I also find abortion near-insoluble. Recognition of personhood is at least challenging, and likely not simple not a person-then a person. And such a consideration has to be part of any individual and societal decisions.

But I also challenge similar yes or no, all or nothing significance of the imposition on the mother, on two issues.

First, would we even have this endless, national debate if pregnancies lasted, say, 48 hours? Or, at the other extreme, if a pregnancy was a permanent debilitating state? It then comes down to arguing about what length of term is too much--much like discussing what length of term translates to the threshold of personhood.

Second, I see a significant difference between an imposition that occurs randomly and one that is at least partially self-induced. Almost every woman who becomes pregnant has at least a working knowledge of the bio-mechanics involved. And many if not most choose to participate. I will also guess that most women, and partners, do not want pregnancy as an outcome.

But all people would like to enjoy actions without consequences. Does that desire automatically negate responsibility? If I choose to do something that leads to impairment, either physically or financially, and I wish I was not, then what rights do I have?

Expand full comment

MS1: And brain-damaged adults already retain rights as humans, so their rights cannot be taken away.

GW1: Their rights could be taken away if the law allowed this. See above. Why should permanently comatose patients be considered to be persons?

MS1: Still, the argument is made that a fetus is a potential human being, since all of the characteristics that make us persons are front-loaded into the genome and unfold during embryological development.

GW1: The early fetus is a potential human being, but the later fetus is an actual human being. (I equate “human being” with “human person.”)

MS1: Given the choice between granting rights to an actual person (an adult woman) or a potential person (her fetus), it is rational to choose the former on the grounds of both reason and compassion.

GW1: But, some fetuses are actual persons and not potential persons, and they have rights just like the mother does. And in fact, some rights like the right to life should take priority over the right to bodily autonomy. Why? Because no rights are meaningful without life.

MS1: We know adult women can think and feel; we don’t know that about fetuses.

GW1: I think we do know it about late fetuses. Babies can discriminate the voice of their mother, which they heard in the womb, from other voices they did not hear in the womb. There is even one study showing that babies can discriminate a piece of literature read to them in the womb from one not read to them in the womb. Why can they do this? Because at some point in their development in the womb they acquire consciousness, the ability to think, and memory.

MS1: Once again binary thinking lures us into treating a mother and her fetus as the same, whereas continuous thinking allows us to see the substantive differences.

GW1: But “Is it a person or not?” is a binary question, and there is nothing wrong with the question. Even though the acquisition of consciousness might occur over the course of an hour, we can easily take that into account in making a binary decision about personhood.

MS1: What I do with my body is no one else’s business, and the mostly right-leaning pro-life movement embraces this principle in most other areas.

GW1: But what you do with your body is everybody’s business if you use your body to harm or kill others. This is what can happen against fetal persons.

MS1: Even if one could justify a fetus as being a human (even if only a potential human), that still does not make it a person.

GW1: From the zygote stage it is a human organism, but it is not a human person until it acquires the capacity for consciousness later on in the womb.

MS1: However, although asking the unborn can never be more than a thought experiment,...

GW1: Well it depends on what you mean by “asking.” Is it not possible to “ask” without words? Suppose we place pregnant women in a scanner such that we can monitor the activation of brain areas of the fetus at different weeks from conception. Suppose we present a distinct tone to the fetus and we monitor activity in its auditory cortex. I predict that we will get a particular curve when percentage of fetuses with an activated auditory cortex is plotted on the Y-axis against weeks since conception on the X-axis. It will be an S-shaped curve, going from 0% to 100% in the space of maybe two weeks. This is a testable hypothesis. By this procedure we can “ask” the fetus “Are you conscious of this tone?” without using words.

MS1: Given the choice between asking the fetus in a thought experiment and actually asking the woman what she thinks should be done, it is logical to give the moral nod to the woman.

GW1: Not if the fetus is also a person. Possession of a language is not a necessary feature of a current person. But possession of the current capacity for consciousness is.

MS1: Given the choice between the potential rights of the fetus and the actual rights of the woman, it makes more sense to go with what already exists in fact over what might exist in potential.

GW1: Using your argument, white slave owners might have said “Given the choice between the potential rights of blacks and the actual rights of whites, it makes more sense to go with what already exists in fact over what might exist in potential.” This is fallacious reasoning.

GW1: But the fetus should be assigned actual rights when it becomes a person in the womb. Then you may get a conflict in rights between the fetal person and the mother. We must have moral rules to resolve those conflicts.

MS1: To take away an important source of reproductive control from women by outlawing abortion would be a significant step backward in the historical trajectory of liberty.

GW1: We should not outlaw abortion any more than we should outlaw gun ownership. We should regulate and limit both.

MS1: All of this ratiocination, it must be said, is not to claim that abortion is moral, only that is it not immoral.

GW1: Sometimes abortion is moral and sometimes it is immoral. For sure it is immoral when it violates the rights of any person involved.

MS1: If abortion is not murder, then it is not illegal from a political position.

GW1: Whenever abortion is morally wrong and it results in harm or death, then it should be illegal. That is a legitimate political position.

MS1: In a 2018 article on “Personhood and Abortion Rights” in Skeptic, psychologist Gary Wittenberger presents substantial medical and scientific evidence that the perception of pain does not come online until around 20-24 weeks of gestation, and something resembling consciousness not until 28-36 weeks of gestation.

GW1: That is a little different from what I concluded in the article. This is an exact quote: “A comprehensive review of the relevant scientific literature remains to be done. However, based on the evidence presented here, general conclusions may be reached. The best estimate for the onset of consciousness in the fetus (especially the beginning of pain perception) is at 27 weeks gestational age which is roughly 25 weeks from conception.”

Expand full comment

GW1: Michael, you have written another great article. I agree with most of your ideas, but not all. I know that you like disagreement, discussion, and debate, so I will contribute to that.

MS1: In the end I believe we can find common ground between pro-life and pro-choice advocates by focusing on how to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

GW1: I am very skeptical of that idea. Even if we all agree that reducing unwanted pregnancies is a great idea and we have great success in this area, there will still be unwanted pregnancies and disagreement over the morality of abortion.

MS1: Pro-lifers want to make it a political moral issue in which the rights of the fetus take precedence over the rights of the mother and that society determines what a woman can or cannot do with her body and her fetus.

GW1: Not always. They typically allow for the rights of the mother to take precedence over the rights of the fetus in cases of rape or incest.

Blackmun, 1973: “When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

GW1: I think that if the relevant blue-ribbon panel were convened now there would be a consensus. But we shouldn’t permit the theologians or religious people to be on the panel. They bring false biases to the table.

MS1: While the step from 0 to .1 may intuitively seem qualitatively different from what came before—egg and sperm—neither the zygote nor the blastocyst is an individual human (much less a person) because they might split to become twins, or develop into less than one individual and naturally abort.

GW1: There is a step from 0 to 1 from no person to person and it happens very quickly, maybe in less than an hour. Before an embryo splits it is one human organism, albeit not a person.

MS1: After eight weeks embryos begin to show primitive response movements, but between eight and 24 weeks (six months) the fetus could not exist on its own because such critical organs as the lungs and kidneys do not mature before that time.

GW1: But viability is irrelevant to personhood anyway. Some fetuses are viable, but not yet persons. Some fetuses are not yet viable, but are persons. As I have repeatedly said, viability is not a reliable concept because it depends too much on medical technology and staff and on geography. The day will come when zygotes are viable outside the natural womb when placed in an artificial womb. They still won’t be persons until the onset of consciousness.

MS1: It is not until 28 weeks, or approximately 77% of full-term development, that the fetus acquires sufficient neocortical complexity to exhibit some of the cognitive capacities typically found in newborns.

GW1: According to my studies, fetuses may begin to acquire consciousness after the end of the 24th week post conception, but certainly not before. What better feature than consciousness should personhood be tied to?

MS1: ...along this continuum we see that the fetus’s capacity for anything like human cognition does not appear until well into the third trimester. Since abortions are almost never performed after the second trimester—and before that period there is no evidence that the fetus is a thinking, feeling human individual—it is reasonable to provisionally conclude that abortion is not comparable to the murder of a conscious sentient being after birth. Thus, there is no rational or scientific justification for equating abortion with murder.

GW1: We could just make it a unique crime – “the unlawful killing of a fetal person” which would be defined as “causing or authorizing an abortion of a fetal person, resulting in death, for no good reason. Good reasons are listed as follows... Conviction for this crime carries a penalty of one year and one day in jail.”

MS1: When does life begin? The law demands that we pick an arbitrary point.

GW1: This is the wrong question. We know that the life of an individual human organism (not a person) begins with the zygote. This is not an arbitrary point. Also, we can pick a rational point (not arbitrary) to designate the beginning of personhood, e.g. the acquisition of consciousness by the fetus.

MS1: Fetuses that would have been aborted before are now being saved, and they are treated medically as little people.

GW1: But SOME of them just aren’t people at all! SOME of them are not yet persons. When they must be aborted but are alive upon removal and still not persons, then the parents should have the right to allow them to die with no medical help or to authorize extraordinary medical procedures to keep them alive. Before fetuses are persons they are the property of the parents.

MS1: They may even lie comatose, completely brain dead, and yet still retain rights as humans.

GW1: But I don’t think they should retain those rights as human persons. If two neurologists testify in court that after a year in a coma a human organism is not going to recover consciousness, according to a preponderance of the evidence, then the judge should authorize euthanasia at request of the family or a prior written request by the formerly competent patient. A permanently comatose patient is no longer a person, I believe.

Expand full comment

Conservatism is the holding of political views that favor free enterprise, private ownership, and socially traditional ideas. Although religion can be placed in the category of traditional ideas, prior to the 1970s, there wasn't a strong connection between Christianity and the Republican Party. As the Democratic Party became identified with support for abortion and nontraditional values, socially conservative Christians joined the Republican Party in increasing numbers.

Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders, many of whom were disappointed by the Jimmy Carter Presidency, began to urge conservative Christians to become more involved with politics. They strongly supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, in the belief that he would appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. They were surprised and dismayed when his first appointment was Sandra Day O'Connor, who had no desire to ban abortion. Nonetheless, the Republican Party and pro-life Christians have been linked in people's minds ever since.

As you eloquently describe, there has never been a particularly good reason for conservatives to be pro-life (or to support other policies promoted by the Christian right), since that has nothing to do with free-enterprise or the individual rights of adults.

Pro-life or pro-choice, I think everyone is uncomfortable with late-term abortions, however, and they should remain illegal.

Expand full comment

Thanks so much for this. It is refreshing to get a rational perspective on this difficult issue. I assume your conclusion that “abortion must remain a personal moral choice” implies that you think it should be legal to abort right up to birth - am I right? If so, I would disagree and favour the Roe vs Wade idea that abortion should be legal up to the point of viability ie until the third trimester or about 26 weeks. I would cite one principle and two facts in support. The principle is “first, do no harm”. Should we not err on the side of protecting life when the issue is complicated? Fact #1 is that the woman has 26 weeks in which to decide if she wants the child. Would this not be sufficient to make her choice? Fact #2 is that, as I understand it, there is far more demand than supply of newborns available for adoption. Thus, if the mother considers the new child would be a burden, could she not simply (or not so simply) put it up for adoption. More questions than answers I admit!

Expand full comment