Dec 17, 2009


Is the human fetus a person with the appropriate rights that follow or is the human fetus something less – a nonperson – and therefore not entitled to the inherent rights due a person? I argue for the former and against the latter to defend the position that the unborn human embryo is a full person at the moment of conception and should be afforded the full rights due human beings by their very essence.

Viability refers to the unborn’s ability to survive outside of the womb. Viability as a determining factor is unwise because if the child is now outside of the womb, the child’s location has changed, true, but how has the child’s essence - what it is at its core - changed?

Around 24 weeks most children can survive outside of the womb (dependent on medical technology, of course). If viability is a valid way of reckoning personhood, then we would have to assume children in the developed world are persons earlier than those in underdeveloped countries because the technology is not available for them to survive until later. How can access to quality medical facilities affect the status of a person? If viability is a legitimate means to determine personhood, then the fetus of 21st Century America is much more of a person than the fetus of 18th Century America.

Even if we were to “grant” personhood based on viability, then should it not follow we should also make illegal any abortions after the time of viability? This would mean any abortions after 6 months gestation would be off limits.

Besides, as technology improves so does viability. For example, Kenya King of Florida was born on June 16, 1985, at eighteen ounces. She was a mere nineteen weeks old; about 4½ months after her life began at conception. [1]

The whole viability discussion is backwards, anyway: are not the defenseless among us the ones we should be more likely to protect and care for? If someone is not viable without us, should we cast them aside because they depend on our help for their survival?

An analogy: my wife is a Type I diabetic and totally dependent on insulin for her survival. Does this dependence make her less of a person? She is certainly less viable without insulin than are other persons.

There are more difficulties associated with the viability hypothesis. Bioethicist Andrew Varga points out a number of them when he asks,

“how does viability transform the nature of the fetus so that the non‐human being then turns into a human being?”

“is viability not just an extrinsic criterion imposed upon the fetus by some members of society who simply declare that the fetus will be accepted at that moment as a human being?” [2]

These are penetrating questions and I think the answers are clear: in regards to the first question, “it does not” and in regards to the second question a simple “yes” will suffice.

“Pregnancy when wanted is a healthy process, pregnancy when not wanted is a disease – in fact, a venereal disease.” [3]

These are the words of situational ethicist Joseph Fletcher. They represent the typical argument from wantedness in a succinct fashion. The question is should the powerful be allowed to “unwant” the weaker at will or do the weaker have an intrinsic value that transcends their wantedness? Why should a child – at any stage of development – be measured by the parent’s desires?

Columnist Sidney Callahan writes,
“We usually want only objects and wanting them or not implies that we are superior, or at least engaged in a one-way relationship to them.” [4]

Let us put the issue of wantedness in perspective. Old school pro-life advocate Dr. J.C. Willke suggests the Planned Parenthood slogan of “Every Child a Wanted Child” should include the sentence “and if not wanted, kill!” [5] This would help “fill-in the blanks” of the innocuous sounding slogan and help us mentally complete the thought.

The most ironic example of the supposed importance of wantedness I have come across is from abortionist Suzanne Poppema’s book, which has the incredibly catchy title of Why I Am an Abortion Doctor. On page four of the book, she dedicates the work to “Peter, Andrew, Will, and Jenna, four of the most wanted children ever.” [6] I wonder how Jenna feels knowing her mother would have had a fifth child but that one was unwanted and was therefore terminated (Dr. Poppema talks about her own abortion in chillingly calloused terms for fourteen pages, 75-89).

This leads to an interesting discussion: are people who are unwanted non-persons? If so, then their worth is based upon something more than someone subjectively valuing them? It also makes sense for us to ask this: if a mother at a certain point no longer wants her children during their post-birth development, does this alter their status as persons? If not, why not? The abortionist has no grounds from which to consistently argue the issue. Generally, they retort with a “cat-out-of-the-bag” type of argument: “once the baby is born, that’s it, now it’s a person.”

On this notion, let us return to Dr. Poppema’s personal abortion. After telling her readers she “could actually feel the fetal convulsions not long after I was given the saline injection,” she then tells us “the embryo die[d] … two days later.” Before announcing it was “clear” to her she did the right thing, she recounts a conversation she had with her dying embryo: “I’m very sorry that this is happening to you but there’s just no way that you can come into existence right now.” [7]

The contradictions are numerous and obvious: first, why is the good doctor speaking to something that does not exist? Is the embryo a product of her imagination? Second, is it not clear from the embryo’s convulsions that s/he already exists? Third, how can something that does not exist die?

Here we have the confused logic of abortion in a nutshell.

[1] Robert J. Morgan, Nelson's Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 5.
[2] Andrew Varga, The Main Issues in Bioethics, 2nd ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 61‐63.
[3] Joseph Fletcher, The Ethics of Genetic Control (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974), 142.
[4] Sidney Callahan, “Talk of ‘Wanted Child’ Makes for Doll Objects,” National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1971, 7.
[5] Dr. J.C. Willke, Abortion: Questions and Answers (Cincinnati, Ohio: Hayes Publishing Company, 1985), 133.
[6] Suzanne T. Poppema with Mike Henderson, Why I Am an Abortion Doctor (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996), 4.
[7] Poppema, Why I Am An Abortion Doctor, 89.

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