(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 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?
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.