Home » Library » Modern Library » Debates Secularist Abortion Roth3

Debates Secularist Abortion Roth3

Second Rebuttal

Jennifer Roth

Before getting to the main subjects of dispute which remain between us, let me quickly summarize the surprising number of points on which Mr. Carrier and I seem to agree.

  • We agree that both the mother and father of a child have obligations toward that child. (Assuming that a "child" is a "person", of course.)
  • We agree that at least some abortions — those after 20 weeks’ gestation — should not be done on an elective basis.
  • We agree on the desirability — I would say, the necessity — of solving the social problems which often drive women to abortion.

Even if we stopped today, I think finding the aforementioned areas of common ground would make it worth the time and effort. Even better, we’re not stopping today. I am confident that we can reach understanding, though probably not agreement, on the areas where we differ.

A quick clarification

In his first rebuttal, Mr. Carrier makes the following note during the discussion of whether or not science can determine who is a person:

With that in mind, Roth’s statements need to be reformulated: science can only tell us when an individual human being comes into existence after we have defined "individual human being," which is primarily a philosophical task; likewise, contrary to Roth’s words (though perhaps not her intent), science can tell us when that being becomes "a person [who] must be accorded rights" once we have already tackled the philosophical task of defining "a person [who] must be accorded rights."

I must tread carefully here, for this is semantically confusing ground. Science can tell us when an individual human being comes into existence, since by "human being" I mean simply "an individual member of the species Homo sapiens" (see my opening statement for definitions). However, science cannot tell us whether or not we are using the correct criteria for determining which particular human beings should be considered "persons" with human rights. That is a philosophical question. Once we have established our criteria, scientific inquiry can tell us whether or not a given organism fits them — at least, if we have chosen sufficiently objective criteria.

Criteria for personhood

Mr. Carrier argues against personhood before 20 weeks’ gestation as follows.

A. The possession of an "individual human personality" is what we especially value as a person.

B. Prior to 20 weeks’ gestation, the cerebral cortex has not yet developed to the point that the organism can possess an "individual human personality".


C: The prenate prior to 20 weeks’ gestation is not a person.

I take issue with premise (B) because developmental processes long before 20 weeks are vital to the formation of the individual personality. For the moment, however, I will lay aside that objection.

If one accepts premises (A) and (B), this argument appears sound. However, for it to be strictly logically valid, the conclusion would need to be rephrased slightly.

C’: The prenate prior to 20 weeks’ gestation does not possess what we especially value as a person.

C and C’ are only identical if "possesses what we especially value as a person" = "is a person". Mr. Carrier has not adequately defended that equation; nor is it self-evident, as I can propose and defend an alternative.

As I argued in my opening statement, the powers of reason and moral choice are the properties which set humans apart from other animals (as far as we know), and which make human rights possible. Therefore, I propose that reason and moral choice are less arbitrary criteria on which to base personhood, since they stem not from subjective preference, but from the nature of rights themselves.

Of course, the prenate is not yet able to exercise reason or moral choice. This brings us to our next point of disagreement. Mr. Carrier argues that the personality (the trait upon which he bases personhood) must be present and functioning on some level in order for the organism to be considered a person. In other words, it is not enough for the organism to be in the process of developing the personality, or to be the type of being which develops a personality. In fact, he argues that the biological organism is not the person at all — the personality is.

I contend that the biological organism is the person, for the reasons I have laid out in my opening statement and first rebuttal. I will not repeat those arguments at length here, but in a nutshell:

  • The organism is identical (in the mathematical sense) over the course of his/her entire lifetime. At no point does a "non-person" go away, to be replaced by a "person". Every one of us has been a prenate at the beginning of our lifespan.
  • The great social movements in history have been those which expanded the circle of human rights, drawing more and more human beings inside the circle. To exclude an entire class of human beings goes against the grain of progress, especially when that class is one to which we have all belonged. It may be true that we value human beings only after they have reached a certain level of development. However, societies have been wrong before in basing human rights on traits valued by those in power.
  • The ability to reason is not added to the brain by some outside force once it has reached a certain level of development. Rather, the body directs the development of the brain according to the instructions encoded in its DNA — according to its inherent nature.

In summary, my equation would be: "a being in whose nature it is to reason and to make moral choices" = "a person".

Now read Richard Carrier’s Third Rebuttal

all rights reserved