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The point of viability

The day job is getting a bit intense right now so I only have time for a quick post. I’d like to address a comment made by NotAnAtheist on yesterday’s post. (The bold text is an excerpt from my post, to which NotAnAtheist is responding.)

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.

Well, that’s only true if the fetus is a “nobody” up until viability then afterwards its now suddenly a person, a “somebody” with rights to be violated. It can’t be both ways. If you say that before a certain point, you are certain that “nobody’s” rights are being violated and afterwards you declare abortion to be wrong, then you are drawing a line at viability.

Just to expand on what my point is here, I’m saying that personhood is a quality that emerges gradually, and thus any line that we draw arbitrarily is going to fall between two states that have few if any obvious differences between them, even if we draw that line at some point during the process of conception. In other words, the artificial line we impose on reality is not going to delineate an actual transition from a “nobody” to a “somebody.” It’s a legal fiction we use to simplify the decision-making process.

What happens at viability, then? It’s not an actual transition from “nobody” to “somebody,” as I’ve just said. “Nobody” vs. “somebody” is not a sharply-defined pair of binary alternatives, but rather they are two ends of a spectrum. Viability, then, is not the beginning of personhood, but merely the point at which the biological development is complete enough that it makes sense to consider treating the pre-person as an independent entity. (I say “point,” but viability, like personhood, is also something that emerges gradually, and varies on a case-by-case basis.)

The reason it makes sense to draw a line at viability is because (a) it’s still early enough to come some time before we reach the state of true personhood and (b) it’s late enough in the process that we can have practical alternatives to consider. Any line we draw at all is going to be wrong because there’s no objective boundary for the line to correspond to. But if we draw a line at viability, we’re as close as we can get to a fair balance between the interests of the woman and the potential interests of what will shortly become an autonomous individual human being.