In following the news surrounding the Zoe’s law case, one thing strikes me. It’s almost as if the pro-choice advocates face the following conundrum:
If we recognise that an unborn child is in fact a dignified human person worthy of respect and rights equal to at least that of recently born young children, then we have to accept that abortion is the killing of a dignified human person worthy of respect and rights and that there is no moral difference between infanticide and abortion, for example.
Well seeing as we don’t like killing innocent people, especially children, we had better not recognise an unborn child as a human person. Phew! Solved.
Isn’t this the wrong way around? Couldn’t such logic be used to justify absolutely anything? Shouldn’t we be interested in discerning the truth of the matter?
In fact the very question “should we recognise an unborn child (of any age) as being a human person?” is grossly misdirected. Surely it is logically prior to ask the question: “is the unborn child a human person?” and then if we can determine that it is, well, then obviously we should recognise it. If we determine that it is not, then why would we consider recognising it? Either way, the question of what the unborn child is, must be answered if there is to be any sense in discussing how it is recognised.
For example, imagine a society somewhere in the world today (perhaps not so far from reality) where the predominant assumption is that there is no such thing as global warming. That is, that there is no hazardous climate change that we are in any way contributing too inducing and so on. If someone came along and said, “Look here, I think we should indeed recognise that anthropogenic climate change is a reality!” how would we go about assessing that claim?
Perhaps the people (again, not so fictitiously) say in reply, “but if we recognised anthropogenic climate change as a reality then we would have to stop emitting so much carbon into the atmosphere, which would be really hard for everyone to do, so I don’t think we should recognise it.” Any sensible person should rightly reply that such a method of reasoning is absurd. We should first review the evidence and determine if, in fact, it is true that climate change is occurring. And if it is, well, regardless of what personal costs we might have to pay, surely we should recognise it!
Why not take the same approach to the unborn child? If it is true that the unborn child is a human person then surely we should recognise that, regardless of the consequences it may have for our own behaviour. Certainly, we could learn that the unborn child is in fact a person and then continue to procure abortions. And similarly, the person in the example above could learn that climate change is real and continue to pump tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But surely this would not be the right thing to do? Surely this would not be the kind of behaviour we would want sanctioned by the state or promoted by popular culture?
Presumably the reply would be something like, “that’s all well and good for matters of empirical investigation, but personhood is just a construct that cannot be empirically verified or falsified,” – it is what we make it, so to speak. This still doesn’t get away from the problem that no matter what kind of thing you’re interested in, defining that thing (empirically or otherwise) is logically prior to recognising it. But a more serious concern is that accepting this model of constructivism runs into very dangerous territory.
Consider our current notion of personhood, encompassing many persons of different gender, race, sexuality and so forth. On what basis should men and women be considered equal persons in society? What about people of different races, sexualities and religions? What empirically unites them all? If personhood is just a construct, then what is to stop someone defining personhood as requiring male anatomy, or a certain skin colour or certain aptitudes of intelligence or physical ability? Such things have been done before.
Surely, there is a sense in which the equality and rights of persons must be based in something that transcends mere opinion or political pragmatics. Thus, for any universal notion of rights there must be a claim to truth. If truth, then, must be empirical in its justification then how can we define personhood? Well, the only thing empirically uniting all these groups is that they are members of the human biological kind, they all possess human DNA. The same DNA possessed by the unborn child from the moment fertilisation is complete.
Thus, if there is to be any just basis of freedom and equality that underlies human rights of any sort, reproductive rights included, then the only basis must be that persons are simply all members of the human species. One such member is the unborn child. If we can identify this truth, just as in the climate change example, then the unborn child should be publicly recognised as a person from the moment the process of fertilisation is complete, otherwise we are deliberately turning a blind eye to the truth and our entire human rights framework is founded on a lie.