A Human Person

A RERUN (WITH LIGHT EDITING) OF A POST AT MY OLD BLOG, FROM MAY 5, 2008

The ludicrous and (it seems) increasingly popular assertion that plants have rights should not distract us from the more serious issue of fetal rights. (My position on the issue can be found among these links.) Maverick Philosopher explains how abortion may be opposed for non-religious reasons:

It is often assumed that opposition to abortion can be based only on religious premises. This assumption is plainly false. To show that it is is false, one need merely give an anti-abortion argument that does not invoke any religious tenet, for example:1. Infanticide is morally wrong.
2. There is no morally relevant difference between abortion and infancticide.
Therefore
3. Abortion is morally wrong.

Whether one accepts this argument or not, it clearly invokes no religious premise. It is therefore manifestly incorrect to say or imply that all opposition to abortion must be religiously-based. Theists and atheists alike could make use of the above argument.

MP then links to a piece by Nat Hentoff, an atheist and Leftist. Hentoff writes, apropos Barack Obama and abortion, that

I admire much of Obama’s record, including what he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope” about the Founders’ “rejection of all forms of absolute authority, whether the king, the theocrat, the general, the oligarch, the dictator, the majority … George Washington declined the crown because of this impulse.”

But on abortion, Obama is an extremist. He has opposed the Supreme Court decision that finally upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act against that form of infanticide. Most startlingly, for a professed humanist, Obama — in the Illinois Senate — also voted against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act….

Furthermore, as “National Right to Life News” (April issue) included in its account of Obama’s actual votes on abortion, he “voted to kill a bill that would have required an abortionist to notify at least one parent before performing an abortion on a minor girl from another state.”

These are conspiracies — and that’s the word — by pro-abortion extremists to transport a minor girl across state lines from where she lives, unbeknownst to her parents. This assumes that a minor fully understands the consequences of that irredeemable act. As I was researching this presidential candidate’s views on the unilateral “choice” that takes another’s life, I heard on the radio what Obama said during a Johnstown, Pa., town hall meeting on March 29 as he was discussing the continuing dangers of exposure to HIV/AIDS infections:

“When it comes specifically to HIV/AIDS, the most important prevention is education, which should include — which should include abstinence education and teaching children, you know, that sex is not something casual. But it should also include — it should also include other, you know, information about contraception because, look, I’ve got two daughters, 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals.

“But if they make a mistake,” Obama continued, “I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

Among my children and grandchildren are two daughters and three granddaughters; and when I hear anyone, including a presidential candidate, equate having a baby as punishment, I realize with particular force the impact that the millions of legal abortions in this country have had on respect for human life.

And that’s the crux of the issue: respect for human life.

Thus I turn to a Peter Lawler’s “A Human Person, Actually,” in which Lawler reviews Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen:

The embryo, George and Tollefsen argue, is a whole being, possessing the integrated capability to go through all the phases of human development. An embryo has what it takes to be a free, rational, deliberating, and choosing being; it is naturally fitted to develop into a being who can be an “uncaused cause,” a genuinely free agent. Some will object, of course, that the embryo is only potentially human. The more precise version of this objection is that the embryo is human—not a fish or a member of some other species—but not yet a person. A person, in this view, is conscious enough to be a free chooser right now. Rights don’t belong to members of our species but to persons, beings free enough from natural determination to be able to exercise their rights. How could someone have rights if he doesn’t even know that he has them?…

Is the embryo a “who”? It’s true enough that we usually don’t bond with embryos or grieve when they die. Doubtless, that’s partly because of our misperception of who or what an embryo is. But it’s also because we have no personal or loving contact with them. We tend to think of persons as beings with brains and hearts; an embryo has neither. But personal significance can’t be limited to those we happen to know and love ourselves; my powers of knowing and loving other persons are quite limited, and given to the distortions of prejudice. Whether an embryo is by nature a “who” can be determined only by philosophical reflection about what we really know.The evidence that George and Tollefsen present suggests that there are only two non-arbitrary ways to consider when a “what” naturally becomes a “who.” Either the embryo is incapable of being anything but a “who”; from the moment he or she comes to be, he or she is a unique and particular being capable of exhibiting all the personal attributes associated with knowing, loving, and choosing. Or a human being doesn’t become a “who” until he or she actually acquires the gift of language and starts displaying distinctively personal qualities. Any point in between these two extremes—such as the point at which a fetus starts to look like a human animal or when the baby is removed from the mother’s womb—is perfectly arbitrary. From a purely rational or scientific view, the price of being unable to regard embryos as “whos” is being unable to regard newborn babies as “whos”….

As I say here,

abortion is of a piece with selective breeding and involuntary euthanasia, wherein the state fosters eugenic practices that aren’t far removed from those of the Third Reich. And when those practices become the norm, what and who will be next? Libertarians, of all people, should be alert to such possibilities. Instead of reflexively embracing “choice” they should be asking whether “choice” will end with fetuses.

Most libertarians, alas, mimic “liberals” and “progressives” on the issue of abortion. But there are no valid libertarian arguments for abortion, just wrong-headed ones.