A foetus is not a person

As the referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland fast approaches, misinformation and misunderstanding (both deliberate and unintentional) continue to circulate on a massive scale, both on social media platforms and on the forest of posters that line every road and street. The rhetorical weapons used by the Vote No campaign are subtle and powerful. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from mere propaganda, and sound argument from mere rhetoric.

Unsurprisingly, the stakes are high. For those seeking to remove the Eighth Amendment, the basic right to bodily autonomy for women and girls is at stake. For those seeking to maintain the status quo, the power to control, limit and punish women and girls – the basic aims of misogyny – seem to be slipping away. Emotions run high.

One clearly fallacious argumentative strategy used by the Vote No campaign is the use of various “slippery slope” arguments. For example, they argue that if abortion is legalized, then it will lead to terminations of all pregnancies with life limiting conditions; or that if abortion up to 12 weeks is legalized, then there is no guarantee that it won’t be extended to 20 weeks, or to 9 months, or indeed lead to the legalisation of infanticide.

There are a number of problems with these arguments. First, they are empirical, causal arguments: they tell us that if such-and-such state of affairs comes about, then a certain effect will follow. But we should only believe such arguments on the basis of empirical evidence: in particular, only if the relevant kind of state of affairs really has led to the relevant sort of effect in the past. And this evidence simply does not exist: there is no evidence that once the termination of pregnancy under certain circumstances is legalised in a jurisdiction, the effects claimed in the various slippery slope arguments come about.

Moreover, the first example above – that if abortion is legalized, then it will lead to terminations of all pregnancies with life limiting conditions – assumes that the only purpose of abortion is to terminate pregnancies with life limiting conditions. How does termination of pregnancies for reasons other than life limiting conditions fare based on this logic? A foetus’s life limiting conditions is not the sole reason for abortion, and prohibiting abortion in general in order to prevent termination of pregnancies with life limiting conditions makes no sense, since not all terminations are due to life limiting conditions of the foetus.

Furthermore – and this cannot be emphasised enough – abortion happens whether it is legal or not. So criminalizing abortion does not solve any problems – it simply creates more misery and suffering. Criminalizing abortion deprives women and girls of access to safe and legal abortion, and forces them to seek other unsafe means of terminating unwanted pregnancies.

This is an important point: the effect of legalising abortion is not to allow access to abortion where there was none, but rather to make abortion safe.

Finally, voting no to repeal the Eighth Amendment is actively deciding to take away a woman’s right to autonomy over her body. Since legalizing abortion is giving women the right to decide for themselves, neutrality is an expression of satisfaction with the status quo – which currently either forces women either to travel to seek termination, to go through the procedure illegally and unsafely, or forces (using the power of the State) women to carry pregnancy to full term.

Personhood: The Western Christian View vs dialogical views

Arguments about how Irish society’s most vulnerable (working class women, women of colour) are most affected by the lack of safe and legal abortion, or how the criminalizing of abortion in Ireland deprives women of their reproductive rights, are ongoing and familiar within the abortion debate.

What we want to address here is the (mis)conception (which is the basis of some anti-abortion arguments) that a foetus is a person with a right to life equivalent to that of a fully-fledged adult. This follows from the argument that life begins at conception, and that life guarantees personhood. It is a consequence of this line of thinking that as soon as conception occurs, there exist two independent lives (the foetus and the pregnant woman) with equal rights.

Even if we grant that life begins at conception, the idea of equating of life with personhood is a wholly misguided one, which has its roots in the Western Christian notion of a soul. A person, according to this doctrine, is a totally autonomous, self-contained entity that exists independent of others. This view is generally known as “individualistic” and to a large extent attributed to the 17th-century French philosopher, René Descartes. This conception of selfhood is not only problematic but on a closer inspection fails to provide logical support for the argument that a foetus is a person. A foetus is clearly not a totally autonomous and self-sufficient entity, and therefore cannot be granted personhood.

Ubuntu-Empathy-the-New-Paradigm-for-Humanity.jpg

Alternatively, dialogical perspectives of selfhood provide a radically different view of personhood – one that views other people as imperative pillars of the self. According to dialogical perspectives, which stand in sharp contrast to the individualistic notion of personhood, we need and rely on others in order to construct and sustain our sense of self. We are inextricably inseparable from those around us, and continually develop and change through intersubjective interaction with others. Our self-knowledge comes from others and continually develops through our daily intersubjective interactions with others and our environment. As the Russian intellectual Mikhail Bakhtin put it:

“Within my own consciousness, my “I” has no beginning and no end. The only way I know of my birth is through accounts I have of it from others; and I shall never know my death, because my “self” will be alive only so long as I have consciousness – what is called my death will not be known by me, but once again by others. While the birth and death of others appear to be irreversibly real.”

Without others, the very core of our existence is threatened and solitary confinement is a grim and harrowing example of this. With the view of a person as a process (rather than an entity) continually developing and changing and interdependent with others, we might then grant a foetus some status of personhood but one that is not on a par with a fully-fledged adult and, furthermore, one that is entirely dependent on others (the pregnant woman or girl to be specific) for its existence and identity.

The idea of a continually changing self (which is dependent on others for its existence) can be troubling, especially since it seems to remove the apparent total autonomy that we typically take for granted, especially within individualistic cultures.

In non-individualistic cultures – where others are seen as pivotal constituents of the self, communal values are prior to individual ones, and we are before I am (or as the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am’) – the collective comes before the individual. Responsibility, for example, is distributed among every member of the community, and not something that is left up to individual parents.

In Ethiopia, for example, where I grew up, the manifestation of the sentiment ‘the collective before the individual’ can be seen in the values placed around abortion and child-rearing. While less emphasis is put on the status of the foetus (and the decision mainly left up to the grown adult – the pregnant woman or girl –  who is not equated with a foetus) more emphasis is put on the responsibility of each member of the community in raising a child. If, for example, an adult sees a school child skipping school, responsibility to advise that child and send them back to school is assumed. Members of that community are active participants in the upbringing of all children. This is in stark contrast to more individualistic cultures, where people make it their business to monitor pregnant bodies during pregnancy and (in the Irish case) force women or girls to carry pregnancy to full term, but take little or no responsibility for a baby when it has been born.

Coming back our point about abortion and the implication of the idea of personhood as a process that continually develops with complete dependence on others (gradually becoming less dependent) is that the foetus, being the early stage of the process, in not a person similar to that of a fully-fledged adult.

The response that is often raised by the anti-abortionists to this is that “when does a foetus become a person?”, “at what point does transformation from foetus to a person occur?”

This unfortunately is an ill-framed and irrelevant question, philosophically speaking. Personhood is a process that develops over time through intersubjective dialogical relationships with others. Not an all-or-nothing entity that either exists or doesn’t. Not something you have or don’t have. Looking for a specific time when a foetus becomes a person is therefore misguided.

The anti-abortion argument that a foetus has a right to life in the same sense that a pregnant woman or girl has then lies on philosophically erroneous conceptions of personhood. Given that personhood is a process of continual development that is sustained in interaction with others, it is a mistake to think that the foetus (which is considerably less developed and immensely dependent on the pregnant women) is a person in the same way – and to the same degree – that the pregnant woman or girl is.

This blogpost is co-written by Abeba Birhane, Cognitive Science PhD candidate at University College Dublin and Dr. Daniel Deasy, Lecturer in Philosophy at University College Dublin.

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