An argument for the personhood of the unborn (Part III)

(Continued from Part II)
Human by nature, not by function
The more philosophical opponents of the pro-life position often object to such straightforward summaries of their views. They argue that the unborn are not people because they cannot function in the same ways that we do. They claim that a true “person” meets certain criteria; he or she has feelings, self awareness, consciousness, the ability to feel pain, the ability to interact with his or her environment, or some other criteria from a list of adult human abilities. Following this reasoning, since embryos and the rest of the unborn have few or none of these capabilities, they cannot be people and need not be protected from destruction. Note that those who use this argument take their criteria for personhood as givens, without any attempt to explain why a person must possess these traits.12
This belief system is known as functionalism, a belief that suffers from several flaws.13 First, someone can fail to function as a person and yet still be a person. Many unconscious humans cannot feel pain, and unconscious humans are neither self-aware nor can they reason, but we still consider them people. Second, someone must be a person in order to function as one. One grows in the ability to perform personal acts only because one already is the kind of being that can do so (i.e., a person).14 Third, one’s right to live does not depend on one’s intelligence. If functionalism is correct, then personhood could be expressed by an “intelligence curve” in which human beings move toward full personhood in their early years, reach it in middle age, then lose it with advancing age and the accompanying loss of mental function. This makes no sense. Fourth, functionalists cannot escape the problems posed by personal identity. Paul Cox and Scott Rae point out the nonsensical implications when they explain, “if I do not exist until sometime after my birth, in what sense is the birth mine? The only way for ‘my birth’ to be more than a linguistic convention is to admit that ‘I’ existed before I was born, or at least at the time of my birth.”15
Applying logic and common sense, we can see that any embryo commands the same moral status that the same human would command as an adult. Functions don’t matter in this moral determination. That being has a human essence that makes certain functions possible, and allows the being to retain a personal identity through change.16 Humans may lose the ability to think critically, but as long as they stay alive they remain themselves because they have a human nature. The underlying essence of a thing, not its functional abilities, tells us what kind of being it is. We function as people because we are people.
So what?
So where has all of this personhood analysis led us? A civilized culture would recognize the immorality of killing people for medical research purposes. For scientific and philosophical reasons, it seems abundantly clear that the unborn, including embryos, are people. Therefore, killing the unborn for medical research purposes is immoral. Pro-life advocate Scott Klusendorf summarizes these arguments better than perhaps anyone else:

Scientifically, the [pre]born come from human parents who, according to the law of biogenesis, can only produce human offspring. Philosophically, the differences between fetus and newborn are differences of function, not essence (or nature). The unborn human retains its identity as a person through time and change because it possesses a human nature. Consequently, destructive embryo research is a serious moral wrong. It strips the unborn human of its inherent dignity and treats it as a disposable instrument to be used for someone else’s benefit. A decent and civilized society cannot tolerate such an act.17

So there it is … my basic argument, based largely on the reasoning of people much smarter than I. I find it quite persuasive, and please note that it doesn’t ever refer to any religious tradition for authority.
What do you think?

Citations
12) Neither do these theorists clearly explain how much moral weight each criterion carries, nor which combinations of criteria tip the scales toward personhood.
13) For a discussion of functionalism and its counterarguments, see Koukl, Precious Unborn Human Persons, p. 20-35.
14) Cf. Peter Kreeft, “Human Personhood”, All About Issues, Jan.-Feb. 1992, p. 29 (questioning whether the “level of ability to perform certain human acts define the value of a person”).
15) Scott B. Rae & Paul M. Cox, Bioethics: A Christian Approach In A Pluralistic Age, p. 169 note #13 (1999).
16) Id., p. 159-69.
17) Klusendorf, Fetal Tissue and Embryo Stem Cell Research, p. 40, note #100.

3 comments

  1. Chet

    What I often wonder is, if we develop intelligent machines, or encounter intelligent extraterrestrials, what status will we give them? Do they have human rights, despite not being humans? I think most people would argue that they do, by virtue of the fact that they share the crucial human characteristic of sentience, and thus, most people actually do apply a functional definition of personhood.
    If functionalism is correct, then personhood could be expressed by an “intelligence curve” in which human beings move toward full personhood in their early years, reach it in middle age, then lose it with advancing age and the accompanying loss of mental function. This makes no sense.
    It makes perfect sense, and in fact, is the basis for the fact that we don’t allow minors to drive, and that we take away an adults right to drive and even to make decisions about their own welfare in the face of advancing age.
    If functionalism is not correct then there’s no basis for not allowing minors to vote, own guns, drive cars, etc. If they’re persons to the same extent as anyone else, then there’s no basis for not giving them the same rights as everyone else.
    That being has a human essence that makes certain functions possible, and allows the being to retain a personal identity through change.
    Where do we find that essence? This is simply a mistake of biological Platonism. There is no such “human essence.”
    Scientifically, the [pre]born come from human parents who, according to the law of biogenesis, can only produce human offspring.
    There’s no such law. Anyway it’s an irrelevancy; the issue of abortion is not about the fetus. It’s about the fact that adult women, who are undeniably persons, have an absolute right not to be pregnant, and allowing abortion is the only way to guarantee that. Neither contraception nor the choice to be abstinent can guarantee that a woman will not become pregnant.

  2. glasscat

    While these embryos contain all the genetic information necessary to build a human being, so does every single other cell in my body. If the embryos contain this supposed “essence” (which I dare you to prove exists) then so must all our other cells. By your logic it is enough for a little culture of cells to be kept alive, even if the rest of the body is allowed to die.
    Many zygotes don’t implant and many pregnancies are spontaneously aborted due to deleterious mutations. By your logic this is a really big deal. All these potential humans are being flushed down the toilet every day. Whatever will we do about it?

  3. deadscot

    In order to simplify my opinion on abortion and stem cell research I use two rules of thumb. 1. Is the foreign body physically attached to its host as means of survival. If yes, then the body does not yet qualify as a person.
    2. If the body is detached from its original host can it survive and perform intended operations with assistance from any average replacement host. If not, than the body falls back into category one.
    Obviously it’s a little more complex than that but this is a neat and tidy summary.