Arguing From Equality: The Personhood of Human Embryos

When I teach pro-life apologetics, I usually explain that there are two primary disagreements between the pro-life side and the pro-choice side and then a bunch of distracting arguments that are about other issues that do not address abortion ethics. Most pro-life people are familiar with the first primary disagreement. These are pro-choice arguments that deny the personhood of the unborn child. In other words, they say that the human embryo doesn’t have the same equal rights as people. These arguments about personhood definitions largely dominate the philosophical literature on abortion. People argue about what constitutes a person and then explain how the human embryo does or does not qualify. Notice that this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Science tells us what is killed during abortion: an embryo or fetus that is living, whole, and human. Philosophy tells us whether or not that human embryo’s life is valuable.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes.

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The second disagreement in the abortion debate is centered around bodily rights; in other words, the slogan that we have all heard before: “My body, my choice.” This argument is different from the first disagreement about personhood because rather than denying that abortion kills a person, it addresses whether or not the killing can be justified by the woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy. In this article, I am going to make an argument which only addresses the first philosophical disagreement about whether or not the life of a human embryo is valuable and deserves the same protection from violence as you and I. For more information about understanding and responding to the second disagreement see this archive of all our videos and articles on the subject.

Do You Believe in Equal Rights?

Before I make a claim about the moral status of a human embryo, I want to first talk about rights more generally. I think that rights should be given to all people equally. This is going to be really important to my argument so if you don’t believe in equality or you don’t think equality is fundamentally important, then that’s one reason we will disagree, but I have found most people I talk with about this subject agree that equal rights are super important. I think when whenever a group of people’s rights are not being protected then serious injustice is taking place. For this topic, I will be focusing on people’s right to life.

Let’s call anyone who has a right to life a member of the “Equal Right to Life Community.” Let’s imagine that all those people are in a big room together. If you’re not someone or something with an equal right to life, then you can’t get into the room because you don’t belong in that community. Another way to talk about this community is to say that everyone in the room is a person who has serious moral status. Those terms are often used interchangeably when we talk about this kind of question.

Who Do You Think Deserves Equal Rights?

Who is in the room and who is left outside? I am going to look at some obvious examples to give you a better idea of how I think about the community and I want you to consider if you agree with my sorting process or not and why. I think it is obvious that you who are reading this right now and I are both in the community. Humans of every race, ethnicity, and gender are in the community. People in wheelchairs are in the community. Gay people, straight people, poor people, rich people, religious people, and atheists all have the same right to life. Olympic athletes are in the community and so are those who can’t run a mile in under 15 minutes. Both educated and illiterate people are in the community. I think the most intelligent among us and those with developmental delays should have an equal right to life. I think those celebrating their 100th birthday, teenagers, toddlers, and newborn babies are all in the community. I even think Canadians are in the community. All of these people have an equal right to life and should be protected from violence equally, despite the many differences they have, whether in intellect, physical abilities, or an aspect of their identity.

Okay, here is a bit of a curveball: should squirrels be included in the community? It sounds like a weird question, but let’s actually consider it for a moment. Should squirrels be considered to have an equal to life as everyone I’ve sorted into the circle? I think not.

What about dogs? Well, I am strongly against mistreating animals and I think they deserve protection under the law. If someone abused their pets, that would be seriously wrong, but it seems like it would be obviously different than if someone abused their children. Remember, we are not asking ourselves whether or not dogs have any rights, but whether they deserve equal rights to everyone in the circle. Do they have serious moral status? Are they actually people? I think no, obviously not.

Why Do You Think That?

Most people I talk with agree with me about this sorting process so far, so let’s stop here for now and ask ourselves an important question. Why are some things inside the Equal Right to Life Community and some things excluded? What is the thing that everyone in that room shares that gets them into this exclusive community? In other words, what is the underlying foundation of their equal right to life?

Before we answer this question, first we must recognize that this foundation has to be something we all share equally, because we believe that the right to life is shared equally. So it cannot be something that some people have more of and some people have less of; it can’t be the kind of property that people have in degrees. Instead, it must be the kind of thing that you either have or you don’t. Second, it also must be something that everyone in the community has and everyone outside the community does not have. What do you think it is?

Common Answers

When I ask pro-choice people this during a conversation about abortion, there are several common answers I hear. For example, one very common response is “sentience” which is something like the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. Let’s test that answer with what we already know from our sorting:

If sentience is what gives you access to the Equal Rights Community, then we would actually have to let both squirrels and dogs in! In fact, most animals qualify for this criterion. So “sentience” gives us too broad of a definition for what makes someone a person and doesn’t fit with what we already know intuitively from the sorting test.

Another common answer is “self-awareness” and I think this isn’t a bad answer given common depictions of personhood in sci-fi stories, you know? You think about the robot becoming self-aware and it no longer acts like an inanimate object. Now it’s a person, with its own interests and agency. This kind of definition is also used by philosophers like Michael Tooley, who defines a person as “any being with the concept of itself as a continuing subject of experiences.” Australian philosopher Peter Singer says the being must be self-aware and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time. Both of these philosophers, as well as those who agree with their definitions, openly admit in their writing what I consider to be a fatal flaw of their argument: their definitions exclude newborn human infants from the community of people with the equal right to life.

Newborn babies are not self-aware yet, so if what makes us valuable persons with an equal right to life is self-awareness, that would mean they must be left outside our community of moral consideration. This extreme view on newborn non-personhood that Singer and Tooley share is a tough bullet to bite and most people I talk with aren’t willing to do so. They think that newborn babies should be protected from violence because they are clearly persons.

If you agree with me that newborns are in the community and squirrels are out, then what can be the foundation of our shared equal right to life? I encourage you to put your own ideas and answers to the test like I did for sentience and self-awareness. And here’s my answer: I think it must be something like our human nature. It is the only answer I have found that works with what we already know from our intuitive sorting test. It operates consistently with all of our clear cases like newborns and squirrels.

Applying the Answer about Equality to Abortion Ethics

So let’s take that answer about the foundation of our equality and return to the topic of abortion. We can use the answer about the equal right to life community to solve our questions about a less clear case: the human embryo. If what gives you access to the equal right to life community is something like humanness, then the unborn human must be in because they meet the criterion. If we want to be consistent about equality, then we have to include the unborn.

The Equal Rights Argument comes down to this: there isn’t a good answer for why all human beings should be in the Equal Right to Life Community that excludes unborn human beings. [Tweet that!] In order for pro-choice people to get the answer they want about human fetuses, they have to exclude other, less-controversial human beings. We don’t think that’s a workable solution; the only position that treats all human beings with respect is the pro-life position.

Notice something about this argument. It’s not a religious argument, and it’s also not an emotional argument. I’m not pro-life for emotional reasons. I don’t get the warm fuzzies when I look at a picture of a human embryo. I’m pro-life because it is the most rational conclusion I can come to because I’m starting with equality and reasoning from there, following the truth wherever it leads. I’m not making the mistake some people make, where they decide what conclusion they want to end up with and reason their way backwards to figure out what premises will lead to their conclusion. This is like entering your desired destination into Google Maps and then following the step-by-step directions to get to where you want to go. We shouldn’t reason like that though. Instead, we should follow good premises and be open-minded enough to follow the truth where it leads. I have not yet heard a good argument for discriminating against unborn humans, so I believe that if someone wants to be pro-equality, they must be pro-life.

If you want to learn more about the Equal Rights Argument, you can become a member of the Equipped for Life course by going to https://equippedcourse.com; or if you’re curious about how we respond to the second objection about bodily rights I mentioned in the beginning of this article go to https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/bodily-rights/.

Responding to Skepticism Regarding Intuition

Sometimes when I’ve used the Equal Rights Argument on college campuses with pro-choice students, they challenge the dependency the argument has on our intuitions, because intuitions can be unreliable. My view is that there are some problems with relying on intuitions, but that it is completely philosophically legitimate to use them. Explaining why takes a bit of time, so if you want to learn more about this point, check out our discussion on this subject in Equipped for Life podcast in the episode titled How to Respond to Extreme Skeptics.

In that podcast, we discuss the consequences of excluding intuition from our epistemological toolbelt and explain why our team favors including intuitions over biting the bullet as an extreme skeptic. We also give advice on how to respond to this objection if it comes up in conversation.

Responding to Objections: Human Nature + Another Capacity

The most common refutation against the Equal Rights Argument is whether a better explanation of personhood would be our human nature plus some other capacity, like sentience. In other words, what if to be considered a member of the Equal Rights Community you have to be human and you must also be sentient. If that definition were true, then adult humans would be in the community, as would newborns, but squirrels and human embryos are out.

The first way to respond to this objection is to graciously explain why this answer for the foundation of personhood is Ad Hoc and therefore fallacious. In our campus dialogue experience, our team hasn’t found this approach to be very convincing because some people have difficulty understanding Ad Hoc reasoning. We have found that offering a counter-example is not only faster and more straightforward, but it is also more convincing. Presenting the counter-example requires using the second, more advanced version of The Equal Rights Argument, which we teach in Module 10 of The Equipped for Life Course. The second version of The Equal Rights Argument uses the same structure as the first but is philosophically more precise.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 4/7/2020 to provide more clarity about the personhood arguments of Michael Tooley and Peter Singer.

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The post Arguing From Equality: The Personhood of Human Embryos originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Former Director of Training

Rachel is a former speaker, writer, and trainer with Equal Rights Institute. Rachel graduated in 2017 from the University of Michigan with a Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience major and Women’s Studies: Gender and Health minor. She was the president of the Students for Life club at the University of Michigan, leading their efforts to educate students on pro-life topics and to advocate for pregnant and parenting students.

Rachel is also a former staff member of the pregnancy medical center, ArborWoman. She formerly served on their Operations Committee and participated as a volunteer in their ministry.

Rachel wants the pro-life movement to be known for its love. “I want us to be courageous enough to speak with charity about abortion. Having a loving approach when presenting a good argument is a sign of strength, not weakness. We cannot allow our anger towards abortion to be directed at those who support its legality. Pro-life people care not just about the unborn, but about all people, and we need them to know that.”

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