American Reason: Addressing personhood

As we recently saw with the Wendy Davis filibuster in Texas, the abortion debate has started heating up again. Many conservative states appear to be competing to see who can ban abortions at the earliest stage of pregnancy, and in August, Mississippi may become the first state to de facto ban abortion clinics through rigorous regulation. To those on the Left, this push often feels like a relentless assault on a woman’s right to choose. Is compromise possible, or are we doomed to argue about this forever?

Matt Sowada: Vik, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany: I am pro-life and I’ll bet you are too. This might be slightly shocking coming from someone who self-identifies as a feminist and believes that abortion ought to be safe, legal and rare. Furthermore, I’m sure you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “Come on Matt, I think I’d know if I was pro-life or not”—but hear me out. What I’m saying is that I fundamentally agree with the way the Right tends to frame the abortion issue, just not with their conclusions. To me, the key question that we have to answer in the abortion debate is one of personhood.

In our society, we do sometimes consider it morally appropriate for one human being to extinguish the life of another, but only in very rare circumstances. Typically, we only agree that killing a person is acceptable when doing so seems like the only way to protect the life of an innocent. Think of a sniper dropping a kidnapper in a hostage situation. Obviously, you can see where I’m going with this. When is the fetus not just alive, but a person? Traditionally, there have been two main answers to this question: at conception or at viability. Doesn’t the fact that virtually no one argues that someone ought to have the right to abort a fetus that has been developing for eight and a half months (without extremely good reasons) indicate that this debate is really about human “life” and not “choice”?

Vik Patel: I think you’re right that the way in which discussions of late-term abortions are framed show that this issue is ultimately about when a fetus should be treated as a person, so let’s examine the legal ramifications of the two traditional criteria for personhood that you brought up: conception and viability. I don’t think that defining conception as the beginning of personhood is either morally right or legally feasible. After the fertilization of an egg, there are many factors and a bit of random chance that determine whether or not that fertilized egg will implant itself into the wall of the uterus and whether or not the pregnancy will successfully continue after implantation. If we define the beginning of personhood as that of conception, then a woman’s eating and exercise habits could be used against her in pursuit of a manslaughter charge if she were to have a miscarriage. We all can agree on the ridiculousness of such a legal framework. Viability, on the other hand, seems to be a much more reasonable criterion. However, we have seen the moment of viability moving closer and closer to that of conception, and even though they are far apart now, there’s no reason to believe that we will not eventually develop technology that would allow for a fetus to develop completely outside of the uterus.

To better understand the beginning of personhood, I think it would be informative to examine the end of personhood: death. In our society, a person is legally dead at the moment of brain death. Even if the body can be sustained by artificial means we consider a person to be dead after their brain stops functioning. Likewise, we should consider the beginning of personhood to be when the brain starts functioning. Putting an exact date on this will likely require more study of fetal development, but the line will probably fall between eight and nine weeks, when neurons start to develop, and 20-26 weeks, when sustained electrical activity starts in the neocortex of the fetus. Unfortunately, the focus of Roe v. Wade on the right to privacy has distracted our society from agreeing on when personhood begins and has left the door open for those who wish to ban abortion.

Matt: Well, choosing the beginning of “brain life” as the beginning of personhood makes sense to me, but I’m struck by your jab at Roe v. Wade! That decision has been taking a pounding lately, and not just from the Right. Back in May the Huffington Post reported that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg commented on the toll the conservative “backlash” to Roe v. Wade has had on American political process, saying the decision went “too far, too fast.” I mean, it’s true that we’ve been arguing about it for 40 years now, and as you pointed out it has been distracting, but what’s the alternative? If Roe v. Wade had been decided differently we’d still be debating the topic of abortion, just likely at the state level. The biggest difference would be that thousands and thousands of women would have been forced to get dangerous back-alley abortions instead of medically supervised ones.

It sounds like we mostly agree on this one, but just to make sure you get a chance to alienate every single person in Iowa City, I’ve got one more question for you: What does our definition of personhood mean for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest? Should society force women to carry a baby to term once it’s become a person in those cases? After all, it’s not the fetus’s fault it was conceived under such deplorable conditions, but it also feels wrong to force pregnancy on someone who is unwilling.

Vik: Though rape and incest are terrible injustices, once a fetus passes the point of personhood then it should have the same rights afforded to any other person. As such, the only reasonable justification for a very late-term abortion would be if continuing the pregnancy endangers the health of the mother. However, before that transition into personhood an abortion should be safe, legal, accessible and entirely the choice of the woman.

Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m.