Quick Response #2: The Embryo Isn’t a Person

Emily Albrecht responds to the pro-choice claim that the embryo isn’t a philosophical person with rights like you and I. How should we think about equal rights and who deserves them?

Watch all the videos in ERI’s Quick Response series here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLsN8Ay8poS-It-dWSmblq1ZufOH-MVj1L

Script Text

The most common objection to the pro-life position is that the embryo or fetus isn’t a person, even though they’re biologically human. The biggest problem with this objection is that, in order to exclude unborn humans as persons, the pro-choice person either has to exclude other humans, too, who are clearly persons or include creatures that clearly aren’t persons. We call our response the Equal Rights Argument.

(intro sequence)

First, we’re going to step away from the question of abortion for a moment and examine how we think about rights and human equality more generally. Every human who has been born is someone we clearly consider a person. All humans are different: we have different sexes, different ethnicities, different sizes, different ages, different tastes, different skills and abilities. But all of us are equal people with equal rights, including an equal right to life. Not all creatures belong in that “equal right to life club” though; squirrels, for example, don’t have the same equal right to life that we do. There’s something that makes people with equal rights different from other beings without them.

So how do we account for what makes us all equal? It must be something we all share equally for us to have equal rights. Most explanations fail. Intelligence, or any degreed property for that matter, can’t explain why we all have an equal right to life because we’re not all equally intelligent. Consciousness doesn’t account for why babies or humans in temporary comas have rights. Sentience, or the ability to experience pain, fails for the opposite reason: it would make squirrels people, too. Try out as many answers as you want, but if it’s based on some present ability, it will inevitably exclude some born humans or include squirrels in the “equal right to life club.” The clearest answer that explains why all humans are people (and squirrels aren’t) is that something like our human nature gives us equal rights. But if this is true, then unborn humans also share that something, which means they have the same equal right to life. The best answer for why all born humans are equal also includes unborn humans, so we must protect their equal right to life if we want to affirm equal rights for everyone.

Notice that I put abortion on the shelf during that entire reasoning process, only considering abortion in light of my conclusion at the very end. I sought to figure out what it is that gives obvious cases of persons an equal right to life without also granting squirrels access to the club. The Equal Rights Argument is powerful because it takes something we should all agree on—equality for all born humans regardless of sex, race, age, ability, etc.—and examines WHY that equality should exist in the first place. Then and only then do we consider abortion. If the thing we all possess that makes us equal is something the unborn doesn’t have, then abortion would be totally fine because the unborn isn’t a person. But that’s obviously not the case. The clearest answer that explains why all humans are people (and squirrels aren’t) is that something like our human nature gives us equal rights. The unborn have that human nature, so the only logical way to affirm equal rights is to protect the unborn, too.

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