This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.
The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception
By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010
Individual Rights and Abortion
The Core Arguments for “Personhood” Laws
The activist groups seeking to make “personhood” measures the law of the land offer two distinct arguments for granting full legal rights to embryos and fetuses, one religious and one secular. Often first and foremost, they claim that the embryo or fetus is an innocent life recognized and valued as such by God. Hence, abortion is a grave violation of God’s prohibition on murder. However, as we argue in a later section, America was founded as a free country, not a theocracy. To force people to obey God’s alleged laws is a clear violation of their liberty rights, as well as a violation of the separation of church and state. However, many of these groups offer a secular justification for “personhood” too. They claim that every human has an inalienable right to life, that the humanity of the embryo and fetus is self-evident, and that abortion grossly violates their rights.
What do “personhood” advocates say to justify this claim of self-evident humanity? The argument is stated briefly on the website of Personhood USA as follows:
The science of fetology in 1973 [at the time of Roe v. Wade] was not able to prove, as it can now, that a fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various stages of development in a continuum (barring tragedy) until natural death from old age. …If you look up the word “person” in your average dictionary…you’ll find something like this: Person n. A human being. A person, simply put, is a human being. This fact should be enough. The intrinsic humanity of unborn children, by definition, makes them persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.
As a result, Personhood USA claims, all “unborn children” should be recognized as possessing “certain rights such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
More substantive defenses of the view that embryos and fetuses are fully human persons with the right to life are found in sources cited by “personhood” groups, such as the website Abort73.com and the book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments by Randy Alcorn. Here, we will outline that argument in its secular form, ignoring appeals to “God-given” rights and Christian scripture.
The argument for the self-evident humanity of the embryo and fetus begins with the scientific claim that the life of a human being begins at conception. Apart from any religious beliefs, it says, the science of medicine overwhelmingly affirms that a new human life is created with the fertilization of the egg by a sperm. That new life is thoroughly human, highly complex, biologically active, and distinct from the pregnant woman. It is neither a blob of tissue, nor just a part of the pregnant woman’s own body as are her organs. As Abort73.com says:
At the moment of fertilization, a new and unique human being comes into existence with its own distinct genetic code. Twenty-three chromosomes from the mother and twenty-three chromosomes from the father combine to result in a brand-new and totally unique genetic combination. Whereas the heart, lungs, and hair of a woman all share the same genetic code, her unborn child, from the moment of fertilization, has a separate genetic code that is all its own. There is enough information in this tiny zygote to control human growth and development for the rest of its life.
In essence, advocates of “personhood” claim that the fertilization of the egg by the sperm creates a new, distinct, and thoroughly human life, i.e. a human being. The resulting zygote, embryo, and then fetus is not merely a potential human being: it is an actual human being in an early stage of development.
Next, the argument asserts that to be a person–in the sense of possessing the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–requires only that something be a human being. Abort73.com says:
There are essentially two issues which must be resolved concerning unborn embryos and fetuses. The first is, “Are they human beings?” The second is, “Should they be recognized as persons under the law?” We’ve already established that there is no debate on the first question. …So should humans be recognized as persons under the law? Yes, because humans are persons. Something is a person if it has a personal nature. In other words, something is a person if, by nature, it has the capacity to develop the ability to think rationally, express emotion, make decisions, etc. This capacity is something that a person has as soon as he begins to exist, since it is part of his nature (in other words, if he exists, he has it). Since humans have a personal nature, humans are persons. As for the fetus, since it is a human (and so, something with a personal nature), it is a person. Just as a cat qualifies as a feline simply by being a cat, a fetus qualifies as a person simply by being a human. So, it is impossible for a fetus to not be a person.
In other words, the capacity to exist as a person is simply part of human nature. That intrinsic personhood does not depend on any further qualities that might be developed later, such as “size, skill, or degree of intelligence.” In his book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments, Randy Alcorn writes:
Age, size, IQ, or stage of development are simply differences in degree, not in kind. Our kind is our humanity. We are people, human beings. We possess certain skills to differing degrees at different stages of development. When we reach maturation there are many different degrees of skills and levels of IQ. But none of these make some people better or more human than others. None make some qualified to live, and others unqualified.
On this view, a person is nothing more or less than a human being: all persons are humans and all humans are persons. Hence, Abort73.com states, “a person…is nothing more or less than a living human. ….The differences that exist between a human being before birth and a human being after birth are differences that don’t matter.”
Finally, the argument claims, the fact that every human life from conception to natural death is a person has profound political and legal implications. “The intrinsic humanity of unborn children qualifies them as persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.” More specifically, the embryo and fetus have “the one most fundamental right that no one can live without, the right to life”–just like a born infant. While women have rights to their own bodies, as well as to the lifestyles of their choosing, those rights are not “absolute and unconditional”: they must be limited in pregnancy due to the more fundamental right to life of the embryo or fetus.
Ultimately then, according to “personhood” advocates, a pregnant woman cannot have the right to choose to get an abortion any more than she can properly choose to commit assault, murder, or theft. Since abortion destroys the life of another person, it must be outlawed as a willfully criminal act. To support abortion rights is to sanction the ongoing genocide against the unborn, with about 50 million dead so far.
Now, with that clear picture of the secular argument for “personhood” firmly in mind, we can take a fresh look at the question of rights in pregnancy.