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Human Equality and the Significance of Birth

The Equality Problem and the Threshold Problem

In the previous chapter, I argued that the core constitutive features in our concept of a person are the sorts of sophisticated emotional and psychological capabilities typical of mature human beings. While there might exist no strict set of necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood status, it is capacities of this nature which, I argued, are central to what it means to be a person. However, I also offered an argument as to why there may be good reason to regard later abortion as more sobering than abortion at earlier stages, grounded in the idea that pure human embodiment can matter for the morally appropriate treatment of individuals, regardless of their capacities. My conclusions thus broadly supported gradualist moral intuitions about abortion, although not in the typical way. Since I still take personhood status to supervene on the acquisition of a cluster of higher psychological and emotional capacities, none of which obtain before birth, I do not endorse the sort of gradualism which ascribes the fetus greater degrees of personhood status as gestation progresses. However, I contended that we nevertheless have good reason to treat more fully developed fetuses with greater moral respect, and not like pure masses of tissue, and that the basic gradualist intuition is thus rationally defensible.

If I am right about all of this, two important questions still remain. One has to do with the difference between abortion and infanticide. The other has to do with the moral equality of all human beings. I contend that our concept of a person is grounded in sophisticated psychological and emotional capacities. However, it is clear that these traits themselves admit of degrees. That is to say, not even all born human beings bear out these capacities to exactly the same extent. This seems to be true whether the capacity we are considering is rationality, agency, language ability, empathy, sensitivity, or any other developmental characteristic which we think part of the concept of a person.

Human beings can possess these qualities in drastically different measures. And, of course, some are absent entirely from infants and the radically cognitively disabled. The upshot is that developmental accounts of personhood appear tough to square with the view that all human beings possess equal moral status. For some, this is an insurmountable obstacle for any theory which takes personhood to supervene on acquired characteristics or traits. If moral status depends on graduated characteristics, how can one avoid the implication that some born human beings

Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. First Edition. Kate Greasley. © K. Greasley 2017. Published 2017 by Oxford University Press.

are more fully realized persons than others? Robert P George and Christopher Tollefsen explain the problem as follows:

The acquired qualities that could be proposed as criteria of personhood come in varying and continuous degrees. There are, in fact, an infinite number of degrees of the development of the basic natural capacities for self-consciousness, intelligence or rationality. So if human beings are worthy of full moral respect (as subjects of rights) only because of such qualities, and not because of the kind of being they are, then, since such qualities come in varying degrees, no account could be given of why basic rights are not possessed by human beings in varying degrees. The proposition that all human beings are created equal would be relegated to the status of a myth — a noble (or, perhaps, not-so-noble) lie.1

They develop the objection at a later point:

We most certainly do not think that especially magnificent human beings, such as Michael Jordan or Albert Einstein, are of greater fundamental and inherent worth and dignity than human beings who are physically frail, or mentally impaired, or even just physically immature. We would not tolerate the killing of a retarded child, or a person suffering from, say, brain cancer, in order to harvest transplantable organs to save Jordan or Einstein.[1] [2]

According to George and Tollefsen, this equality problem is a fatal flaw of all developmental theories of personhood. The problem might be thought to pose a serious challenge to the view that personhood has anything whatsoever to do with characteristics like rationality or communicative ability, which admit of degrees. Since all of these properties are scalar, how can any account that seeks to analyse personhood in terms of them account for the moral equality of born human beings?

It is important to understand how the equality problem differs from the threshold problem examined in chapter 5. The threshold, or ‘cut-off, problem challenged putative thresholds of personhood on the ground that they could not be nonarbitrarily distinguished from earlier or later points on the continuum of human development. The equality problem, somewhat differently, contests the relevance to personhood of any property that can be shown to admit of gradations in born human beings. George and Tollefsen believe that the equality problem steers us towards accepting species membership as the sole criterion of personhood, since it alone seems compatible with basic human equality. Unlike everything else, the property of ‘being a conceived human organism’ is not one that obtains in different amounts across all human beings.

The human equality issue blends into a further problem concerning the threshold for full personhood status. Although fetuses (even late-term ones) instantiate none of personhood’s constitutive properties, the gradualist view I have endorsed nevertheless gives us reason to accord them some moral respect on account of their burgeoning human embodiment. But the objection will arise quickly that newborn human infants do not manifest any more ‘person-l ike’ traits than do late-term fetuses (they are no more rational, reflective, etc), and that they too are immature versions of embodied human beings. The question remains, then, as to why infants ought to be awarded any more moral respect than late-term fetuses, and why infanticide cannot be permitted in circumstances where late abortion would be.

In response to these problems, the defender of the developmental view of person- hood will presumably want to say that personhood is fully realized and equal across human beings once a certain threshold is passed. But how do we explain that? And why should that threshold be birth? At this point, the familiar objections about the moral arbitrariness of birth are likely to resurface. Since there appears to be no ‘intrinsic’ change from late gestation to birth, we will want to know why birth ought to mark the beginning of full and equal personhood.

  • [1] Robert P George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday2008) 121.
  • [2] ibid 178.
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