In a recent post at The Stone, Gary Gutting notes that Mississippi voters recently rejected an attempt by anti-abortion advocates to modify the state Constitution to specifically recognize personhood as beginning at fertilization.
Of course, the stakes were quite high for the pro-choice cause, which is why so many of them fought against the amendment. If the fertilized egg is a person then the embryo and fetus that develops from that egg is also a person and so abortion at any stage of development kills a human person. If the Mississippi amendment had passed then killing a fetus, or destroying a fertilized egg, would be no different from killing a three year old or adult.
While he doesn’t specifically state it, it appears that the pro-life argument Gutting considers goes something like this.
- If something is a human person, then it should not be killed.
- Fertilized eggs are human persons.
- Therefore, fertilized eggs should not be killed.
But, the recent rejection of the amendment in Mississippi tells us that fertilized eggs are not human persons, so the conditional in (1) just doesn’t apply. Because we have no reason to think fertilized eggs are human persons we have no reason to think their destruction is morally problematic. But that’s not the point of Gutting’s post. The point is that the pro-life advocate is now in a tough spot.
Because fertilized eggs are not human persons, “the case against the morality of all abortions, no matter how early, needs to appeal to features of the newborn that are present at every stage of development beyond the fertilization of the egg.” (Original emphasis.) The only promising way Gutting finds for the pro-life advocate to prohibit abortion is to point out the presence of human DNA in the embryo and fetus. Because embryos and fetuses have human DNA they should be considered human persons. Because they are human persons, they should not be killed. Gutting goes on to note that this won’t work because the fertilized egg also has human DNA. If the presence of human DNA was able to confer personhood, then the fertilized egg would also be a human person. But “what the Mississippi referendum showed was that many of those strongly opposed to abortion do not believe this.” (Apparently Gutting doesn’t believe this either since he notes that rejecting such a belief “might seem to be just a common sense reaction to an extreme position.”)
Further, the Mississippi referendum showed that voters “were not willing, for example, to forbid aborting pregnancies that result from rape or incest or that are necessary to save the mother’s life.” If the pro-life advocate tries to build such exceptions into laws against abortion then those exceptions would “destroy the logic behind the amendment.” Everyone agrees that it is wrong to kill a newborn because it was conceived through incest or rape, but if you allow for pregnancies to be aborted because they came about through incest or rape then “it is not true that the fetus before birth has the same moral standing as the newborn.”
Gutting concludes, “To maintain a strong anti-abortion position, [anti-abortionist’s that deny fertilized eggs are persons] must find some other reason for thinking that abortion is murder.” Gutting doesn’t appear to be optimistic that such reasons can be found.
How might pro-life advocates respond to such an argument?
One should note the strangeness of Gutting’s argument. It seems to be aimed at those that maintain a “strong anti-abortion position” but it is actually aimed at a much weaker position. Rejecting the claim that the fertilized human egg is a human person is a far weaker position than one that accepts it. And what reasons has he given us that we should even take that weaker position?
The only reason Gutting gives for taking the weaker position is that the Mississippi referendum failed. But that’s no good reason to change one’s mind on any moral issue! How people vote on an issue is completely irrelevant to the morality of that issue. For example, it wasn’t all that long ago that Mississippi voters also decided to secede from the Union so their “right” to practice slavery could be upheld. Abolitionists in Mississippi didn’t need to adjust their anti-slavery view in light of such a decision, so why should pro-lifers adjust their anti-abortion view in light of this vote? Now I recognize that Gutting is a trained philosopher and I’m sure he would recognize that his reasoning depends on an obviously fallacious move, but absent additional reasons, there are no grounds for giving up the claim that fertilized human eggs are human persons.
What is so surprising about his article is that it actually highlights one of the key advantages of the “strong anti-abortion position” (as I use the term – that is, the anti-abortion position that maintains fertilized human eggs are human persons). On this view there is no puzzle to solve about when personhood is conferred, it’s something that has been present from the very start. On the other hand, the pro-choice advocate must figure out why it’s the case that the newborn is a person but a few days before birth the fetus is not. I’ve heard people talk about the “Miracle of Birth” but never the “Magic of Birth” which is what the pro-choice position is reduced to. Somehow, something magical happens as the child passes through the birth canal that turns a mere fetus into a human person with full moral standing.
Oh wait, in the U.S. more than 30% of babies are born via c-section. Passage through the birth canal can’t be what brings about personhood. Well, one might say, even those that are born via c-section are developed to a certain level so there must be something that happens to the baby in those late stages that makes it into a person. Oh wait, over 10% of babies born in the U.S. are born premature. In fact, this past April a mother in Germany gave birth after only 21 weeks of being pregnant and the doctors have now said there is no reason to think the little girl won’t be completely healthy. Late-term development must not be it either.
So what does the Mississippi referendum actually show us? Contrary to Gutting, it doesn’t say anything at all about people’s reluctance “to forbid aborting pregnancies that result from rape or incest or that are necessary to save the mother’s life.” That question wasn’t anywhere on the ballot. Here’s the New York Times description of the initiative.
The amendment, all of 21 words long, defined “persons” as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” It would have banned all abortions, with no exceptions for rape, incest or saving the mother’s life.
It’s true that it would have banned abortions without any exceptions but there’s no indication that those were the reasons why it failed. Further, even if, contrary to the evidence given, those were the reasons it failed, the pro-life advocate could consistently agree to allow for such exceptions without admitting that fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses that result from incest or rape are not fully human persons. One might simply take the lesser of two evils. If it turns out that the lack of exceptions for rape and incest was the reason why the referendum lost, then the pro-life movement in Mississippi ought to try again but provide such exceptions. It would be better to prohibit the vast majority of abortions, while still allowing for some, than not prohibit any.
A slightly different take might be given when it comes to saving the life of the mother. Here one could argue that there simply is no inconsistency in the strong anti-abortionist maintaining that abortions are wrong in all cases except when the mother’s life is in danger. All one must do is modify (1) above to,
1*. If something is a human person, then it should not be killed without a morally sufficient reason for doing so.
In most cases, the saving of a mother’s life would be a morally sufficient reason (though never in cases of saving a mother’s lifestyle). (1*) is probably more preferable anyway since it would also spell out why one can support the death penalty and just wars while still opposing abortion.
While I obviously disagree with Gutting, and am disappointed that the Mississippi referendum failed, I am happy that this discussion is still happening. I pray the same will begin to take place here in Canada.
Gary Gutting, “On Abortion and Defining a ‘Person’.”
Denise Grady, “Medical Nuances Drove ‘No’ Vote in Mississippi.”
NewsCare, “Youngest Surviving Premature Baby Leaves Hospital.”
Tyndale University College Pro-Life Group