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May 12, 2008




You write “@ Brooks (and anyone else wishing to comment), I've read it many places that the real issue at stake here isn't when does life begin, because science, medicine, biology, and genetics proves that a unique human life begins at conception; but, "when does that life become a person?" I find that to be desperate reasoning on the part of abortion advocates who cannot find any other reason to justify the taking of human life. It is human life, folks. You (and others) say, "well, obviously, a blastocyst isn't a person..." That's begging the question. I just as easily say, "a human life is obviously a person." And since I have science on my side to say that human life begins at conception, I "win" the argument that a person begins at conception.”

No, you don’t “win”. Obviously a blastocyte is living (a “life”, if you will) and obviously it has human DNA, so obviously it is “human life”. No one disputes that. But if someone removed my brain and destroyed it completely, but somehow kept my body alive, my body would be “human life”, but would you call my brainless body still a person?? Hopefully not, because what makes a person a person has something to do with brain activity, not just being a bunch of cells with human DNA. Do you understand that?

Also, as a note, I’m not an “abortion advocate” in the sense that I think you mean. As you can see from my earlier comment, I challenge those who advocate abortion legality at any stage of pregnancy to explain why a newborn baby is a person with a right to life but a very late term fetus is not, given that there is not much difference between the two in terms of cognition.

You write: “The thing that mainly troubles me about the "personhood" argument (aside from its debasement of the preborn baby to non-person status), is that once all human life is no longer considered a "person" just by virtue of existence, then that line becomes murky for everyone else...my concern about mentally disabled people at some point in the future being declared "non-persons" and all legal protections on their life being removed…, I hate to break it to you folks, but once this doctrine is embraced (as it already is, in regards to abortion, and believe me more is coming), then no human life will be safe.”

That’s just a “slippery slope” argument. It doesn’t fly, because movement down the slope is not at all an inevitable or even likely consequence of adopting the rational approach to abortion that I suggest, which is that we base the law on personhood, and base personhood on at least some level and type of brain activity that could possibly resemble that of a person with thoughts and emotions. And yes, we have the ability to measure levels and types of brain activity of a fetus, have knowledge of such brain activity at various levels of pregnancy, and our ability to measure and gather more precise knowledge is growing every day. And I say we should err on the conservative side: If there’s any reasonable chance that the brain activity indicates thoughts or emotions, the fetus is a person and has a right to life.


John Meredith,

You may have missed my question here: http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2008/05/my-abortion-dou.html#comment-114481020

I hope you'll answer it. Thanks.

John Meredith

Brooks, I did miss your question but I don't think it presents any great dilemmas. If another person were mysteriously placed inside me and I could remove them, even if it meant their death, and even if their presence was merely a short term inconvenience, it would be and should be my right to do so because my body is my own and nobody else has any right to it. That does not mean that it would be the right thing to do ethically, and if you happened to be Raquel Welch in a submarine, all best would be off.

Actually, as I mentioned in an above post in response to Shuggy, there is a standard thought experiment about this which has a person waking up and funding another person has been painlessly grafted on to them in some way such that the added person depends on the bodily functions of the host to survive but does not endanger him or her in any way. Does the host have the right to remove the graftee against his wishes? I would say yes. What would you say?

John Meredith

That should be 'bets would be off' and 'finding another person ...', of course.


John Meredith,

Thank you for your clear, direct answer to my question.

Your position is internally consistent (i.e., logical). I just disagree with you in my moral assessment. I believe that the law should protect the life of that person who is very temporarily stuck in side of your body (in my hypothetical).

Regarding that “thought experiment”, I hadn’t hear of it, but it’s very similar to another hypothetical I wrote a few months ago involving adult conjoint twins if one of them can survive separation and the other will not: Should the former have the legal right to choose to undergo separation surgery (assuming it would only involve cutting on his side) without the consent of the latter? I assume your answer is “yes”, but mine is “no”, as it would be in the “grafted person” hypothetical as well. Again, neither of us is being illogical; We just have a different moral view.

Another hypothetical of mine was if, for some reason, immediately after birth a baby could not survive the cutting of the umbilical cord for some period of time, let’s say just one minute. Would you say the mother should have the legal right to have the umbilical cord cut before the end of that minute? (and let’s assume no health threat to the mother, nor any pain or even any physical discomfort)

And as for Ms. Welch, as I watched Planet of the Apes I was of the strong opinion that her right to life superseded that of all other persons ;) (I hope no one considers that sexist and is offended. If so, my apologies)

John Meredith

Brooks, you offer some interesting moral dilemmas but I don't think that they are exactly analogous. I might take your view on both cases. That is because it is not clear in the case of conjoined twins who owns the body or what the body actually is. Equally, when a child is outside a woman's body, the situation is changed. The umbilical cord is hers, but, it seems to me, the child's as well and both have a claim.


John Meredith,

Excellent distinctions you've made. I guess I need to refine my hypotheticals if I can to remove the issue over ownership of the body parts in question. I guess the simplest way is just to ask you to assume that it is indeed possible to say that the body parts in question belong to only one of the two people, if that suffices for you as an adjustment to the hypothetical.

In the conjoined twins case, let's say the law recognizes Joe's right hand as Joe's, so he has a legal right to put a ring on it if he wants (or not), but his conjoined twin Bob does not have such a legal right to put a ring on Joe's right hand. Now let's say that Joe clearly has certain vital organs in his torso, but Bob does not, and Bob is dependent on those vital organs. Does that sufficiently address the ownership problem of my hypothetical? If so, what is your answer to the hypothetical?

As for the umbilical cord hypothetical, let's change it. Suppose the mother gives birth, but for the minute immediately following birth, if she does not breast-feed the baby, it will die. Suppose she begins to breast feed the baby for that minute. Should she have the legal right to remove the baby prior to the end of that minute, leading predictably to his/her death? (let's assume there are no alternatives. It's either she breast-feeds the baby, or it dies.)


John Meredith,

I have another hypothetical for you (but don't miss my adjustments to the other two above).

Suppose Alan and Charlie are strangers who cross paths while hiking. Alan slips and starts to fall over a cliff, but grabs Charlie’s arm to keep from falling. Let’s assume that Charlie is very big and strong and Alan is very small and light, and it poses no danger whatsoever to Charlie to let Alan hold on. Should Charlie have the legal right to remove Alan’s hand from his arm, knowing that it will mean Alan’s death?


John Meredith,

You've obviously got a sharp mind. I'd like to invite you to participate at www.SwordsCrossed.org

I'm "B Rational" over there.


"If not, it all comes down to the question of whether you regard the unborn as people. I do not know the answer. But I do know the question."

No it doesn't - it depends on whether you regard the unborn as people with the same rights as other people. Subtle difference. Rights tend to be black or white, real moral sensitivity is demonstrably more subtle (because people are able to choose the lesser of two evils).


It's really interesting to read this post, and it's an issue which demands a lot of careful thought. I think there's a very important distinction between the grieved-over miscarriage and an abortion: in the first case, the baby was wanted, and in the second the baby was not. The wanted pregnancy is valuable because it is exactly that - wanted, and the resulting child would be loved and cared for. Forcing women to have babies they don't want is harmful to the women, and cruel to the potential children.

My own feeling is that abortion becomes unethical when a foetus has a good chance of surviving outside the womb. Prior to that point, medical abortion simply mimics spontaneous abortion: I wouldn't call a miscarriage manslaughter, and I won't call an abortion murder either. In any case, legal or not, people will seek them because people often do them themselves in situations where carrying a baby to term would be appalling. The reduction of harm model says that safe, legal access is better than the sporadic and sometimes dangerous service available when abortion is illegal.

I don't think that anecdotes like the ones other commentators have offered are a good basis for your moral choices. But I do have my own reasons for particularly valuing legal abortion, and I've written about them.

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