While blog hopping, I came across Nick Woomer's blog, an atheist lawyer who wrote “Disconnect in the abortion debate”. Interestingly, he gave a well written defense of the pro-choice movement and pointed out the central argument of the issue—namely: Is the zygote, embryo, or fetus a moral person? According to Woomer—No. Although I may be out of my league (trying to contend with a lawyer), in this blog, I will try to articulate and address his argument.
Let me a blunt as possible. If the zygote or embryo or fetus is not a human being (this includes personhood), no justification for abortion is required and pro-lifers might as well fold. However, if it is a human being, no justification for taking his or her life is adequate. This single issue is adequate to cover contingencies on both sides of the question.
Woomer argues his position (pro-choice) in the following way:
Now, there are plenty of obvious and relevant differences between a fetus and a young child: language; a normative outlook; mutual recognition of other persons by, and of, the child; complex emotions, etc. The pro-life argument can, and must be, addressed on its actual merits.
…human beings do seem to have a particular set of properties that distinguish us from other animals: language, a "conscious life," value systems, plans for the future, the ability to grasp metaphors, etc. What makes us special, then, isn't mere biological human-ness, but a cluster of uniquely human qualities.
True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than you and I. But why is this relevant? Woomer's argument asserts, although the embryo or zygote is a “biological” human, the fetus has none of the aforementioned capabilities; it cannot be a person with rights. But why should anyone accept the idea that there can be such a thing as a human being that is not a person?
If Woomer is correct about the distinction between human being and human person, he fails to adequately tell us why a person must possess self-awareness and consciousness, or other listed qualities in order to qualify as fully human. In other words, he merely asserts that these traits are necessary for personhood but never says why these alleged value-giving properties are value-giving in the first place, other than an insufficient differentiation between animals.
Even Woomer concedes the epistemological uncertainty of what makes human beings “special.” He says:
Why are human beings special? Why do we regard ourselves (rightly or wrongly) as superior to other creatures? The answer can't be determined with any certitude
If the immediate capacity for the listed qualities makes one valuable as a subject of rights, and newborns like fetuses lack that immediate capacity, it follows that fetuses and newborns are both disqualified. You can’t draw an arbitrary line at birth that spares newborns. Hence, infanticide, like abortion, is morally permissible. However, Woomer rejects this notion of infanticide in his post, “Infanticide is still wrong (Disconnect in the abortion debate, part 2)”, and argues that there are still good reasons to keep infanticide illegal.
Woomer gives an E.T. analogy and argues that E.T. is lovable because of his human like qualities. E.T. has the cluster of uniquely human qualities that allow us to identify with him and gain an emotional attachment; this is why it is so sad when E.T. dies in the movie. I am not sure, however, what this has to do with infanticide, since the infant (according to Woomer), does not have the human qualities.
This E.T. analogy can go either way. Take for example the movie, “Where the red fern grows”. The movie was about dogs, but yet, during the movie, many people develop an emotional attachment and they cry their eyes out. It does not follow; however, that the dogs were entitled to full moral personhood.
Woomer also argues that if biological humanness was determinative of moral personhood, then it would be morally permissible to treat E.T.-like beings like any other animal. Since this is hypothetical, it seems premature and morally ambiguous to immediately deduce this principal. There is a strong lack of data in this hypothetical analogy, such as E.T.’s origin and/or theological framework.
In his E.T. argument, he indicates that E.T. has the human qualities that attracts us too him; but according to Woomer, the infant (at least in early stages) does not posses his outlined human properties. Therefore, as suggested previously, the argument does not apply.
When does the cluster of uniquely human properties arise? The property, in which Woomer has listed, as he concedes, is definitely AFTER birth. However, he argues that infanticide is still wrong and would “brutalize” our culture. But why? If human value is based on properties as Woomer has purported, there should be no quarrels on infanticide. However, this is not the case; people on both sides of the abortion debate can intuitively know that infanticide is wrong; regardless of properties outlined by Woomer.
Woomer also stated the following:
The motivation to legalize infanticide would be rooted in an unwillingness to devote economic resources to the care of unwanted neonates. To put it lightly, it would be beyond crass to kill a biological human that will soon become a moral person just because we'd have to increase taxes to care for it. [Emphasis added]
Again, I would argue, why is this wrong? If this biological human does not have “personhood”, and the cluster of uniquely human qualities is not there, there should not be the conviction that the infant “ought” not to be harmed. However, the convicting intuition is there. Woomer argues against this point by asserting an “unspoken intuition” that neonates really aren't moral persons. He exemplifies this by showing the grieving difference between the death of neonates and toddlers.
The argument asserts that when a neonate dies, the focus is on the mother, and when a toddler dies, the focus is on the child. This argument is far too week. There will clearly be more grieving for a toddler than a neonate. First, this has nothing to do with personhood. It seems self-evident that the toddler would be grieved more (especially as individual), than the neonate because of the built relationship between the child and people around him or her. The emotional attachment that builds after birth is the factor; not whether uniquely human qualities are being developed.
This emotional factor not only applies to humans, but animals too. For example, there would be a clear difference between grieving for a dog you had only one day, or one that you grew up with. The grieving would have nothing to do with the dogs unique K-9 attributes that made it lovable; it would be the built relationship.
Secondly, there are emotive intuitions about neonates. Take for example pictures of aborted neonates. The pictures bring out emotion; even tears. Bluntly, these pictures are disturbing, even for pro-choice activists. These emotive responses are derived from a different intuition; the intuition that this neonate is a child—a person.
Philosophically, I argue there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant in the way that Raleigh needs them to be. In addition, his philosophy untimely leads to infanticide, which; he denies as immoral. His collective argument for infanticide rests on the moral intuition that it is wrong to murder an infant; even though the infant does not possess the unique human qualities he has outlined. This example shows that personhood is not derived of the properties Woomer has given.
The pro-choice enterprise in any of its forms is doomed to fail because it ultimately reduces human value to functional terms. Humans have value simply because they are human, not because of some acquired property that they may gain or lose during their lifetimes.
A line in the sand
There is also another dimension to this argument. This dimension is difference in worldview. The majority (not all) of pro-lifers have a Judeo-Christian worldview (including myself). Thus, we hold the belief that people are created in the image of God, and thus is an answer to the question: What makes us special? This argument is predominately ignored in the public square; nevertheless, it develops the foundation framework of the pro-life argument.
In conclusion, which ever worldview prevails (Judeo-Christian vs. Secular) will determine the future of this and other significant (Homosexuality, Embryonic stem cell research etc…) debates.