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.

Abuse of Academic Authority Regularly Inhibits Pro-Life Speech

Sometimes it is tough to be a pro-life college student. Most challenges students face are found on campus during a tabling event or with the administration, but sometimes they are inside the classroom. Far too often when pro-life students dare to speak up in defense of the unborn, professors attempt to humiliate and silence them. [Tweet that!]

I experienced this first hand in a biology class during my freshman year. The class focused on technological advances in the field of biology and the ethical concerns which accompanied the advancements.

My professor, “Dr. Nation,” covered each topic with a series of lectures, and then allowed a discussion day with groups of students representing the pro and con side of the issue for the class, followed by a Q&A portion. After the presentation on embryonic stem cell research, I excitedly got in line to ask my question for the pro-embryonic stem cell research team. They had made a case for the research on the basis that we should take advantage of the embryos instead of just letting them go to waste. This was one of the first times I had the opportunity in college to speak up for the pro-life perspective. I had just returned from my first March for Life and was nervous to challenge the students in front of the class.

Each student in front of me stepped up to ask a clarification question about something from either presentation, and a few challenged the con side. I was the first person to make any sort of case for the pro-life side in the entire semester. My turn came, and I began to ask the students if they would use the same argument to advocate for the intentional destruction of human life in other cases if it would mean biological research could progress. I was about to give a thought experiment example when Dr. Nation cut me off. He had not done this a single time with any of the students that day or in any other discussion days in the entire semester.

Dialogue Story: Rachel and Chloe at Aquinas College

I want to share one more dialogue story from our outreach last month at Aquinas College. Two fantastic students from the Students for Life club at University of Michigan, Rachel Crawford and Chloe Alberta, spoke to several pro-choice girls. This is what happened.

Pictured: Dialogue story - Rachel and Chloe talking to students at Aquinas College.

Rachel (left) and Chloe (right) talking to students at Aquinas College.

Chloe begins the story this way:

Towards the end of our day of outreach, Rachel and I had a conversation with two girls, who I’ll call Amber and Linda. Initially they were very hesitant to participate in the poll, because, as Amber informed us, they didn’t really like to think about the issue of abortion and didn’t really have an opinion on it.

Grabbing my handy fetal development chart from the ERI outreach brochure, I asked: “Would you mind if I tell you why it is extremely important to me that people think about abortion?” I showed them the fetal development chart and told them that I believe that human life begins at the moment of fertilization, and that that human life deserves to be protected.

I asked them in the name of having ALL the information possible, in order to make the MOST informed decision, would they be willing to look at a picture that shows what an abortion looks like? They declined because, “It’s probably really disturbing.” “You’re right,” I said. “It’s extremely disturbing and I really have trouble looking at them too.” I explained to them that I see that horrible image of the death of an unborn child, and I see one of the biggest human rights violations of our time. And I cannot be silent about that, and I think that is why it is so important to have an opinion about abortion and not let those human lives be looked over.

My Conversation with “Mark” on Personhood and Apathy

This is the story of one of the dialogues I had during our outreach at the University of Michigan.



I talked to a student I’ll call “Mark” at the University of Michigan who was pro-choice. He thought personhood began in the 2nd trimester, but he wasn’t sure why. I told him my concern was that I wanted an explanation of personhood that would make sense of the idea that all human adults should have an equal right to life. I’ve never seen someone understand where that logic leads so fast. He immediately said, “Oh, if we’re trying to give everyone an equal right to life than personhood would start here” and he pointed to the fertilization picture.

VIDEO: Responding to Secular Views of the Human Person

Watch my speech at Fresno Pacific University’s Evidence 2014 conference. I explain the Equal Rights Argument and the three different ways you can make a positive case for fetal personhood: Imago Dei, the Rational Nature Argument, and Don Marquis’ Future of Value Argument. This includes content I’ve never taught publicly before!