Framing the abortion debate (part 2): the nonsense of arguing about whether “life begins at conception”
In part 1 of this series, I pointed out a gaping hole in the argument of so-called “pro-life” supporters: the missing premise that invalidates their entire argument. In this sequel, I point out another gaping hole in their argument: the nonsense of arguing about whether “life begins at conception” or, equivalently, whether a fetus is a “person.” As I explain below, even if we concede that a fetus is a “person,” the so-called “pro-life” argument is still fatally defective.
I will begin this essay by stipulating, for the sake of discussion, that a fetus is a “person,” that “human life begins at conception,” and that a fetus is entitled to the exact same rights as an adult human. What people on both sides of the abortion debate seem to overlook is that even if a fetus is given this status — i.e., legally classified as a “person” from the moment of conception — this still is not enough to protect the fetus from abortion. Why? Because protecting a fetus from abortion requires the fetus to receive a unique privilege that no other “person” currently enjoys; namely: the Right To Receive Sustanance From The Blood Of Another “Person” Regardless Of The Objections Of That Person. In other words, even if we classify a fetus as a “person,” which is equivalent to saying that “life begins at conception,” such a classification is insufficient to preserve the life of a fetus in the manner suggested by so-called “pro-life” supporters.
Let me illustrate this with an example. Let us suppose I have a rare blood disease and I will die unless I have a blood transfusion from a compatible donor. Let us also suppose my mother is the only person on Earth who is a compatible donor. Even though I am a “person,” I have no right to receive sustenance from the blood of another person — including from my mother — without the consent of that person. However, if I were a fetus, then “pro-life” supporters say I should have this right. Moreover, paradoxically, I would lose this right as soon as I ceased to be a fetus; i.e., as soon as I am born. In other words, if a fetus has a rare blood disease that would require it to receive sustenance from the blood of its mother to save its life after it is born, then the “pro-life” argument is that the unborn fetus is entitled to receive that sustenance (i.e., it is entitled to not be aborted), but the baby, after it is born, is not. Thus, classifying a fetus as a “person” — i.e., equal to a baby after it is born — is clearly insufficient to give the fetus the right that “pro-life” supporters want it to have…and they provide no rational explanation for why a fetus, and no other “person,” should have this unique right.
Simultaneously with wanting to grant all fetuses a unique right that no other “person” currently enjoys, abortion opponents also want to deny pregnant women several basic rights that every other “person” currently enjoys. These include: The Right To Terminate A Potentially
Life-Threatening Medical Condition, The Right To Control the Use of One’s Organs, and The Right To Make One’s Own Medical Decisions.
Returning to my example above, even if my mother were to initially agree to donate the blood for my life-saving transfusion, my mother would never lose the right to terminate her participation in that procedure. At any time before or during the transfusion, she would have the unilateral right to terminate her participation, even if I (as a “person”) would instantly die. However, if I were a fetus (likewise being kept alive by blood from my mother), “pro-life” supporters argue that my mother should be denied the right to terminate her participation. Some “pro-life” supporters even argue that my mother should be denied this right even if termination is necessary to save her own life. Again, “pro-life” supporters provide no rational explanation for why a pregnant woman, and no other “person,” should be denied this basic right.
Indeed, let us consider some examples from recent history where people were denied the rights that abortion opponents want to deny to pregnant women. In Nazi Germany, many people (mostly Jews) were subjected to medical procedures against their will, and many of these people died as a result of those procedures. They had no right to terminate the procedure even when termination was necessary to save their own lives, yet this is just what “pro-life” supporters want to do to pregnant women.
Similarly, in America during the early twentieth century, many people (in particular, “persons” who were mentally retarded, mentally ill or convicted of rape) were surgically sterilized against their will. In each of these cases, people were denied the right to make their own medical decisions, just as so-called “pro-life” supporters want to do to pregnant women. Of course, we see these examples today as barbaric and unthinkable, yet “pro-life” supporters want to subject pregnant women — all of them — to a similar denial of rights…a denial of rights that the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and rapists no longer face.
Likewise, let us consider organ donation. There is a box on my driver’s license where I can indicate whether or not I consent to having my organs harvested for donation to another “person” if I am dead. Using this box, I retain the right, even after I am dead, to control the use of my organs, even to prevent them from being used to save the life of another “person.” However, so-called “pro-life” supporters want to deny pregnant women this same right. They argue that a pregnant woman should have no right whatsoever to control the use of her organs. They argue that a pregnant woman should have fewer legal rights over her organs than a corpse has over its organs. Indeed, they argue that a pregnant woman should be treated exactly the same as if she were brain dead; i.e., with no capacity to make her own medical decisions and who, therfore, must succumb to medical decisions made by other people.
In sum, even if we classify a fetus as a “person,” we are no closer to resolving the abortion debate. So-called “pro-life” supporters want to give fetuses unique rights that no “person” currently enjoys, and they also wish to deny pregnant women basic rights that every other “person” — even every dead “person” — currently enjoys. In the former case, their position is arbitrary; in the latter case, it is barbaric.