Why is the Anti-Abortion Movement Anti-Rights, Anti-Life
Given these facts, to ascribe any rights to the zygote, embryo, or fetus before birth is a profound error. It is not a person–or rather, it is only a potential person, not an actual person. To suppose that mere potentiality is sufficient is to commit the fallacy of the continuum. The fact that a zygote may develop into a born infant does not prove the zygote to be the same thing as a born infant–any more than an acorn is an oak tree and a caterpillar is a butterfly.
In a previous post that deals with the issue of abortion I mentioned that the anti-abortion movement is against freedom of
choice and the individual rights of women and couples. I stated that a “fetus or an embryo, being entirely dependent upon the life and sustenance of the woman’s body, has no responsibility at all. It has no rights. Thus, that piece of human tissue cannot have any responsibility at all. Its potentiality cannot justify the anti-abortionists’ fallacious contention that it is also entitled to the same rights given to persons.”
Now let me post here a portion of the policy paper entitled The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception written by Dr. Diana Hsieh and Ari Armstrong.
Today’s most prominent defenders of abortion rights follow in the footsteps of Roe v. Wade. By and large, they offer superficial and pragmatic defenses of abortion rights based on vague appeals to privacy, coupled with accounts of the harms inflicted by abortion bans.
The websites of the two most prominent pro-choice advocacy groups in America–Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America–offer no substantive defense of the right to abortion. They simply assert a broadly pro-choice position, without grappling with the difficult moral and legal questions raised by abortion. For example, the website of Planned Parenthood’s “Action Center” offers the following as their sole defense of “abortion access”:
Our primary goal is prevention–reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, especially the alarmingly high number of teenage pregnancies, in the United States. At the same time, to protect their health and the health of their families, women facing an unintended pregnancy must have access to safe, legal abortion services without interference from the government. Decisions about childbearing should be made by a woman in consultation with her family and doctor–not by politicians.
Only a few of the organization’s posted “Research Papers” concern abortion, and those that do focus solely on the history of abortion rights, the safety of abortion, and abortion statistics. Similarly, NARAL’s only substantive document pertaining to abortion rights posted to its website is an eleven-page “fact sheet” on “The Safety of Legal Abortion and the Hazards of Illegal Abortion.”
The failure of these two most prominent pro-choice groups to address the philosophic questions surrounding abortion does not bode well for abortion rights in America, particularly in light of the rise of a fervent “personhood” movement. That’s because neither vague appeals to the privacy rights of pregnant women nor the harms wrought by abortion bans are of any importance if conception creates a person with a right to life. Why not?
MUST READ: Abortion Rights are Pro-Life
First, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then a pregnant woman cannot claim that her decision to terminate her pregnancy should be respected as “private.” She would be obliged to respect the rights of the innocent person within her–and if she failed to do so, the state could and should intervene. To seek an abortion would not be a “private medical decision” but rather akin to hiring a hit man.
Second, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then the pregnant woman would be obliged to endure any financial burdens, health problems, or emotional strain caused by the pregnancy. The right to life of the embryo or fetus would override every such concern, except perhaps the woman’s own life. To abort an embryo or fetus due to inconvenience or hardship in pregnancy would be just as horrifying as suffocating one’s elderly parents due to difficulties in providing them care.
Third, if embryos and fetuses are persons, then women who suffer terrible complications from illegal abortions have only themselves to blame. To demand legal abortion on that basis would be as bizarre as legalizing assault or rape to prevent perpetrators of those crimes from injuring themselves. The law should protect the victim of the crime (i.e., the embryo or fetus) not the perpetrator (i.e., the pregnant woman).
In sum, the standard pro-choice arguments for abortion rights, drawn from Roe v. Wade, cannot withstand the basic claim of “personhood” advocates that fertilization creates a new human person with its own right to life. As Christopher Kurka, the sponsor of the “personhood” initiative in Alaska said, “If…we recognize the unborn as persons, then a woman’s right to choose or a right to privacy doesn’t matter [just like] she doesn’t have a right to kill her child after it’s born.”
The opinion of the Court in Roe v. Wade acknowledges its own weakness against “personhood” claims openly: “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the [pro-choice] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [Fourteenth] Amendment.” The advocates of “personhood” have made much of that concession, citing it frequently as the source of their legal strategy. In light of that, the dependence of pro-choice groups on the precedents set by and arguments of Roe v. Wade must be regarded as dangerous. If overturned–or even challenged on its basic assumptions–abortion rights would be left without any defense. That is the result the “personhood” movement strives to accomplish.
Unfortunately, the standard-bearers of the pro-choice movement have not risen to the challenge posed by the “personhood” movement–not even when faced with Colorado’s Amendment 48 in 2008 and Amendment 62 in 2010. Instead, they have declined to state any definite positions on the extent of abortion rights or offer any substantive arguments for such rights.
For example, “Protect Families, Protect Choices,” the major pro-choice coalition against “personhood” measures in Colorado, effectively campaigned against Amendment 48 in 2008 on the basis of its practical consequences. Yet its often-repeated campaign slogans–“It Simply Goes Too Far” in 2008 and “It Still Goes Too Far” in 2010–cede moral ground to the opponents of abortion. They suggest a compromise, as if some restrictions on abortion might be proper, albeit not the full ban demanded by “personhood” advocates. Perhaps the embryo or fetus should be granted legal rights in the third trimester. Perhaps abortions should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, deformity, or risk to the life of the woman. Yet surely coalition members like NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains would oppose any such restrictions on abortion.
Even when directly challenged to state a position on when rights begin in human life, spokespersons for “Protect Families, Protect Choices” skirted the issue. For example, in an online chat for the Rocky Mountain News, Crystal Clinkenbeard said:
It is incredibly hard to describe a blanket time when constitutional rights should apply. Reasonable people disagree passionately about when life begins. Amendment 48 does nothing to [resolve] that difficult social issue. Instead, it is more divisive. That kind of decision needs to be left to individuals to follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs.
That answer is not mere evasion. It’s wrong in a deeper way, in that it suggests that abortion rights can be founded on skepticism and relativism.
The most basic function of any government is to protect rights, and that requires constitutional provisions and laws specifying the nature and extent of rights. For the government to adopt a seemingly neutral stance on claims of rights, such that people would have to act based on their own opinions about who has what rights, would be anarchy. In theory, the pro-choice woman would be entitled to terminate her pregnancy, in accordance with her beliefs–just as the anti-abortion activist would be entitled to stop her by force, in accordance with his beliefs. The result would be violent conflict. In practice, however, such neutrality about rights usually amounts to an implicit denial of rights, in that the government would refrain from recognizing or protecting them. Yet the government might attempt to accommodate opposing views–and hence adopt a compromise position–exactly as it did in Roe v. Wade. Then, instead of the enjoying the benefit of sound jurisprudence, a society must endure persistent simmering political conflict.
“Pro-choice” advocates may seem to achieve their goals by this approach, because embryos and fetuses are not granted rights. Yet far from securing abortion rights, these skeptical arguments undermine their very foundation. Skepticism is an illusory basis for rights, easily defeated by even barely plausible arguments for “personhood.” Moreover, such skepticism sets a dangerous precedent. Just imagine, for example, the violence that would be unleashed against innocent people if a government allowed people to “follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs” about the rights of women, gays, immigrants, and the elderly on the grounds that their rights constitute a “difficult social issue.”
The government must take a stand on claims of rights. If embryos and fetuses are persons with rights, the government must actively protect them from harm. Conversely, if no such rights exist, then the government must actively protect women seeking abortions and the doctors who perform them from obstruction and violence by anti-abortion activists. People are only entitled to “follow their own moral, philosophical beliefs” in choosing whether to terminate a pregnancy or bring it to term if embryos and fetuses are not persons with a right to life. Yet that is the very question that these prominent pro-choice activists do not discuss, even when directly challenged by the “personhood” movement.
Ultimately, “personhood” measures are not wrong because they are too extreme, too divisive, or too intrusive–as typical pro-choice activists are wont to claim. Instead, they’re wrong because embryos and fetuses are not human persons with the right to life. To understand why that’s so, we must examine the core arguments for the “personhood” of embryos and fetuses.
The activist groups seeking to make “personhood” measures the law of the land offer two distinct arguments for granting full legal rights to embryos and fetuses, one religious and one secular. Often first and foremost, they claim that the embryo or fetus is an innocent life recognized and valued as such by God. Hence, abortion is a grave violation of God’s prohibition on murder. However, as we argue in a later section, America was founded as a free country, not a theocracy. To force people to obey God’s alleged laws is a clear violation of their liberty rights, as well as a violation of the separation of church and state. However, many of these groups offer a secular justification for “personhood” too. They claim that every human has an inalienable right to life, that the humanity of the embryo and fetus is self-evident, and that abortion grossly violates their rights.
What do “personhood” advocates say to justify this claim of self-evident humanity? The argument is stated briefly on the website of Personhood USA as follows:
The science of fetology in 1973 [at the time of Roe v. Wade] was not able to prove, as it can now, that a fully human and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various stages of development in a continuum (barring tragedy) until natural death from old age. …If you look up the word “person” in your average dictionary…you’ll find something like this: Person n. A human being. A person, simply put, is a human being. This fact should be enough. The intrinsic humanity of unborn children, by definition, makes them persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.
As a result, Personhood USA claims, all “unborn children” should be recognized as possessing “certain rights such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
More substantive defenses of the view that embryos and fetuses are fully human persons with the right to life are found in sources cited by “personhood” groups, such as the website Abort73.com and the book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments by Randy Alcorn. Here, we will outline that argument in its secular form, ignoring appeals to “God-given” rights and Christian scripture.
The argument for the self-evident humanity of the embryo and fetus begins with the scientific claim that the life of a human being begins at conception. Apart from any religious beliefs, it says, the science of medicine overwhelmingly affirms that a new human life is created with the fertilization of the egg by a sperm. That new life is thoroughly human, highly complex, biologically active, and distinct from the pregnant woman. It is neither a blob of tissue, nor just a part of the pregnant woman’s own body as are her organs. As Abort73.com says:
At the moment of fertilization, a new and unique human being comes into existence with its own distinct genetic code. Twenty-three chromosomes from the mother and twenty-three chromosomes from the father combine to result in a brand-new and totally unique genetic combination. Whereas the heart, lungs, and hair of a woman all share the same genetic code, her unborn child, from the moment of fertilization, has a separate genetic code that is all its own. There is enough information in this tiny zygote to control human growth and development for the rest of its life.
In essence, advocates of “personhood” claim that the fertilization of the egg by the sperm creates a new, distinct, and thoroughly human life, i.e. a human being. The resulting zygote, embryo, and then fetus is not merely a potential human being: it is an actual human being in an early stage of development.
Next, the argument asserts that to be a person–in the sense of possessing the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–requires only that something be a human being. Abort73.com says:
There are essentially two issues which must be resolved concerning unborn embryos and fetuses. The first is, “Are they human beings?” The second is, “Should they be recognized as persons under the law?” We’ve already established that there is no debate on the first question. …So should humans be recognized as persons under the law? Yes, because humans are persons. Something is a person if it has a personal nature. In other words, something is a person if, by nature, it has the capacity to develop the ability to think rationally, express emotion, make decisions, etc. This capacity is something that a person has as soon as he begins to exist, since it is part of his nature (in other words, if he exists, he has it). Since humans have a personal nature, humans are persons. As for the fetus, since it is a human (and so, something with a personal nature), it is a person. Just as a cat qualifies as a feline simply by being a cat, a fetus qualifies as a person simply by being a human. So, it is impossible for a fetus to not be a person.
In other words, the capacity to exist as a person is simply part of human nature. That intrinsic personhood does not depend on any further qualities that might be developed later, such as “size, skill, or degree of intelligence.” In his book Prolife Answers to Prochoice Arguments, Randy Alcorn writes:
Age, size, IQ, or stage of development are simply differences in degree, not in kind. Our kind is our humanity. We are people, human beings. We possess certain skills to differing degrees at different stages of development. When we reach maturation there are many different degrees of skills and levels of IQ. But none of these make some people better or more human than others. None make some qualified to live, and others unqualified.
On this view, a person is nothing more or less than a human being: all persons are humans and all humans are persons. Hence, Abort73.com states, “a person…is nothing more or less than a living human. ….The differences that exist between a human being before birth and a human being after birth are differences that don’t matter.”
Finally, the argument claims, the fact that every human life from conception to natural death is a person has profound political and legal implications. “The intrinsic humanity of unborn children qualifies them as persons and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.” More specifically, the embryo and fetus have “the one most fundamental right that no one can live without, the right to life”–just like a born infant. While women have rights to their own bodies, as well as to the lifestyles of their choosing, those rights are not “absolute and unconditional”: they must be limited in pregnancy due to the more fundamental right to life of the embryo or fetus.
Ultimately then, according to “personhood” advocates, a pregnant woman cannot have the right to choose to get an abortion any more than she can properly choose to commit assault, murder, or theft. Since abortion destroys the life of another person, it must be outlawed as a willfully criminal act. To support abortion rights is to sanction the ongoing genocide against the unborn, with about 50 million dead so far.
Now, with that clear picture of the secular argument for “personhood” firmly in mind, we can take a fresh look at the question of rights in pregnancy.
On its surface, the secular argument for “personhood” might seem so simple as to be unassailable. Yet in fact, that simplicity conceals fatal defects in its implicit view of the nature and source of rights. Rights are not inherent in human biology: the right to life is nowhere stamped on our DNA. Rather, rights are principles identifying the freedoms of action required for human flourishing in a social context. As we shall see, such rights can and do apply to born infants, but they cannot be legitimately or coherently extended to embryos or fetuses.
The basic biological facts cited in the secular argument for “personhood” laws are not controversial. The fertilization of an egg by a sperm creates a new human life, distinct from that of its genetic parents. By an active, complex, and gradual process of development, that zygote may grow into an embryo and fetus, emerge from the womb as an infant, develop through childhood, mature into an adult, and finally age until death. However, contrary to the argument for “personhood,” that process of biological development does not establish that the zygote, embryo, or fetus is a human person with a right to life. Why not?
“Personhood” advocates assume that each and every human life, whatever its qualities or situation, must be a person too. They offer no argument for or explanation of that view. Yet in fact, the concepts are distinct, such that they need not perfectly coincide. In other words, the concepts of “person” and “rights” may not apply to all forms and stages of human existence. The distinction is simple. The concept of “human life” or “human being” used in the first half of the argument for “personhood” is purely biological. It identifies an organism as part of the human species. The concept of “person” used in the second half of the argument for “personhood” concerns politics. It identifies some entity as entitled to claim rights. To slide between these two distinct concepts using the term “human being”–as “personhood” advocates consistently do–is to commit the fallacy of equivocation.
The scope of the political concept “person” cannot be specified by science. That is a question for philosophy, to be answered based on an objective theory of the nature and source of individual rights. That these biological and political concepts might not coincide perfectly is hardly appalling, as “personhood” advocates suggest. Rather, the very purpose of the political concept “person” is to enable us to specify the scope of rights apart from any rigid biological criteria.
The advocates of “personhood” dogmatically assert that every human life is a person for a very simple reason: their secular defense of “personhood” is mere veneer on a deeply religious worldview whereby rights can only be understood as gifts arbitrarily bestowed by God. By creative and selective readings of their scriptures, combined with distorted appeals to America’s founding principles, the advocates of “personhood” believe that God bestows the right to life at conception. That is why they consider embryos and fetuses persons. However, that is a matter of faith, not rational conviction–and unsurprisingly, the facts show otherwise. Hence, even the secular argument for “personhood” is ultimately religious at its root.
To understand the rights applicable to pregnancy, we must sketch an objective theory of rights. In short, the rights of persons are not gifts from a divine creator, nor found in scripture, as conservatives often imagine. Nor are rights mere entitlements and permissions bestowed and rescinded by majority vote, as modern liberals suppose. Rather, rights are principles identifying our proper freedom of action. And they are rooted in facts about human nature, particularly the conditions for survival and flourishing in society. How so?
Humans cannot survive and flourish by tooth and claw–nor by our feelings, instincts, or faith. We live by exercising our distinctive capacity to reason in order to produce the values required for life–or we perish. That simple fact of human nature is the source of our rights. As Ayn Rand explains:
Since man’s mind is his basic tool of survival, his means of gaining knowledge to guide his actions–the basic condition he requires is the freedom to think and to act according to his rational judgment. …If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rights.”
So what are rights? Again, Ayn Rand explains:
A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action–which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)
In essence, “to recognize individual rights means to recognize and accept the conditions required by man’s nature for his proper survival.”
On this objective theory of rights, a person’s rights are absolute and inalienable, yet they arise in and pertain to a social context. That’s because individual rights are the most basic principle of justice in a society. They’re neither innate qualities–nor gifts bestowed by divine powers, constitutional tradition, political leaders, or voters. Moreover, genuine rights cannot conflict, nor require the sacrifice of some persons to others. That’s because rights protect each person’s power to pursue his own life and happiness, free of forcible interference from others. Rights are freedoms to action, not entitlements to goods and services provided by others, nor duties imposed on others.
Given this understanding of the nature and source of rights, we can now ask: Is an embryo or fetus a person with a right to life, like an infant? No. To see why not, we must compare its basic nature and situation as it develops through pregnancy to that of a born infant.
From the moment of fertilization to its implantation in the womb a few days later, the zygote consists of a few largely undifferentiated cells. It is invisible to the naked eye. It has no human organs, and no human form. It has no brain, and so no capacity for awareness or emotions. It is far more similar to a few skin cells than an infant. Moreover, the zygote cannot develop into a baby on its own: its survival beyond a few days requires successful implantation in the lining of the woman’s uterus. If it fails to do that, it will be flushed from her body without anyone ever knowing of its existence.
If the embryo matures normally after implanting into the lining of the uterus, it gradually develops primitive organs. Yet its form is not distinctively human in the early stages: it looks very similar to the embryo of other species. As it develops its distinctive human form, the fetus remains wholly dependent on the woman for its survival. Even with the most advanced medical technology, many fetuses born in the 22nd to 25th week of pregnancy will die, and many of those that survive will suffer from “some degree of life long disability, ranging from minor hearing loss to blindness, to cerebral palsy, to profound intellectual disability.” So before viability, the fetus is not capable of an existence independent of the pregnant woman.
After 26 weeks, when a fetus would be viable outside the womb, its organs continue to mature in ways critical to its survival and well-being after birth. It is aware, but that awareness is limited to the world inside the womb. Most importantly, however, so long as the fetus remains within the woman, it is wholly dependent on her for its basic life-functions. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as she lives, as an extension of her body. It does not interact with the outside world. It is wholly contained within and dependent on her for its survival. So if the woman dies, the fetus will die too unless delivered quickly. The same is true if the fetus’s life-line to her body is disrupted, such as when the umbilical cord forms a tight knot. A fetus cannot act independently to sustain its life, not even on the basic biological level possible to a day-old infant. It is thoroughly and solely dependent on the woman in which it lives.
That situation changes radically at birth. A baby lives his own life, outside his mother. Although still very needy, he maintains his own biological functions. He breathes his own air, digests his own food, and moves on his own. He interacts with other people as a whole and distinct creature in his own right, not merely as a part of a pregnant woman. He can leave his mother, either temporarily or permanently, to be cared for by someone else.
These important differences between the mode of life of the zygote, embryo, and fetus on the one hand, and the born infant on the other, show that the former cannot be persons. Rights, in other words, cannot be applied until birth. Why not?
First, the utter biological dependence of the zygote, embryo, and fetus on the pregnant woman shows that, until birth, it is not yet living its own life, but rather partaking in the life of the woman. It exists as part of the pregnant woman, not as an individual in its own right. Yet rights pertain only to individuals, not parts thereof. Such is the case, even when the fetus would be viable outside the womb. Even then, it is only a potential individual, not an actual one. The fetus only becomes an actual individual when birth separates it from the woman’s body. Until then, it cannot be a person with a right to life. The pregnant woman, in contrast, is always an individual with full rights.
Second, the zygote, embryo, or fetus does not exist in a social context until birth. Due to its enclosure within the body of the pregnant woman, the new life cannot interact with other people: it experiences only muffled sounds and indirect pressure through the woman. It cannot be touched or handled, nor can it even engage in the primitive communication possible to infants. Even the pregnant woman cannot directly interact with her fetus, as she will do with her newborn infant. Until birth, she can only act as a biological host to the life inside her, not as a mother. A woman, in contrast, lives in society whether pregnant or not–and her rights are therefore absolute and inalienable.
Given these facts, to ascribe any rights to the zygote, embryo, or fetus before birth is a profound error. It is not a person–or rather, it is only a potential person, not an actual person. To suppose that mere potentiality is sufficient is to commit the fallacy of the continuum. The fact that a zygote may develop into a born infant does not prove the zygote to be the same thing as a born infant–any more than an acorn is an oak tree and a caterpillar is a butterfly. As philosopher Leonard Peikoff observes, treating a zygote–a potential person–as though it were an actual person makes no more sense than treating an adult human–a potential corpse–as though he were an actual corpse.
The conclusion that rights begin at birth is confirmed by the serious conflict between any rights ascribed to the embryo or fetus before birth with the rights of the pregnant woman.
The pregnant woman’s most fundamental right–her right to life–is not merely a bar against murdering her. Her right to life encompasses all the actions that she deems necessary to promote her flourishing and happiness, provided that she does not initiate the use of force against others (and hence violate their rights). Her right to life protects her capacity to act by her own rational judgment, in pursuit of her own self-interest–and such is the very purpose of rights.
The advocates of “personhood” deny the pregnant woman’s right to life in asserting rights for the embryo and fetus. Abort73.com, for example, frames the issue in terms of competing rights:
Politically speaking, abortion is an issue that involves competing rights. On the one hand, you have the mother’s right not to be pregnant. On the other hand, you have the baby’s right not to be killed. The question that must be answered is this. Which right is more fundamental? Which right has a greater claim? Abortion advocates argue that outlawing abortion would, in essence, elevate the rights of the unborn over and above those of the mother. “How can you make a fetus more important than a grown woman?”, they might ask. In reality, outlawing abortion wouldn’t be giving unborn children more rights, it would simply gain for them the one most fundamental right that no one can live without, the right to life.
This analysis is utterly wrong. Rights are trumps: they identify the scope and limits of each person’s freedom of action in society. To assert conflicts between rights is to confess that one’s theory of rights contradicts itself, and a self-contradictory theory of rights cannot be true.
Yet that analysis by Abort73.com is correct, in one sense. By the very nature of pregnancy, any rights ascribed to the embryo or fetus would conflict with the rights of the mother to her own body. Since pregnant women are clearly persons with full rights, that fact only confirms that embryos and fetuses are not persons with rights. Moreover, Abort73.com acknowledges (to some extent) that pregnant women would be obliged to sacrifice themselves to provide life support to the embryo and fetus: “If a baby is not to be aborted, then the pregnant mother must remain pregnant. This will also require of her sickness, fatigue, reduced mobility, an enlarged body, and a new wardrobe. Fortunately, it is not a permanent condition.” Yet that demand for forced sacrifice contradicts the very nature and purpose of rights. How so?
Rights enable people to flourish by ensuring that they interact by peaceful, voluntary, and mutually beneficial trade–rather than violence, theft, and fraud. In particular, the right to life guarantees one’s own freedom of action in pursuit of one’s life: it’s not a duty imposed on others to preserve one’s life. The responsibility of care for another can only be acquired by the voluntary consent of the care-giver, such as when a man takes a friend out to sea on his boat for a week or when parents take an infant home from the hospital rather than abandoning it under a “Safe Haven Law.” However, to grant rights to the embryo and fetus would be to impose such an unjust duty on pregnant women. Regardless of her own plans for her life, every pregnant woman would be obliged to provide life-support to the embryo and fetus, perhaps at great personal cost to herself and her family. That’s not freedom; it’s slavery.
Significantly, the inalienable right of the pregnant woman to her own life–and hence, her own body–confirms that even a viable fetus cannot be properly regarded as a person with rights. Undoubtedly, for a pregnant woman to seek to abort a healthy, viable fetus without some overriding concern (such as her own health) would be a bizarre and possibly vicious act, e.g., if done to spite the father or due to evasion of the pregnancy for months. Yet the fact remains that even when a woman is deeply committed to her pregnancy, serious conflicts can arise between her welfare and that of the fetus, such as when receiving emergency medical treatment during childbirth or after a car accident. Due to such cases, the law must reflect the fact that the woman has an absolute right to make her own choices about her body. The potential for such conflicts only ends once the fetus is born, when the woman and baby become–and can be treated as–fully separate individuals.
Of course, when a woman wants to bear a child, she will value her fetus tremendously. She will do all she can to ensure the birth of a healthy baby, protecting it from myriad harms. Moreover, she has every right to expect that the police and courts will protect her and her fetus from criminal assault. Indeed, the law should severely punish criminals who intentionally harm a woman and her fetus. However, the only rational basis for such laws is the woman’s rights to her own body–coupled with a recognition of the value she places on her fetus–not any false rights attributed to the fetus. Just as the fetus depends on the woman’s body for its survival, so it depends on the woman’s rights for its legal protections.
In sum, the fundamental biological differences between a zygote, embryo, or fetus versus an infant show that a woman has every right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy–for any reason. The pregnant woman is a human person with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So is an infant. However, neither a zygote, nor an embryo, nor a fetus is a person. It has no right to life-support from the pregnant woman. For the state to force a woman to provide such life-support under penalty of law would be a gross violation of her rights. Yet that’s precisely what “personhood” measures would demand–based on the irrational fantasy that a zygote has the same moral and legal standing as an infant.
In addition to the political debates about abortion rights, many people condemn abortion on moral grounds as an evasion of responsibility for the known consequences of sexual intercourse. In fact, however, the termination of a healthy pregnancy can be–and usually is–a morally responsible choice.
Most people do not object to abortions in cases involving rape, incest, deformity, or risk to the woman’s life. Yet they question or even condemn abortions obtained for seemingly less weighty reasons, such as financial hardship, the demands of career or school, problems in the romantic relationship, or not wanting another child. Moreover, when birth control was not used–or used carelessly–people may condemn the abortion as particularly irresponsible. Undoubtedly, these moral objections to abortion stem from implicitly regarding the embryo or fetus as a person, at least in part. People often suppose that the interests of the embryo or fetus should be weighed against the interests of the pregnant woman, such that the termination of a healthy pregnancy cannot be morally justified. In the face of these views, we should ask: Is abortion a morally proper choice simply because the pregnancy and resulting child is unwanted? If so, why?
People should not allow themselves to be buffeted through life by accidental circumstances, for to do so is to court disaster and misery. Instead, people ought to consciously direct the course of their lives by their own rational judgment and long-range planning. With respect to procreation, a woman and her partner ought not bear a child just because she happens to become pregnant. Instead, they ought to consider the impact of the pregnancy and resulting child on their health, finances, careers, and overall well-being. They ought to consider whether their relationship is stable enough to withstand the strain of raising a child. They ought to have a child only if they are willing and able to be good parents.
As Ayn Rand wrote in her essay “Of Living Death,” in defending the morality of abortion:
The capacity to procreate is merely a potential which man is not obligated to actualize. The choice to have children or not is morally optional. Nature endows man with a variety of potentials–and it is his mind that must decide which capacities he chooses to exercise, according to his own hierarchy of rational goals and values. … It is only animals that have to adapt themselves to their physical background and to the biological functions of their bodies. Man adapts his physical background and the use of his biological faculties to himself–to his own needs and values. That is his distinction from all other living species. To an animal, the rearing of its young is a matter of temporary cycles. To man, it is a lifelong responsibility–a grave responsibility that must not be undertaken causelessly, thoughtlessly, or accidentally.
A couple seeking to live fully rational, purposeful, and hence human lives must decide for themselves whether and when to have children, based on their interests, capacities, and circumstances. To fail to do that–to assume the enormous responsibility of a child simply due to the accident of pregnancy–would be self-destructive. As such, and given that neither the embryo nor the fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion can be a moral choice.
These same basic considerations apply, even when irresponsible sex causes the pregnancy. Unfortunately, such is common. One study found that 46 percent of women who got pregnant unintentionally weren’t using any birth control. Among the rest, only 13 percent of birth-control users and 14 percent of condom users reported correct use. The undesirable outcome is not surprising, as the difference in outcomes between “perfect use” and “typical use” of birth-control methods is dramatic.
Couples who cannot be bothered to use birth control or who use it carelessly, then terminate the resulting pregnancy by abortion, deserve some blame. Yet the problem in such cases is not the abortion. If an unwanted pregnancy was caused by irresponsible behavior, then that behavior ought to be morally blamed, not any ensuing abortion. (Similarly, if a skier breaks his leg by skiing too fast in dangerous terrain, we ought to blame him for that skiing, not for his sensible choice to restore his leg to health by surgery.) In the future, the couple ought to resolve to always use birth control properly, in order to avoid the distress, expense, and risks of another unwanted pregnancy. Yet they should feel no guilt for the abortion, if that best served their interests–but only for engaging in irresponsible sex. Moreover, to the degree that a couple’s irresponsible use of birth control indicates habits of irresponsibility, to demand that the couple forego abortion as a matter of moral duty would itself be terribly irresponsible. Such a couple would likely be ill-prepared for the immense burdens of parenthood, and a child should never be inflicted as punishment for the irresponsible decisions of its parents.
Opponents of abortion often present adoption as the moral alternative to abortion for an unwanted pregnancy. Yet adoption is not a viable option for many couples, often for good reasons. To carry any pregnancy to term itself involves some risk, as well as time, effort, and endurance. For some women, that burden might be too great. Moreover, putting up a child for adoption can involve severe and enduring emotional costs, precisely because the born infant to be bestowed on strangers is a person–and one’s own child. That is not true of the embryo or fetus destroyed in abortion.
Opponents of abortion also claim that couples can protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy by refraining from sex entirely. However, sex is a magnificent human value integral to any healthy, developed romantic relationship. To advocate this course is to demand that a woman and her partner choose between abstinence and procreation. That is morally wrong: it is not a choice that couples in a modern society should be obliged to make.
In sum, anti-abortion activists often gather support for their cause by associating abortions with promiscuous, irresponsible sex and other self-destructive behaviors. However, women often become pregnant unexpectedly through no fault of their own. In other cases, the error was not the abortion but the irresponsible sex. Whatever the cause of the pregnancy, the embryo or fetus is not a person whose interests must be balanced against those of the woman. So a couple faced with an unintended pregnancy ought to consider the impact of bearing a child on their own lives, as well as the kind of life they could offer that born child. In many cases, abortion might be not just a moral option, but the best one too.
- Source: Policy Paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception by Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh on August 31st, 2010.