One of the most important questions humans can ask is: when does a human organism become a person? This question is a really important one to answer in general, but it has particular relevance for the issue of abortion, because the point at which a human organism becomes a person and the point at which it’s not ok to deliberately kill a human organism are one and the same, for most people at least. This is essentially the moral status or personhood question, and is one of two questions that pro-life advocates need to answer (the second one being the question of bodily autonomy).
While we think the Equal Rights Argument is a great way to show why unborn babies have equal moral status with born people, I do know people for whom that Argument doesn’t quite cut the mustard. In my experience, people who are not religious in particular can be uncomfortable with the notion that we can find an objective criterion that determines personhood, especially when considered against the circumstances of the woman who is pregnant. People who are inclined towards skepticism can find it hard to come down one way or another on such a lofty question – how on earth can anyone decide we have the answer to such an important question?
I find myself in this position on occasion. Even though I’ve been pro-life for my whole life, I am uncomfortable with the harsh realities of my position on abortion, and on so many occasions have asked myself: am I sure? Can I really impose unwanted pregnancy on someone else? At these times, I employ a tool I often use when I’m uncertain of something: least worst regret analysis, or the minimax rule. This rule is one of many used in decision theory for determining the best choice under uncertainty.
The idea behind the minimax rule is simple: you look at all the options available, and figure out what would be the maximum bad outcome, or regret, for each option. Then, you choose the option that minimises the regret by choosing the option with the least worst outcome.
In the case of abortion, we’re trying to figure out when to assign personhood. I’m going to assume that no reasonable person thinks we should assign personhood before fertilisation, and I’m also going to assume that we think personhood should definitely be assigned by birth at the latest (some people do disagree with that assertion but that’s not relevant to abortion). Since it’s impossible to think in terms of choosing the exact right “point” in pregnancy to assign personhood (how long is a point? A day? A week? An hour?) I’ll focus on two possible options: we assign personhood too early, or we assign it too late.
If we assign personhood too early, what are the costs? Well, we’re imposing on someone else’s bodily autonomy for the sake of a human being that is not yet a person. We’re requiring them to go through an entire pregnancy, against their desires, for the sake of a potential person. However, in almost all cases*, the possibility of pregnancy was known in advance, it was possible to greatly decrease the probability of pregnancy in advance, and the effects of pregnancy are temporary.
If we assign personhood too late, what are the costs? In this case, we are legally sanctioning, and in many cases funding, the deliberate killing of the youngest set of human persons. In all cases, these young persons had no way of knowing their death was a possibility. There was nothing they could have done to avoid or prevent their death, and their death is, obviously, permanent.
I think any honest appraisal of these facts would conclude that the costs of assigning personhood too late are greater than the costs of assigning personhood too early. For this reason, I think even when we’re not sure when personhood begins (and I fall into this category myself) consistency demands that we assign the rights of personhood to unborn babies. The same argument applies at any point in pregnancy, and so I find myself facing the inescapable conclusion that personhood should be applied at the earliest possible point – because the costs of getting this wrong are just too great.
*There are of course very rare cases where some or all of these conditions do not hold, the so-called “hard cases”. Those cases deserve a full examination in future blog posts so I won’t address them here.