Abortion, Human Rights, and Human Dignity
Not too long ago, I wrote about what I regarded as something of an inconsistency in the position adopted by a libertarian anti-abortion activist, who also happens to be an editor of the Tumblr Politics tag. I was prodded by some comments on my post to say a bit more about what I take to be the problem. Here is my attempt to do so:
The trouble with the blogger’s argument is that he’s using a scientific definition of life in order to make a moral claim (and then a legal claim) about abortion. Indeed, the fetus that he wants the government to protect is alive. But — under the definition he employs — so are plants, animals, and even cancerous cells in a human body. I don’t suppose that he believes the government should prevent human beings from eating animals … though perhaps he’s a vegetarian. Let’s say that he is: does this mean that the government should protect plant life? What about those who would undergo operations to remove cancerous cells (which are clearly living, under the definition that the blogger provides); should the government prevent such surgeries?
The blogger fails to specify in any of his posts what it is about human life, on his reading, that warrants government intervention since I’m almost completely positive that he has no problem with allowing people to put an end to some lives that fall under the scientific definition he employs. As he goes on to say, “when a woman and a doctor threaten to kill a human, the state has an obligation to step in and protect human rights.” But what, on his reading, is special about human life? That’s not contained anywhere in his definition of life, on which turns his policy preference of a governmental ban on abortion.
What’s more, the blogger’s stance is predicated on the fact that all humans have rights; he says it in virtually every post. But he fails to specify why human life yields human rights. What is it about human beings that makes them the bearers of rights, such that government intervention is warranted on their behalf and also such that they have claims against their government? On my reading, what’s at issue is human dignity. And I make a thoroughly secular, biological argument about it; in the end, I think human life alone is not enough to provide us with rights, that a heartbeat — which can be accomplished now by machines — doesn’t require governmental action on my behalf. Indeed, in the cases at issue here, the idea of “my” in “my behalf” doesn’t really have any meaning, as without higher brain function, I cannot conceive of myself at all. That’s why I argue that our rights hinge not simply on our bodily functions but on our dignity. Certain fetuses, on my reading, cannot properly be understood to be bearers of dignity and are thus not the bearers of rights.
Since he doesn’t specify what he takes to be the source of human rights anywhere that I can find, I’ve presumed that his source is religious, as he frequently notes that he is religious. Thus, despite saying that he doesn’t believe that his religious preferences should impact legislation, at bottom my argument is that he must specify what it is about humans that gives them their rights (in a non-religious way) or else he’s doing precisely that.
The blogger hasn’t addressed these questions; instead, by way of response to my claim about dignity, he argues that fetuses and comatose patients are both the bearers of rights even though they don’t have dignity:
Do we respect the life of a man in a coma? Indeed we do. But why? He has no current “dignity,” as he is not currently self-aware. We respect this man’s life because he has the inherent capability - by means of his DNA - to be self-aware. His current state does not matter, but his inherent capability does.
The same goes with a fetus. The fetus is not self-aware (early in the pregnancy). But this is simply a current problem, not an inherent one. The fetus - like the man in the coma - has the inherent capability to be self-aware, but simply cannot express it yet.
It isn’t the current state of being self-aware that matters, it’s the inherent capability to be self-aware, regardless of the current state of the human.
By “in a coma,” the blogger goes on to write that he means “a man that has very little - if any - brain function.” This, of course, isn’t actually what it means to be in a coma. But he goes on:
If you want to make the argument that a man in a coma - with very little or no brain function - doesn’t deserve human rights, this discussion is practically over. I make the assumption in my arguments that we accept the humanity and right to life of such a man in a coma.
If I were to go into a hospital and kill a man in a coma, I make the assumption that my readers believe I should be punished under the law for taking about a human’s right to life. If you believe that the man does not deserve human rights (and thus I should not be punished for killing him), my argument is invalid. But I can confidently say that a good 99% of Americans believe that the man does deserve human rights and I cannot kill him without consequences.
More than likely, the blogger has in mind a patient in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). In the vast majority of coma cases, the patient would not meet the criteria I set out for the loss of personhood (and, thus, on my reading the loss of human dignity). Generally speaking, a coma patient exists in “a state of unconsciousness whereby a patient cannot react with the surrounding environment.”
If the patient has higher brain function, he has the capacity for personhood and thus dignity; the fetus without higher brain function does not have the capacity at that time. In the future, certainly; at that future time, when the fetus has higher brain function, then we might talk about dignity and right … but not beforehand.
If he is in fact talking about a PVS patient, then the matter has been adjudicated already (as I discuss in my book in the cases of Terri Schiavo and Karen Ann Quinlan). In both cases, the apparatuses that were thought to be keeping the patients alive were removed. The blogger is free to disagree with these rulings, as he says he does, but to do so he must — again — specify what it is about the patients that should be seen to grant them legal rights once they have lost all higher brain function. Otherwise, he is right back to the problem of simply saying that human life as such is sufficient for human rights (and for government intervention on behalf of all human life). If that’s his position, that’s just fine. But I think that, at bottom, it’s simply a moral argument that’s bound up with his religious beliefs rather than the scientific, rationalist argument he believes it to be.
My argument is that, before the loss of higher brain function, the PVS patient could be said to have dignity and, consequently, rights; after the loss of higher brain function, we simply cannot say the same thing about the patient. This is the same argument as above with the fetus — which has not yet achieved higher brain function — only I think that the argument regarding the fetus is even stronger because there is a clash of rights in the case of a ban on abortion but not in the case of failing to keep alive a PVS patient. Without higher brain function present in the fetus at the time of government intervention, I simply cannot see how such an intervention wouldn’t be regarded by a libertarian as an intrusion of the government into the life of the woman carrying the fetus.