Since we know that science has established that the pre-born are human beings, the question we must now ask is a philosophical one: Do we value each other by virtue of our existence as humans or by virtue of our features and abilities?
The term “person” is generally ascribed to those individuals we value as our equals, but there is a debate about who exactly falls into the category of person.
The pro-life viewpoint is simple: since the pre-born are human beings, they are persons. In other words, personhood is based on existence in our species (something we can determine objectively). But some abortion supporters argue that personhood should be based on a being’s features or abilities, such as self-awareness. They claim that since the pre-born cannot think or behave like those who are born, abortion is acceptable because it merely kills non-persons.
But to deny the pre-born personhood status because they cannot do what we can is just age discrimination.
Consider this: All differences between the pre-born and toddlers fall into one of these four categories:
- Level of development (which includes consciousness and the ability to communicate)
Likewise, all differences between toddlers and adults fall into those categories. Why can’t the pre-born think and reason like we can? For the same reason why toddlers cannot: they are less developed. And why are they less developed? Because they are younger.
Why do the pre-born need someone to care for them? For the same reason why toddlers do: they are less developed and therefore more dependent. And why are they less developed and more dependent? Because they are younger.
To define personhood based on criteria such as sentience, viability, or life experience is to define it based on one’s level of development. And an individual’s development generally corresponds with her age: The older one gets, the more developed she becomes. The younger she is, the less time has passed for her to develop the structures necessary to perform various functions.
So the question we must consider is this: Do those of us who are older have a right to kill those who are younger? Clearly, to select age-related criteria for personhood is arbitrary and discriminatory. It pits older humans against younger ones.
Now some abortion advocates may argue they aren’t discriminating based on age, pointing out that some older humans never develop as they should (and should be classified as “non-persons”), and some younger humans develop more rapidly than normal (and should be classified as “persons”).
The question, they may ask, is not, “How old is she?” but instead, “How well does she function?” Even here, though, one identifies discrimination: ability-based discrimination. Why should the able-bodied be allowed to hurt the less capable? And who determines to which degree one is “able” versus “disabled”?
Furthermore, aside from conditions and disabilities which impede normal development, how one functions is usually related to how old someone is: The human species follows a general growth trend where at certain age ranges, a function begins (e.g., a heartbeat begins at 3 weeks following fertilization).2 So to select a criteria for personhood which someone simply cannot attain because of her age (a day-old embryo is too young to have a heartbeat) is unfair.
Take another level of development, self-awareness: whether that ability has not yet been reached because someone is functioning normally but is simply too young, or because someone has a disability, that does not change the nature of that individual; she is still a human being. If that human individual is alive, she is worthy of respect like everyone else.
Besides age and ability-based discrimination, there is environment-based discrimination. Consider a 26-week premature baby in an incubator, compared to a 26-week pre-born child. The former are considered persons whereas the latter are not. What is the difference? Simply the external surroundings: one is ex-utero and one is in-utero. Why should those in one environment be allowed to kill those in another?
Age, development, and environment are a few of several features which describe something about us, but which do not define us. Since they are qualities which differ from one individual to the next, they are a poor standard for determining one’s personhood, for determining one’s right to life.
On the contrary, to select existence-based criteria is to pick the one and only feature we have in common—human nature—and is something we can determine objectively through science. With the former standards, someone is always excluded. But with this latter standard, all are included.
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- Stephen Schwartz, The Moral Question of Abortion, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990).
- “Prenatal Form and Function – The Making of an Earth Suit, Unit 4: 3 to 4 Weeks,” available from www.ehd.org/dev_article_unit4.php#ft1, viewed on May 3, 2010.