Below is a paper I wrote for my college Philosophy class. Rather than teaching hard philosophy, I would probably describe the course as more of an ethics class than anything else. One of the topics we discussed was abortion. One of the articles we read was by Mary Ann Warren, a vocal abortion advocate. I wrote my paper in response to her article, opposing some of the arguments she made. One of the most frightening arguments she made–which I don’t address in this paper–is that there is nothing really wrong with infanticide. It’s just relatively wrong because we live in a culture that values newborns as a whole.
Here is my attempt to combat some of her arguments.
In addressing the morality of abortion, Mary Ann Warren considers what sorts of traits an entity needs to have in order to be a person in the moral sense: that is, something which has moral rights, and is entitled to the same level of moral regard that we give to average adult human beings. She asserts that the three most significant characteristics to consider in evaluating whether something is a person are Consciousness, Reasoning, and Self-motivated activity. (DMI 433) Since an unborn child possesses none of these characteristics—according to Warren—it is not a person, and is human only in the genetic sense that it has human DNA. And since the unborn are not persons, it is therefore permissible to kill them. I believe that not only is Warren mistaken about what makes one a person, since her arguments implicitly demand that personhood comes in degrees, which is implausible, but she is also wrong that the unborn do not possess the above three traits.
Warren defines consciousness as the awareness “of objects and events external and/or internal to the being, and in particular the capacity to feel pain,” (DMI 433). If it were true that consciousness makes one a person, then can it not be said that being asleep makes one less of a person? While we are deep in sleep, we are not aware of objects and events external and/or internal to our being. Someone might say sleep does not involve losing consciousness, since we dream; however, unborn babies also dream. Dr. Alan Green, M.D. states that, “We now know that [unborn children] begin to sleep at as early as 4 weeks of gestation (Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 1975; 38:175). Dreams appear to be a kind of parallel processing by which we integrate our experience, making new connections in our brains. In the uterus, babies probably dream about the muted light they see and the sounds they hear such as heartbeats, voices and music. Shortly after birth, they dream about the explosion of new sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures as they delight in getting to know their parents.”
When doctors sedate their patients, are they actually making them less than people because they can no longer feel pain, and are unaware of their surroundings and self? If it were true that consciousness was a vital attribute to determining personhood, then we would have to conclude that personhood can be diminished at points in time where such consciousness is diminished. If this is true, then we would also have to say that is okay to kill people at certain times of the day, but not at others. That is obviously extremely implausible.
Perhaps Warren would counter that something is a person if it is something that often is conscious, or has previously had this trait, and will have it again. This seems plausible; however, if this is the case, then could we not say that the unborn should be considered persons since they will soon have consciousness (according to Warren’s definition) and they will likely be conscious for the majority of their life-time? An unborn baby is only nine months away from “consciousness” in the mind of Warren, yet there have been many cases where people have been unconscious for longer than nine months and arguably less alive than a growing baby. If we are to accept that the unborn are not persons because they are not “conscious” then we must acknowledge that those in prolonged comas are also not persons, even though they have the potential to regain consciousness.
Regardless, unborn babies do in fact have consciousness by Warren’s definition. In Warren’s defense, her article was written during the 1970s. Since then, much more scientific research has been done, and we now know that unborn babies do in fact feel pain, and react to outside stimuli. “The neural pathways are present for pain to be experienced quite early by unborn babies,” explains Steven Calvin, M.D. “At 20 weeks, the fetal brain has the full complement of brain cells present in adulthood, ready and waiting to receive pain signals from the body, and their electrical activity can be recorded by standard electroencephalography (EEG).” — Dr. Paul Ranalli, neurologist, University of Toronto (MCCL). What is more, this fact seems to be generally understood, since infants are given anesthesia during fetal surgery. (Abortionfacts.com). According to Warren, an unborn baby is actually more of a person than an adult deep in sleep, since an adult deep in sleep cannot feel pain.
The second criterion Warren gives for personhood is “reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems).” (DMI 433). Warren emphasizes developed reasoning as being the important characteristic. Therefore, she would probably say that an unborn baby’s ability to react to outside stimuli and the detection of brain activity does not count as developed reasoning. However, how are we to determine what constitutes “developed” and how are we to decide what “relatively complex problems” are? Warren’s argument seems to imply that the more developed a person’s reasoning is, the more human they are. We would therefore have to conclude that a 30-year-old adult is more of a person than a 5-year-old child. I can also conclude that I am more of a person than a two-year-old because I am more developed, and have taken Calculus. Warren might say that there is a threshold here, that once one reaches a certain capacity for reason they are a person, but where are we to draw the line? How could we even measure? One might say we draw the line above the reasoning ability of unborn babies, but this argument seems rather convenient for the pro-abortionist, rather than a justifiable standard. Additionally, the more science uncovers about unborn babies, the more we learn just how person-like they really are in many different areas, including reason.
As with Warren’s consciousness argument, such criteria for personhood forces us to accept that there are different levels of personhood, obliterating our societal ideals of equality. We cannot say that the ability to reason makes one a person. It is certainly a facet of personhood, but it does not make one a person.
The third most central criterion to determining personhood in Warren’s opinion is “self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control).” (DMI 433). This criterion, like the others she discusses, problematically implies that personhood is relative. Gauging such a criterion would be extremely difficult as well. Warren leaves the definition very vague, specifying that the activity must only be relatively independent. How are we to judge whether someone is really acting independently, or whether they are actually only reacting according to their genetics and external environment? It is impossible to set such a concrete boundary, and therefore the criteria must remain relative and ethereal. This would mean that a ruggedly individualistic person who makes decisions for themselves, rather than letting others control them or simply acting on genetic urges, is more of a person than those who go with the flow, and only react to direct external control. Those who frequently cave in to peer pressure must have less rights than those who don’t. Again, we could try to establish a threshold here, but how do we decide on a cut-off point? Why should we say severe drug addicts are people—when their daily actions are directed by fulfilling their acquired need—and not consider unborn babies persons, when there has been documented evidence of unborn babies moving around, kicking, and thumb-sucking?
I don’t think it’s right to say we live in a world where some people are entitled to fewer or lesser moral rights than other people merely because of what they can do. How well I sense, how well I think, and/or how independent I am does not determine how much of a person I am. This may determine what kind of person I am, but I would still be a person without these things. This is because all human beings are persons, and we are all persons because we have a spirit—we have souls. We are more than our bodies.
We cannot live in a world where Warren’s criteria are true. We would then have to accept that the awake have a greater right to life than the sleeping, that adults are more intrinsically valuable than children, and that rocket scientists are more people than salesmen. Warren herself is uncertain as to which criteria are necessary and/or sufficient, but what she does assert, is that, “All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of [the criteria] is certainly not a person.” (DMI 433). By her own admission, unborn babies must be considered persons, since they do fulfill the criteria.
Unborn babies can feel pain, they react to stimuli, and they even seem to display some self-motivated activity, such as moving, kicking, and thumb sucking among other things. Unborn babies have even been seen moving away from and trying to avoid the instruments abortion doctors use to try and slice them to pieces (Abortionfacts.com). This was observed as far back as 1984, with the film “The Silent Scream” where unborn babies are seen frantically trying to escape from the intruding devices of abortion doctors (Self-motivated activity), but of course, there is nowhere to go. Unborn babies have been seen silently screaming (their vocal chords have yet to develop) in pain during abortions (Consciousness), hence the title of the film mentioned above. Even though I don’t agree with Warren’s definitions of personhood, if we use her definitions, we have to conclude that unborn children are people.
“About the Unborn Child.” Q & A about the Unborn Child. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2014.
“LifeNews.com.” LifeNews.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2014.
Timmons, Mark. Disputed Moral Issues a Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.
“Unborn Babies Can Feel Pain.” Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.
“AbortionFacts.com.” Abortion Facts. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2014.
Have you ever been in a debate about abortion? How did you address the arguments in support of abortion?