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Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights

Part Four: When Does a Human Become a Person?

by Francis J. Beckwith

In this final installment of my series on the arguments for abortion rights, I will continue where I left off in the previous article with a critique of some "decisive moment theories." In addition, I will make some brief comments about the "gradualist" thesis. I will conclude with responses to common questions about the pro-life view that full humanness begins at conception.


Beginning of Brain Development

Some bioethicists, such as Baruch Brody, believe that full humanness begins when the brain starts functioning, which can first be detected by the electroencephalogram (EEG) at about 40 to 43 days after conception.[1] (Although Brody has moral problems with abortion on demand prior to brain functioning, this is not because he believes the unborn is fully human.) Brody maintains that in order to decide when something is fully human, "we must first see...what properties are such that their loss would mean the going out of existence (the death) of a human being."[2] He concludes that since at brain death a human being goes out of existence (at least in this mortal realm), the presence of a functioning human brain is the property which makes one fully human. Hence, it would only follow that the start of brain functioning is the beginning of full humanness.

The fundamental difficulty with this argument "is that brain death indicates the end of human life as we know it, the dead brain having no capacity to revive itself. But the developing embryo has the natural capacity to bring on the functioning of the brain."[3] That is to say, an entity's irreversible absence of brain waves after the brain waves have come into existence indicates that the entity no longer has the natural, inherent capacity to function as a human being, since our current technology is incapable of "reactivating" the brain. However, the unborn entity who has yet to reach the stage in (his or) her development at which brain waves can be detected, unlike the brain dead individual, possesses the inherent capacity to have brain waves. She is like a patient with a temporarily flat EEG. "The two stages of human life are, then, entirely different from the point of view of brain functioning. The embryo contains the natural capacity to develop all the human activities: perceiving, reasoning, willing and relating to others. Death means the end of natural growth, the cessation of these abilities."[4]

Brody responds to this criticism by presenting the following science-fiction case:

Imagine that medical technology has reached the stage at which, when brain death occurs, the brain is removed, "liquified," and "recast" into a new functioning brain. The new brain bears no relation to the old one (it has none of its memory traces, and so on). If the new brain were put into the old body, would the same human being exist or a new human being who made use of the body of the old one? I am inclined to suppose the latter. But consider the entity whose brain has died. Is he not like the fetus? Both have the potential for developing into an entity with a functioning brain (we shall call this a weak potential) but we can conclude, it seems to me, that an entity can go out of existence even if it retains a weak potential for having a functioning brain, and that, analogously, the fetus is not a human being just because it has this weak potential. What is essential for being human is the possession of the potential for human activities that comes with having the structures required for a functioning brain. It is this potential that the fetus acquires at (or perhaps slightly before) the time that its brain starts functioning, and it is this potential that the newly conceived fetus does not have.[5]

I do not believe that this response succeeds. First, unlike the potential of the corpse's dead brain to be liquified and recast as a new brain, the unborn's potency to develop is within itself (intrinsic). "As in the case of other organisms," philosopher A. Chadwick Ray points out, the unborn's development "admittedly requires nourishment from outside and an appropriate environment (consider parasites), but still, the fetus has within itself the power to appropriate nourishment and grow." On the other hand, the potential of Brody's corpse is utterly extrinsic. That is, "it can be acted upon from the outside and brought to life, but without immediate surgery its life will not be restored, and it will simply rot."[6]

Second, the unborn has "interests of itself, in a straightforward, non-projective way, that go beyond the interests of its component parts -- cells, tissues, etc.," just as I as a living organism have interests that go beyond the interests of my component parts -- ears, nose, teeth, etc. On the other hand, the corpse "has no interests beyond those of its parts. The component cells may have an interest in continuing to live, but the corpse itself has none." For example, "there would be no loss in the corpse's organs, all being donated to different patients (imagine donating every living cell if you prefer), whereas in a living fetus's being chopped up for spare parts its own interests would be sacrificed."[7]

In summary, "the growth of the fetus is in its own interest and is the realization of its intrinsic potential, in which realization its identity is preserved." However, "the implanting of a new brain into a brainless corpse would constitute the genesis of a new organism with its own new telos and interests where there were none."[8] Therefore, since the prebrain-functioning unborn entity has a natural inherent capacity for brain functioning while the corpse does not, they do not have the same kind of weak potential that Brody claims they have.


As I noted in Part Three, viability is the time at which the unborn human can live outside her mother's womb. Some have argued that prior to this time, since the unborn cannot survive independent of her mother, she is not a completely independent human life and hence not fully human.

Bioethicist Andrew Varga points out a number of problems with the viability criterion. First, "how does viability transform the nature of the fetus so that the non-human being then turns into a human being?" That is to say, viability is a measure of the sophistication of our neonatal life-support systems. Humanity remains the same, but viability changes. Viability measures medical technology, not one's humanity.

Second, "is viability not just an extrinsic criterion imposed upon the fetus by some members of society who simply declare that the fetus will be accepted at that moment as a human being?"[9] In other words, the viability criterion seems to be arbitrary and not applicable to the question of whether the unborn is fully human, since it relates more to the location and dependency of the unborn than to any essential change in her state of being. This criterion only tells us when certain members of our society want to accept the humanity of the unborn.

And third, "the time of viability cannot be determined precisely, and this fact would create great practical problems for those who hold this opinion."[10] For example, in 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, viability was at about twenty-four weeks. But now babies have survived 20 weeks after conception. This, of course, puts the pro-abortionist in a morally difficult situation. For some health care facilities are killing viable babies by abortion in one room while in another room heroically trying to save premature infants (preemies). It seems only logical that if the 21-week-old preemie is fully human, then so is the 28-week-old unborn who can be legally killed by abortion. This is why philosopher Jane English, who is a moderate on the abortion issue (i.e., her position does not fit well into either the pro-life or pro-choice camp, although she seems closer to the latter), has asserted that "the similarity of a fetus to a baby is very significant. A fetus one week before birth is so much like a newborn baby in our psychological space that we cannot allow any cavalier treatment of the former while expecting full sympathy and nurturative support for the latter...An early horror story from New York about nursers who were expected to alternate between caring for six-month premature infants and disposing of viable 24-week aborted fetuses is just that -- a horror story." English writes that "these beings are so much alike that no one can be asked to draw a disti