to his higher brain functions? If so, then abortion is unjustified, since it too robs the fetus of his higher brain functions (in addition to all of his bodily functions including the use of mature versions of his heart, lungs, legs, harms, ears, nose, eyes, etc.)

So, here’s the problem: almost everyone agrees that it is a prima facie wrong to intentionally create an anencephalic human being. I, then, ask the question: what account of the human person best accounts for this intuition? It seems to me that the substance view has the best resources to do so, since views like those held by Stretton, McMahan, Boonin, and Dworkin affirm that it is morally permissible to destroy the fetus, including his developing brain, prior to his acquisition of certain value-making properties. So, if one can destroy the fetus for the apparent good of another (the pregnant woman) prior to him becoming a person, why cannot one use the fetus’s body parts for the good of another (the cloned twin’s progenitor) by making sure he does not become a person?

Let me offer another twist to this thought experiment. Suppose that the creating of anencephalic clones for organ harvesting becomes widespread. In response, millions of citizens rise up in protest, calling for the liberation of the clones. These citizens call their movement, clone-choice (CC), since they believe that it is morally wrong for the clones to have theirmoral and rational powers—i.e., their choice—obstructed from maturing by cerebral mutilation. Those that support the practice respond, calling their movement, clone-life (CL), since they believe that it is morally wrong to interfere with a person’s reproductive powers to create non-person human beings (anencephalic clones) for the preservation of the lives of “real” persons. CL, with the assistance of the government, sets up thousands of “Life Centers” throughout North America in which cloning and harvesting procedures are offered to the public at a low cost. In these centers are millions of adult-looking human clones without higher brain functions resting in suspended animation. It turns out that some scientists working with CC have discovered a surgical procedure that will allow the adult clones to develop their higher brain functions. Suppose that some of these scientists break into several Life Centers, perform this surgery on about fifty of the adult clones, take these clones to safe houses where they are nourished, cared for, and sheltered, and over the course of 9 months the clones do in fact develop higher brain functions. If you think what the scientists did was not only good but an act that justice requires, it seems that you must believe that the clones are beings of a rational nature ordered toward certain perfections that when obstructed, results in a wrong.

The strength of my argument does not depend on the claim, nor conclude that, the creation of anencephalic human beings is tantamount to murder. Rather, its strength depends on the inability of views contrary to the substance view—those embraced by Stretton and others—to account for the wrongness of an act for which the substance view can easily account.


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