BY Clinton Wilcox

Now that we have discovered how to ask the right question as to determining the morality of the abortion issue, and have seen that bodily rights arguments don’t work to justify abortions, we can turn our attention to where the abortion debate actually lies: are unborn human beings intrinsically valuable? That is, would killing an unborn human being be as seriously wrong as killing a human being outside the womb? Another way of framing this question is, are unborn human beings persons?

Sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius formulated the first definition of person, which is “an individual substance of a rational nature.” A substance is an entity that maintains its identity through change. In other words, you have been you at all points in your life, despite going through numerous changes like growing taller, going through puberty, etc. All living things are substances.

As A.W. Mueller explains (in his essay “The Concept of Person in Bioethics,” from Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, ed. Stephen Napier, p. 86), “European philosophical and theological traditions employ the Latin word persona in accordance with a famous definition given by Boethius… In these traditions as well as in everyday uses of the word’s derivatives in European languages, there is no room for the idea that a human being may become, or cease to be, a person. Rather, for you to be a person is for you to be a creature of a certain kind. You cannot become, or cease to be, a person any more than you can become, or cease to be, a human being.”

However, in the 20th century, John Locke formulated an alternate definition of person: “A thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, II.27.9). So one way or another, it seems that rationality is the key in determining who is or is not a person.

I will first address arguments against unborn personhood, then show how to justify the position that the unborn are persons from fertilization.

Generally, arguments against unborn personhood (or unborn human value) take one of two forms: either the unborn is not a person due to lacking some presently exercisable capacity or other, or that the unborn is not seriously harmed by being killed.


The functionalist view is the general position that you are not a person unless you can perform some sort(s) of personal function(s). Mary Anne Warren, in her essay On the Moral and Legal Status of Personhood (The Monist, Vol. 57, No. 4, 1973), lays out several functions that are typically thought of when we think of a person.

They are: consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain; reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems); self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control); the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics; and the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.

She does not believe that all of these must be present to be considered a person, but she argues that surely if an entity has consciousness and the ability to reason and none others, then a person may very well be present.

Michael Tooley, in his book Abortion and Infanticide (Oxford University Press, New York, 1983, pp. 104-105), argues that one must have a self-concept in order to have a serious right to life because only if one desires to live can one seriously be harmed by being killed. You cannot be harmed if you have no desire that is being thwarted.

Being rational and self-conscious now is generally what pro-choice philosophers have in mind when they speak of personhood. You are not a person unless you are now exhibiting those characteristics we deem necessary for personhood.

Now I can illustrate one of the advantages that the pro-life position has over the pro- choice position: there is no consensus of when personhood begins in the pro-choice view, whereas in the pro-life view it is generally agreed that personhood begins at fertilization.

Personhood is a supremely important claim because to deny something personhood denies something basic human rights, so if you’re going to deny something basic human rights, you must have some idea of when those rights are established. Otherwise denying basic human rights and intrinsic value becomes arbitrary.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Another problem is that if we take the functionalist view, that one is not a person until one can exhibit these functions, then that would justify infanticide. The infant is functionally no different than the late-term fetus. So if you are going to take the functionalist view, you must say that there is nothing seriously wrong with killing infants. Some philosophers agree with this, such as Michael Tooley and Peter Singer, and argue that there is nothing seriously wrong with killing a toddler. If there is something wrong, it’s only in that the wrong obtains if the parents wanted to keep the child. If you find this reprehensible, that’s the proper feeling to experience.

A third problem is that now we are faced with the episodic problem. Again, personhood is of utmost importance. It is not something that we can just arbitrarily decide someone has and someone else doesn’t. It is also something that we should not accept as coming and going, but on the functionalist view, that is precisely what happens.

If you must be able to exhibit these functions in order to be a person, then you cease to be a person when you cease being able to perform these functions. You are not conscious, nor can you behave rationally or engage in higher thought while you are asleep, under general anesthesia, or in a reversible coma. So you would cease to be a person in these states and it would be permissible to kill you for any reason. Not only that, but you would literally cease to exist when you lose consciousness, and then become a brand new person when you lose consciousness, and then become a brand new person when you woke up or came out of the coma.

Philosophers like Michael Tooley try to get around the episodic problem by claiming that as long as you are psychologically connected with yourself, you remain the same person when you lose consciousness and then regain consciousness.

But Edwin C. Hui, in his book At the Beginning of Life: Dilemmas in Theological Bioethics (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2002, pp. 71-72), argues that what Tooley has done is establish a sort of dualism, on in which the physical organism can exist independently of the psychological entity, and it’s the psychological entity that should be given ontological significance (in other words, the psychological entity is the one with intrinsic value, the one whose existence is important, not the physical organism).

But this contradicts normal human experience. The sensations that our body experiences needs the body as a subject of experiences, to experience these sensations, and the psychological component is necessary to comprehend the sensations so they can be understood as meaningful. Since the body and psychological components are both necessary for our experiences, then both are necessary for the “I”, the person who is the subject of experiences. Since the body is a necessary component to the person, one cannot hold that the body comes to be at one time while the person comes to be at another time.

In fact, Patrick Lee argues in The Moral Question of Abortion (Loyola University Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1990, pp. 89-90), functionalism arguments confuse being a person with acting as a person. When a philosopher like Mary Anne Warren points out that fetuses and newborns don’t function as persons, this is not telling us anything of value. They are not functioning as persons because they are too young to function as persons.

But as one must be a human before developing one’s human parts, one must also be a person in order to develop personal functions. Someone who is asleep also does not function as a person, but the only difference between a sleeping person and a human embryo is the length of time before they will function as a person, and length of time is not morally relevant in the discussion of personhood.

So what is it that makes someone a person? Simply, it is their inherent capacity as rational agents that makes them a person. The reason that you are a person when you fall asleep and then wake up, despite not acting as a person in the time in-between, is because your personhood is not dependent on your present abilities. There is an “I” that is the subject of your experiences, one that continues from when you come into being a fertilization until your death (be it natural or premature).

The inherent capacity a thing has is what is in its nature to develop, and this we can see from simple observation. It is in a dog’s nature to bark, which means that all dogs, unborn/immature as well as mature dogs, have the inherent capacity to bark. Does this mean that a dog that doesn’t develop the ability to bark doesn’t have that inherent capacity? No. It simply means that the dog that never develops the ability to bark is having his/her capacity to bark blocked by some factor (perhaps a birth defect).

Similarly, all human beings have an inherent nature as rational agents, even if in some tragic cases this rationality fails to develop. Many people try to compare the unborn to a brain dead human being because both are unable to function as persons. But this is simply a false analogy. Instead, a human embryo is more like a person in a reversible coma: someone who can’t function as a person now but will function as a person in the future if allowed to develop normally.

So rationality and self-awareness are important qualities for personhood, but it’s the inherent capacity, not the presently- exercisable one, that grounds your personhood. This relates to an argument that I’ve seen used by groups like Justice for All and Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, and is credited to philosopher J.P. Moreland as formulating.

If all human beings are equally valuable then our value cannot be grounded by something that comes in degrees (that is, something that humans can have less or more of). People think to different degrees, they are aware to different degrees, they are different heights, different weights, etc.

But the one thing that we all have equally is our humanness; that is, our human nature. It is the same human nature shared by the unborn, so if adult human beings (uncontroversially) are intrinsically valuable, then the unborn must be, as well. This is, incidentally, why racism and sexism are wrong. You are discriminating against a person based on a surface difference that is not morally relevant, and ignoring what they all have in common that is morally relevant: their common humanity.

This is not a speciesist argument, as someone like Peter Singer might argue. Singer would argue that speciesism is no different from sexism and racism, but Singer is mistaken. If human nature is the necessary property for intrinsic value, then judging human beings’ value based on skin color or gender is wrong because you are ignoring what does make them valuable.

Plus, as Patrick Lee argues, “human” is not simply a biological category; it is not simply belonging to biological species Homo sapiens that grounds our value; it’s what it means to be human. Human beings are the kind of things that are intrinsically valuable based on their inherent rational nature.

Feeling pain, desires/interests account

Sometimes a pro-choice person won’t even try to argue from personhood, but will instead argue that killing a human embryo or fetus does not harm the embryo/fetus, so it is not wrong to kill them. Again, these arguments are confused and misleading.

When a pro-choice person argues about feeling pain, this is not an argument related to human value. The argument is usually thatthe unborn can’t feel pain so if we are going to kill them, it would be humane to kill them before they can feel pain.

Again, this is not an argument against human value, just about whether or not youare harming something by killing them. But since humans are intrinsically valuable, you cannot justify killing them before they can feel pain. Some human beings are born with a congenital inability to feel pain. Gabby Gingras is a famous example of a person with this condition. Yet it would be ridiculous to claim that we can kill her at any time just because she can’t feel pain.

Some people argue that in order to have rights, one must have a desire for something. If you have no interests, then you can’t be harmed by not being given something or by being deprived of it.

Again,this argument doesn’t succeed.You can be harmed without being aware of it. Robert Wennberg, in Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985, p. 98), argues that if he was cheated of a just inheritance he didn’t know he had, he would definitely be harmed.

And as Patrick Lee argues in Abortion and Unborn Human Life (Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 1996, pp. 7-31), it’s conceivable that a slave could be indoctrinated to not desire freedom. Yet it would still be wrong to keep that person as a slave.

It’s clear that not having a desire or interests for something is not what grounds the wrongness of harming someone, although it is one reason why it is wrong. Surely, we have obligations to avoiding harming others. But it doesn’t follow from that fact alone that it would not be a harm to someone to deprive them of something they are not aware of or do not currently desire.

If you’ve stuck with me through the last two articles up until this one, we’ve now seen that the pro-life argument agrees with the science of embryology and is supported by philosophical argument. Bodily rights cannot be used to justify abortion, nor do arguments that the unborn are not persons succeed. The unborn are full human persons from fertilization, persons with intrinsic value, and the rights of these persons must be respected.


Photo of Clinton Wilcox

About Clinton Wilcox

Clinton Wilcox is a staff apologist for Life Training Institute and resides in Fresno, CA. He is a regular contributor to the Secular Pro-Life blog and has had articles featured on and the National Right to Life Committee blog. He is also a speaker and mentor through Justice for All and has spoken to hundreds of pro-life and pro-choice people, on several college campuses across four states and through various on-line mediums. He has given presentations on podcasts and in front of churches and philosophy clubs.



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