The Fetus as Person

By Merrill Ring (with Juan Matute)
 
The religious right cannot be swayed in their opposition to abortion by talking about a woman’s right to control her own body.  For that does not respond to the most important issue:  whether the fetus is a human being, a person.
 
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gave an excellent speech at Liberty University.  However, it had a significant flaw.  That had to do with what he said about abortion. 
 
The current standard liberal, leftish, defense of abortion, the one employed by Sanders, focuses on a woman’s right to control her own body.  However, a well-primed anti-abortion opponent knows exactly how to reply to that.  There was just such a student in the audience who was quoted in the media following the talk.  She asked (I don’t have the exact words) “But what about the other body?”  Her objection, and it is widely used by those opposed to abortion, is that there are two people involved and to mention only the rights of one of them, the woman, is to ignore the rights of the other, the fetal person.  Opponents of abortion find that a very powerful reply.  References to a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body will not disrupt the objection in the slightest.
 
The only way to support abortion in the face that quite common objection is to deny what it assumes, namely that the fetus is a person, is a human being. 
 
That same student said, supporting the crucial assumption, “Science and philosophy have shown that the fetus is a human being.” 
 
First, consider the appeal to science.  Science could not possibly show what she (and others) claim it has - for the terms ‘human’ and ‘human being’ (and ‘person’) are moral and legal terms not scientific terms.  The scientific term for what we are biologically is ‘home sapiens’.  Now the human fetus is not even a member of the species homo sapiens – it is a homo sapiens fetus.  And if we do say that it is a human fetus, we do not mean that it is a human being but rather it is the fetus of something having the moral and legal status of a human being.  (Here is where all the talk of its potential for becoming a homo sapiens, even a human being, comes in.)
 
So science could not possibly show what she claimed.  As for philosophy, my guess from being a member of that tribe is that the overwhelming majority of philosophers will deny that a human fetus is a human being (more or less on the grounds I employ above.)  Suppose that even half of the philosophical community say a fetus is a human being:  that does not show as she claims that philosophy has established that.  Only if the overwhelming majority of philosophers were to accept that would she be right:  and that is not remotely the case.
 
The only argument for the anti-abortion thesis that the human fetus is a human being is religious.  (God implants a soul in the fetus at the moment of conception.) That is why the young lady appeals to science and philosophy:  she, and her co-religionists, want to hide the fact that their position is solely religious. 
 
Anyone, such as Senator Sanders, who wants to talk to the opposition (you can get away with talking of a woman’s right to control her own body to an audience of progressives) about abortion has to cut to the heart of the matter and say something like ‘I support abortion and disagree with you because you hold that a fetus is a person, a human being and you are mistaken about that.’
 
Another student asked Sanders (roughly) ‘Why do you say you want to defend the most vulnerable and yet support abortion?’  The assumption there is is the same, namely that the fetus is a full-fledged human being, simply temporarily hidden away, unborn and is very vulnerable.  It is that assumption about the personhood of the fetus that we need to reject.
 
A friend of mine (Juan Matute) produced an excellent version of the liberal position:
1.  The pregnant woman is bearing her fetus, and she alone is giving it life.
2.  The fetus is hers and hers alone, not anyone else's.
3.  The pregnant woman is the one who is responsible for the nourishment and health of the fetus.
4.  It is the decision of the future mother if she is able and willing to love and care for her child.  If she is not, she has to make the decision whether to abort or to allow for adoption.
5.  Once the fetus has left the birth canal and the body of the mother, the transition is complete and the result is a real person.   Up until that point, the fetus is the "property" of the mother, and not anyone else's.
6.  Once the transition from fetus to a born child is complete, the baby is a member of society and subject to all laws and regulations thereto.
 
The problem is that it is there assumed (see 5.) that the fetus does not become a person until birth.  While that is the best view to take (I pass over the reasons for that here), it runs head on into the standard religious assumption that the fetus is a person from conception.  Hence even a sophisticated defense of abortion such as this will make no impact on those who reject the practice as morally mistaken.  Once again, until the crux of the issue is confronted there will be a stand off.