Introduction to Philosophy
Jorge Secada, Peter Tan
17 October 2014
Personhood: One Factor Among Many
What does it mean to be a 'human being'? When does a human fetus become a 'human being'? At what point does an individual physical being come into existence? Is there any morally relevant break along the biological process of development from the unicellular zygote to birth? The common foundation of abortion arguments will answer the initial question of what defines life, or more specifically, at what point in the development of the fetus the line should be drawn between life and non-life. Some argue it is from the moment of conception, others pick some arbitrary measurement of the pregnancy, and a considerable number of people believe we are not entitled to determining such a postulation. The extreme views of the abortion debate, pro-choice and pro-life, tend to agree that a human fetus is biologically and genetically human, meaning that they belong to the human species, but they differ in their opinions on whether or not to grant personhood to a human fetus. When philosophers view the problem of abortion as a problem of conflicting interests between the mother and child, some argue the concerns of the mother supersede those of the fetus or vice versa, depending on the rights they impart to fetuses after establishing said personhood. In this paper I will discuss why I believe personhood is a notion that could potentially be universally accepted, but it is also a notion that would not lead to a resolution of the debate itself on its own. I am going to argue that even if all disagreements were settled and the definition of personhood was undisputed, establishing personhood would not be sufficient in determining the permissibility of abortion. There are several extrinsic factors that allow abortion to be morally just in some circumstances, regardless of conceding personhood. Pro-life advocates believe abortion is never permissible. They often call upon arguments that deal with issues of autonomy, or the right to self-governance of matters related to one’s own destiny, in order to achieve their philosophical stance. Anti-abortion arguments generally include the following premises: (1) All fetuses are persons. (2) Every person has a right to life. (3) Therefore, every fetus has a right to life. (4) Therefore, abortion is wrong. This argument is motivated by the fact that autonomy grants the right to life, but simply having a right to life does not mean that it is necessary to have the license to someone else’s body, especially if there is harm being inflicted on the other person. Even if it were to be decided that a fetus is not a person, the morality of its termination is not necessarily justified purely on the definition of personhood or autonomy alone. Extreme pro-life advocates claim abortion is morally wrong under all circumstances whatsoever. There are several potential issues with this claim. First, the statement “under all circumstances whatsoever” is phrased in such a way that disregards circumstances in which there is no possibility of survival of the fetus and without an abortion, the mother will die. This situation prevents a self contradiction to the claim that termination would be “morally wrong” under all circumstances because where is the morality in allowing both the mother and her fetus to die, especially if one of them has the potential to be saved? Personhood does not rule out other components involved in the pregnancy. These components include, but are not limited to, intent, viability, or quality-of-life concerns. The significance of stating that something is immoral, rather than using the term illegal, is that the situation at hand must be viewed in the context of the principles of human character, rather than in the context of our legislative system. Morality carries the pro-life argument a step further from the injustice of the mother taking her child’s right to life, and argues...
Cited: Feinberg, Joel, "Potentiality, Development, and Right", The Problem of Abortion, 145-150.
Katz, David, M.D., “Abortion, on Middle Ground”, The Blog- Huffington Post
Peters, Gerhard, “Democratic Party Platform of 1996”, Democratic Party Platforms
McBride, Alex, “Roe v. Wade (1973)”, Supreme Court History: Expanding Civil Rights.
Thomson, Judith, "A Defense of Abortion", The Problem of Abortion, 173-188.
Koukl, Greg, “Unstringing the Violinist”, Stand to Reason
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