Monday, February 15, 2016
By Dr. Mark W. Foreman
Last month we passed the 43rd anniversary of the Supreme Court decisions in two cases (Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton) that made abortion virtually legal at any time from conception to birth in any state in the country. Since that time an ongoing debate between opponents and proponents of abortion has divided our country. Many of these arguments have focused on women’s bodily rights, the right to choose, and the nature of the unborn. Appeals have been made to the physical, psychological and medical condition of the unborn as tantamount in understanding its nature. I would like to suggest that those discussions have been misplaced. The primary issue in this debate is not scientific or medical, it is philosophical. At heart the issue is personhood.
It is almost universally recognized by most serious moral thinkers that we have a moral obligation to “do no harm” to other innocent persons without just cause. If the unborn is a person, we cannot take its life without just cause. The primary question then becomes: What does it mean to be a person? Once we have addressed this question we can then move on to other questions like, Is the unborn a person? If not, then when does the unborn achieve the status of “person” with the full moral rights we accord to all persons? Does this apply from the moment of conception or is it sometime afterward?
In order to answer this we first need to make a couple of important distinctions. The first is between “human organism” which is a biological concept and “human person” which is a philosophical concept. No one debates that the human organism comes into existence at the moment of conception. However, many pro-abortion advocates will argue that while a human organism exists, it is not a human person. They then conclude that, since the duty to do no harm refers only to persons, one can take the life of the unborn without violating this duty. While it is very questionable that the duty to do no harm applies only to persons, the real issue here is whether the pro-abortion advocates are correct in their assessment that the unborn is not a person.
The second distinction concerns the definition of “person.” In general, there are two major views concerning personhood. Most pro-abortion proponents employ a functionalistic view of personhood. According to this view a person is a being that functions according to certain set of acquired criteria (self-consciousness, ability to communicate, self-reflective, ability to reason, respond to the outside world, etc). If a being is not functioning according to these criteria, then it is not a person. Since the unborn cannot function this way, it is not a person (though some argue it may be a potential person). There are several problems with the functionalistic view of personhood of which I will just mention two.
First, if functioning is the basis for personhood, then anytime one is not functioning as a person, one is not a person. Yet we can ask, “Is it possible to be a person and not function as one?” The answer is “yes.” Take any of the traits we say a person should have: consciousness, ability to reason, self-awareness, etc. Apply them to an adult in a deep dreamless sleep, in a coma, or under anesthesia. None of the traits apply, yet we would not kill this adult just because they are not currently functioning as a person. “But won’t an adult in this state soon awake?” So will the unborn, it’s just a matter of time. It is true that a sleeping adult has an immediate capacity to function as a person that the unborn does not have, but the adult has this immediate capacity only because he has a more primary basic inherent capacity to function as a person which is his by nature of what he is, a human being.
A second problem for the functionalistic view of person is a conceptual problem. Functionalist’s claims often don’t make sense because they confuse being and acting (functioning). For example, they claim in order to be considered a person you have to function, or act, as one. But this presupposes there is a being who is doing the acting. The functionalist gets the ontological cart before the horse. It is not functioning that causes the being, it is a being who functions. The existence of the being is logically prior to the activity of the functioning. Our question is what kind of being is doing the functioning? The kind of functioning being done may be used as evidence to answer the question, but that does not mean the functioning is causing the being to be what it is. It already is the kind of being it is in order to function that way. That is why comments like those of pro-choice advocate Peter Singer when he states, ”I did not come into existence until sometime after my birth” make no sense. Whose birth is he referring to if he wasn’t there?
The second way to define “person” is referred to as the substance view. According to this definition, a person is a living substance that has the essential capacity for rational reflection, emotional expression, willful direction, and moral deliberation concerning himself/herself and the world around him/her. By essential capacity is meant a capability that exists by nature of the kind of substance a “person” is whether or not such a capacity is ever actualized. This essential capacity is also referred to as a basic inherent capacity: it is basic in that it is the basis for all other capacities, it is inherent in that it is present by nature of the kind of substance a “person” is, and it is a capacity in that it is an ability and is present whether the “person” is currently functioning in accordance to this capacity or not.
All human organisms have this basic inherent capacity for personhood by nature of being human. It is an essential element to being human, the natural way for humans to be. However, not all humans are able to actualize or access this capacity. There are at least two ways in which this capacity might be latent and inaccessible. One is a lack of physical development that does not allow the capacity to function as a human being to fully express itself. This is the case with the unborn and newborns. This was the case with every one of us at that stage of our development. However this does not mean we were not persons at that stage, just that we were not able to express ourselves as persons.
The second way this capacity might be latent is if there is physical damage to a person that might impede the basic inherent capacity of personhood to express itself. Examples of this might be those who are severely mentally handicapped. The fact that we recognize that this is not a normal state for a human being, that it is a tragedy, shows that we recognize that these beings should function as persons (rational, emotional and willful capacities) by nature of the kind of being they are. One doesn’t think it is tragedy if a dog does not function as a person, but it is when an adult human is not able to. Because we recognize that humans by nature are persons. The mentally handicapped are persons, they just cannot function as one due to their debilitation.
The significant question now is: when does this essential capacity for personhood come into existence? Conception seems the best explanation for that is when the substance comes into existence. There does not seem to be any other time in its development when it comes to be what it is. It is what is from the very beginning of its existence – a person.