Philosopher Doug Groothuis explains the logic of the pro-life position

I'm Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this study
I’m Scheming Unborn Baby, and I approve this message

At Christian Post, an article by Douglas Groothuis. (H/T Mary)

Here’s the most useful bit:

When we separate personhood from humanity, we make personhood an achievement based on the possession of certain qualities. But what are these person-constituting qualities? Some say a basic level of consciousness; others assert viability outside the womb; still others say a sense of self-interest (which probably does not obtain until after birth). All of these criteria would take away humanity from those in comas or other physically compromised situations.4 Humans can lose levels of consciousness through injuries, and even infants are not viable without intense and sustained human support. Moreover, who are we to say just what qualities make for membership in the moral community of persons?5 The stakes are very high in this question. If we are wrong in our identification of what qualities are sufficient for personhood and we allow a person to be killed, we have allowed the wrongful killing of nothing less than a person. Therefore, I argue that personhood should be viewed as a substance or essence that is given at conception. The fetus is not a lifeless mechanism that only becomes what it is after several parts are put together—as is the case with a watch or an automobile. Rather, the fetus is a living human organism, whose future unfolds from within itself according to internal principles. For example, the fertilized ovum contains a complete genetic code that is distinct from that of the mother or father. But this is not a mere inert blueprint (which is separable from the building it describes); this is a living blueprint that becomes what its human nature demands.

Yet even if one is not sure when personhood becomes a reality, one should err on the side of being conservative simply because so much is at stake. That is, if one aborts a fetus who is already a person, one commits a deep moral wrong by wrongfully killing an innocent human life. Just as we do not shoot target practice when we are told there may be children playing behind the targets, we should not abortion fetuses if they may be persons with the right not to be killed. As I have argued, it cannot be disputed that abortion kills a living, human being.

Many argue that outside considerations experienced by the mother should overrule the moral value of the human embryo. If a woman does not want a pregnancy, she may abort. But these quality of life considerations always involve issues of lesser moral weight than that of the conservation and protection of a unique human life (which considers the sanctity or innate and intrinsic value of a human life).6 An unwanted pregnancy is difficult, but the answer is not to kill a human being in order to end that pregnancy.

I think that the real question in the abortion debate right now is whether a living organism with a human nature and a human genetic code that is distinct from its mother and father deserves the right to life, or whether it needs to develop some other capability in order to be worthy of protection from violence.

Consider something from philosopher Francis J. Beckwith.


Some argue that personhood does not arrive until brain waves are detected (40 to 43 days).11Others, such as Mary Anne Warren,12 define a person as a being who can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept. This would put the arrival of personhood at some time after birth. Still others, such as L. W. Sumner, 13 hold a more moderate position and argue that human personhood does not arrive until the fetus is sentient, the ability to feel and sense as a conscious being. This, according to Sumner, occurs possibly as early as the middle weeks of the second trimester of pregnancy and definitely by the end of that trimester.

Although these criteria differ from each other in important ways, they all have one thing in common: each maintains that if and only if an entity functions in a certain way are we warranted in calling that entity a person. Defenders of these criteria argue that once a human being, whether born or unborn, acquires a certain function or functions–whether it is brain waves, rationality, sentience, etc.– it is then and only then that a person actually exists. Those who defend these personhood criteria typically make a distinction between “being a human” and “being a person.” They argue that although fetuses are members of the species homo sapiens, and in that sense are human, they are not truly persons until they fulfill a particular set of personhood criteria.

Although functional definitions of personhood may tell us some conditions that are sufficient to say that a being is a person, they are not adequate in revealing to us all the conditions that are sufficient for a particular being to be called a person. For example, when a human being is asleep, unconscious, and temporarily comatose, she is not functioning as a person as defined by some personhood criteria. Nevertheless, most people would reject the notion that a human being is not a person while in any of these states. In other words, while personhood criteria, such as the ones presented by Warren can tell us that a being is a person, these criteria are not adequate to declare a being a non-person: The exercise of rational thought tells us that a being is a person; when that person is sleeping, and thus is not exercising rational thought, that lack of exercise of the thought function does not make her a non-person at that time. Consequently, it seems more consistent with our moral intuitions to say that personhood is not something that arises when certain functions are in place, but rather is something that grounds these functions, whether or not they are ever actualized in the life of a human being. Thus, defining personhood strictly in terms of function is inadequate.

If you are pro-life because of your feelings, or because someone told you to be, you ought to know that being pro-life is quite rational and supported by medical evidence. People who are pro-abortion are pro-abortion because they want recreational sex without the complications of having to care for the consequences (babies!) of their own actions. Even if they do not engage in the sex and the abortions themselves, they advocate for abortion rights, and they are guilty of encouraging a culture where 57 million unborn children have died since 1973. We’re long past Stalin numbers with this thing now.

We ought to care about not hurting other people. If grown-up’ selfish pursuit of happy feelings conflicts with another person’s right to life, then maybe we need to take a step back from being happy and start trying to be good instead.

One thought on “Philosopher Doug Groothuis explains the logic of the pro-life position”

  1. I have used these arguments also, and one more that I haven’t heard anyone else use.

    “Since development is a gradual process, taking tiny steps of growing ability, it cannot bestow humanity. Personhood must be gained all at once – going from “not a person” to “person” in one giant leap. It cannot be achieved gradually because there are no gradations of humanity or personhood. You can’t gradually develop personhood as you gradually develop consciousness or body functions.”

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