Fred Foldvary on The Right to Abortion
|June 13, 2002||Posted by Fred Foldvary under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Fred Foldvary’s Editorial
The Right to Abortion
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The key issue in the abortion question is whether the embryo is a person. That leads to the more fundamental question, what is a person? I analyzed this topic back in 1980 in my book The Soul of Liberty, and my viewpoint has not changed since then.
A “person” is a living being which makes conscious, reasoned choices. We don’t make such choices when we sleep, but we have the capacity to do so. The key to personhood is therefore having a functioning mind which can direct purposeful reasoned action.
After conception, the zygote is no longer part of the mother, but a separate living being. That is why the slogan “a woman’s right to choose” is only partially so. She may not choose for the body of another person, even if that person in inside her.
But is the zygote, the being created by the union of a sperm and egg, a person? No, not yet. At first, it is a single cell. It has the potential to become a person, but it is not itself a person, since it has no mind. An acorn has the potential to become a tree. So is an acorn a tree? No, it is just an acorn.
Scientists have taken a cell from an animal and cloned it to become a grown animal. So cells have the potential to become complete beings, but your individual cells are not separate persons.
Just before birth, the fetus is little different from after birth. Afterwards, it breathes, and before it is still dependent on nutrients from the mother. But regarding personhood, its mind just before birth is the same as after birth. So the fetus during the end of pregnancy is a person, just as much as a born baby is.
Somewhere in between, the zygote develops into an embryo and then a fetus. After the third month, it has developed a brain that begins to direct its bodily functions and the movements of its arms and legs. The fetus may have feelings and thoughts, and respond to its environment. It develops a mind and becomes a person.
Usually, the mother discovers her pregnancy within the first three months. Upon discovery, the mother should make a moral choice of either keeping her offspring or aborting it. If at that time she decides to keep it, she makes an implicit moral contract with her child to care for it. The father may influence the choice, but it is the woman’s choice because this is indeed her body at stake.
But then having decided to keep it, if she changes her mind later, after the fetus has become a person, then it is too late. She no longer has the right to choose, because the fetus is now a person with the same natural right to life as any person. In the rare case that a woman discovers her pregnancy late, after it has become a person, then she is morally fated to care for it. Having sexual relations makes here responsible for its results; it is up to her to test for pregnancy.
If at the later stages, the life of the mother is threatened by the pregnancy, then it becomes a different issue. The abortion becomes self-defense. The life of the mother then takes priority, unless she chooses to sacrifice her life for the child. Otherwise, more harm is committed if the grown woman must die than if the fetus must die. But often, at this later stage, the fetus can be saved. After it becomes a person, and viable, the life of the fetus should be saved if it must leave the body of the woman.
The anti-abortion slogan “right to life” is also misleading. Before becoming a person, the right to self-determination of the mother as a person has priority to the right to life of the embryo as a non-person. It is only after becoming a person after the third month that the embryo has the same right to live as any other person. And just being human does not make the embryo a person, just as human cells are not persons.
We can also see that rape or incest make little different for the rights of the embryo. Its physical development is the same whether the conception was caused by rape or by loving impregnation.
Permitting abortion in the early stages and prohibiting it as murder in the latter stages, the turning point being the decision of the mother at the discovery of pregnancy, avoids the horrors of the alternative extremes. It avoids the horror of teenage girls being butchered in illegal abortions. And it avoids the cruelty of murdering a pre-baby with a beating heart and functioning brain that can feel pain. An ethical society would avoid either harm.
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Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.