The last time I gave blood, there was a sign outside that says, “Giving blood saves lives.” As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I’d like to ask a question. If giving blood saves lives, why don’t we have people roaming the streets, grabbing healthy-looking individuals, and taking their blood by force? I think most people know the answer: it’s because each of us has a sovereign right to bodily autonomy that no one else has the right to violate, even if it might mean saving someone else’s life.
This to set the stage for a question posed in a couple comments by NotAnAtheist on yesterday’s post, concerning my remark about how the unformed child does not become a person until later on.
When does this “becoming a person” happen? … The child that is 1 hr from being born, anatomically, genetically, and in all other senses I know of, is the same child right after birth (If someone knows of some big difference, let me know).
If there is that similarity, how can it be that the child after birth is a “person”, and the child before is not? Or is it just that the idea of “personhood” has no objective referent and is simply up to the whim of the court?
I’m glad you asked.
The problem is not that personhood has no objective referent, but rather that it lacks sharply-defined boundaries, developmentally speaking. The qualities that make us persons are qualities that emerge gradually, through slow accumulation of the necessary biological structures and functions. There’s no magic wand that waves at precisely 5:23AM on Tuesday and poof, some non-human lump magically Pinnochios into a real boy. Just as cake batter, sitting in a hot oven, gradually transforms into a cake, the unformed child gradually transforms into a real child, without there ever being any sharply-delineated cutoff point where you could say, “Not a person before, person after.” It’s a smooth, continuous biological process.
And incidentally, the same thing is true of conception itself. A lot of people mistakenly refer to a “point” of conception or a “moment” of conception, but biologically conception is neither a point nor a moment. It’s a process that involves one mass of organic molecules (the sperm) approaching another mass of organic molecules (the egg), and certain molecular bonds break and new bonds form and the positions of various molecules shift around and re-arrange themselves in complex patterns that continue to shift and re-form until we say that the egg has been fertilized. When did the egg change from unfertilized to fertilized? There is no single point in the process where it’s definitely one thing before and something different after. It’s a process.
Consequently, any line we draw between pre-person and person is an arbitrary line. Personhood does not happen by magic, but by gradual biological processes that continue to operate well beyond birth. That’s not to say that personhood itself is imaginary or lacks an objective referent, but only that there’s no objective referent for the “official” dividing line between before and after. The cake comes out of the oven and is a cake. The baby is born and is a baby. But in the early stages of the process, neither has yet become what it eventually turns into by the end.
Someone might say, “Well then, we should protect the life of the unformed child as early as possible, so that we don’t inadvertently commit murder by failing to detect when the unformed child crosses the line into personhood.” That’s a common objection, even when you’ve just explained that there is no line to cross, and that it’s aprocess. But the problem with this objection is not just that it is based on a misconception about the beginning of personhood, but that it also fails to recognize that there are other rights at stake here too.
This is why I brought up blood drives at the beginning. It’s not “safer” to say we should draw an imaginary line at the so-called point of conception; rather, it’s a violation of the woman’s sovereign right to bodily autonomy, at a point where we know the unformed child is not yet a person. We don’t have vampire gangs roaming the streets stealing people’s blood to potentially save the lives of others, because the right to bodily autonomy is a sovereign right, and the fact that you might be saving someone else’s life is not sufficient to overrule that sovereign right. In the same way, you can’t justify violating the woman’s sovereign right to her own body just by claiming that your imaginary line gives superior rights to an unformed child.
The earliest point at which it makes sense to draw a legal line would be viability—the point where the child is formed enough to survive on its own outside the womb. At that point, if the woman wishes to terminate her pregnancy, then she can do so without killing the child, and nobody’s rights need be violated. Granted, that still involves a certain amount of medical proceedings for the woman, but that’s just life, sometimes you have to put up with the sub-optimal.
The real solution to abortion, of course, is birth control. Make sure that women at risk have ready access to contraception and birth control, and abortion won’t even be an issue. On that point, the evidence is clear and unmistakable. If biological processes and the absence of clear-cut lines disturbs you, then give away free birth control and avoid the whole problem altogether.