Why Viability Is the Least Plausible Definition of Personhood

Pictured: 20-week fetus near the age of viability. Image used with permission from Life Issues Institute.

20-week fetus. Image used with permission from Life Issues Institute.

When we make the Equal Rights Argument, pro-choice people tend to respond with an alternative definition of personhood, usually an attribute that they believe humans must have in order to be considered valuable persons, such as sentience, brain activity, self-awareness, or the ability to feel pain. Typically we respond to these alternative explanations with Timothy Brahm’s Zoo Shooting thought experiment, pointing out that these definitions make at least one of two mistakes: they either allow too many organisms into the equal rights community, like squirrels, or they allow too few humans into the equal rights community, like newborns.

But there’s one pro-choice explanation of personhood that is so arbitrary and ad-hoc that I tend to use a different approach, and that is “viability,” meaning the ability to survive outside of a uterus.

Whenever you hear a pro-choice person make this argument, you should start by clarifying that they actually mean what you think they mean. Pro-choice rhetoric can often be vague, so asking lots of clarification questions is important. As we’ve explained before, most pro-choice people are very concerned about stopping the government from restricting what people can and can’t do with their bodies. Sometimes when pro-choice people talk about how dependent the unborn is on the woman’s body, they’re not actually making a statement about whether or not the unborn has moral status; they’re arguing that a woman should be able to do whatever she wants with anything inside of her body, or at least refuse another person the right to use her body for life support. So start by asking a clarification question, like:

I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you arguing that the unborn isn’t a person because it’s dependent on her body, or are you trying to say that it doesn’t matter if the unborn is a person because women shouldn’t be forced to have their bodies used as life support?

If the pro-choice person responds that they were making the bodily rights argument, then I’ll be glad I asked and will then clarify whether they’re making a Sovereign Zone argument or a Right to Refuse argument and go from there. Go to EqualRightsInstitute.com/BodilyRights for links to all of our resources on responding to bodily rights arguments.

It’s less common, but occasionally when a pro-choice person brings up viability, they’re actually intending to make a biological argument that the unborn isn’t an organism. This confusion comes from a misunderstanding of the word “independent” in some definitions of organism.

However, if the pro-choice person clarifies that they were indeed arguing that the unborn isn’t a person because it isn’t viable, I’ll often explain the problem of squirrels and other animals that are viable, and then I’ll explain why viability in particular is the least plausible standard for personhood, despite how often it comes up.

I’ll illustrate my approach with a story of a dialogue I had with a man I’ll call “Luke,” with whom I spoke at Davidson Community College last year. Luke made the viability argument, although he added an unusually ad-hoc twist that I hadn’t heard before, so in this article I’ll explain Luke’s argument, how I responded, and what else I would have said if he didn’t have to abruptly leave for class.

Am I a Father?

What does it mean to be a father? What does the tragedy of miscarriage tell us about the unborn? And does this give us insight about abortion?

Father holding son

This question — am I a father? — is one whose answer matters a great deal to me, especially as Father’s Day draws near on the calendar. Of course, I already know the answer to the question; I’m not asking it because I have any doubt as to the fact that I am a father. Instead, I’m asking because I think that many people would try to have it both ways. If their philosophy was one which denied the personhood of the unborn, and they gave an answer consistent with that philosophy, then they would deny my fatherhood; but if they answered according to what they instinctively believe to be true, they would say I am a father.

Let me explain. On one hand, my wife is currently pregnant (about which we are both thrilled and nervous). There is a genetically unique child within her, and I am partially responsible (a little under 50 percent responsible, by gene count) for the genesis of that child. Therefore, unless one contests the premise that what is inside my wife is a child, I am a father, and can celebrate Father’s Day. If the four-odd month-old fetus inside my wife is not a child, then no change of import has happened to me; I am, at best, a potential father, a future father.

Perhaps it would change some people’s reactions if I told them that my wife is pregnant not with our first but our second child. Generally, people wish a happy Father’s Day to guys who already have a kid running around, because few people seriously doubt the status of a child who has been born. My situation is a bit different, though, because my wife and I lost our first child by miscarriage. And here the same question as above begins to arise: was what we lost a child? Should I have celebrated Father’s Day last year, since my child did not survive until a full-term birth? Or, in a twisted bit of logic, did I become a father only when my child was dead, since it was located in my wife’s womb beforehand but was outside afterward?

Thanos Would Be Pro-Choice

My wife and I love the Marvel movies. They’re always charming and fun, even if they aren’t profound. But the latest one, Avengers: Infinity War, was an exception. Don’t get me wrong, it was charming and fun. But it was also profound. It was possibly the most effective anti-utilitarian movie I have ever seen.

Avengers Infinity War with Thanos logo

Spoiler warning: Plot summary ahead.

Avengers: Infinity War revolves around the character of Thanos and his personal quest to reduce the population of the universe by 50%. His adopted daughter Gamora describes this as a goal he has had for as long as she can remember. The film even shows a flashback scene where Thanos meets Gamora as a little girl and takes her in. His army invaded her city and divided the survivors randomly into two groups. While Thanos bonds with a young Gamora, his soldiers opened fire on one of the groups. The reason he pursues the incredibly powerful infinity stones is that if he gets all six of them, he can wipe out half of the universe with just a snap of his fingers.

Why would someone want to murder billions? Thanos explains his motives very clearly: There are too many people. The universe has limited resources. If we don’t kill some, it will be worse for all.

Gee, why does that sound so familiar?

Matt Walsh and Bodily Autonomy Arguments

If pro-life advocates want to help pro-choice people change their minds about abortion, then they must understand arguments about bodily autonomy and how to respond to them in a persuasive way. In his recent video, How To Destroy The “Best” Reproductive Rights Argument, Matt Walsh draws attention to these types of arguments, explains that they are critical to the modern pro-choice position, and then lists his five problems with how bodily autonomy arguments attempt to justify abortion.

At Equal Rights Institute our staff has collectively had thousands and thousands of conversations with lay pro-choice people on college campuses in the United States, and these experiences have helped us understand what typical pro-choice people actually mean by when they make easily misunderstood statements. While Walsh is right to respond to bodily rights arguments directly and he makes some good responses, he also gives responses that are based on the same understandable mistakes that most pro-life people make.

Screenshot from Matt Walsh YouTube video response to bodily autonomy arguments

Image source: YouTube

Bodily Autonomy Misconceptions

Pro-choice arguments from bodily autonomy are extremely confusing for many pro-life advocates because there is a profound cultural gap between pro-life and pro-choice people. We don’t just disagree about premises in our arguments; our whole mindset on the issue is radically different. Pro-life people are naturally inclined to focus the conversation on the baby while pro-choice people focus their attention to the woman. Sometimes this causes pro-life people to misunderstand pro-choice arguments and assume that everything comes down to the personhood of the unborn. Walsh correctly explains that this is a problem because that is not the only piece of the debate. He wants pro-life advocates to understand that there is another way to defend the pro-choice position in the abortion debate, and he wants us to understand how to refute it. He explains that personhood, while critical to understanding the immorality of abortion, is not what is driving many abortion conversations when we talk with pro-choice people. When pro-choice people bring up bodily autonomy, they are not attempting to refute the pro-life personhood argument.

Walsh goes on to describe an argument that personhood begins when the mother decides. In other words, the argument claims that because a woman has bodily autonomy she should be allowed to decide if and when her unborn child should be considered a valuable person. He goes on to explain the metaphysical absurdity of an argument like this because it claims that the mother has some “supernatural ability to grant and resend humanity to or from her child.” This argument is so bizarre and fringe that it does not play a role in ordinary bodily rights conversations. The vast majority of pro-choice people do not actual use arguments like this one. While our staff has seen this type of reasoning on very rare occasions, it is confusing and unhelpful to pro-life people to tell them that it is a major part of the bodily rights debate. I fear it will cause them to expect to find it and wrongfully interpret other, more reasonable pro-choice statements as being indicative of the weird, fringe argument.

Pro-lifers, this is a strawman. Click here to understand why.

In his first of five points, Walsh responds to the pro-choice slogan “My Body, My Choice” by saying, “It’s not your body, your body is not the body at issue here. The issue is the child’s body, not yours.” This incredibly common pro-life response to bodily rights arguments is based on a critical misunderstanding of what most pro-choice people mean when they use that slogan. They are not saying that the child’s body is the same as the woman’s body, nor are they saying that the human fetus is somehow biologically part of the woman’s body. They are saying that the human fetus’ body affects and is inside what is indisputably the woman’s body. By “my body,” they are referring to cells with the mother’s DNA, not cells with the human fetus’ DNA. This misunderstanding often causes well meaning pro-life people to unintentionally strawman pro-choice people. Read this article for a more thorough explanation of this common problem.

What If Abortion Weren’t a Possible Choice?

A Response to the Pro-Choice Objection of Unwanted Children

Imagine a world without abortion.

"Fantasia," where abortion is not possible

I don’t mean just a world where abortion has become illegal or unthinkable. I want you to imagine a world where abortion doesn’t exist at all, because it’s not possible. In this alternate universe of Fantasia, the uterus is different than in our world. Women have “super uteruses” that can withstand a great deal of external interference while protecting the baby inside. This means miscarriages almost never happen and women can drink and smoke during pregnancy without harming the baby. However, doctors in Fantasia are limited in what they can do during a pregnancy. They cannot perform an amniocentesis, fetal surgery, or use ultrasounds to see into the uterus because of the reinforced structure. Abortions are not able to be performed because the procedure is literally impossible to carry out without also killing the pregnant woman. Hence, in this world, if a woman becomes pregnant, she only has two options: parent the child or place the child with an adoptive family.