Personhood and Abortion

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NPR played a clip from Senator Sam Brownback (R, Kansas) this morning in response to the news that South Korean scientists have cloned a human embryo to harvest stem cells. (I�m ignoring the misnomer of �cloning� here, even though no one has ever cloned anything. All they�ve done is insert different genetic material into an already existing organism, which is not cloning but genetic modification. Cloning is when you create a new organism out of the DNA of an already existing organism.)

Anyway, Senator Brownback was making an argument that in some sense is right, but I think someone arguing the pro-life case needs to be a little more careful and not grant too much on this one. He was saying that how you take this depends on what you think of the moral status of the embryo. If this human organism is a person with all the moral rights thereof (even if the law doesn�t recognize those right), then it shouldn�t be treated as mere property. If it�s mere property, then it doesn�t matter so much (morally, anyway) what we do with it.

I have some serious hesitations about saying that and leaving it at that. Now, knowing media types, I don�t want to assume that he didn�t say more and had his words edited to say just this. I�ve been misinterpreted, taken out of context, and even had words added to what I�ve said in newspaper interviews. I don�t expect that�s what�s going on here, though. He probably does think this is just an issue of property vs. personhood, with that affecting your view of the moral status of an embryo. I don�t want this to be the only relevant concern, for two reasons.

First, pro-life people are losing the battle about personhood, at least if philosophical consensus is any guide. Generally, popular consensus follows philosophical consensus, though it often takes a couple decades for it to filter down. The clear consensus among almost all philosophers is that personhood is not a necessary feature of human organisms. It�s a psychologically defined status having to do with having experiences of emotion, anticipation, and self-awareness. Very few philosophers view someone completely brain-dead as a person. It�s not surprise that fetuses aren�t treated as fully persons (for most, it�s a vague category and not all-or-nothing, so something can be not fully a person but not fully not). In the view of the vast majority of philosophers, an embryo simply is not a person, and they think this follows from the definition of personhood. For that reason, I don�t think pro-lifers should grant that non-personhood is enough for considering a human organism to be mere property. This is at least a motivation for considering other sorts of arguments and not just giving in, as Senator Brownback would do, if human embryos, which very much are independent, living organisms, as non-persons.

Second, I think the literature on abortion shows that there really are other issues that will enter into the debate, so it�s not as if pro-lifers have to look for more ammunition that isn�t already there. One element of the debate as it stands in the literature is that degrees of personhood carry with them degrees of moral status. So even if the pro-choice argument succeeds in winning over most people to the view that embryos aren�t fetuses, pro-lifers can rely on the pro-choicers� own arguments that some moral status is there for a fetus at later stages even if you don�t grant personhood. Most pro-choice politicians are insensitive to this point and therefore look very bad when it gets pointed out to them (witness the Wesley Clark fiasco of ). If pro-lifers lose the public debate on personhood, it doesn�t follow that non-persons are mere property.

Another element of the debate as it stands is that personhood isn�t the key issue for some pro-choice arguments. Judith Jarvis Thomson, whose 1971 paper on abortion is almost indisputably the most influential abortion paper ever, grants full personhood to the fetus, even from the moment of conception (though she grants it only for the sake of argument � she doesn�t really believe this). She still has an argument for a pro-choice position. The surprising element is that it works both ways. If you can get a pro-choice argument assuming personhood, then some of the principles for making the moral evaluation are independent of the personhood issue. She thinks other principles will allow some abortions to be ok, based on an analogy between forced kidney use for saving someone else�s life and pregnancy. Assuming the argument holds, she can defend some abortions in terms of not having consented to pregnancy and therefore not having consented to the use of one�s body to sustain the fetus�s life. This all assumes personhood of the fetus. She then thinks it�s clearly ok to abort if the fetus is caused to exist because of rape, less clearly ok if the mother consented to sex but used contraceptive methods, and certainly not ok if she wanted to have a baby but eight months into the pregnancy decided to abort simply because it was inconvenient to have to abstain from alcohol or coffee. Why is it wrong in that case? She thinks it�s just plain cruel. This seems to be something she thinks even without the assumption of personhood. I don�t see how that�s doing any work. It�s cruel to kill this organism that feels pain and has at least some desires if it�s just for mere convenience. This kind of principle enters in even for an organism that isn�t as far developed, as animal rights activists will insist. It doesn�t quite extend to embryos, which was the context of Senator Brownback�s comment, but it�s an important enough issue that I wouldn�t want to give the impression that the general discussion stops there.

The violence issue does enter in for embryos, though not as clearly so. Abortion is clearly a violent act. It�s the killing of a human organism and can�t seriously be likened to something like an appendectomy, as some on the pro-choice side have done. This is an independent organism who in the first half of pregnancy (but not in the second half) can�t survive outside another organism and even after pregnancy for a significant number years can�t survive without aid form others. But these facts tell more against the presumption that killing such an organism is ok, regardless of personhood. It�s a helpless, defenseless creature. The presumption should be against using violence against such a creature, person or no. I don�t see why this shouldn�t apply to less complex creatures, even if they have no status anything like personhood. It�s just that reasons can be less morally significant when you�re talking about a mosquito than when you�re talking about a dog. Similarly, on the view that an embryo is not a person, the presumption is there, but the reasons to kill it have to be morally significant enough. Perhaps the harvesting of stem cells would be enough, but we no have discovered that we can get them in other ways, and that might combine with the presumption against killing to make it at least suspect.

There�s at least one more issue that takes me into more controversial territory among pro-life viewpoints, but I think it�s worth thinking about. Is a miscarriage a tragedy? I think it certainly is. Is a miscarriage more of a tragedy than the death of an infant? I think so. I even think it�s less of a tragedy if it�s earlier in the pregnancy. Is the failure of a conceptus to implant itself in the uterine wall a tragedy? I think it is, but it�s less of a tragedy than a miscarriage that would involve severing an already established connection with its mother. This is all assuming personhood. We all tend to think that it�s tragic when a child dies, something also true of adults but more true of children. We think it�s more tragic for someone my age to die than it is for someone at age 60. None of that assumes non-personhood, and the same can be extended to even younger and less developed persons. Does this have an impact on how opposed the pro-life person should be to killing of extremely young persons like embryos? I think it might. I don�t know how great a degree of opposition it would need to be. There certainly be some if personhood is an issue, but it doesn�t seem to me that it should be as much opposition as to abortion at later stages and then that not as much as to infanticide. That�s something I think the pro-life movement might need to grant to the pro-choice side, even assuming personhood, in the interest of fairness. The pro-life person might still think it�s wrong to destroy an embryonic person for stem cells, but it isn�t as deeply wrong as killing an infant.


My wife pointed out to me that cloning does take place all the time. She cut a piece off a plant and buried it in our backyard, and it grew into a new organism with the same DNA. So I would correct my statement to say that scientists have never cloned any fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, or mammals. Are those the chordates? Worms can be cloned by cutting one in half, so I can't just say animals.

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