I have been heavily involved in the pro-life movement for about five years now. I have done outreach with a number of pro-life groups, and as I have engaged people in conversation I find there are two things many people have in common.
The first is that many people have difficulty in thinking abstractly. This makes it much easier to justify killing the unborn while decrying a tragedy like the Holocaust. In the Holocaust, the victims were out in the open, undeniable. In abortion, the victims are hidden inside the mother’s womb; the killing is done in private abortion clinics, away from the public eye. Many of the people I talk to haven’t done much philosophical reflection about the moral status of the human embryo/fetus nor about the moral permissibility of abortion. Often the more ridiculous arguments are knee-jerk reactions, and the person I am talking to can be willing to abandon that line of reasoning once I ask enough probing questions.
The second thing I have noticed is found among people who consider themselves “personally pro-life” but don’t want to “force their views” on someone else. While they may say that they believe the unborn organism is a human being, they don’t really believe it. If they did, rather than saying “I would never kill my child, but I can’t tell someone else not to do it,” they would find abortion just as appalling as those of us involved in trying to end it. They would take steps to protect those innocent children who are being legally and mercilessly slaughtered in abortion clinics, just as Oskar Schindler and Corrie ten Boom acted to protect Jews during the Holocaust. They would agree with us that the practice of abortion needs to come to an end, regardless of the fact that we have to tell people they are wrong.
The purpose of this essay is to explain why the unborn should be seen as full human beings from fertilization. On top of that, I plan to explain not just why they are human beings, but why you were you at that early stage in your development. That wasn’t some abstract thing we called a human organism growing and developing inside your mother’s uterus. That was literally you, just as much as you are you now, the person reading this essay.
It is outside the scope of this essay to cover the scientific arguments that we are biologically human from fertilization. Instead, this essay will focus on the philosophical side of the issue: the fact that we are identical to ourselves through all stages of our development.
Personal Identity with the Embryo
As we know from the science of embryology, the unborn, from fertilization, are biological members of the human species. Pro-choice people assert that there’s no clear line to be drawn between non-personhood and personhood, but they’re wrong. The clear line is at fertilization, before which you had two non-human entities, the spermatozoon and the ovum, and after which you have a new human individual. This implication is unacceptable to the pro-choice advocate. However, it makes perfect sense to draw the line there and it doesn’t make any sense to draw the line anywhere else. From the point of fertilization, the mother’s and father’s DNA have combined to form the unique DNA of a new human individual, and everything that individual will develop and become is written in their genetic code. I have brown hair and blue eyes now because that zygote had the genes for brown hair and blue eyes. The gene for gender is even present, so although I did not yet have visible sex organs I was already a male at that point. It makes perfect sense to say I was that zygote in my mother’s womb. It doesn’t make any sense (and it is not true) to say I merely came from that zygote.
Pro-choice people tend to view the unborn human organism as a shell in which the human person comes into existence sometime later, inhabiting the human organism. Commonly the pro-choice advocate will point to your brain as what grounds your personal identity. But this has at least two major problems.
If your identity (or personhood) is seen as simply being a collection of memories, thoughts, emotions, and so on (in other words, the collection of your mental states), then you are literally a new person from one moment to the next. If I am just the collection of my mental states, then I cannot be the same person now as I will be tomorrow when I have collected new memories. Besides, there must be something doing the experiencing; otherwise, what, exactly, is it that is collecting those memories and experiences? This is putting the cart before the horse. Apart from being counterintuitive—after all, I have memories of my childhood, and I can honestly say that it was my childhood, not the childhood of a previous occupant of the physical organism I now inhabit—it would make our criminal justice system inherently unjust. It would be unjust to put me in prison for a crime I did not commit, and if I am literally a different person now than before I committed the crime, I could not justly be punished for it.
Another problem with this idea is that it establishes a counterintuitive form of dualism. Edwin C. Hui, in his book At the Beginning of Life: Dilemmas in Theological Bioethics, argues that this dualism results in the view that the physical organism can exist independently of the psychological entity, and it’s the psychological entity that should be given ontological significance. In other words, this view holds that the psychological entity is the one with intrinsic value—the one whose existence is important—not the physical organism. This view contradicts normal human experience, however.
The sensations that our body experiences need the body to be a subject of experiences, to experience these sensations, and the psychological component is necessary to comprehend the sensations so they can be understood as meaningful. Since the body and psychological components are both necessary for our experiences, then both are necessary for the “I,” the person who is the subject of experiences. Since the body is a necessary component to the person, one cannot hold that the body comes to be at one time while the person comes to be at another time.
Alexander Pruss, in his essay “I Was Once a Fetus: An Identity-Based Argument against Abortion,” takes this argument further. I am either identical to the embryo that was in my mother’s womb or I am not. If I am not, then what happened to the biological organism I “came from”? There are only two possibilities: either the embryo I “came from” is alive or it is dead.
If the embryo is dead, then what happened to it? When did it cease to exist? If it was literally a part of the woman’s body, then it could have ceased to exist when it was removed from the mother’s body. But this is highly implausible. The embryo has a different genetic code than any part of the mother’s body. Additionally, the fetus is not controlled by the woman via the umbilical cord. The fetus takes in nutrients from the umbilical cord, but the cord, itself, does not direct the embryo’s development. The embryo directs her own development from within herself. The embryo does not work toward the good of the mother’s body in the way that the rest of her body does: that is, as a unified whole with each part fulfilling a certain function to keep the woman’s body functioning properly. The fetus remains a wholly separate entity from the mother. In no way can the embryo be said to be a part of its mother’s body.