He begins with a few quotations, none of which address the question of personhood. The first, from Millard Erickson, says that abortion involves "the taking of a human life." That's correct. The second, from Jerome Lejeune, says that abortion "kills a member of our species." That's also correct. The third, from R.C. Sproul, says, "abortion-on-demand is evil, no one has the moral right to choose it. If it is an offense against life, the government must not permit it." This doesn't actually follow, if one thinks that it is possible to morally use lethal force in self-defense, in war time, and as a form of legal punishment. As it happens, Sproul does think that it is legitimate for governments to engage in just war and capital punishment. I'm not certain how he reconciles his views on those topics with the quoted statement, but I suspect he says that these forms of taking human life do not constitute "an offense against life" and are not evil.
Vocab gives four arguments that he says he's seen used to argue for the moral legitimacy of abortion:
- Sentience makes a person and the unborn are not sentient
- Size makes a person and the unborn are too small
- Viability makes a person and the unborn are not viable on their own
- Wantedness makes a person and the unborn are not wanted
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states may not prohibit abortion for any reason prior to viability, the time at which a fetus can survive on its own independently of the mother (including with artificial assistance), or after viability when abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. The point of viability is something that has shifted as technology has improved, and could potentially become completely meaningless, so I don't see it as a plausible ethical criterion.
So what does Vocab think is wrong with #1? He writes: "A component of this argument is it implies the pro-life position is weak because abortion is not cruel because the fetus cannot feel pain. Does this mean if I am unconscious or sleeping, I have lost my personhood?"
This response misconstrues my position. Sentience is significant not just because it involves the possibility of actual perceptions at a given time, but because it allows for the sort of being that can have beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests. The absence of such a capacity entails that a being cannot have beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests. This doesn't mean we cease to have those things when we are temporarily unconscious. When I sleep, I may not be conscious of the external world (though I sometimes do perceive external stimuli in lucid dreams), but I still have the capacity for such conscious awareness, and continue to maintain beliefs, desires, intentions and have interests. A better objection to my position would be a case where I sustain some kind of brain damage which puts me into a persistent vegetative state, yet there is still some possibility of recovery. In my opinion, the only way I would have some possibility of recovery and be the same person would be if I continued to have beliefs, desires, and intentions represented in my brain even in the persistent vegetative state. If those were all lost, and biological recovery were still possible--say, through some therapy made possibly by embryonic stem cells transplanted into my brain, which ironically, Vocab's view would likely make unethical--the person who would then come into being would be starting over afresh as a new person.
Vocab quotes Scott Rae observing that a person who has their legs cut off is harmed even if they feel no pain in the process, and even if their legs are not useful for locomotion. That is no objection to my position--I agree that there is harm there, because it is done to a person in conflict with their beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests, without their consent.
Next, Vocab says that a fetus is "sensitive to touch at ten weeks and eleven weeks" and "most certainly does feel pain" by the third month. I believe it is a mistake to conflate "sensitive to touch" with "experiences sensations." Reflexive actions don't identify experiences. Further, I haven't identified the ability to experience sensations with personhood, since I've already observed that animals can experience pain, but don't think that necessarily entails the immorality of killing animals for food or other reasons (though I do think it probably entails a moral requirement for humane treatment).
Vocab goes on to complain that a "developmental view, in which the basic thesis is humans become persons by some ability they acquire and not by the kind of entity they already are" is rarely "defend[ed] ... with any rigor" and asks "Who says they get to lay out the qualification for personhood?" Regarding the first point, Vocab's view is also one which attributes a right to life at a particular point, when two living haploid cells, a sperm and an egg, meet. He's defended this by reference to two features, (1) that at this point there is a complete set of DNA and (2) left to itself, it will (if all goes well) develop into what we all would agree is a human being. (1) is clearly insufficient, since any somatic cell sloughed off a person's skin has that property as well, and (2) only carries any persuasive weight from its appeal to future status rather than present. His subsequent question seems to assume that arguments for a view of personhood are dependent upon a claim to authority or power, rather than for their own intuitive force--and I think that's just mistaken.
He then asks, "Shouldn't a civilized and ethical society desire to err on the side of life?" In the way this is written, I can't agree--for the cycle of life requires death. I do agree that we should err on the side of protecting persons and treating humanely creatures that can experience pain, but that gives no reason to think the boundary line is where Vocab draws it.
He writes that "It is an artificial and arbitrary distinction with no scientific grounding. One more reason the human/person distinction is artificial is because I have never met a person who is not a human, nor have I ever met a human who is not a person. Is this even possible?" I disagree completely with this description. The question of sentient capacities is one with very strong scientific grounding, though we are uncertain of exactly where the boundary is. The fact that Vocab only recognizes humans as a clear-cut case of persons on earth today just shows that he isn't taking seriously the ideas that some other contemporary species (such as chimpanzees, dolphins, and whales) might meet reasonable criteria of personhood, some past species (Neandertal) probably did meet reasonable criteria of personhood, and extraterrestrial intelligent life might meet reasonable criteria of personhood. Suppose for a moment that we found out that a subset of human beings turned out to be a different species, incapable of interbreeding with the rest of us. It's a consequence of Vocab's view that this subset would not be persons. My intuition is completely to the contrary--creatures that are like us to the extent that they have beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests are persons, regardless of their biological makeup.
Vocab's final argument is his strongest, which is that my view has the potential consequence that some forms of infanticide and euthanasia--namely, those in cases where the conditions for personhood are not met--may be ethical. This is correct, presuming that personhood is the only justification for not permitting killing. I suggest that there are at least two other possibilities. One is just a recognition of the epistemic limits of determining personhood--that is, I believe, a reason for erring on the side of caution, and setting legal limits outside the boundaries of personhood. Another is a consequentialist argument about public policy considerations, which also argues for erring on the side of caution. While policies of permissible infanticide have been not been uncommon in history, they raise possibilities for brutalization or desensitization of the killer, among other negative consequences that go beyond the immediate act. This is itself a possible argument against abortions of fetuses that have recognizable human form.
Early on in this post, Vocab wrote "It's not as if there is a strong consensus, anyway." On the contrary, I think there is virtually no support for Vocab's view in history, from religion, from philosophy, or from science. In the United States, complete bans on abortion only became common after the Civil War, with the first post-quickening abortion prohibitions starting earlier, in the 1820s.
I don't think Vocab has come anywhere near making his case. He's not addressed many of the points I brought up in my prior post, and though he cited Judith Jarvis Thomson, he hasn't addressed the case of a conflict between two rights-holders, where one is dependent upon the other, which her violinist example brings up in an argument for the moral permissibility of abortion even if the fetus is counted as a person. Nor has he addressed the harm to non-actualized twins, or the case of cloned human beings who might develop without the process of fertilization (though I suspect he would identify them as persons at either the point of nuclear transfer or electric shock, and would probably have some reason for calling the process itself unethical). His view entails that IUDs, morning-after pills, in vitro fertilization, and embryonic stem cell research are immoral. His view suggests that if a building containing frozen embryos and small children were on fire, one should not give any preference to rescuing the children over the embryos. His view entails that a particular genetic makeup, rather than features like having beliefs, desires, intentions, and interests, is what's relevant to personhood. His view doesn't make sense of the idea of non-human persons.
I see no plausibility to the idea that fertilization is a morally relevant event or that having a particular genetic makeup is the morally important part of being a person.
UPDATE (December 14, 2009): Corrected sentence about U.S. abortion laws and added reference link to Wikipedia.
UPDATE: It should be noted that Vocab misconstrues Peter Singer's position on the relative worth of humans and animals; Singer speaks for himself on the subject on an episode of the Ethics Bites podcast:
I also think Vocab errs in claiming that PETA is being more consistent in holding animals above humans--that is not a consequence of my or their position, and I believe they are more concerned with publicity than consistency, as they euthanize adoptable animals by the thousands.
Nigel: And it’s interesting that many of your critics focus on descriptions of a situation where you’re playing off a human being who’s less than a person, against an animal which is a person.
Peter: I think that’s a tactic. Maybe it’s quite an effective tactic with some audiences. They try and say that animals in some circumstances deserve more consideration than humans do. It’s accurate that there are some situations, though I think they are quite rare ones, where that would be true, where the human was so intellectually disabled or incapable of understanding things where you would want to give preference to the non-human animal; it would have greater interest in going on living or not suffering in a certain way. But it’s really completely irrelevant to the vast majority of cases in which we are interfering with animals, that is where we’re producing them for food where obviously they’re suffering, and it’s not at all necessary for me to say that somehow they have the same let alone a superior status to humans to point to the fact that we’re inflicting unnecessary suffering on them, and that should be enough to make it wrong given that we’re not doing this in order to save human lives but just because we like to eat a certain kind of food.
UPDATE (January 3, 2010): A story from the Sunday Times today argues that "dolphins should be treated as 'non-human persons'":
Dolphins have long been recognised as among the most intelligent of animals but many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioural studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.
It has also become clear that they are “cultural” animals, meaning that new types of behaviour can quickly be picked up by one dolphin from another.
In one study, Diana Reiss, professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, showed that bottlenose dolphins could recognise themselves in a mirror and use it to inspect various parts of their bodies, an ability that had been thought limited to humans and great apes.
In another, she found that captive animals also had the ability to learn a rudimentary symbol-based language.
Other research has shown dolphins can solve difficult problems, while those living in the wild co-operate in ways that imply complex social structures and a high level of emotional sophistication.
Continue to part three.