Person vs. Human Life?

By Robert Bernstein   |   October 26, 2021

The recent ban on abortions in Texas is just the latest round in this endless culture war. I had thought nothing new could be said on the topic. But an article in Free Inquiry magazine about a dozen years ago raised a new point for me.

The point? That a human life is not the same thing as a person. In science fiction stories like Star Trek, explorers travel to other planets and find intelligent, interesting life. Are these human lives? No. Humans by definition are Homo sapiens unique to Earth.

However, these life forms are “persons” or “people.” They have the ability for complex thoughts, feelings, and emotions. We can communicate with them and we can learn from each other.

In contrast, trillions of cells in your body are human cells. (There are trillions more in your gut that are not human cells.) In a very literal sense, every one of these cells is a human life. It has the full genome of a human being. It is likely we could clone you from any one of your trillions of cells if there were not a ban on this. Yet, no sane person would say that any of these cells is a person.

We routinely do things that kill this “human life.” From drinking alcohol and getting a suntan to undergoing surgeries. Also, most potential persons never exist even without abortion. Most eggs and sperm are never used, and even most fertilized eggs naturally fail to come to term.

On the other hand, we do allow killing Earth beings that clearly are capable of some level of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Notably, the animals we raise for food. Are these beings persons? It is a matter of arbitrary definition. Clearly, a cow suffers when its calf is taken away. And clearly there is suffering in the process of slaughtering an animal. And factory farm conditions are so horrific that agribusiness corporations have made it illegal to reveal what goes on in them.

Those who frantically try to ban killing human embryos seem very sure that they are preventing “murder.” Most are religious, but not all. Interestingly, this fervor is historically very recent. The Catholic Church did not oppose abortion until 1869. The Old Testament does not count personhood until a breath has been taken. Meaning, birth. There had been other intermediate definitions of personhood that started with “the quickening.” That is the time when the mother feels the movements of the fetus.

Some religions believe in an immortal soul. There is talk of “ensoulment” as the moment when the soul enters the body. Since no scientific evidence exists for a soul, there is no way to prove when this purported event occurs. Hindus believe in reincarnation, and some take it to occur at conception. But the Garbha Upanishad says the fetus comes to life in the seventh month.

As a Humanist, I take the view of reducing suffering. A young woman starting a promising career as a neurosurgeon has an early abortion to stay on track with her career. To me, the ethics are clear. The suffering of the embryo is small in comparison to the suffering of the person whose life would be greatly disrupted. Not to mention the suffering she will relieve as a neurosurgeon.

But I would not require the person to be a neurosurgeon. A woman cleaning houses also has a right to control her life. And to prevent a child from growing up in poverty without a father. Suffering is all a matter of degree. Which means any law will be arbitrary. In Roe v Wade, the Court arbitrarily divided pregnancy into three trimesters. A fair compromise.

It is important to consider the practical effect of abortion laws. Guttmacher Institute data shows that abortion rates are highest in countries that ban abortions. These countries also tend to restrict access to age-appropriate sex and relationship education and to birth control. The best way to reduce abortions is through these latter means, as seen in countries like France and Sweden.

I would argue that abortion is largely a wedge issue used for political gain to achieve another agenda. Those who favor tax cuts and deregulation have opposed abortion rights to get votes for their real agenda. Notably, Dan Quayle when the vice president wanted a total ban on abortion. Yet he said that he would support his daughter if she chose to have an abortion. That is the pro-Choice position.


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