Everything I had heard about my opponent prior to the debate at the University of Ottawa was positive and, as it turned out, also true. A young philosophy professor with an impressive curriculum vitae, Dr. Matt McLennan engaged the audience in a pleasant way and, by questioning the underlying worldview of the pro-life position as well as making a case for personhood post-sentience, provided a thought-provoking defense of abortion. But was it good enough?
To determine whether Dr. McLennan provided a morally and philosophically sound case for abortion, I will review his main arguments in two separate articles. We’ll take a look at his critique of the pro-life position later—in his own words, “are the secular arguments secretly religious?”—but first, let’s examine his defense of abortion on babies that aren’t sentient yet.
In his opening statement, Dr. McLennan acknowledged that the pre-born are human beings and referred to abortion as a life-and-death issue, yet stated that opposing all abortions would be counter-intuitive and politically radical. At the same time, he was unwilling to defend all abortions because “some abortions are easier to defend than others, such as first-trimester abortions.”
The professor also explained why. “Not all abortions are alike because we’re not talking about the same human being.” How is this possible? Because in Dr. McLennan’s view, what gives a person interests is if he or she can be harmed, and this is the case once one gains sentience. Thus, humans may come into existence at one point, which is fertilization, but it is only immoral to kill them if they have attained sentience, which is the immediately exercisable capacity for consciousness. My opponent provided his own illustration, which helps to make the implications of this view clear. If a disabled fetus has no sentience, he argued, we can allow for abortion because no harm is done.
Now that is the definition of functionalism, the view in which humans don’t have rights by virtue of the kind of beings they are—members of the human family—but only due to a function they can perform. Can’t have conscious thought? Too bad but your life doesn’t count because you don’t have certain capacities yet. Oh, and you wouldn’t know it anyway so no one really cares.
Sound cruel? That’s because it is. Dr. McLennan may be well-intentioned when providing a philosophical framework that prioritizes the interests of pregnant women—as he described them, mothers who in fact are sentient beings who stand to be harmed by their pregnancies. But in reality, he allows for an entire group of other humans to be denied personhood and thus the right to life, simply because they can’t have conscious thought yet.
Let’s think that through for a moment.
The reason they can’t is because they haven’t developed the capacity yet. The reason they haven’t developed it yet is because not enough time has passed, and time is reflected in our age. What does that mean? In the first and for a large part the second trimester of pregnancy, the pre-born aren’t sentient simply because they aren’t old enough yet. Therefore, as I pointed out on the evening of April 4th, to deny them the right to life for that very reason is age discrimination.
Case in point? During cross examination, my opponent stated that the second trimester of pregnancy, as a result of drawing the line at sentience, is a moral “grey area.” To be clear, this trimester starts at 13 and ends at 27 weeks of pregnancy. While Dr. Fellows refuses performing abortions after 23 weeks and 6 days and the audience at uOttawa noticeably cringed at abortion footage of a bloodied, second-trimester baby being wrapped in paper to be tossed out, Dr. McLennan wasn’t willing to say it would be immoral to abort pre-born children up to 27 weeks.
That, my friends, is the result of a view that deems certain humans to be mere “potential people.” In fact, the professor argued that it would be better if unwanted children, whether considered as such due to their disability, gender, or other reason, aren’t “brought into reality” as they will likely suffer and be harmed. While he genuinely cares about equality and therefore also advocates for finding solutions to the reasons for abortion, Dr. McLennan must realize that preventing these children from being born means they must be suctioned, scraped, or torn piece-by-piece out of the womb.
I think I know what Dr. McLennan would say in response—something similar to one of his closing remarks. “These are described as wrongs experienced by the embryos but there’s no suffering or harm done to an actual person.” Remember? They will become equal human beings like you and me but aren’t yet—not as long as they don’t have conscious thought. But we have to ask ourselves why a capacity for sentience is interest-giving in the first place. Dr. McLennan simply asserted that humans are being harmed only once they have self-consciousness. Says who?
When I asked the professor for a reason why we should draw the line there, he responded, “Well, if I am sentient, I can be harmed,” which I repeated back to make sure I had understood his view correctly. Dr. McLennan hesitated. “I believe you’re going to ask me next about sleeping people and people who are in a coma.” Although I hadn’t planned to, that would only be the logical extension of the case he had made. If it’s not immoral to kill a pre-born human because she isn’t self-aware, how could we object to killing a born human who isn’t self-aware? To put it simply, if our level of development doesn’t matter after birth, why should it beforehand?
While Dr. McLennan certainly made us think, his defense of abortion and definition of what gives people rights and interests ultimately cannot account for basic human equality. Once we draw the line anywhere later than fertilization, there is nothing that grounds our views regarding rights. Because if humans only have rights due to some acquired property rather than by virtue of being members of the human family, all we are left with is arbitrary definitions of personhood that always leave some humans out.
As such, it is far more reasonable to argue that, although human beings differ immensely—there may even be times that we wouldn’t know it if we’re being harmed—we are nonetheless equal. Thus, the only personhood definition that leaves all humans safe is one that acknowledges our basic human rights by virtue of our membership in the human family. That doesn’t change when our capacities change but begins the very moment we come into existence. And that, for each of us, is fertilization.