Psychological Criteria for Personhood Have Horrific Implications
Editor’s note: Today’s post includes ideas readers may find disturbing, including discussion of sexual assault and harm to children. Please proceed at your own discretion. We find the ideas discussed herein abominable, but we believe the discussion is important in order to contextualize certain personhood arguments.
[Today’s guest article is by Elise Ketch.]
If fetuses can be aborted, then can infants be used for sex?
This uncomfortable question is explored by philosophers Daniel Rodger, Bruce P. Blackshaw, and Calum Miller in their 2018 article, “Beyond Infanticide: How Psychological Accounts of Persons Can Justify Harming Infants.” They reason:
if a late-stage fetus doesn’t have rights because it isn’t a person,
and a fetus isn’t a person because it lacks important psychological capabilities,
and an infant lacks the same capabilities as a late-stage fetus,
then an infant isn’t a person and doesn’t have rights.
They then argue,
if for these reasons we may abort a human fetus,
then for these reasons we may do the following to a human infant:
- abort it after birth
- harvest its living organs
- subject it to live experimentation
- use its living body for sex
- selectively harm it for apparent gender or sexuality
Further, money could be made from these practices. The philosophers discern that if applied consistently without limit, the common pro-abortion logic that fetuses aren’t people because they aren’t conscious (or psychologically developed) ultimately permits infant sex-trafficking.
I’m going to tell you why.
By the time a human has been pregnant for 24 weeks, their fetus has developed enough to survive outside the womb. At this point, the pregnancy is in its late-term. If the fetus is born preterm (delivered before 37 weeks) it will then be a premature infant, also known as a “preemie”. There is no relevant difference in psychological development between a late-term fetus and a premature infant. An irrational animal is considered by most people to not be a person, and human consciousness isn’t sophisticated enough for many months – if not years – after birth to be distinct from irrational animals. Thus, neither fetuses nor infants are meaningfully conscious enough to be identified as not “non-persons.”
[Read more – Personhood based on human cognitive abilities]
This is why the psychological reasons that late-term fetuses aren’t persons, applied indiscriminately to all humans, also classify infants as non-persons. Under this logic, human infants don’t have personhood. But why shouldn’t they have rights?
There are three types of personhood that a human being can have: metaphysical, moral, and legal. When a human has metaphysical personhood, it means they are essentially a person. When a human has moral personhood it means they have basic rights, and when they have legal personhood it means that their rights are protected. Typically, if you are seen as both a metaphysical person and a moral person, you should also be recognized as a legal person.
So if fetuses are not metaphysical persons for psychological reasons, it’s unlikely that the public will consider them moral person with basic claims to life and freedom from violence, or that the government should recognize them as legal persons with the protected right to not be deliberately, violently killed. And since under the same psychological criteria infants also do not qualify as metaphysical persons, they too should legally have no rights.
[Read more – After-birth abortion by William Saleton]
If an infant is not a person and has no rights, then she is an object of property in essence. She cannot claim bodily autonomy, and certainly not sexual integrity. If you do not reject any of these assertions, then it seems that in a scenario in which a person has sex with a live human infant body that is their property, there is no person to protect and thus no rights are violated. This scenario would not be illegal and appears to not be morally wrong! And if none of that is wrong, would it be wrong to buy, sell, and trade live infant bodies for sex? Wouldn’t it also not be wrong to profit from this, to turn it into a business, to stimulate a market?
Perhaps you object because the infant will one day become a traumatized person, but this is easily avoided by simply aborting the infant before she reaches personhood. The infant can be deprived of oxygen/nutrition like a medication abortion, or poisoned/burned like a saline abortion, or exsanguinated/dismembered like a surgical abortion, and the remains can be discarded as waste, like any abortion. It’s not an animal so bestiality isn’t relevant, and as long as it doesn’t feel pain or suffer it’s humane. It’s not conscious like a person so it doesn’t matter, right?
If this justification of infant sex trafficking appalls you, triggers physical revulsion for you, or simply strikes you as intuitively unacceptable, then the philosophers’ argument has done its job. By reasonably extending the logic of psychological personhood to illustrate its absurd implications in five scenarios (post-birth abortion, organ harvesting, live experimentation, sexual activity, and discriminatory harm,) the philosophers show that the argument for personhood based on psychological capability isn’t reasonable after all. With this premise proven absurd, all arguments derived from it – such as, fetuses aren’t persons – are also proven to be unsound.
Rodger, Blackshaw, and Miller close their article by challenging pro-abortion advocates to find a new personhood argument. For a new argument to be more convincing, it must satisfy several conditions. The philosophers propose that a better argument for abortion must explain:
- why these five scenarios are unacceptably wrong, in ways that abortion is not
- what makes these scenarios morally impermissible, regardless of practicality
- how the actions of these scenarios are wrong in principle, not only in feature
Without such an argument, the philosophers conclude that their reductio argument is a success.
While the focus of their article is on dismantling an opposing argument, the philosophers do come back at it with a teaser of their own argument defending prenatal personhood. They claim “an identity relation between fetuses, infants and adults” and suggest “that identity relations are sufficient (though not necessary) to preserve interests and rights.” A fetus is in active relation with her adult self through attainment, retainment, or restoration of essential person capability within her fundamental human capacity; throughout her natural life cycle she will always be in this inherent relation to her personhood.
[Read more – Embryos & metaphysical personhood: both biology & philosophy support the pro-life case.]
In other words, a living human organism is always in the process of either gaining, maintaining, or getting back the capabilities that make her a person. These capabilities could include consciousness, sentience, rationality, and sophisticated cognition (whatever you intuitively prefer!) A human fetus actually has the present capacity for this process because it is a feature of humankind, to which she belongs. This establishes continuous active relation between every stage of her biological life cycle; her identity as the person exercising this capacity transcends each phase of her existence, from adult person to human embryo.
So if you accept this capacity as a sufficient (but not necessary) condition for metaphysical personhood, and this relation as sufficient to confer moral significance, then a human being is a person at conception, with interests and rights worthy of consideration and protection.
Daniel Rodger, Bruce P. Blackshaw & Calum Miller (2018): Beyond Infanticide: How Psychological Accounts of Persons Can Justify Harming Infants, The New Bioethics, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2018.1438771 https://doi.org/10.1080/20502877.2018.1438771
[Photo credit: Aikomo Opeyemi on Unsplash]
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