Why There’s No Point To Arguing About Abortion

I lifted that title, word for word, from (atheist, self-admitted man-of-the-left, City College emeritus Professor of Sociology) Steven Goldberg’s article of the same name from his must-read Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences” (chapter 11). From his opening:

What neither the pro-choice nor pro-life advocates wish to face is the fact that the abortion question is inherently and eternally unanswerable, though it can be settled by force, or its modern equivalent, democratic vote.

The abortion question is unanswerable because the question of whether the fetus is or isn’t a person is a matter of the definition of “person.” There is no avoiding this or the fact that this definition determines all that follows.

Goldberg’s implicit argument is this: murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being by another human being. If the fetus is a human being, then killing it is murder. If the fetus is not a human being then killing it is not murder. The only possibility Goldberg missed is the distinction that at some point during a pregnancy, but before birth, the fetus switches (by some unnamed mechanism) from non-human to human.

Goldberg, incidentally, defines a fetus as non-human.

Well, this is the entire argument if you accept the premise that to kill an innocent human being is murder. This premise cannot be modified to say that the killing of a fetus is a lesser kind of homicide, say manslaughter, because to choose to have an abortion is to premeditate (a state which the mother and probably the person performing the abortion share).

The unsolvability of the abortion question is inherent in the fact that (at least on macroatomic level) nature is continuous and words, like all categories, are discrete. Nature does not refrain from making a euglina because we do not know whether to call it a “plant” or an “animal,” or a virus because we will not know whether to call it “living” or “nonliving.”

Let’s not take up the argument about viruses, and instead focus on the question of real importance: is a fetus a human being, or is it not a human being but becomes one at some point before birth? We will not argue that the fetus at any time after birth is less than human, as it appears academic philosopher Pete Singer says.

We are asking here very narrow questions. The reason for asking is this article on HotAir, “The Left’s outrageous outrage at a proposal to require ultrasounds before abortion.” Virginia will require that women, before undergoing an abortion, must first have an ultrasound. A reporter in that state covering this law called this mandated ultrasound “rape.” Let’s not take up her claim. We can, however, talk about the use and ulterior purpose of the ultrasound.

Now in attempting to rebut the argument that a fetus is a human being, some have argued that the fetus is just a “mass of tissue” inside a woman, no different than, say, a cancer that can and should be excised. The point of this argument is to show that removing unwanted tissue is not murder. This is true, but it is beside the point. To say a cancer is not a human being, but only an unwanted growth, does not prove (how could it?) that a fetus is not a human being, individual and separate from its mother. All the argument does is to restate what we all already believed: that some bodily tissue is not an independent, separate human being.

Similarly, others have argued that a skin scraping can, at least in theory, be cultivated into a clone, at which point the clone will be recognized as an individual, separate human being. Thus, as Sam Harris “jokes” to scratch your nose is to commit mass murder. For Harris, but to nobody else, skin scrapings are human beings. But whether skin scrapings are human beings or not, this knowledge does not answer whether the fetus is or isn’t a human being.

Still another argument is to say that a fetus becomes human at that point where it can, by mechanical means, be removed from its mother and kept alive through some technological apparatus, if not kept alive on its own accord. This is an intelligible definition of human being, but it is a highly contingent one. Presumably, if medical technology continues to improve at the same pace, the fetus will become “viable”, which is to say a human being, from the moment of conception. The “test tube”, as happens even now, not only starts as the womb but it would remain so.

This definition also appears location and time dependent. Mothers living in, say, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan will not have access to the same technological facilities as mothers living in, for instance, New York City. So we have to decide if “viability” applies to extant in any place technology, or local technology. What’s local? What happens if the “machine” which extracts and coddles the fetus/now human being breaks, or there is a line such that the wait to use the equipment is too long? And on and on. Viability, then, if it doesn’t almost immediately imply that a fetus becomes a human-being at conception, becomes a morass.

But then “becomes a human being at some point before birth” is not that different than viability. Famously, some (but not all, and the number and names of who did so argue are irrelevant) have argued that “the quickening”, the point at which the mother first feels movement is that moment when the fetus “switches” to human being. This allows a pregnant woman to fib, if she likes, for who will know if she is lying? And then we have heard of those odd cases of women, typically morbidly fat, who give birth who did not even know they were pregnant. This is important because, for example, if somebody were to kill a woman’s fetus (perhaps in a mugging), we need to know whether that fetus was a human being or still just a mass of tissue.

The other solution is to just dictate: After N weeks comes the Switch, at which point the fetus becomes, by vote, a human being. There is still some fuzziness here, but much less so than for viability or quickening definitions. We still have to decide N. If you like this definition consider, as Goldberg does, that Jews were once classified by vote as being less-than-human. If voting can decide what is right, then it was not wrong to have made this classification. Our current laws are something like this: the N weeks, I mean, but the real question is never tackled.

Now, if you say that after N weeks (or whatever), the fetus does in fact switch to human being, you beg the question how this happens. What essential fact has changed that turned the non-human into a human? Something must have. It cannot be that nothing did. This is a necessary truth. It is a particular chemical measure? A requisite number of brain cells forming? What? To dodge this question is to commit a fallacy and say a fetus is a human being after N weeks because a fetus is a human being after N weeks. You have said nothing. More is needed. I haven’t any idea what this something is, but it has to be a contingent something: a physical and not a metaphysical change.

The metaphysical argument, as typically made, is to say that a fetus becomes a human being at the point of conception. This, even to those who do not agree with it, is at least an intelligible, unambiguous position. Further, there are a number of ways to reach this position, the most well known being to argue from theological principles. But this is not the only way: we could, say, use Aristotle’s argument from final causality. We needn’t go into these here.

The last position is to hold to another contingent event and say the fetus does not become a human being until birth. There are still a number of contingent facts to be decided. Does birth mean a complete exit from the mother, up and until the umbilical cord is cut? Is just, say, one toe out enough to define birth? And so on.

These are not questions which can be evaded because if, say, birth means a complete exit, then at any point during the birthing process, even after the full nine months, even as the woman is wheeled into the OR fully dilated, etc., the woman could say to the physician, “I decided to kill the fetus. I don’t want to be a mother.” And the physician could oblige and not be said to commit murder because, after all, we have decided that a full exit is birth, and that at any point earlier the fetus is not yet a human being.

So if not a full exit, perhaps the definition “anytime before labor begins” is our point of demarcation. That means a woman can have an abortion the full nine months minus one day and it would not be murder. If you don’t like “minus one day” then perhaps you prefer “minus two days” or whatever. As you can see, this is logically no different than the “N weeks” definition. You are still left with answering why the definition should hold.

Enter the ultrasound. It is clear that those who say the fetus is a human being from conception would like women who say it is not to look at the ultrasound and so become convinced that what they see is, in fact, a human being. This makes advocates of fetuses-as-not-human-beings nervous because they fear that some women will be convinced, hence their vehement opposition. But this is all this law means: it is an attempt from one side who hold to a metaphysically argued position (human from conception) to use a contingent fact (picture of a fetus in the shape of a baby, even shortly after infertilization) to change minds.

Regardless whether this works (it appears to), it is still only tangential to the main questions. Indeed, we have only two questions to answer: (1) at what point does a fetus become a human being? (2) Why?

Absolutely no shouting, name calling, nor ungentlemanly or non-ladylike behavior will be allowed in the comments. This subject, above all others, is too apt to degrade into babble the moment the first person slips.

Update I want to save all comments I can, but if we stray (it happens), I will make editorial changes in the comments put in bold and in brackets [like this].

Update I have to leave the computer for a while (6:40 pm Eastern). But my heart soars like a hawk to see so much intelligent discussion. Thanks to everybody for keeping their tempers.


  1. Excellent treatment of this contentious issue. Logic is on the side of those who believe life begins at conception. The only pro-abortion argument that even begins to make sense is the legalistic one, that the fetus is not a human being because it has not been born and doesn’t have a social security number (yes, I’ve actually argued with people who made that argument).

    I can’t wait to read the other responses…

  2. pythagoras

    “We will not argue that the fetus at any time after birth is less than human, as it appears academic philosopher Pete Singer says. ”

    This is culturally dependent. Some cultures did not regard fetuses to be fully human until . There is a long history of infanticide, by deed or by neglect, being accepted as lawful in many cultures around the world.

    “Indeed, we have only two questions to answer: (1) at what point does a fetus become a human being? (2) Why?”

    Er, not only two questions. One example of a further question would be the admissibility of killing in self-defence, or other lawful killing of the fetus. See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighth_Amendment_of_the_Constitution_of_Ireland : “with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”.

  3. pythagoras

    Software mangled my comment. Let’s see if we can get this one past the gremlins:

    This is culturally dependent. Some cultures did not regard fetuses to be fully human until …some culture-specific threshold…

  4. Briggs


    This is true. Just as some cultures, as Goldberg pointed out, saw Jews as less than human and then acted on this belief. If we accept that all morality is culturally dependent, we cannot say that cultures, at different times and places, were wrong or right in doing what they did.

    You either allow for different cultures to define when the fetus becomes a human being, or say it is universal truth that, for anybody living anywhere at any time, a fetus is a human being from conception. If the former, the problem becomes defining what a “culture” is. Is it just this group of people living in this geographic area at this time? Is it permanent? What happens if new people move in, others move out, or new people are born who think differently? What if the borders change? Cultures, of course, are not static, as for example German culture.

    Not that any of these are unintelligible questions, but they are difficult to define precisely.

  5. RickA

    Fascinating topic. Thanks for tackling it.

    We use the absence of a brain wave to define death (I believe some states do anyway).

    How about using the presence of a brain wave to define the transition from just an assemblage of cells to a “person”.

    I believe this is an old idea – but allows for the possibility of another line, between conception and birth, which can be detected technologically.

    I do not know when a fetus normally develops brainwaves, but have seen six weeks in a couple of places via google.

  6. Alex

    When the first telescope was built one could only see a star distant, let’s say for arguments’ sake, one billion miles distant. Therefore, for a person living in those times, the universe was only one billion miles across, at best two million if the earth was assumed to be in the centre of the universe.
    However we all know that the universe is much bigger. By today’s knowledge we say that the universe is 15 billion light years in radius.
    Today we ‘measure’ life by today’s available instruments and we can detect human life, meaning brain activity or a heartbeat or both, or whatever, as early as a certain number of weeks after conception. But suppose someone would be able to develop a machine by which we can detect human life at the first week after conception?
    Considering that scientists and politicians are so ready to apply the precautionary principle whenever they see it working in their favour, such as the CO2=AGW postulate, I appeal to this same principle to not to terminate pregnancies forcibly, (except in extreme cases) lest we are actually killing a human being.

  7. Whatever the answer; this is the first time I’ve seen the question so clearly laid out.

    There is a Laffer-curve style argument I think. When justifying the Laffer curve, we might say “if the tax rate is zero, the revenue will be zero. If the tax rate is 100%, the revenue will be zero. If the tax rate is 50% the revenue is non-zero. The curve must pass through all these points”. Picking the peak is not easy, but we can pretty much all agree that there is a peak.

    Similarly, (apart from those who want the strict binary state: fertilised egg = human), then most would agree that a single cell containing the appropriate DNA is not human (since, as you point out, skin cells, or even stem cells would be human); also no one disagrees that a birthed baby is a human. Therefore somewhere in between there must be an N.

    The first argument then is surely: is a fertilised egg human or not? If so, why is a single stem cell not?

  8. Big Mike

    And how many angles may dance on the head of a pin?

    The bright side in this debate is that it will keep everyone busy arguing this and that for generations, perhaps by which time it will have dawned on people that it’s irresponsible to become pregnant if you’re not committed to bearing and raising children, and thus they won’t.

  9. Big Mike

    angles = angels, of course.

  10. Briggs

    Big Mike,

    I hope you see that your response is an evasion (I mean this kindly). We can’t dismiss any argument by saying that it is a difficult argument and that, whatever our position, we are unlikely to convince the “other side” of the rightness of “our side.”

    It does make sense, of course, for a person to say, “I am unable to find an answer to this question.” (If only more people would admit to this!) But this does not imply that others will not be able to. The responsibility that those who do provide an answer is double: they first have to argue for their position and then they have to convince those who gave up that their argument is sound. The later is more difficult because, on their own admission, those that gave up found the problem unfathomable.

  11. Chinahand

    We cannot always be logically consistent. Logic fails us – if you disagree, then please answer the following question – “Will you answer this question with a “no”?” But anyway, onto the substance of the debtate.

    I find Prof. Briggs’ language concerning what is a human being interesting – a sperm, an egg, a zygote, a fetus, a new born baby – in all cases they are all made of human tissue – in all cases that tissue is living, but are they all human beings?

    Is there a single, unambiguous argument to be made that a human being suddenly appears when going along that list?

    My reading of Prof. Briggs seems to tell me he is a stickler for precision and logic – I wonder if he agrees that it is possible for reasonable people to disagree?

    I am afraid I see these arguments as basically legalistic – murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being by another human being. What does unlawful mean, what does human being mean.

    People are going to disagree – I suppose if you believe in an absolute morality, one side will be right and another side wrong – but even if that is so there is no reason that you should be able to argue the case logically or irrefutably.

    I feel that people of conscience can be on either side of this argument.

    I do not think a early stage foetus is a human being – its dependence upon its mother is the main issue in my debate.

    If we lived in a “Brave New World” I would have to think further, but feel current legislation seems to give some guidance of how the debate will develop – in the test tube we are much more squimish and so draw much earlier lines – experimentation on human tissue must be stopped before it is able to develop much beyond a ball of cells.

    Once development has reached much beyond the early stage I can easily understand the law demanding strict protections on how such a lab might work – would this impact on women and what is in their bodies – again I think this issue is debateable between reasonable people with different opinions.

    In law context is important, I believe women do have rights to control their bodies to a certain extent – at some point the rights of a foetus also become important and so a balance has to be made. Where the rights of the women are irrelevent – as they would be in a “Brave New World” then the legal matter would be different, but that does not mean the rights of the women could be ignored in the cases where she is involved.

  12. Briggs


    The answer to your first question, or questions like it, have been given many times. Self-referentiality is not a new concept. But let’s not argue these things here.

    It is true that people (reasonable and otherwise) disagree; this is a contingent fact. For example, the people in Germany circa 1940 agreed, as Goldberg reminds us, to call Jews non-human beings. Others disagreed.

    Some people now claim that the fetus is not until birth a human being. Others disagree.

    Well, what do we do? Allow those who argue one way to engage unimpeded in the behavior that follows from their belief, and restrict those who argue the opposite to restrict their behavior such that it conforms to the first belief? Or do we allow those who argue the opposite to engage unimpeded in the behavior that follows from their belief? That would mean, for example, letting those that oppose abortion arrest, imprison, or otherwise punish those that practice abortion.

    Disagreement is not an argument for inaction.

    I’ll only point out that your test for when the fetus becomes a human being (which is intelligible ad defensible) is a variant of the “viability” argument and is therefore highly contingent, i.e. liable to change as rapidly as technology.

  13. Big Mike

    Well, no, Dr. Briggs, if I may be so impertinent as to contradict you on your own site, it’s not an evasion, really.

    For one thing, I don’t have a dog in the hunt: my chances of desiring an abortion are almost certainly zero. Therefore, I will (almost certainly) never be faced with such a momentous personal moral decision. Consequently, I have no “side” other than in an abstract, detached way.

    Secondly, while I believe that the existence of the strain of reckless irresponsibility that culminates in an unplanned pregnancy is truly a very sad commentary, it is, nonetheless, a reality, and looks as though it shall be so for the foreseeable future — certainly well past my terminal day on the planet, and, sadly, probably yours and those of your immediate posterity as well.

    Therefore, the relevant question for our generation should be: Which outcome is less morally repugnant: Unwanted children who never see the light of day, or unwanted children who are born sick, underweight and drug-addicted, and live their short lives unloved, uneducated, neglected, malnourished and miserable, only to die by violence or overdose? Maybe it’s less a question of whether we are killing a person, and more a question of when and how they die.

    Now, you may claim, admittedly with some merit, that this is a false dichotomy — that there are other possible outcomes. Yes, indeed there are, and examples of such can be found. Yet how would we manage tens of thousands of unwanted children per year? We don’t even do a good job with those who do somehow survive to school-age, despite the self-professed good intentions of thousands of politicians, teachers and do-gooders, and the expenditure of trillions of dollars over the past 100 or so years.

    Has there ever been a society in which an entire social class has, as its foundation, the feckless, indolent and infantile? Why, yes, there has, and it is the face of crime, poverty and misery in America today.

    Abortion, child neglect and abuse, poverty and their common antecedent, unwanted or otherwise irresponsible pregnancy, are all repulsive and grotesquely uncivilized.

    My real point was that, while possibly interesting to some, abstract conjectures about the beginning of life, and thus the “morality” of abortion, are unlikely to be convincingly resolved within any useful time horizon. A debate over something as (relatively) trivial as the legalization of marijuana has been going on for decades, and has not yet been conclusively decided. What hope is there in a debate on a topic of such weight as (the more general question of) abortion, in which both sides make their arguments purely on the basis of moral conviction?

    Abortion as a practice will end, eventually, probably in spite of whatever conclusion the debate on the definition of the beginning of life does or doesn’t reach, and it will do so in due course, and not a moment before — of that there can be no doubt.

  14. Dennis

    I have mulled this question for years and not being particularly sophisticated or steeped in the intricacies of philosophy or religion have finally in my fast approaching dotage decided that the church teachings are correct and humanhood begins when the soul enters the body. Since that point is a question of faith and not subject to philosophy or politics I think it is unknowable to us.

    Given that upwards of 50 million abortions have been performed since Roe vs. Wade it is obvious to me that abortion has become simply another method of birth control for [some] among us. This leads me back to the conclusion that the entire question of abortion is a political discussion and so I wonder why a political faction would be so concerned about the ultrasounds and the fact that a certain number of women would foreswear the operation after seeing it.

    Is there a reason beyond the oft-voiced one of women’s rights that a group of people would be so dismayed by the apostasy of a few that they would deny the provision of more information to what is an already egregious decision? I feel there must be some overreaching political reason here that I don’t understand.

  15. Briggs

    Big Mike,

    Contradictions, well made, are always—absolutely always—welcome.

    I’ll just point out one thing about your well reasoned response. Re: the “I don’t have a dog in the hunt” argument, which often crops up in other guises. Suppose you do not have any children, and will not have. Perhaps you are elderly or young but sterile. Before us is the question whether to kill children under two years old (Singer’s position) is murder or something less. Since you do not have and will not have children, you don’t have a dog in this hunt. Therefore, even though you are a member of this society (here and now), your opinion on this matter should either not be solicited or perhaps solicited but down-weighted in some fashion. Further, this implies that the killing of children under two does not affect you because you do not and cannot have any children.

    Point is: If a fetus is a human being from conception, then whether or not you will ever conceive should not stop you from saying that abortion is murder and that how these murders influence you. Or if a fetus is not human until (say) it fully exits, then this should not stop you from saying that abortion is not murder and how these procedures do not influence you.

  16. Graeme W

    I have thought about the question of when does a fetus become a human being many time, though I’ve still not found a definitive answer.

    What I’ve found useful is to ask the corresponding question “Why do you want to define it?” The obvious answer, in this context, is for legal reasons. Well, legalities require clear definitions (in theory, at least), and there are only a few clear steps in the progression from conception to birth. Therefore, most of the arguments on this subject use one or the other end of the progression for their definition.

    In my opinion, neither is correct, but for legal purposes there are few other points that can be used. A couple of suggestions, though, besides the brainwave one suggested above, would be when a heartbeat is detected, or when it is possible for the fetus to survive outside of the womb (a date that is constantly getting closer and closer to conception as medical technology improves). The first, like with the brainwave test, indicates signs of an independent lifeform, and the latter indicates that the fetus is capable of independent life.

    If the reason to define when a fetus becomes a human being is for morality purposes, then I would go with the heartbeat option. I have grave concerns about defining it too early because that would make any woman who had a miscarriage guilty of manslaughter, and any mother who had an abortion due to an ectopic pregnancy (which can NOT result in a live birth, merely the death of the mother) guilty of murder. I find neither of these scenarios morally correct, so using the point of conception definition is, to me, indefensible.

  17. Big Mike

    Dr. Briggs: I take your point.

    I didn’t mean to imply that I am somehow above the fray on this particular debate. More, my poorly made point was that my opinion as to the *morality* of abortion, per se, is inconsequential — perhaps “zero measure” captures the sense. This was intended to be an allusion to my post on a different thread about the nature of morality itself, and, in hindsight, it was not well articulated.

    To be explicit, there is, in my view, a difference between morality and mores, or social norms. A highly moral person may flout social norms, and one who strictly adheres to social norms may be completely depraved.

    Morality is a matter that is exclusively between an individual and the Creator (those who are disinclined to admit to the existence of the Creator sometimes confuse this with conscience). It is potential at the point we recognize that we must make a decision that has consequences that impinge upon or affect another person, it is actual when we make, and act on, such a decision. Anything other than that is more in the realm of either law or social convention.

    Under this definition, we may legitimately discuss whether the prohibition, or otherwise, of abortion is worthwhile social policy, but the issue of whether or not abortion (without loss of generality) itself is moral is not something that can legitimately be debated, and probably does not contribute to the development of appropriate policies (which, in the case of abortion, could possibly be more effectively focused on the social conditions antecedent to unwanted pregnancy).

    It’s unfortunate that issues get reduced to pro- and con. Abortion is abhorrent, as is the neglect and abuse of unwanted children. War is abhorrent, as is passively allowing a great society to be overrun and ruined by savages. I am anti-abortion and anti-war in the sense that it’s my view that a world without either would be a better place. Seeking to end them by fiat is not likely to be free of adverse consequences, no matter how hard we wish that to be so.

  18. robert burns

    I don’t know the moral or scientific answer. But the legal answer appears to be confused.

    If I recall correctly, some states have laws that say if an assault on a pregnant woman results in a miscarriage, then it is a crime of murder. I also think some states have laws that if a pregnant woman is murdered, the murderer is guilty of two murders. If my memory is correct, then I don’t understand how those states can call a fetus a human in those cases, and then call a fetus a non-human in cases of abortion.

  19. Gary F

    I have only been able to “find” a single demarcation point that defines a human being, and that is at conception. I do not look at this as a metaphysical argument. Prior to conception, the living tissue (egg or sperm) does not have the full genetic make-up, and therefore cannot be considered human. There are obviously many transitions and developments from conception to birth, but they all seem somewhat arbitrary for arriving at such a distinction. Even at birth a baby is in many ways still fetal (especially when compared to the rest of the mammal kingdom). While this definition may spoil a lot people’s fun, it would eliminate a whole host of contradictions, paradoxes and irresolvable legal issues.

  20. Graeme W

    @Gary F
    My major problem with your comment is to do with ectopic pregnancies. As a good friend of mine had the misfortune to have two ectopic pregnancies, it’s an issue that I take seriously.

    In case you’re not aware, an ectopic pregnancy is when the fertilized egg is lodged in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus. As such, if the fertilized egg continues to grow it will cause the fallopian tube to burst, resulting in the termination of the pregnancy and, almost certainly, the death of the woman.

    Currently, the only solution is an abortion. That saves the life of the woman. The tragedy for my friend was that involved the removal of the fallopian tube. With two ectopic pregnancies, that mean she was no longer able to conceive naturally.

    Similarly, before the birth of my two sons, my wife had a miscarriage. My understanding is that a significant number of natural miscarriages are due to the non-viability of fetus. If the fetus is deemed to be a human being from point of conception, then that means that every single miscarriage would need a criminal investigation to determine if the woman was guilty of manslaughter. That would be, by the definition being used, a human being in her care was killed. That’s a potentially criminal offense. I don’t believe my wife was in any way responsible for the miscarriage that occurred after she first became pregnant.

    Until the growth of the fertilized egg reaches the point where there is reasonable hope of independent existence, I have trouble accepting a legal definition that would define that fertilized egg as being a human being. I will, however, note that medical technology is improving all the time. Once it gets to the point where a fertilized egg can be successfully raised independently of the mother, I will be able to accept a legal definition of the fertilized egg being a human being. We’re a long way from that point, though.

  21. Colin

    Interesting that the use of person and non-person is supplemented with human and non-human, which is nonsense unless you want to contend that membership of a species is time variant in which case you are left to the SAME problem of defining that switch in membership.

    Two points I wish everyone would recognize but I know won’t happen because the biological intricacies are not Common Knowledge:
    1) You are and always have been human from now all the way back when you were sperm and egg: all of that is human. (Get a porcine heart valve and we can talk more on this point, but it’s not particularly relevant here.)
    2) Life is continuous and there is no “start” of life: sperm and egg are alive, zygotes are alive, fetuses are alive, etc. Quit bastardizing the meaning of “life” because it already is hard enough to come up with an all-encompassing definition: don’t make it worse by mixing in legalities.

    What is and what is not, legally, is completely arbitrary and has nothing to do with biology and *that* is why there will be no end to the debate.

  22. RickA

    robert burns:

    I studied this in law school.

    Actually, the case held that it was not murder to intentionally kick a pregnant women in the stomach with the intent of killing the fetus – but the Judge said it sure would be nice to have a law making that act illegal.

    Boom – feticide laws pop up all over.

    However, the point is that feticide is not murder per se (the killing of a human being) – they finesse it by merely defining the act of intentionally killing a fetus as a crime.

    So they get around the contradiction you have identified with some well crafted legalese.

  23. RickA

    Graeme W:

    Life of the mother is one of the classic exceptions to most abortion laws – so I don’t think you hypo will be a problem, no matter how the laws of the states change in the future.

    You are correct that many many pregnancies end in natural miscarriage, for a whole bunch of reasons.

    I doubt that changing the definition of a fetus from fetus to human will cause the states to change their laws to require an investigation.

    Someone has to press charges, after all.

    However, in the case where the mother wants to press charges – say in a feticide case, they do investigate the intentions of the person accused of feticide.

  24. GoneWithTheWind

    One wonders why in many states it is considered murder to kill the unborn child of a pregnant woman if the fetus is not a human.

  25. RickA


    A lot of people do argue that being human is time variant.

    For example, after death, most people would say you are no longer human, which is why it is sometimes ok to pull the plug, and why dead people can no longer own property.

  26. Luis Dias

    I have no time to enter into the discussion that marked my entry into internetdebates ten years ago.

    However I must congrat mr Briggs for his effort at objectivity in a discussion so prone to emotions. I will now read the comments.

  27. Luis Dias

    Caveat: inconsistency detected between asking decorum from your audience and simultaneously”godwinning” both the article and the comments.

  28. hmi

    At some point, a minor child becomes able to have sex with other adults, becomes subject to being criminally charged and tried as an adult, and so on. Different states, different countries, posit a wide range of times as which this happens. The difficulty of fixing such points with certainty does not compel us to give up on making these rules. The determination of some moment between conception and birth as the time at which the fetus achieves sufficient humanity that its termination is murder is fairly opaque. Nevertheless, reasonable observers may reasonably conclude that the biologic entity that results from the union of sperm and ovum is not at the instant of conception a human being in any legal meaning of the term.

    So, I see no theoretical difficulty in fixing one legal point at which the fetus begins to benefit from certain protections—or several such points. As such, trimestral rules are perfectly rational. And I believe it always remains true that rape victims bear no responsibility to gestate a fetus forced upon them by violence, nor must a woman choose to carry a pregnancy to term at risk of her own life.

  29. Graeme W


    I recognise that the exception for the life of the mother is in many abortion laws (though my understanding was that it was for the health of the mother, not the life, which is why it’s been able to be stretched to encompass the mental health of the mother, and allow an abortion on that basis).

    But that’s while the fetus is not considered to be human until birth. By changing the legal definition the existing laws change. An abortion would legally become a murder, and that would include an abortion required to save the life of the mother. The only option would be to declare that death to be in ‘self-defense’, but I’m pretty sure the current laws don’t allow a ‘self-defense’ plea for pre-meditated murder (which is what an abortion would be).

    What I can see happening is that it would require a judge to pass a death sentence on the fertilized egg to allow it to be legally executed. Since the egg isn’t doing anything at the time – it’s a hypothetical death of the mother, after all, even if it’s certain to occur if the ectopic pregnancy is not terminated – would it be constitutional to allow the execution of a human being for something that they will do in the future? At the moment, the answer would have to be no….

    So, if the fertilized egg is considered to be legally a human being from the point of conception, then we end up with some major legal complications in the field of obstetrics (with ectopic pregnancies being just the first one I, an unqualified person, could think of). The fact that the existing laws allow an abortion on medical grounds wouldn’t survive the first legal challenge (and there WOULD be a legal challenge to those laws by some one – you can guarantee it).

  30. RickA

    Graeme W:

    The three most common exceptions are life of the mother, health of the mother, rape and/or incest.

    The life of the mother exception is like self-defense.

    It is not considered murder if you kill someone in self-defense.

    Even if a fetus were defined as a human, a state could still define the situation in which absent an abortion the mother would die as self-defense, and permit it. Of course, you are correct that if they want they could require an investigation.

    My point is that it would not necessarily “become murder”, just as killing in self-defense is not considered murder. It is always “pre-meditated” if I am doing it on purpose – i.e. pulling the trigger with the intent to kill – it is just justified in a self-defense situation.

    I believe the health of the mother is for situations where having the baby wouldn’t kill the mother, but would be considered harmful to the mother – which is where mental health comes in.

    But defining a fertilized egg as a human will definitely require a lot of changes in state law – no doubt.

  31. Craig Hamilton

    Most people agree that a person is the product of his or her heredity and experience. This sounds like a description, but could also be used as a definition. Human beings share a common heredity, within quite a wide range, but so do our fingernail clippings and stem cells. We recognize that without sense organs or a nervous system to gain experience, fingernails are not human. The product of a full suite of chromasomes and zero experience is still zero.

    At conception, a fetus has the same heredity as a fingernail, and about the same experience. He or she grows in what is essentially a sensory deprivation tank for nine months and then is unceremonially dumped into the world to begin accumulating experience at a tremendous rate. Until that happens, the fetus should be classified as not-quite-human.

    Since many people have strong moral and spiritual reservations about abortion, it is very important that they not be compelled to support it in any way. This means absolutely no taxpayer funding. In addition, any doctor performing late-stage abortions should probably be investigated for malpractice, since these procedures are often more dangerous than live birth.

  32. RickA

    Craig Hamilton:

    I am not so sure about the sensory deprivation tank idea.

    I think studies have shown that fetuses can hear in the womb – and can recognize their mother’s voice after birth. In other words, heard and remembered.

    Fetuses suck their thumb in the womb (why?).

    So maybe they do accumulate some experiences in the womb.

  33. Graeme W

    @Craig Hamilton

    While I largely agree with you, I have to point out the fallacy in your last paragraph. A lot of people have strong moral and spiritual reservations about war, too. Based on your argument, there should be no taxpayer funding for wars, either. Having said that, if every country agreed, I would definitely be in favor! It’s just unlikely we’d get every country to agree.

    @Rick A

    We seem to be in general agreement, with the main difference of opinion being the impact of a legal change in definition. I’m of the opinion that the law is neither sensible nor logical, and so there will be massive impacts on today’s society with a change of definition.

    The amusing thing is that I was just reading the other day our hosts’ posts on the issue of Gay Marriage, and how, in the first post, he pointed out that change has unintended consequences and that a slow incremental approach to change is best. Taking that argument to the issue of abortion and the definition of when does human life begin, what’s a slow incremental approach to changing the definition of when a human life begins? After all, we’re pretty much in agreement that changing the current legal definition will have a significant impact (much more likely to be a bigger impact that Gay Marriage), so should we be taking a slow incremental approach on this subject, too?

    Personally, I would say no. In the case of both Abortion and Gay Marriage, we have what a significant percentage of the population consider to be an injustice. In neither case is that percentage a clear majority, but I’m firmly of the view that injustices should not be put to a popular vote.

  34. Matt

    Graeme W,

    Look up the medical concept of triage. Both medicine and the law are well aquanted with cases where under certain conditions doctors must allow one patient to die so another can live.

    Ectopic pregnancies are only one of many cases of this. There are many cases of conjoined twins where only one twin can survive separation and the doctors are not procecuted for murder.

    In the case of ectopic pregnancies the doctors have two patients. If the doctors do nothing, both patients will die. If the doctors abort the pregnancy the mother can survive. Under current medical technology there is nothing that can be done to save the fetus. I know of no one that would call this murder (since the alleged victim would have died anyway).

  35. Matt

    An additonal note on my comment to Gaeme W. I believe life begins at conception for reasons similar to Gary F on grounds that reqire neither religious nor metaphysical reasoning.

    Abortion in the case of ectopic pregnancy is not murder its triage.

  36. Matt

    There also exists cases where either the mother or the fetus could be saved but not both. These cases are not murder either. In these cases which patient to save should be a decison left to the family and should not be questioned regardless of which choice they make.

  37. Graeme W


    I’m aware of the cases you’re talking about and under the current law, the actions being taken are perfectly legal. My concern has been if the legal definition of what is a human being is changed is be earlier than birth, some of those actions would become illegal. Now, I fully expect that the laws would consequently be changed to adjust… but I’m also quite sure that there will be special cases/loop holes in those changes that will continue to have consequences. Without seeing the changes in the law that would accompany a change in the legal definition of what is a human being, I can’t comment further.

    On your comment on the ectopic pregancy, though, there is a distinct difference in a doctor allowing someone to die and a doctor actively killing a patient. You only have to revisit the voluntary euthanasia debate at the other end of the life spectrum to see the arguments against allowing someone to die, even if they were going to die anyway, given time. Killing someone in that situation IS deemed to be murder in many jurisdictions. If a fertilized egg in a fallopian tube is deemed to be a human being, the same arguments would mean that killing that egg WOULD be considered to be murder.

    Oh, and I also wanted to apologize. When I compared the arguments regarding Gay Marriage to those concerning a change of definition, I didn’t mean to imply that I consider the two issues to be of the same caliber. I don’t. While there are parallels between the two sets of arguments (for/against), that doesn’t mean they are of the same importance.

  38. Graeme W

    In addition, to reply to the additional post Matt made at 7:17pm, I, too, believe life begins at conception. That doesn’t, however, mean that I believe that that life should be considered to be a human being for all legal purposes at that point in time. And, as I understand it, that was the essential question being asked – when does that life become a human being?

    Also, just for the record, I consider every abortion to be a tragedy, but, as with my ectopic pregnancy example, I don’t consider every abortion to be an injustice (just a large number of them – I don’t believe in abortion as a form of birth control, for example).

  39. Eric

    Dr. Briggs,

    By vote, we do decide what age (“N years”) a child becomes (in a “Switch”) an adult.

    This person is suddenly allowed to do such things as marry, vote, enter contracts, serve in the military, or be culpable for murder. This age can and does vary both by jurisdiction and the privilege, responsibility, or liability being exercised.

    The selection of a particular age can be informed by anything (local culture, economic considerations, legal compromise), but can also lawfully be completely arbitrary, and is likely as much a “morass” as you describe.

    Since there is no objective bright line, we create one by asking each adult to form an opinion of the morass for themselves, and then make an up or down vote. The procedure of a vote simply aggregates those opinions.

    Similarly, we can legitimately, by vote, decide at what point in time (“N weeks”) a fertilized human egg eventually becomes a legal person.

  40. Chinahand

    Prof Briggs in your reply to my post you ask – “what do we do?”

    Surely this is a common issue in any community – you debate it, the lawmakers create the rules and attempt to balance their opinions with those of the constituency they create laws for.

    Societies have struggled over whether slavery is compatable with Christianity – yes was the answer for the majority of Christianity’s existence; over whether women should vote – again the contingent opinion over generations was no; over the death penalty – still contentous; over the rights of homosexuals – maybe I am opening up too many boxes even for Pandora, but I think you get my drift.

    Laws are created which people agree and disagree with. You either abide by the laws, or face the consequences.

    The law makes a decision on whether it is lawful or not to abort a foetus. You can attempt to squeeze this into a debate about whether a foetus is a human being, and whether killing a human being is ever ethical, but these are not really what the abortion laws are about; rather the reason to debate the issue is individual morality and this is different from law.

    Lawyers are pragmatists, politicians even more so. The law makes its definitions and these can be different from what some people individually accept them to mean.

    I am British and find the legislative compromises my Parliament has made over abortion, free choice limited by viability, acceptable. Playing hypotheticals about how future technology will change this is only useful to a certain extent – judgements concerning foetuses growing in a test tube will not have to balance the rights of the women to privacy, a politician and a judge will always have to consider this when faced with pregnant woman.

    In “Brave New World” hypotheticals, you can easily end up with an odd nanny state – one where to stop a woman making the decision herself and using backstreet methods the foetus is removed from her belly to be placed into a state run artificial womb for its own safety. I feel such scenarios are not useful, and suspect the privacy of the women will be accepted (at least in the UK) for many years to come over terminations in the first and even a considerable period in the second trimester.

    I sincerely wish every pregnancy to be met with joy, and the women’s circumstances to remain that way through birth and beyond, raising a success child; but reality is not this way. Pregnacies are met with dread, and circumstances can change bringing misery – when a baby has been born it can be removed from the mother’s care – doing this prior to birth is quite an imposition by the state!

    The issue is not whether abortions should exist or not, but whether they should occur in a legal vrs an illegal setting. Women will, if sufficiently desparate, find a way to control their bodies.

    My feeling is abortion should be legal safe and rare. Currently they are far too common and this is due to woeful contraceptive advice and knowledge – on both the part of women and men.

    So “what should we do”? Debate it, try to find compromises which do not bring opposing factions to violence*, and improve knowledge of contraceptives!

    *Difficult when one side believes abortion is violence, I know – I do not think bringing up the holocaust here is useful – a young woman taking a pill is not equivilent to a gas chamber, nor is a minor surgical procedure. It may distress a God in heaven, and cause the woman’s conscience difficulties, but pragmatically these situations are different from the holocaust.

  41. Alex Heyworth

    Briggs said “… some cultures, as Goldberg pointed out, saw Jews as less than human and then acted on this belief. If we accept that all morality is culturally dependent, we cannot say that cultures, at different times and places, were wrong or right in doing what they did.”

    A minor quibble if I may: we can (and indeed often must*) pass judgment on the views and actions of those from a different culture or a different era. That judgment includes forming an opinion as to whether these views and actions were wrong or right.

    *I say must because sometimes our moral judgments are so immediate and so visceral that we cannot stop ourselves making them.

    However, this does not mean that our culturally derived moral code is inherently superior to theirs. Obviously we believe that ours is superior, otherwise we would have adopted theirs.

    But none of this is relevant to the issue of whether all morality is culturally dependent. It may be the case (I would argue it is) that some aspects of morality are universal, others are cultural. One could argue, however, that even universal aspects of morality are cultural, but are just derived from aspects of human culture that are universal. (What’s the idea of treating morals as separate from culture anyway?)

    On the issue of the humanness of a fetus, the most logically consistent position seems to be that the fetus (or rather embryo) is human from the moment of conception. But logical consistency is not a necessary condition for moral codes, nor even a common one. Much of what passes for moral code is governed by the practical necessities of the times. For example, the practice of infanticide is much more likely to be sanctioned when food is scarce. Similarly, famines in the Middle Ages tended to increase the number of accusations of witchcraft – notably directed at women who are past child bearing age, and thus more dispensable.

  42. Eric

    Dr. Briggs:

    It is helpful to define the process of early human development in precise medical terms rather than cultural terms, i.e., scientifically speaking, at what point “conception” occurs.

    Does “conception” occur when a sperm fertilizes an egg? Or does it occur when the fertilized egg implants in the uterine lining? Or some other measurable criterion?

    This definition is very important, since there is a significant chance (approximately 40%) that a fertilized egg naturally does not implant in the uterine lining and is lost. Furthermore, after implantation, there is a significant chance (approximately 15%) that the pregnancy naturally aborts or miscarries.

    If a fertilized egg is a person, what legal rights does this person have? For example, does this person have property or inheritance rights? If not, why not?

    Furthermore, if the fertilized egg does not implant, what responsibilities does society have in protecting that person? For example, are we morally obligated to develop methods to capture and protect these people? If we aren’t, why not?

    Is a natural lack of implantation a homicide? Is a spontaneous abortion or a miscarriage a homicide? If so, are these homicides acceptable? Why?

    If a fertilized egg is not a person, but an implanted fertilized egg is a person, then an in vitro fertilized egg (a “frozen embryo”), because it is not implanted, must not be a person. If this is morally incorrect, why?

  43. Will

    This is a great topic, but just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is that the entire western world is suffering from an infertility epidemic. Enough of the population has been affected that “we” are no longer having enough babies to sustain our population.

    Birth control and abortions have given us the biological equivilant of the free market. We can finally let natural selection deal with it. Eventually, those genes that compel someone to a life without 2.5 child children will eventually be bred out of the pool. Attempting to control it will only prolong the misery.

  44. Two questions are evident in this essay and thread:

    1. When (or if) is “humanity” conferred on a (human) embryo?, and

    2. Is the premeditated taking of an innocent life “murder”?

    Quotation marks are used above because those quoted words are loaded with connotations and implications. The answers to the questions hinge on those definitions.

    First, biologically speaking, a fertilized egg is most definitely human. He or she isn’t a frog or a bat. He or she has only human DNA and is alive. If we are to assign species-hood to a human fetus, we have to call it human.

    Pythagoras notes that historically some cultures condoned infanticide. Perhaps, but I doubt they maintained that their victims were not human. Briggs notes the Nazi philosophy was to call Jews non-human. I am no expert on the matter, but it seems incredible to me that the (human) monsters who pushed Jews into gas chambers were convinced their victims were a different species. That level of delusion is decidedly irrational. Similarly, I think folks who deny species status to human embryos are also deluded and irrational.

    Second, is the deliberate premeditated killing of an innocent human murder? (Key word: innocent, meaning the killing was not self-defense in an immediate and direct way). Morality aside, “murder” is a legal term, and it is what the law says it is. As long as the law says abortion is not murder, it isn’t.

    Some have equated abortion with miscarriage or ecotopic pregnancies, but the latter were not premeditated killings. Shit happens, and even healthy people accidentally die sometimes, and it’s nobody’s fault and hence not murder.

    Please be aware that the law can change, or be superseded by other laws, as in the case of Nazi war criminals who were executed for their crimes, which weren’t crimes within their culture at the time of commission. Only after-the-fact, when the Nazi laws were superseded, did their killing of innocents become murder.

    Some commenters have chosen to argue these questions from a moral point of view. Big Mike, for instance, notes that killing a fetus may be moral if we suspect the baby/child that results may be “unwanted … sick, underweight … drug-addicted … unloved, uneducated, neglected, malnourished and miserable…”. Evidently some people believe these are capital offenses, and we are doing the fetus a favor by snuffing him/her before they suffer the pangs of life. That position is decidedly immoral, as can be attested to by all the vicissitude sufferers who would rather not be executed, thank you very much.

    No one yet has argued that embryos are useful tissue for stem cells, etc. and that abortion is justified if we harvest the living cells of the dead fetuses for “humanitarian” experiments. Thankfully. I salute the commenters for eschewing this commonly held but patently immoral idea. Nor have the sexually promiscuous weighed in with their consequence-free hedonism argument, again thankfully.

    And I was pleased that Dennis noted over 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade. As a number guy, I have always felt that mathematics can be used to express morality, or immorality as the case might be.

  45. John Morris

    Abortion is two related problems. When does life begin is the hard one. In math zero and infinity are warning signs, and this is the philosophical equivalent. Not likely to be solved anytime soon. One one side we have people who hear Monty Python’s _Every Sperm is Sacred_ and it makes perfect sense, never realizing it is a joke at their expense. On the other end of the line is people who follow their logic to it’s end point and and up in favor of infanticide. Both sides are nuts and nobody can find a middle ground that is stable enough to hold.

    But most of our practical problems do not require an answer to that difficult question. As others have already noted here, as a society we must and do draw lines that aren’t really defendable but we can agree to abide by them. Have sex with a lass one day before the magic birthday and you just committed a felony. Does that make sense when you really think about it? No, but it is equally obvious some line has to exist so we accept the logic behind those laws. Pop out the birth canal on this side of the U.S. border and you are a citizen but if the birth happens a hundred yards on the other side of a line on a map and you aren’t. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except a line has to be drawn and that is where we drew it. So when does a fetus gain Citizenship? Any sensible reading of the US Constitution says at birth so that is where we have to draw the line currently. That leaves us with the purely political question of whether in light of modern scientific learning and evolving moral standards we should adjust that line to some other equally arbitrary point on the development line.

  46. ad

    A woman has the right to choose what happens in her own body, or should have. Everything else is irrelevant. So get over it people.

  47. margaret berger

    Let us revisit the questions.

    1 At what point does a fetus become a human being?

    2 Why?

    1 A human fetus is a human being at the time the sperm and egg unite.

    2 A human fetus can die at two cells or three or more but it will never be anything other than a human being whether it makes it out of the womb or not. It doesn’t change the nature of what it is.

    Fetus is the name of a stage of life. A fetus can be a pig fetus, cow fetus ect.

    The argument we have is really whether all stages of human life are entitled to the rights that our particular culture is willing to bestow. We argue that from various positions.

  48. margaret berger


    Uncle Mike

    The Nazis had a problem with when was a Jew not a Jew? There is a great play about German Generals discussing the “Final Solution”. They had to define a Jew. It was established that Jews were sub-human but what about the “mischling” in other words half Jews. The question arose as to how much aryan blood did it take to elevate a Jew into a human with rights. Was it one parent or one grandparent? The general who wanted to declare mischlings non Jews was spared at Neurmberg. The Germans kept excellent records and the play was from the minutes of their meeting. Can’t remember the name of the play. Saw it in German with English sub-titles. It’s really scary.

  49. Will

    The nerd in me wants a technical solution to this classification problem. It is clear that we cannot agree on what a human is, but maybe we can agree on what a human isn’t (Viola, Jones).

    The solution could be to compare the growing fetus to a set of non human fetusus. The point at which a fetus is deemed “human” would be the point at which it is discernible from a Shark fetus, a Chicken fetus, and a Golden retriever fetus.

    This would be the line at which the fetus is clearly a member of the great apes and sufficiently close to Homosapien.

    Another line of argument against abortion, if you want to conclude that the fetus is non-human until stage N, might come from PETA. If its not human, then what is it?

  50. Roman

    Regarding the thread about ectopic pregnancy and non-implantation. I think the argument is missed. There is an element of will. (I don’t mean to reignite the discussion on free will.) One should distinguish between willful act of terminating life from all natural causes. Non-implantation and ectopic pregnancy are natural causes of termination of life. Ectopic pregnancy can not survive even when the implantation happens in peritoneum. Surgical intervention in such cases saves the woman — there is no doubt here. The criterion based on brainwave or heartbeat is arbitrary, it depends on technological advances and those change.
    The arguments should take under consideration the fact that there is no accepted definition of life. Therefore I doubt that it is possible to successfully argue the point that life starts at some arbitrary time after conception.

    The dead person does not have property rights because it is …. dead.
    The fetus, as an alive person, may have a right to the throne.

  51. RickA


    You might be interested in the Rule against perpetuities:

    “No interest is good unless it must vest, if at all, not later than twenty-one years after the death of some life in being at the creation of the interest.”

    I am not a trusts and estate lawyer – but I think it is pretty clear that a fertilized egg (a life in being) can have inheritance rights.

  52. RickA


    You said “The point at which a fetus is deemed “human” would be the point at which it is discernible from a Shark fetus, a Chicken fetus, and a Golden retriever fetus.”

    You must mean visually – because the DNA is discernible as human (or shark, chicken or dog) from the moment it is a single fertilized egg.

  53. RickA


    Sorry to disagree – but I don’t think that there is no accepted definition of life.

    We have an accepted definition of death – so we have an accepted definition of life (not death).

    I think most of the people on this thread would agree that life begins from conception.

    What we are discussing is when that life becomes human.

    I believe a fertilized egg is human – but many people do not believe that a small clump of cells is human, any more than a clump of skin cells is human.

    However, that is the debate.

  54. Will

    RickA: yes, I meant visually. I thought most animals looked alike at the beginning, not that I’ve ever looked at a shark fetus.

  55. RickA


    That is what I thought.

    I have read that human fetuses have a tail for a period of time.

    If that were true, would the fetus have to lose the tail (at least) to be discernibly human?

  56. Will

    RickA: I’m note sure what would be required in terms of features. I do not know enough about fetuses, human or otherwise.

    Im under the impression that mammals, birds, and fish develop differing jaw structures relatively early, so there would likely be a “it’s now a mammal” point before the “it’s a great ape” point. The leg and forearm structure, and area for the relatively massive human brain, might be good indicators.

    Since we are concerned with identifying a member of our species as early as possible it wouldn’t make sense to rely on only one feature for rejection. The sum of the features is what would determine the final outcome. The classifier would have to Err with extreme prejudice on the side of acceptance, since we know that eventually all human fetuses become human babies.

    I feel dirty for having wrote this.. I have childern of my own. The thought of wiping one of them out, in the womb, is uncomfortable to say the least.

  57. Matt

    Graeme W,

    My stance, life begins at conception. At that point, the fetus is a distinct organizm of species homo sapiens. That makes it human. There is no logical or rational basis to place the boundary anywhere else. If you want to say it lies else where on an arbitrary basis for the purpose of the law fine, but don’t pretend that it is anything other than arbitrary.

    As to ectopic pregnancy, I think assisted suicide is distinguisable and not a proper comparison. The best comparison is conjoined twins separated at birth when only one twin can survive the separation. On twin is actively killed by the separation surgurey. Name one jursitiction where this is considered murder and I will consider your argument in regards to ectopic pregnancy.

  58. Matt

    On the issue of assisted suicide, I don’t have an issue with this being legal as long as the informed consent of the individual patient can be verified objectively and independently.

    Doing more than disconnecting a patient that is not capable of giving consent from artificial life support should be illegal.

  59. In addition to agreeing with Alex Heyworth that “logical consistency is not a necessary condition for moral codes, nor even a common one”, I would also claim that logic, even when it does apply, does not require that the marker used to separate what is legal from what is illegal should correspond to anything other than agreement by the majority (or by whoever has the deciding power in a given culture).

    With regard to the legal question, there may well be agreement on many cases. But in the continuum between what certainly should always be allowed and what certainly should always be forbidden there is a range of cases on which people may disagree. In the absence of any universal agreement on the moral issue, what the law does is attempt to strike a balance between competing moral positions. Often this means that it just draws one or more lines of convenience without actually claiming that they separate the moral from the immoral. So a legal distinction at twelve weeks of gestation, or twenty, or whenever, does not need to imply that any particular state of the fetus changes at any of those times.

    Even for the purpose of an individual moral decision, there may well be competing values at stake and I have never seen a good argument for the existence of a common scale on which such competing values can be compared. We each decide on what seems right at the time. In many cases we have no qualms about the choice, and the vast majority agree. But there is no guarantee that all cases will be this simple, and we are often faced with situations where a choice we have made in good conscience may later be felt to be wrong (and maybe later right again). Sometimes we do fall into indecisive mental “churning”. But even if we do make a choice, that does not imply the existence of a truly “best” moral decision. What tips the balance towards our actual judgement at any given time may depend on past experience and current neuro-chemistry rather than any absolute prioritization of competing values. However, despite the fears and fear-mongering of some, this does not deny the possibility of *any* absolute moral principles. There are lots of cases where we do have essentially universal agreement on what is right, and even more where careful consideration leads always to the same answer even among those who might initially disagree with it. But I suspect that any project to find a *complete* set of absolute moral principles will fail.

    With regard to the personhood of a fetus I doubt that anyone believes in a magical discrete change of status at any particular time. But many people see the progression from fertilized ovum to conscious infant as a gradual process where the attitude towards killing should range from negligible concern at the start to absolutely abhorrence at the end. And although I don’t *require* logic in morality, I see no lack of it in such a position.

  60. Outlier

    Where is the line which divides my arm from my elbow?

  61. Graeme W

    @Matt 21 February 2012 at 2:28 am

    We are in agreement as to when life begins.

    The question, though, was when should a fetus be considered to be a human being. That’s not necessarily the same as when life begins. I agree that it’s not an unreasonable definition, and in many contexts I would agree that a fetus is a human being from the point of conception.

    But if the context is a legal one, then that’s when I have to disagree that a fetus is a human being from the point of conception. Currently the definition is from birth, not conception, and I equally disagree with that definition.

    From a moral point of view, I see not problem with aborting an ectopic pregnancy. However, if the fertilized egg is legally a human being from point of conception, then I would have to argue that terminating an ectopic pregnancy is actively killing another human being – something that is currently illegal.

    On the conjoined twin situation, I don’t have the legal background to address that question. I do accept that that happens, just like assisted suicide happens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legal. If the legal community turns a blind eye to murder, then I supposed that’s one solution to the problem, but I don’t believe that’s a good long term solution.

    I’ve tried doing some online research on the conjoined twin situation (googled: legal conjoined twin death), and it seems that it requires a court to rule in each case where separating conjoined twins is likely to result in one of their deaths. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it strongly implies that it can only be done after a court order is received to authorise it. That would agree with my guess as to what would happen to ectopic pregnancies if the definition was changed that a human being started from conception – all such cases would require the authorization of a judge. Certainly the cases I found using Google all required a judge to give permission to separating conjoined twins where one twin was deemed to be highly unlikely to survive the separation.

    I feel strongly that the legal definition of when a fetus becomes a human being should be between conception and birth. Neither extreme is an adequate legal definition in my opinion. Both extremes have legal complications. The definition of “at birth” has the advantage of being the current status quo, but that’s its only advantage.

    Morally, I’m perfectly happy to consider a fetus to be a human being from conception. From conception that fertilized egg has the potential to become a person who can enrich the world with their presence… but it’s only a potential. Until birth, that potential has the chance of being snuffed out (my friend with the two ectopic pregnancies and my wife’s miscarriage being just two examples. I had another friend who spent six months in a hospital bed to keep her child because of a problem with her uterus. If she hadn’t stayed in bed for that length of time she would have lost the child)

    PS: I’m also honored that you’ve decided to respond to my comments when there are many other posters with insightful comments in this thread. I accept that our views on this subject may not 100% agree, but while we may agree in many areas, I don’t think we’ll be able to reconcile the differences.

  62. Eric

    Medically speaking, pregnancy begins at the point when a fertilized egg implants in the uterine lining.

    If a fertilized egg is considered a person at the instant of fertilization, then personhood is conferred independent of pregnancy.

    This is morally problematic, since if the fertilized egg never implants, then that person will die.

    What is the moral stance concerning the welfare of these people? Is it morally acceptable that these people die, simply because this is a natural process? Do these people’s lives have any less value than those that die from an artificial process?

    And if it is acceptable that naturally unimplanted people die, then why is it unacceptable that an aborted person should die?

    Is a person’s life what matters, or only how they die?

  63. DAV


    Maybe you want to reword that? That people die is not a moral problem. Do you really mean it is?

    Some people die after falling off a cliff; some die after being pushed off. The second one involves morals while the first doesn’t.

  64. Briggs

    ad said, “A woman has the right to choose what happens in her own body, or should have. Everything else is irrelevant.” This is false and for several reasons. I’ll give just two examples.

    For example, suppose a woman conceals purloined jewels or a bomb in her body. She would not have a right to choose what happens to these objects simply because they are in her body.

    If you object and say that you did not mean artificial, i.e. non-biological, things but that you did mean biological things, then, since the fetus is a biological thing, your statement is merely a rephrasing of birth (via a complete exit) is your judgment of when the fetus switches to a human being. As we said, this is an intelligible view, but it implies that you would allow the killing of the fetus at any point short of a complete exit. That is, you would agree that the woman in the example given in the text has a right to abort, that is kill, the fetus as she is being wheeled into the OR. This too is an intelligible view. Do you in fact hold it?

    Although you have only hinted at it, it is also false that a woman may do anything she wants with her body (and not just what is inside it). For if a woman could do anything she wants with her body, then the woman could, say, take an ax to shorten the checkout line at the grocery store. Her whacking the earlier patrons would be an act committed with her body.


    Although it is interesting to switch to medical terminology, and we have already conceded that if our definition of when a fetus becomes a human being is based on contingent events then we must be able to describe exactly what those contingent (i.e. scientific) events are, we musn’t forget that after the switch, whenever it comes after conception, we are talking about a human being and not just a “life.” We can use contingent facts to inform our metaphysical/moral argument, but in the end it is still a moral and not a scientific argument which interests us.

    About voting and the law. Have we decided (in our context) that what happened to the Jews/Gypsies/Homosexuals/etc. in Germany was morally right?

  65. Martin

    What is really fascinating is the fundamental reason we have this debate and I believe it has to do with the nature of man as identified by John Locke and codified by Thomas Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence. That is, we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we possess these rights because we are human, not because they are bestowed on us by a government.

    It was this basic philosophy that eventually brought down slavery, because a nation so conceived can not long tolerate the dispossesion of these rights to humans.

    I believe it is this foundational principle that is working slowly to bring limits to abortion. Legal and unlimited abortion was granted this nation by a supreme court oligarchy usurping the powers of the legislature and thus circumventing representative government. The struggle that has been ongoing since, is merely the attempt to right this procedural wrong by a people deeply rooted in a belief in unalienable rights.

    And these rights are bestowed equally to all men, whether they are unwanted, suffering, poor, etc. Or whether they be in the intellectual elite. That is what we mean by equal rights.

  66. Briggs


    Everything you say might be true, but let’s keep on course. We have, in this particular forum, just two questions to answer. Let’s everybody just keep to these or we’ll lose focus quickly.

  67. Ken

    Given that abortion and reproductive rights insofar as abortion is concerned is a legal issue the only relevant/practical approach is to address the matter in context with related legal precedents. All the rest is just so much philosophizing.

    One legal reference worthy of research are non-human analogies to the “pregnant human” situation.

    Perhaps, somewhere, there’s a case or two in which a farmer planted seeds that, with the benefit of hindsight, would have matured into a harvestable crop if not for some negligent or malicious act or omission that caused those seeds to die, or whatever, prematurely (broken irrigation system, etc.). The ensuing court case (and/or insurance case) might show that those immature seeds, still invisible from the surface of the ground, qualified as a future crop.

    In such a situation, the human analogy of a just-formed viable embryo or fetus seems directly comparable…so, if a plant hardly starting out qualifies as the ultimate end-result–a sef-sufficient & reproducing individual–so ought, by the same legal principle & legal logic, a human embryo or fetus.

    Maybe there’s something out there involving adulturated feed that impacted the birthrate of sheep or something…resulting in a settlement, etc.

    Find a case or two like that & the legal complications will ensue… the logic of applied legal precedent has a compelling sort of binding influence unlike that of the emotional value-based philosophy inherent in this subject.

    Don’t ask me about such a case(s)…I don’t know…but…it seems almost a certainty that there’s something like that “out there.”

  68. Eric


    An inconsistent response to death is a moral problem. It requires a justification as to why one life is less important than an other.

    In your analogy man falls off a cliff, and another is pushed. It is certainly a moral decision to push or not push a man off a cliff, and stop a or not stop man from being pushed.

    To ignore the man falling off the cliff requires a moral calculus. It is also a moral decision to prevent or not prevent a man from falling off a cliff.

    Since we assume all men’s lives are equal, why do we not consider the man who dies from a fall?

    If our underlying assumption is that we must protect all life, is ignoring the man falling off the cliff morally correct?

    Furthermore, if it is morally correct to be indifferent to the man falling off the cliff, then why is it morally incorrect to be indifferent to the man being pushed?

  69. Briggs


    Yes, it is philosophizing. The law is irrelevant except that it will encode what the result of the philosophizing is. The moral question is what we are asking here. Not a legal question. This means we cannot dismiss the moral question because legal questions are also relevant. Uncle Mike’s point here is relevant.

  70. Outlier

    I guess I was too subtle. If you want a good answer, you’ve got to ask the right questions. When does a fetus become human is not a rationally answerable question. And the only reason for asking this question is to argue the abortion morality question. And for that, a very poor place to start is with the murder question. Murder is a quagmire definition also. Take the “thou shall not kill commandment”, it seems there are countless rationalizations which provide loopholes for that one.

    Goldberg is on to something when he says conception-pregnancy-birth is a continuous process, not a discrete variable. The beginning is vague, unknowable. Drawing a line in the middle is arbitrary. The end is clear and obvious and pretty well defined. Birth has always been the recorded event. I’m not for something just because it is traditional, but it seems those that the only reason not to go with it is to further a certain moral goal. I’m against mixing reason and morals 😉

    This is a bit over the top, but experts at the AAAS meeting have just concluded that dolphins should have human rights:

    It is based on years of research that has shown dolphins and whales have large, complex brains and a human-like level of self-awareness.

    This has led the experts to conclude that although non-human, dolphins and whales are “people” in a philosophical sense, which has far-reaching implications.

    Ethics expert Prof Tom White, from Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, author of In Defence of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, said dolphins were “non-human persons”.

  71. RickA

    Eventually technology will invent an artificial womb.

    In which case, rather than abortion, if the mother wants the fetus gone, it can be moved into an artificial womb.

    Now this raises a whole host of additional problems.

    Who pays – both for the cost of gestation and raising the child?

    What are the rights of the fetus versus mother when the argument “it is my body” is no longer relevant?

    What if the mother cannot stand the thought of her child being raised by another – and takes the position that she would rather terminate, than transfer to the artificial womb?

    These questions may sound silly now – but in just a short period of time we may be faced with all kinds of questions which will make the current debate seem easy by comparison.

  72. Fred N.

    First, I am in the camp of life begins at conception and as such, needs to be protected. However, I acknowledge that they are and will be tragic circumstances, such as ectopic pregnancies, where tough choices also need to made. I don’t envy anyone in that position nor offer any suggestions as to how define those circumstances with a law framework.

    Being from Canada, the only 1st world country with no law governing abortions, I hope for some definition of human being (N) to be established. However, abortionists (such as Henry Morgentaler) would have us add a third question: Does it matter? And their answer would be no. The woman’s right to choose trumps all.

  73. Matt

    Graeme W,

    That the fetus might not survive to birth does not change the issue of is it human. All things that live die. A human (or any other living thing) faces the possibility of death at all stages of life from a host of possible causes. Infants die too.

    I am starting to see more of your point on ectopic pregnancy. However, I don’t neccesarily think that needing a court order is a huge bar. I would look at how urgent is terminating such a pregnancy, then (using the conjoined twins separated at birth example) how long it takest to get such an order, the cost of getting the order, and what percentage of the petitions for such orders are granted.

    Setting aside the issue of a court order (I don’t think it should be needed for the ectopic pregnancy). Not all deaths due to human action are murder. On the criminal side, following murder in order of severity judged by penelties there are (in most jursdictions) manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide. On the non-criminal side you have justifiable homicide and acidental deaths (negligence if any doesn’t rise to the criminal level).

    While I am not a lawer, the ectopic pregnancy case (fetus will kill the mother if not itself killed) well fits my understanding of the definition of justifiable homicide. Are there any lawyers on this this thread that would like to comment on this?

    Beyond that, I agree with the other posters arguing that there are many legal rights that vest in a person on an age dependent basis. Saying a fetus has fewer rights than a baby after birth does not require adopting the (in my oppinion non-sense) position that the fetus isnt human.

  74. Ken

    BRIGGS Quote: “If the fetus is a human being, then killing it is murder. If the fetus is not a human being then killing it is not murder. The only possibility Goldberg missed is the distinction that at some point during a pregnancy, but before birth, the fetus switches (by some unnamed mechanism) from non-human to human.”

    ONE Could argue that a person is not “human” until, and unless, all requisite development has completed sufficiently — and we now know that much brain development occurs post-birth–to appx 7 yrs old, give or take a few years depending on the person, and if this is stymied for some reason the individual is permanently stunted (some significant development is known to occur into the late teens).

    Does a less than fully-developed human “count”? Yes or no, depending on the answer one wants and/or the criteria one uses.

    If one were to make an analogy to a complex system like a car or computer, one would naturally reject the incomplete product … most would readily argue it is not the product but something else entirely, however close (especially if arguing for a refund or replacement).

    History is repleat with the same basic rejection criteria being applied by parents in numerous diverse cutures to human offspring…after birth.

  75. Ken

    BRIGGS QUOTE: “Yes, it is philosophizing. The law is irrelevant except that it will encode what the result of the philosophizing is. The moral question is what we are asking here. Not a legal question. ”

    YES & NO.

    If the law “encodes” the resut of the “philosophizing” and the philosophizing IS (“Yes, it is…” in the context I’d framed it) directly addressing the “moral question” then it follows that ‘the law’ IS and MUST BE [since you’ve conceded it ‘encodes’ the result of philosophizing] a direct outcome of the moral process of debate you’ve solicited. The “moral question” and the “legal question” are fundamentally the same.

    Just a different avenue, basically starting at an answer & working backwards, of precisely the question you asked (‘there’s two ways to skin a cat’ the saying goes).

    In your elegantly simple statement you’ve conceded then abruptly rejected something as concurrently the same & different.

  76. Martin

    I understand that my last post may have seemed off-topic. But the principles apply to the discussion.

    Matt posted:
    “Beyond that, I agree with the other posters arguing that there are many legal rights that vest in a person on an age dependent basis.”

    My point in my first post is that the right to life is not granted by a governing body but inheres to our nature. This was the point of John Locke and the founders.

    As far as determining when “life” begins, as a geneticist, I recognize conception as the beginning of a sovereign entity.

    Whether or not that entity can survive on its own is another question. If this becomes determinant, than at what age can a baby survive on its own? 5 years old? 10?

  77. Ken

    RE: (1) at what point does a fetus become a human being? (2) Why?

    FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION: What is a “human being?” More specifically, what is it about a person that makes them “human”? The second question “Why?” is necessarily part of the first.

    We know that huge portions of one’s body can be removed & one is still considered “human”…while significant brain damage will render a person into a completely, totally different personality…with further damage such as via age-related strokes rendering a “person” more vegetative than anything we associated with “humanity.”

    In the latter case, where a person gradually loses the ability to recognize family, friends, etc. or even perform basic functions…if there’s a “soul” that confers humanity (Briggs opened this line of reasoning via “morality”…as “soul” or belief therein underlies “morality”) is this evidence that one’s soul is being incrementally “harvested”/”departing” to be re-combined elsewhere? (and if you think that is far-fetched or flip or etc., recognized that fundamental to Gnostic belief at the same time Christianity was taking off this was central to that belief). This is just the flip-side to what, ultimately, makes a fetus human — it must work both ways, coming into & departing from, life.

    Ultimately, any “moral” value is based on one’s religious beliefs–to try & pretend this discussion about a fetus becoming human & why without acknowledging the most fundamental basis for the value professed is just so much creative lying.

  78. polski

    Just recently a baby was finally brought home after many months of neonatal care. It was born prematurely at 20 weeks and as the article said weighed as much as two Iphones! The heroic work by the medial team and I assume hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of care offered this young child a life. This child was “wanted”. others are not so lucky.

    The debate revolves around the wanting of children and the disposal of ones that are not wanted. Of course this disposal must be accompanied by a clear conscience and this is where the question regarding the beginning of life or viability starts. Without a life associated to the fetus disposal is grief-free or less traumatic one would assume.

    Overall sad, since the myriad of birth control available should render the need for abortion far less common now. If I were an alien touring through a large hospital where preemies are given extraordinary care and other fetuses terminated because of want I would wonder about humanity.

  79. mbabbitt

    If we as a societal community are unsure of when life or humanness (“A member of the genus Homo and especially of the species H. sapiens” – freedictionary.com ) begins, we should always err on the side of caution, and not kill. This seems the most prudent and wisest – most human – course of action.

  80. Bob Ludwick

    The lump of tissue inside a putative mother is a bit like Schrodinger’s cat: it is neither human nor non-human until its category is determined by the mother, exclusively. If the mother-and no one else-decides that she wants to keep the fetus to term, that mass of tissue inside her is a human. Anyone who through deliberate action causes the death of her self-defined ‘baby’ can be prosecuted for murder. If she-and she alone-determines that she doesn’t want to be bothered with a baby, it is a fetus and enjoys all the legal ‘right to life’ of an ingrown toenail. Anyone who interferes with her decision to dispose of it can-and will-be prosecuted for interfering with her civil rights.

    Currently, if the mother is en route to an abortion clinic to have a fetus removed from her body, in pieces if necessary, and is mugged, with the mugging resulting in the death of the fetus, the mother can magically turn her unwanted fetus into a human through the simple expedient of having the mugger charged with murder. If she makes it to the abortion clinic unmolested, she, on her own, can hire the clinic to remove the fetus (in many cases using our money) and anyone who suggests to her on the sidewalk outside the clinic that she is about to hire the murder of a baby can be prosecuted with interfering with her civil rights, even if there was NO attempt to interfere with her physically.

  81. hmi

    Martin writes that, “My point in my first post is that the right to life is not granted by a governing body but inheres to our nature. This was the point of John Locke and the founders.”

    Two problems are visible immediately. The first is that Jefferson’s Lockean phrase about the “right to life” claims that this right is an endowment of the “creator,” presumably aka “nature’s God.” Despite the frequent repetition of the phrase “natural rights” even today, I am skeptical that we will find many to defend our political rights as natural, in the same realm of things as thermodynamics and quantum states—let alone as owed to divine dispensation.

    Second, whatever Jefferson meant by the phrase, Locke clearly was making a point about ownership. Our bodies are our own property. Curiously, this is the same claim made by supporters of abortion rights (our bodies, ourselves). Shall we frame the abortion question as a clash between property rights?

    I don’t think that Locke and the founders will be much help here.

  82. John Morris

    hmi says: “I am skeptical that we will find many to defend our political rights as natural…”

    We had better, because our whole system depends on just that. Doesn’t matter whether one is actually religious, you have to accept it as the basis of our legal structure. Two options here, either fundamental rights are inherent or a grant from the State. Choose wisely. For what the State gives it can take away, see the topical example of religious liberty vs the newly discovered ‘right’ to ‘free’ birth control.

    If Rights are just whatever the State grants the whole idea of oppressed peoples groaning under the yoke of tyrants in third world hellholes goes away. They just have different cultures and who is to say who has the more moral one? What gives us the hubris to even wish for them a more free existence? I’ll tell ya what: “We hold these Truths to be self evident. That all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights…..” All men. Not just all Americans. And as we have continued to consider the ramifications of the philosophical leap implied by those words we have realized it applies to everyone. Americans of European descent, Americans of African descent, even women as well as men. And to everyone everywhere else suffering tyrants who deny them their most basic rights. It applies to all, or to none. If you believe in these Truths you are an American, if not, not.

    And for the record, as an agnostic this requirement for basing our whole philosophical system on what is essentially ‘and then a miracle happens’ bothers me. But we are still early in our evolution of a complete philosophical system so I don’t worry over much about it and get on with it. If we had a truly complete solution to the deep questions we could probably put together a real libertarian society. But we can’t (yet) do that either so the Old Republic is about as good as we can hope to get back to for now.

    “Our bodies are our own property. ”

    Can’t rightly see where that bears on the discussion. The question before the house is when is a new person created. A parent is legally obligated to provide support for a child after birth so why would that change for reason of prebirth. Unless the preborn aren’t people, which is the whole question being discussed.

    btw, this leads to a complaint of mine. The misuse of language by both sides to try to prejudge this whole debate. Pro Choice? That kinda implies that a choice can be made, which implies there isn’t a second ‘person’ involved. Because you don’t generally get to ‘choose’ to kill. Thus if it is a choice it can’t, by definition, be an important one as would be implied by naming the whole faction “Pro Choice” would imply. Same for the other side. Accepting the term Pro Life generally means you have accepted an answer to the central question. But of course nobody is arguing that it isn’t alive, the argument is whether it is a person with rights binding on the mother. Perhaps Baby! vs Not a Baby! for the two sides? Person! vs Nonperson! Still pretty loaded phrases to put on signs and bumper stickers.

    And while picking nits…. Gotta love the double think around this whole issue. Abortion is a sacred right of the mother… and ONLY of the mother. But of course there is another person who will be feeling the outcome of the decision for almost two decades… if she decides (and remember that it can only be HER decision) to carry to term the sperm donor gets to pay and pay while if she opts to abort he of course won’t have to pay. But either way, whether he would like to be a father or not he must (as a matter of sacred feminist principle) have zero input into the decision. Just mentioning this to point up that it can’t just be a matter for one person to decide and limiting it to two probably won’t work either. Society through it’s laws are going to be involved one way or the other so we may as well face up to that and get on to deciding the extent.

  83. Ken

    I actually wrote a paper on this subject a looong time ago in college. My argument was similar to what I’ve seen from a couple of commentators – a fetus becomes a human when its vitals no longer qualify as dead. I believe there is more than one criteria – e.g. the absence of brain waves does not by itself indicate death.

    responds to painful stimulus
    respiration (lung function)

    The question then is, does one of these criteria indicate human life? If so then the first of these things to occur is the heartbeat at around 18 days.

    Do all criteria need to be met? If so then the last function listed above is breathing (albeit liquid) which begins at 3 months.

    I lean a third way – the presence of brainwaves should define when the mass becomes a human. That’s around 40 days and is measurable.

  84. DAV


    The issue being raised is abortion which may or may not be the moral equivalent to pushing someone off a cliff. Deaths happen by misfortune and mishap all the time. In fact, one could say every time. To discuss the morals of deliberate action leading to death is not the same as showing indifference to other ways to die nor is it an inconsistent response. That other ways to die exist is irrelevant to the discussion which is concerned with a specific act. Why did you select non-implantation and exclude others?

    I note you originally stated If a fertilized egg is considered a person at the instant of fertilization, then personhood is conferred independent of pregnancy. This is morally problematic, since if the fertilized egg never implants, then that person will die.

    Intentionally or not, you seem to be arguing that pushing someone off a cliff isn’t much different than an accidental fall since death occurs either way. Thus discussing the morality of the act of pushing is somehow showing indifference to death by accidental fall. Do I understand you correctly?

  85. cb

    I do not have your IQ, or expertise with logic. Nonetheless, I find your article sorely lacking: rationality and logic are not in any way the same thing, and the one is the absolute servant of the other: if you have to guess which is which, then you are a fool.

    Is a baby a baby 10 seconds before it is born? Yes, unless you are either a hippie or a sociopath (‘I fried my own brain’ versus natural born). ‘Therefore’ at some ‘undermined time’ before birth, a baby is indeed a baby. Period. All else is either hippie-cr@p, or Satanism (although the two options are perfectly identical.)

    I will also state the following to be fact: sociopaths like to have long debates about morals. A non-hippie, upon finding a pile of diced baby on his doorstep, would be horrified. This entire ‘debate’ hinges on the real-world phenomenon of whether you think like a hippie, or not.

    Next. Is a little child, giggling in its warm woollens in the snow, a ‘full’ human? Why? If pre-baby may be killed at whim, then why not pre-adult? Why not pre-communist? And yes, that last one percolated through Mao’s mind, I’m sure, and we all know how that worked out.

    Hey, why not go to the other end of the spectrum, note that cells are INEFFICIENTLY replaced during the course of a life, and declare old people to be post-human, which is to say non-human.

    Hey, let’s all randomly strip away the label of ‘human’ as it suits us! Hee haw! (Hippies… By God I hate them.)

    Of course, the created ‘issue’ in practice usually revolves around the ‘science’-word ‘foetus’. Shall I call you ‘bleh’, and then be legally allowed to gut you with an axe?

    If you want to pretend to be scientific (as if THAT could somehow determine anything of any value whatsoever) about the whole thing, then the issue is this: living things grow – from cell-sized to super-sized (thank you MacDonalds). If a ‘human being’ is magnanimously ‘defined’ as a type of living thing, then this ‘issue’ has been decided. (‘Science’ should be about cold physical-world descriptions: what it IS, is specifically CREATED definitions – it cannot ‘answer’ questions like this – but it can and certainly does serve in the role of Justifier.)

    Almost lastly. There are always exceptions and difficult situations. Deal with it. If you find that you have to REDEFINE what a ‘human’ is, in order to emotionally deal with performing an abortion on an ectopic pregnancy, then my response to you is this: grow up.

    And a last thing: just because abortions ‘happen in nature’, does not validate doing it. Why, else it would be legal for me to secretly feed someone carcinogens, and then laugh as they slowly rot to death.

    But all this is hippie-cr@p. Either you WANT to kill UNBORN CHILDREN, and then dance through a gamut of conceptual contortions, or you don’t. Here is the simple thing to realize: hippies ARE Satanic – they are naturally born evil filth; and one day, the Lord will return, and kill them all. I look forward to it – and the reason for that is that I am deeply sick and tired of their ‘debates’, which to me seem to be nothing more that spin-doctoring acts of palatable evil (example of mass murders, DDT) to look bright and shiny.

  86. cb

    Eh. Palpable, which is not about tastiness. Perhaps an admin will fix my typo which, while perhaps funny, is in bad taste.

  87. Eric

    Fundamentally, I am concerned that by extending personhood to ephemeral entities, we diminish the significance of what it is to be a person.

    We don’t call a sperm or and unfertilized egg a person, even though these combine to make a fertilized egg (which some would call a person). Both a sperm and a fertilized egg are human tissue, but destroying these is not murder.

    We don’t call a sperm and a fertilized egg, sitting separately in the same in vitro container, a person, even though these can combine to make a fertilized egg. Destroying the sperm and unfertilized egg is not murder.

    Fertilized eggs have about a 40% chance of not implanting in a natural setting. These fertilized eggs die. This is not an accident or misfortune, this is both common and a natural aspect of the human reproductive system.

    My concern is simply that if we call these fertilized eggs persons, and we are indifferent to their deaths because these deaths are numerous and natural, we diminish ourselves. This is morally equivalent being indifferent to a person’s death due to other natural causes, such as a child drowning, a child starving to death, or a child succumbing to polio. This is also morally equivalent to being indifferent to a person’s death due to artificial causes, such as a child stepping on a land mine, or a child being hit by a train, or a child being aborted.

    If we assert that each persons life has value, then our moral imperative is to prevent a person’s death. From the perspective of the person dying, it does not matter how he dies, only that he dies. If he dies as an unimplanted fertilized egg, it does not matter to him that his lack of implantation was due to another person’s actions, another person’s inaction, or the activity of a non-person. The nature of his death, whether from a moral actor or not, does not morally inform our actions. Our imperative is to prevent all deaths, not just some deaths.

    My concern is if we tolerate the abundant natural deaths of persons at the stage of fertilized eggs, we will reasonably treat these deaths as a minor moral issue. Since these deaths would not be a significant moral issue, it becomes reasonable to assert that artificially inducing these deaths would likewise not be a minor moral issue. And thus we would diminish ourselves.

    Because we have a discrete sense of personhood (either something is a person, or it isn’t, the concept of a half-person is meaningless) it is reasonable that we look a the process of early human development, which is filled with observable transformations, and identify a particular transformation, and then assert that is where an entity goes from being not a person to being a person (such as the fertilization of an egg). What we may not understand is that this assignment is purely arbitrary.

    Personhood is not empirically mesureable. Personhood is an ideal. Since our moral framework requires that we differentiate and categorize entities as persons or non-persons, we are compelled to make the assignment. However, just because we desire to do this, does not mean that nature is compelled to convenience us.

  88. RickA


    I noticed that you didn’t include miscarriage in your list.

    That to is common and natural.

    Don’t we already “tolerate” abundant natural deaths of persons at the stage of miscarriage?

    Are you also concerned if we extend personhood to a fetus which is naturally miscarried that we are diminished?

    I know many mothers who experienced deep sorrow over a miscarriage, so I do not believe that just because many many pregnancies end in natural miscarriage, that we are indifferent to their death. I think people trying to get pregnant do consider miscarried fetuses “persons”, and mourn their death.

    I also think there is a moral difference between implanting three embryos in an effort to get pregnant, and flushing the remaining non-implanted embryos down the drain.

    However, I do agree with your broad point that the further we push back the definition of “personhood” the more ethical issues there are to consider.

  89. hmi

    @ John Morris

    You are correct as to the consequences of deciding that rights are not natural. But that sidesteps the question of what their naturalness consists in. When I said that there would be few defenders, I was referring to the contemporary view of nature as “everything that is the case,” as opposed to a (long rejected) Aristotelian teleological framework. Nature, as understood today, is a mechanical realm of laws describing inalterable cause and effect. It has been well understood since the discovery or invention of modern science in the 17th century that little, if any, moral guidance is provided by by nature under this understanding.

    To deal with that well-understood lacuna, doctrines of “rights” arose out of social contract theory, all of which posit some state of nature and pre-societal liberty, followed by some sort of agreement by which we retain certain powers and/or authority while delegating immediate control to a sovereign. But I submit that there are very few people today who wish to understand rights as a remnant of some original liberty which founds our right to defend ourselves amidst a war of all against all.

    Every scholar of political theory knows that the inadequacies, and unwanted consequences, of contractarian theory led eventually to Kant’s attempt to anchor rights in pure reason—an attempt that failed. That failure led in turn to attempts to ground rights in history (Hegel & Marx). That attempt also failed, both in theory and practice.

    All of the foregoing boils down to the fact that it is not really possible to fully reconcile nature (as understood by science) and rights—however much we approve of limited government. But when we get to tough issues such as abortion, natural rights theory, with its weak foundation, is utterly inadequate to the task. And you can’t reasonably reach out with the right hand and grab hold of Aristotle (et sim.) for moral authority while rejecting teleological nature with the left. The continuing claim that our political rights are given by nature is at this point a sort of myth that we cling to, but which does not stand up to close examination. It is, literally, only good enough for government work.

  90. The treatise and the comments have been an interesting read. The subject clearly strikes home with different people in different ways.
    The logic for allowing abortion procedures is not based on an individual’s moral principles or upon an individual’s moral values. The logic is based upon what is best for the common weal of our society.
    The political leaders in most western nations have decided that our social well being is best governed by group rights rather than individual rights. The constitution and the bill of rights were written to assure individual rights but progressive thinking in political circles has gradually opted for protecting the rights of groups of people rather that individuals. The US Supreme Court has gradually decided in favor of groups in cases before it rather than a given individual. There are many examples that demonstrate this mind set in politics. Unlike Solomon and the two mothers, political decisions are largely based on group demands. IN this arena Solomon would have had to consult a group of other mothers.
    While my comments avoid the theme of the discussion, the debate over the moral dilemma over abortion, the moral issues raised by you and many of the contributors are moot in a society that has decided as a whole to determine rights based on a representative group rather than on the rights an individual in that society. At one time early in American history an African American was 3/5 of a human. Somehow we through the years have raised that ratio but only for voting. In so doing they lost their individuality by becoming members of a group who have group rights. Women are now representative of a group who has a right to use their bodies, to quote Ad, “a woman has the right to choose what happens in her own body, or should have. Everything else is irrelevant. So get over it people.” From that perspective, the representative group of “some women” has justified the right to an abortion void of any moral judgment because it is a group right. The more difficult moral question is do a group rights subject an individual to individual moral standards? Apparently we have already decided as a nation that group rights take precedent over individual rights.

  91. hmi

    “At one time early in American history an African American was 3/5 of a human. ”

    Not really. This was a statistical device for population count, a compromise to mitigate what would have been tremendously disproportionate representation in Congress by slave states, had they been able to count in slaves along with their free citizens.

  92. Outlier

    “Why There’s No Point To Arguing About Abortion” — yes, simple answer, because each side in the debate is passionate. They believe their side is right and present the arguments to convince the other side, which is futile because the other side is symmetrically passionate. As your passion level goes up, the probability that you can be persuaded to change your mind goes down. Yet such a debate can be interesting and enlightening for someone who does still have an open mind. Same for the CAGW debate.

  93. JH

    I agree with Outlier… not because his comment was posted righted before mine.

    Growing up with brothers and boy cousins, there are moments when I wish I were born a boy. Reading this post and the comments is one of them.

    If I were incredibly rich, I would provide resources and assistance to women to prevent abortions and to ensure the well-being of the unwanted children.

  94. pauld

    “The abortion question is unanswerable because the question of whether the fetus is or isn’t a person is a matter of the definition of “person.” There is no avoiding this or the fact that this definition determines all that follows. ”

    It seems to me that Mr. Goldberg is implicitly taking a philosophical or moral position in the way he frames the issues. In essence, he believes that there is no objectively correct position as to whether a fetus is or isn’t a person. Alternatively, he might be taking the position that there is an objectively correct position, but there is no way to rationally determine the correct answer.

    The problem is there is no neutral position on either issue. Questions of moral ontology (is there an objective definition of personhood?) and moral epistomology (how do we discover the correct definition, if there is one) are vexing. That doesn’t mean we should not do the best we can to find anwers. We have no choice but to let the debate continue.

  95. pauld

    I would like to follow up on my own post to make certain points more clear.

    The ontological question is : “Is there an objectively true definition of “personhood” that is true for all humans and all societies in the same way that there is an objectively true answer to question of what does 2 +2 equal , or is the definition of personhood a social convention that can differ across time and societies?

    It is tempting to argue that there is no objectively true definition of “personhood”, but I think that most people would not be satisfied with the results that logically follow from this position. For example, if one adopts this position on what basis can one condemn slavery in the pre-civil war south that was based on the social convention that blacks were less human than whites. If in a different possible world, the social covention of southern whites somehow had prevailed, would the slavery of blacks be morally acceptable or would it still be “objectively” wrong?

    On the other hand, those who believe that there is an objectively true definition of “personhood” must provide a foundation for such a belief. Theists would argue that the definition is grounded in the God who created humans. Agnostics and Atheists might argue that the foundation is some type of moral reasoning from “basic” beliefs or intuitions. Some philosophers would define a “basic” belief as a belief shared by all rational people, which cannot be proved–a belief such as “memories are generally accurate”. Such a belief is accepted by rational people, but cannot be proven without assuming it to be true.

    If one accepts that there is an objectively true definition of “personhood” then one must still search for what that definition is, the question of moral epistomology. Again different people will argue from different premises. A Christian might suggest that the answer is found in the Bible. Others might argue that the answer logically follows from certain “basic” beliefs or premises founded in a common moral intuition.

  96. Briggs

    Alan Grey,

    It must be a joke, a purposely constructed absurd argument. I hope.

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