In part one of this series, I examined Warren’s definition of humanity, and in part two I examined her argument about what a person is and showed why the unborn certainly qualify. This article will be the third part of five, in which I’ll examine Warren’s claims about the right to life.
3. Fetal Development and the Right to Life
Warren begins by merely asserting that the paradigm case for personhood is a normal human adult. This strikes me as odd, though, considering that earlier she argued that we have no right to assume that genetic humanity is necessary for personhood. On what grounds is a normal human adult our paradigm case for personhood? Warren simply doesn’t bother to lay out an argument on this issue. In fact, her earlier argument seems to suggest that it would be improper to consider a human as our paradigm case at all.
Nevertheless, with the adult human as a paradigm case, she uses this section to address two questions: 1) How far advanced from conception does a human being need to be before it begins to have a virtue of being personlike enough to matter, and 2) To what extent does a fetus’ potential for personhood endow it with some of the same rights as persons?
Warren attempts to answer these questions by considering that human value develops gradually. As one becomes more and more like a person, one becomes more and more valuable. Or she at least says that we should take that claim seriously that since the human individual develops sociologically in a continuous fashion, the rights of a human person might develop in the same way. I really don’t think we should. As pro-life philosopher Trent Horn has argued, personhood does not come in degrees so it can not be tied to a property that comes in degrees. You’re either a person or you’re not, so being a person is not tied into becoming more and more conscious, or self-aware, or looking more human, etc. Warren does correctly state that being genetically human, having recognizable human features, detectable brain activity, and viability are not among the relevant attributes for personhood. But they may as well be. Claiming that these properties are morally relevant would be about as ad hoc as Warren’s own list of attributes.
Now Warren just keeps digging her hole even deeper. She argues that a seven- or eight-month-old fetus has some rudimentary consciousness and can even feel pain. But does it satisfy condition one of her basic criteria for personhood? No! She writes, “Thus it is clear that even though a seven- or eight-month fetus has features which make it apt to arouse in us the same powerful protective instinct as is commonly aroused by a small infant, nevertheless it is not significantly more personlike than is a very small embryo. It is somewhat more personlike; it can apparently feel and respond to pain, and it may even have a rudimentary form of consciousness, insofar as its brain is quite active. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that it is not fully conscious, in the way that an infant of a few months is, and that it cannot reason, or communicate messages of indefinitely many sorts, does not engage in self-motivated activity, and has no self-awareness. Thus, in the relevant aspects, a fetus, even a fully developed one, is considerably less personlike than is the average mature mammal, indeed the average fish. And I think that a rational person must conclude that if the right to life of a fetus is to be based upon its resemblance to a person, then it cannot be said to have any more right to life than, let us say, a newborn guppy (which also seems to be capable of feeling pain), and that a right of that magnitude could never override a woman’s right to obtain an abortion, at any stage of her pregnancy.”
I really don’t think Warren has earned the right to tell us what a “rational person” should conclude. A case to support abortion doesn’t get much more ad hoc than this. This is also why Warren’s case would also support infanticide (but more on that in part five). This just smacks of a pro-choice person desperate to show that her position is morally permissible.
She begs the question by assuming that a woman has a right to an abortion, but the freedom to commit murder on an innocent human being is not a right. If the unborn have the right to live (which they do since they qualify as persons, see part two in this series), then that right to life does override most reasons for a woman to have an abortion.
Warren does argue that there may be other reasons to place legal limits on the stage of pregnancy in which an abortion may be performed. She concedes that life or health of the mother in the late stages is no longer a justification for abortion due to the relative safety of new techniques for inducing labor. She does state that the common argument that late-term abortion will erode the level of respect for human life, which may lead to an increase in unjustified euthanasia and other crimes, is not a reason for legal limits, but that is wholly mistaken. While I believe this is true (and unjustified euthanasia has certainly been performed), it is not, strictly speaking, an argument against abortion. Abortion is wrong because it unjustly takes an innocent human life, not based on the effects it would have on the values of society at large. The effects it has on the society at large is simply a by-product of allowing the legal execution of over 50 million unborn human children.
I would like to say that Warren’s essay has not withstood the test of time, but to be honest, I can’t imagine why it was ever taken seriously in the first place. I suppose if you already agree with Warren’s conclusions, then you wouldn’t disagree with the path she took to get there. The essay has already suffered fatally, but there are still two more sections to go. In my next article, I will look at Warren’s argument for potential personhood, and show why her argument against potentiality misses the mark.