Recently, Georgia passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in American history. The bill, HB 481 (the Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act), which will take effect in 2020, completely bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, with small exceptions for rape, incest, or medical emergency. For most pregnancies, fetal heartbeat occurs at approximately six weeks — before many women even know they are pregnant. Mississippi and Kentucky passed similar heartbeat bills in April, and the legislatures of several other states — including Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas — have debated or passed similar legislation in recent weeks. If instituted, these laws will have devastating effects on the lives of women and girls across the United States.
Attempts to restrict women’s reproductive rights are not new. What is new, however, is a seemingly secular pro-life argument that focuses on the concept of “personhood rights” for the embryo or fetus. In the past, pro-life arguments relied heavily on a woman’s biblical duty to bear children or the presence of a soul in the fetus. But as Americans have become increasingly secular, the pro-life movement has begun to abandon arguments that specifically reference Christianity or traditional sexual mores. Georgia’s new legislation, for instance, makes no direct religious references at all. The new focus is instead on universal human rights, particularly the “right to life.”
These personhood arguments claim that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is equal in value to any other human organism and therefore deserves an equal “right to life.” Pro-life proponents point to different biological factors to justify this supposed right: the Georgia bill relies on fetal heartbeat as a means to demonstrate personhood, while other, more extreme versions rely on the unique human DNA formed during conception as the fundamental criterion. Regardless, these arguments always rely on a strictly biological benchmark for determining personhood and, importantly, make no reference to subjective states such as awareness, experience, or capability for relationships.
These arguments provide a unique challenge for feminists, who have often justified the right to abortion by referencing the “bodily sovereignty argument,” first popularized by Judith Jarvis Thomson. Her landmark paper, A Defense of Abortion, argued that a woman’s right to control her body overrides any fetus’s right to life, making abortion morally permissible even if the fetus is a person. This response, while philosophically sound, concedes the validity of fetal personhood. This makes it easy to characterize pro-choice women as callous and irresponsible, willing to snuff out a valuable life on a whim. While this portrayal is unfair and offensive, it undeniably fuels negative opinions toward abortion, even when legal. Feminists can no longer just argue that ending a pregnancy is permissible. We need to show that it is moral — that there is no good reason to discourage abortion.
In reality, the personhood argument itself is untenable.
A secular defense of fetal personhood makes three critical errors. First, it rests on a biological test for personhood that does not hold up under scrutiny. Further, it completely devalues other aspects of personhood that are more important. And finally, attempts to salvage the argument rely on incoherent commitments to the concept of “potential lives.”
Discussions about abortion often get bogged down in confusing terminology. Pro-life advocates will use the term “person” and “human life” interchangeably, but this is intentionally misleading. “Person,” in the philosophical sense, refers to any being with moral worth. A non-human, but self-aware and conscious being (like Spock from Star Trek), should, in any ethical universe, be considered a person. This “personhood” brings with it certain fundamental rights, including the right to life. In contrast, the term “human life” can refer to any entity that contains human DNA, from an individual skin cell to an adult human.
The key question at the heart of the personhood debate is, “What grants a being personhood?” It’s an important and complex question, but pro-life arguments provide facile and unsatisfying answers. Georgia’s Bill HB 481 provides a particularly simplistic response: “The full value of a child [person] begins when a detectable human heartbeat exists.” Other pro-life arguments make similar reference to fingernails, toes, or other body parts. Some are even audacious enough to identify “unique human DNA” as the deciding factor, making a single cell equal in worth to an adult human being.
These definitions are simple, but they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding. It’s true that (almost) every person we know of has a heartbeat, so it’s easy to assume that a heartbeat is what makes us persons. But that’s a classic logical fallacy. The fact that everyone in a group shares a feature does not mean that that feature defines the group. This logical mistake is common in other debates — for example, when radical feminists say, “Women give birth,” trans activists take this to mean, “A person has to give birth to be a woman.” That is obviously not what we mean. Similarly, the Georgia legislature looks at an obvious fact — that the vast majority of persons have heartbeats — and concludes that a heartbeat is what makes a being a person.
This fallacy becomes clearer when we start asking some simple questions. Would the Georgia legislature say that the life of a child with an artificial heart was less valuable than that of any other child? Obviously not. But why? Although the vast majority of human beings have hearts, the actual physical heartbeat isn’t actually relevant to determining moral worth. What about the other physical factors pro-life advocates sometimes refer to, such as fingernails or limbs? Again, a child born without fingernails or missing some limbs doesn’t lose personhood as a result. Even DNA isn’t at the heart of what makes life valuable. If your thinking, feeling child turned out to be a mutant — if she did not possess human DNA — would you think her life was worth any less? Personhood is not like sex or blood type. It is not a physical feature that one can point to in the world. It is far more than that.
For these reasons, the pro-life side’s biological criteria are irrelevant to an ethical determination of personhood. But even more importantly, their position assigns no worth to the things that do make life valuable. We all know what these things are. No matter who we are, our lives draw value from our relationships with both human and non-human life; from our emotional experiences — both joys and sorrows; from our thoughts and our ability to think and communicate; to perceive and be aware of the world around us; and from our ability to love. These universal human experiences are what matter in life, not the existence of fingernails or DNA. And all of these things are made possible by birth — our first encounter with the richness, complexity, and beauty of the external world.
The more I think about this secular pro-life argument, the more it strikes me as not merely misogynistic, but also deeply nihilistic and life-hating. Can the Georgia legislature think of no relevant differences between an embryo and a mother that might give the latter more value? If “the full value” of a human life is imparted by mere presence of a heartbeat, Georgia is saying that a person’s relationships, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are worth nothing in comparison. Can you imagine your life without your relationships, thoughts, emotions, or perceptions? Would such a life be as valuable as the life you live now? The Georgia legislature apparently believes so. The secular pro-life position is a profoundly empty and pitiful worldview, one that completely misses everything that makes life worth living.
Pro-life proponents are often forced to agree that these qualities are important. In light of this, they attempt to salvage their arguments via the concept of “potential persons.” They argue that, although an embryo may not have any of the attributes listed above, it should be granted personhood on the grounds that it has “potential” to develop them. I think it should be obvious, however, that potential alone is irrelevant to determining moral worth. Given sufficiently advanced gene editing technology, any cell could be genetically modified to be a zygote, but that would not give any cell the moral worth of a human being. All sperm and egg cells have the potential (given the right conditions) to be a future person, but we obviously do not consider those cells to be inherently valuable because of their potential. Nor is potential relevant when determining the moral status of children or adult humans — the life of a child with a terminal illness, for instance, is not less worthy than that of a healthy child, even if the former does not have the same potential.
The pro-life attempts to reduce personhood to a particular biological marker in fetal development are based on an almost incomprehensibly warped moral worldview. But where should we draw the line for personhood, if not at some arbitrary marker for fetal development? I should think the answer is clear: at birth. Throughout these debates, I have been amazed at the utter minimization of the significance of birth — a morally and physically profound event that marks the quite literal entrance into the world of conscious experiences, relationships, bodily autonomy, interactions, language acquisition, and thoughts. To the person reading this, I can guarantee that the most significant day of your life is — and will always be — the day your mother gave birth to you. It is an entirely appropriate and obvious place at which to assign personhood, with all its attendant rights and obligations.
Any ideology that grants embryonic or fetal “right to life” is dangerous for women and girls. Abortion restrictions kill women. They compel women to stay in violent and dangerous relationships. They force children to carry the pregnancy of a rapist. They create a dangerous black market abortion industry. But, more than dangerous, these arguments are fundamentally psychopathic, negating the value of everything that truly makes us human. Pro-lifers have always told us that pro-choice feminists do not respect the “sanctity of human life.” In reality, we are the ones in this debate who know what makes human lives meaningful and valuable. As we continue the fight for women’s reproductive rights, we must be clear: abortions are not merely permissible. They are not an evil act we must grudgingly tolerate. Rather, abortion is a moral and responsible act that we must defend as an essential aspect of women’s rights.
Karen Jolly is a software engineer who lives in Seattle. You can find her on twitter at @smolgardenghost.