Pro-Life Debate: Answering Criticisms on the Human/Human Being Distinction

Pro-Life Debate: Answering Criticisms on the Human/Human Being Distinction May 4, 2020

Some time ago, I wrote a few pieces on the definitions of human and human being as pertaining to the pro-life/pro-choice/abortion debate:

In my piece, I was taking to task a set of comments from a Mark Bradshaw here, an avowedly pro-life commenter who, in my eyes, was making a tranche of errors.

Clinton Wilcox over at Life Training Institute (a pro-life organisation) has produced two criticisms of my piece, here and here. He’s not overly kind, and with no good reason, because his claims are pretty standard fare in the debate. I am not going to pick out every point he makes and rebut them because that makes these post interminable. Here is my first rejoinder to him based on his first piece.

A quick word about the “human/human being distinction”. Pro-choice people tend to use terms imprecisely. When a pro-choice person says “human being”, often what they mean is “person”.

This was exactly my point about pro-lifers! This appears to be a case of “I know you are, you said you are, but what am I?”

He continues:

If this is the case, then you can argue there is a distinction. Even pro-life people can concede that there are possible non-human persons, such as intelligent aliens, if they exist, and supernatural beings.

The issue here being that he fails to acknowledge the sliding scale of personhood that would include certain animals to differing degrees. This is why we have animal rights and why we generally don’t eat dolphins. The line is admittedly arbitrary between such demarcations precisely because it is a sliding scale. Pro-lifers generally take human exceptionalism as a given without looking at what the constituent parts of personhood might be and applying the criteria to the rest of the animal world. This is because it would be uncomfortable and might even mean some of them would have to become some kind of vegetarian! Philosophers like Peter Singer have a lot to say about this.

He talks about what he asserts some pro-choicers use as terminology. I am not so bothered about this as this is a criticism of my claims, not someone else’s.

His next paragraph takes on embryos, organisms and human/human being distinctions:

It’s true that one needs a philosophical definition of “organism” in order to determine whether or not a human embryo meets it. But the question of what makes an organism an organism has been decided on long ago. It’s even right there in the name: organism. An organism is “an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a living being”. [1] The only reason to try and muddy this definition is if you have an ideological axe to grind. There is no doubt that embryos are biological organisms. So again, if you take “human being” to mean “a biological organism”, then this is a distinction without a difference. Only if you take it to mean “person” is there a meaningful distinction one could make.

A human embryo is arguably a particular type of organism that is not a human being. It is at best a parasitic, embryonic organism on the developmental continuum. However, some will not concede that an embryo falls under the definition of organism. We lose many cells from our bodies, and even whole organs or multiple organs containing our whole genome, but these do not make them organisms. The problem is, definitions of life are fuzzy. We might defer to textbook definitions, as in MRS GREN, and find that an embryo does not qualify in being able to do all of these, and certainly not independently; as such, it can be argued that an embryo is not a living organism in the same way an adult, or even a child is.

As ever, one definition depends upon another, and turtles all the way down. What is an organism? states:


  1. a form of life composed of mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes.
  2. a form of life considered as an entity; an animal, plant, fungus, protistan, or moneran.
  3. any organized body or system conceived of as analogous to a living being: the governmental organism.
  4. any complex thing or system having properties and functions determined not only by the properties and relations of its individual parts, but by the character of the whole that they compose and by the relations of the parts to the whole.

An embryo can be argued either way as being an organism, and these definitions allow for vast amounts of wriggle room. It simply depends on exactly how you define organism, and at what part along the embryonic development this happens. And then you need to argue as to whether the term “organism” is important for “life” and these for “human” as opposed to “human being”. That Wilcox uses a Catholic source for his definition of “organism” is perhaps important.

An analogy could be that you see a chassis with wheels on an assembly line in a car factory. Is this a car? I would say not. Is it a developmental stage of a car? Yes.

Personally, an embryo would be, to me, an embryonic organism, or an organism in its earliest developmental stages, but I would need really technical definitions of “organism” to see whether I would call it a standalone organism in its own right in the way that the analogy works above. The more important question lies in whether it is a human, and whether it is a human being.

There is some interesting further discussion here as to what an embryo is and even when it should be termed “embryo” (i.e., a stricter definition being after gastrulation).

Wilcox continues later:

As I said above, pro-choice people tend to talk in terms of “human rights” when they don’t really mean “human rights”. They deny these rights to some humans (embryos and fetuses), instead conferring them not because of their genetics or their nature but because of some function they are presently able to perform. This is just as misleading as the pro-lifers Pearce is replying to.

Let’s use the old chicken analogy here. A chicken egg is not a chicken. I don’t know anyone who saw an egg and would call it a chicken. it’s a chicken egg. Eating a fertilised chicken egg is not eating a chicken. At most, during the later stages of embryonic development, it would be eating an embryonic chicken.

A foetus is not a human being, and not a human. It is an embryonic human, or a human at its earlier stages of (embryonic) development. Think back to the car analogy. This is a difference.

I will end this here as it will get too long otherwise and I will continue the discussion in the next piece as Wilcox gets onto quoting my criticism of Bradshaw’s points, one through five.


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