A Brief Case for Life
Tucker Fleming, Social Policy Contributor
Are unborn fetuses human beings? We can certainly argue about the science (and I may do that later on). Here, though, I want to simply ask some questions which might help frame the debate from my end, and perhaps note some inconsistencies in certain, though not all, pro-choice arguments. To my eye, it seems like the question above is the fulcrum on which this debate turns. If unborn fetuses are in fact humans, surely they deserve all the rights and privileges which the standard out-of-womb humans are afforded. However, if they are not humans, if they are simply a part of a mother’s body to be discarded, like an appendix or a pair of troublesome tonsils, they probably are not entitled to the same inalienable rights. That said, there are some problematic aspects of the negative argument that I see right out of the gate.
Almost like these tonsils or that appendix, a fetus, it is often argued, is not a human because it is not viable up until a certain point. Thus, as long as a fetus is not viable, or, as long as it is incapable of living outside the womb on its own, it lacks one ontological property which apparently constitutes living things, a property we might call viability. So, once an unborn fetus reaches a certain point in the gestation process, it gains this quality of viability, and with it, all the rights of a human. But when does this happen? When its heart begins to beat? When it begins to feel pain? At conception?
Let us assume, for this argument, that one gains viability when one is able to survive on a long term basis without the help of machines like incubators, respirators, and the like. We can even make rhetorical exceptions for people on these machines during recovery from surgery, an accident, or something of the sort. Even still, if this is what constitutes viability, it’s hard for me to see why we shouldn’t all be Singerian pragmatists. If an unborn child lacks viability for this reason, it is difficult, in my view, to see why Grandma Jean and Grandpa Ovid, who are confined to respirators, feeding tubes, and oxygen tanks, do not lack viability. Of course, one would not be blamed for desiring to keep sweet Jean and Ovid on their respective machines. It simply seems like the argument from viability often leads to practical inconsistency.
In the same vein, many fetal homicide laws on the state level demonstrate a similar inconsistency. For example, Arkansas law states that after 12 weeks of gestation, the fetus is to be considered a person for legal purposes. If a fetus is killed purposefully, or if a pregnant woman is killed and the fetus dies, the killer is accountable for both deaths. In a society fraught with the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, it’s hard to believe that the thing which provides humanity to an unborn child is simply the mother’s desire to keep or abort the child growing inside her. The only difference between living being and clump of cells and a child cannot be the mother’s desire to keep her child, for an exercise of mental volition applies nothing to legitimize an unborn child which it did not already have. If this child is a human when the mother wishes to keep it, it must be a human if the mother wishes to abort it.
Similarly, must we honestly assume, with some advocates of partial birth abortions, that something nebulous happens to an unborn child when it passes from womb into the world? A child does not gain some ontological quality upon exit from its mother that it did not already have for quite some time prior. It’s almost as if exposure to fresh air is what turns a fetus into a human. Of course, this is ridiculous, because even the most mystical Enlightenment thinker would likely not go so far as to say that a fetus could transubstantiate into a “real boy!” a la Pinocchio, upon entry into the world.
It’s worth noting here that in cases of possible abortions, one person is entitled to all the rights of rational decision maker, and one is completely deprived of them. The child completely lacks representation or agency; they are fully and totally disenfranchised in this situation. When we, as a society, send our most vulnerable and least protected members down the river, we are decidedly not advocating for agency. When the most dangerous place for a child to be is in the womb of its mother, we as a society must take another look at the appropriateness of our current practices.
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