A Right to Life Does Not Begin at Conception by Phil Jacobson

I support the LP position that government should not be used to overrule the choices of individuals on the subject of abortion. However the LP members who agree with me have expressed a variety of reasons for reaching this conclusion, especially with regard to the first trimester of a pregnancy. Some of the discussion of the topic revolves around the rights of the mother over her body - a legal and philosophical question, not a scientific one. But there is also considerable discussion on when “personhood” (along with human rights) begin, which seems to bring science into the discussion.

A discussion of human rights, such as they may be, from any which may exist at conception through those which exist on an individual’s death bed, will involve philosophy. For a full discussion of the topic, one would need to define “personhood” at least superficially before assigning rights to individual persons. But I’m of the opinion that we can at least address the question of the “personhood” of the earliest stages of individual humans’ development from a scientific perspective, even without a rigorous definition. I do not think that a zygote is a person, any more than a non-human one celled animal is a person. The capacities of a “person” should include more than a potential to ultimately develop into a healthy adult human. Some greater level of achieved physical development needs to occur before we recognize rights for human tissue which are not also granted to all animals.

I will not endorse a specific definition of “personhood” here, I will contend simply that “human rights”, as distinguished from “animal rights“, should not be recognized at conception. We know, scientifically, that life does not begin at conception. Human life exists in each individual case long before, since both human egg and human sperm are living cells. And there is no recognized “right to life” for these cells as they cannot perform any functions that are unique to humans. When combined to form a zygote their specific human life changes form. If that life develops further, it goes on to split into a larger number of identical cells. Only later do those cells specialize. But even an early cluster of specialized cells is in possession of basically the same capacity as any other species - except for the capacity, in a supportive environment, to develop further along the human path - towards personhood. Sufficient development to achieve a heart beat would still, in my view, not be enough to create a person. My thinking is, I believe, supported by scientific observations comparing non-human embryos to human embryos. If we do not recognize a “right to life” for a mouse, even after it is fully developed and independent of its mother, why should a human embryo which has no more achieved capacity than a mouse embryo at the same stage have a “right to life”?

I am not, here, attempting to weigh in on the “rights”, such as they may be, of a fetus which could survive outside the womb, given current medical technology. Nor am I attempting to address the questions of financial or other care-giving responsibilities that are associated with “persons” who are too young to survive without external assistance. Those questions deserve discussion too, but can be dealt with separately.
I am only concerned with the argument that we should define “personhood” in terms of the viability of a fetus. According to that argument, a legal “right to life” should exist for any fetus which can survive outside a mother’s womb. This argument denies a “right to life” for any fetus which has not developed to the point where it could survive without the environment provided by a human female host. Yet the argument does allow for a “right to life” for any fetus which could survive with artificial life support, such as an incubator. So an embryo or fetus which is only in it’s first trimester is not granted a “right to life”, but only because no technology exists to bring it through the second and third trimesters. According to this argument, if and when it became possible to support a fetus outside a human female womb from conception through its third trimester, then that fetus would acquire a “right to life”.

I challenge this interpretation of human rights. As stated above, an organism derived from a human zygote, which has not developed beyond the first trimester, has not become a person. Even if it were possible, eventually, to cultivate that organism artificially through it’s third trimester of development, that organism has no right to such cultivation any more than a single human egg or sperm has a right to contribute to the formation of a zygote. It has no “right to life”. It’s life, like that of a single human egg or single human sperm, can be terminated with no ethical consequences. Nor should there be legal consequences for terminating that life.

I do not, here, weigh in on who would have the right to terminate the life of that human organism within the first trimester. Nor am I weighing in on the topic of when that organism could have developed far enough to be considered a person and thus have a “right to life”. But I do say that such a right should not be recognized within the first trimester of the organism’s existence, regardless of the state of medical technology.


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  • Christopher Dooley
    published this page in Issue Papers 2020-01-12 17:07:05 -0500