What the unborn and the undead have in common

Zombie-House-Religious opposition to abortion is based on a kind of magical thinking much like that in zombie stories.

One freakish thing about zombies is that they look like people even though they aren’t.

What does it mean to be a person? For philosophers, the answer isn’t simple but it has to do with being able to think and feel, recognize one’s own existence, and make choices rather than simply following a programmed set of responses.

Sometimes stories and movies explore personhood by drawing us into the lived experience of mythical creatures who don’t look like humans but who share our capacity to think and feel, suffer and love, and cherish conscious life. Consider, for example, Bambi or E.T. or Horton Hears a Who, or more seriously, Ex Machina or District 9.

Zombie stories do the opposite—they take us into a world of creatures that look like us but who lack the qualities of personhood. A zombie may have been a person once. It may even still have human form and flesh, but the person is gone. Animated by some magical or biological force, it operates on instinct alone. A zombie is incapable of doing something different—or caring about harm it does or even its own long-term existence—because it can’t think.

That is why, what matters in zombie movies is the people. We don’t really care about how many zombies die, and in some movies they die by the millions—like swarms of ants. But we do care about people. We root for them because, like us, they can feel afraid and they can feel pain and their idea of living well doesn’t include being terrorized by zombies.

You know from the title of this article where this is going.

In the beginning stages of gestation, a human embryo or fetus has no more qualities of personhood than a zombie—far fewer, in fact, than your average cat or dog. The qualities that make a person a person come into existence gradually at the beginnings of life, and sometimes they fade away long before a heart stops beating. That is because what makes a person a person is having a mind, which requires a brain, which is a lot more complicated to develop and harder to sustain than a mere biological pump made out of cell matrix.

All mammals have hearts, even when they don’t have much in the way of a brain. In fact, so do all birds and fish and reptiles. Even insects have little tubes that contract to move fluid through their circulatory systems, though they are very simple—rather like the pulsing tubes in embryonic humans. People who oppose abortions are very smart to focus on heartbeats, and not just because we attribute all kinds of special symbolic meaning to having a heart. Blood cells and pulsing hearts develop in fetal mammals long before the central nervous system has any meaningful function. The mechanical pressure created by the pulsing tissue helps blood cells to form.

Does a zombie have a beating heart? Since zombies are mythical creatures, the answer varies depending on the story, but mostly no. Zombie blood is alternately described as thick and extra-powerful or dry or nonexistent. In any case, a heart is unnecessary. This, of course is just one of several important differences between zombies and embryonic humans:

  • Zombies trigger our innate sense of revulsion against decaying flesh, which was a high-risk disease vector for our ancestors. They trigger our innate fear of predation, coupled with our innate fear of violence by other humans. Fetal life, on the other hand, triggers our innate attraction to and impulse to protect babies—the same thing that makes puppies and kittens almost irresistible.
  • Zombies have no potential to become anything but zombies, but an embryonic human has the potential to develop into a person. If it is incubated long enough, it will acquire some personhood characteristics during the latter part of gestation, namely the basics of consciousness, sensation, and preference. (Some philosophers argue, wrongly, I think, that even this potential personhood should preclude abortion.)
  • Zombies are entirely imaginary. (Sorry folks.) Fetal humans—while we may hold all sorts of imaginary ideas about them, just as we do about grown humans and other animals—actually exist.

A religious person who hates abortion might be appalled by my comparing a zombie and a human fetus, because the emotions the two arouse are so very different. Ironically, though, religious opposition to abortion is based on a kind of magical thinking much like that in zombie stories—the idea that human bodies can be animated by some supernatural force.

In the stories that religions tell, this magical force is a soul put into the body by a deity. Religious believers talk about “ensoulment” of a fetus, which the Catholic Church used to say happened at quickening, or the first felt fetal movement. Now many Christians say it happens when a sperm penetrates an egg. Women who have aborted a fetus sometimes get told that they will meet that aborted soul in heaven, magically grown into a person that is capable of thinking and talking and recognizing them despite never having attained such capacities through brian development and experience.  (Since most human embryos either fail to implant or spontaneously abort, one can assume, just statistically, that this version of heaven is 98 percent populated by such magical beings.)

In traditional zombie stories from Haiti, a zombie’s body was animated by a soul that was trapped in this world by an untimely death–and a bit of voodoo. In modern zombie stories, the magical force is more often explained in quasi-scientific terms—it may be “electricity” or a “biological contagion.”

In all cases, these labels simply fill a gap in the story. The real magic is psychological: The labels provide a satisfying answer to the question “why” without actually providing an explanation. Neither electricity nor biology works that way, and we now know that the ancient concept of the soul (a subset of mind-body dualism as it is called in philosophy) is a byproduct of how cognition is structured.

To oversimplify, our brains have different modules or programs—one for processing information about physical objects, including bodies, and one for processing information about the minds of other sentient beings. To some degree, these modules operate independently of each other, and that lets our imaginations run free. We can imagine minds that exist after the death of the brain (think ghosts) or minds that exist in mythical creatures (like talking snakes) or miniature souls in fertilized eggs, or zombies who lack functional brains of their own but are out to eat yours.

We humans are creative storytellers, and playing with the glitches and quirks of our minds can make for a lot of fun. It makes our stories even crazier than life itself. We startle ourselves, inspire ourselves, and terrify ourselves, and come back for more. And things get craziest of all when we decide that magic is real so that our imaginative stories shape human priorities and behavior in the real world.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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37 Responses to What the unborn and the undead have in common

  1. bbnewsab says:

    Have a look at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25160864

    A quote from the abstract: “[C]onsciousness cannot emerge before 24 gestational weeks when the thalamocortical connections from the sense organs are established”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Courageous but true depiction Valérie, thank you as usual. Following your idea “And things get craziest of all when we decide that magic is real, and our stories about magic shape human priorities and behavior in the real world.”, I would venture that that too is an attempt (vain and childish yes, but strong) to simplify and try to reach an illusory control, which is what we can observe in the authoritarian movements around the world. This fear of real responsibilities through the creation of fantasies can only take individuals to violence (the antithesis of course of those who are against abortion) because they will always consider reality as a threat and reality has that relentless about itself… In any case, for not leaving with this level of hopelessness, I dream :-) of a near future where individuals develop the global citizen abilities of living in an exponentially globalizing world. Thank you Valérie.


  3. mriana says:

    “In the beginning stages of gestation, a human embryo or fetus has no more qualities of personhood than a zombie—far fewer, in fact, than your average cat or dog.”

    One could argue that other apes, cats, and dogs are persons in their own right- not human persons, but persons as their own species. They too seem to know their existence and make decisions, not necessarily rational ones, but then again, many humans don’t make rational ones either. Interesting enough, cats, dogs, even other apes, develop in the womb much like humans and up to a point, one can’t tell the difference based on an ultrasound alone. In fact, other apes look exactly like humans in the womb up to time of birth. Of course, if you know the mother, this defeats what I’m saying in many people’s minds, but I’m talking about the ultrasound alone. After birth, all three groups of mammals make decisions for survival of themselves and their species.

    One of my gynos I had when carrying my sons, called the fetus a parasite and upon further learning about human development pre-birth, that is the only way a blastocyst, embryo, and fetus can survive before its ready to be born. No mammalian cell in development can survive without being a parasite first nor does it have the ability to know it exists and must fight to survive before birth. Fighting to survive, in this case, includes screaming to be fed, of course. Of course, developing human cells in a petri dish and the subsequent development of a blastocyst that can be implanted into a host is starting to change this slightly, but the parasite still needs a host to survive or it dies.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gerard Clark says:

    Life, of a human, of a cat, or of a tree, is a gift from God.
    Too often our life circumstances make it impossible for us to recognize, appreciate or use those gifts. God is with us in our suffering, both phal and mental. Too often the ability to see God in all of Creation and each other is clouded by someone wanting to impose their vision of God on us. These same people seem to fail to see that God is already here, present in every human being and every living thing.

    The sacredness of life, of an embryo, or the first sprout of an acorn that pokes through the ground comes from the presence of God in that person or tree. We need to relax, put all of the doctrines, creeds, and Bibles in a box and put them on a shelf until they are covered with dust. Let them return to dust. While that is happening, simply enjoy the sun and each others company. God gave us the sun and each other to enjoy.


    • Jim says:

      Gerard. There are no gods.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ubi Dubium says:

      My children weren’t a gift, I had to grow them my own damn self, and push them out of my own pelvis. Nothing “godlike” about that, it’s just a biological process. If you want to appreciate living things for yourself in terms of some magic “god”, that’s fine, and I have no objections. But as soon as you use that religious belief as an excuse for interfering in the reproductive choices that I our my daughters make, we have a problem.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Your vision is beautiful, but I don’t think it accounts for the whole range of reality. My children once found a pregnant mouse and waited eagerly for her to give birth, only to watch in horror as the babies (actually grub-like offspring of a parasitic wasp) ate their way out of her. Is this, too, a gift from the god of whom you speak? If so, that doesn’t make me want to simply relax into the sunshine of his love.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Gerard Clark says:

        This is the same God. The gift is in a stimulus for us to ask the question you asked. How often do we see humans as grub like? All of nature is interrelated. Beneath the ugliness is beauty. There is beauty in the diversity of God’s Creation of people, and everything else in nature. Sometimes the beauty is in the processes of nature. How does this happen? Often because of limited perspectives it is hard for us to understand why?

        Trauma of any kind tends to limit our perspectives because we become skidderish. There are so many transferrals. Some don’t even make sense.
        Like an abuse animal that avoids human contact. u have to leave the food and walk away.

        We had a description for this “When your up to your ass in allegators, it’s hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp.”

        Yes, if we have been traumatized with the mistaken teaching that any thing that goes wrong is a punishment from God, it is very hard, sometimes impossible to think of a loving God or see beauty in Her Creation.
        I enjoy asking Evangelicals “Why do you pray to Father God but also speak of Mother Nature? Aren’t they One and the Same?”


  5. David Gordon says:

    Thank you for another great essay. I am always happy when your latest piece shows up in my inbox. You are an eloquent and gutsy writer. Please keep it up.


  6. Jim Lee says:

    Actually the Old Testament does say. “At Birth one receives the breath of life, and becomes a living soul”. This indicates from a biblical point of view you do not exist prior to birth. Here again Christians seem to ignore some Scripture and select only what they want to perceive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • mriana says:

      The Hebrew word for that is nephesh (breath of God or source of all life) not received until after birth. It was later translated as “soul” or “spirit”, but that’s not quite right, though I guess it could fit. You’re right though, Xians do ignore scripture and unfortunately, the KJV/NKJV are the worst translations. Not only that, many of the translations from Hebrew to English or Greek to English do not do the original justice. If people were to actually learn about the original source, they’d be surprised that hell is a perpetually burning garbage dump in the Hebrew source and Hades in the Greek source. Neither one are real places, but the Xians bumble along not learning any of the origins of it all and taking it all literally.


  7. Jim Lee says:

    The Old Testament says. “At birth one receives the breath of life, and becomes a living soul”. This indicates from a biblical point of view that prior to birth one does not exist. Christian however seem to only select Scripture that appeals to them and ignored the rest.


    • Yes. Some translations have even been tweaked to make them sound more supportive of current evangelical ways of thinking.

      Liked by 2 people

      • mriana says:

        That’s because they want a “translation” that fits their views and not relate back to what the Hebrew words really are and what they mean. They think they have a literal translation and take it all literally, but they don’t have a clue that none of it is to be taken literally, much less is it translated with much accuracy.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Gerard Clark says:

        I am responding to Mriana as well.
        Translations always reflect the belief of the person signing the check to get it produced.
        The King James Version never uses the word “slave” because the guy who wrote the check was making too much money off the slave trade to have Jeremiah say the siege of Jerusalem would be lifted when the Jews freed their slaves. The King James Version also mistranslates the Hebrew “rada” as dominion instead of rule with the Hebrew understanding of requisite stewardship of Creation, because the not so good King was raping the world of natural resources, so he had to have dominion and not rule with stewardship on behalf of God. Red letters are another translation joke. English was not a language, not even the king;’s English, when Jesus was alive, so how can the red letters be Jesus’ words? They are not they are what someone translated into English.

        You are correct, the literalist don’t get the benefit of appreciating the literary artistry of acrostics, paralleisms or chiasms. When you look at the chiastic structure of John’s Gospel, we see Mary Magdalene proclaimed as a “disciple” just like the men. Most Evangelicals scream when you say they need to be engaged in Historical and Literary critical analysis to understand the Bible. Azariah, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are Evangelical favorites. The Rabbinical method of Scriptural interpretation, remez, a hint of a word, word study is one of the elements of literary critical analysis. The Evangelical literalists would be surprised Azariah = juridical settler; Shadrach = lofty; Meshach = uprighteous and Abennego = destroyer of pledges to false gods. Why are Evangelicals afraid of literary critical analysis? Because it eliminates the misogynous literary interpretation of the acrostic poem in Proverbs 31:10-32. That is too long for here, but for centuries it has been as a basis for ordering women to be submissive. When the poem is read as an acrostic it is quite different. When the acrostic is combined with the Greek (New) Testament, an Evangelical favorite, it becomes an Evangelical nightmare, the male must be submissive!

        Liked by 1 person

      • mriana says:

        Yes, Gerard Clark. If Evangelicals dug deep and learned the Hebrew and Greek words they’d find nothing they have been taught is true and it would blow their minds. They close their minds to learning the anything, wanting to believe what they’ve learned is true- right down to abortion. The Bible says nothing about abortion, even in the Greek and Hebrew versions. It also says nothing about being gay either. Everything they are talking about and against today is pure delusion.


    • Dave Haase says:

      Actually, the breadth of life referred to is the soul or spirit the first human created received from God (Gen 2:7). The human body is the temporary house that the spirit lives in. The body will perish one day, but the spirit will live on eternally. Multiple Bible verses state that life is in the blood. Very soon after conception, blood forms indicating the presence of life. But the other dimension of life in the blood is signified by eternal life paid for by the blood of the sacrificial lamb. The Old Testament animal sacrifices foreshadowed the ultimate blood sacrifice, because an innocent animal made temporary atonement for sin, whereas the ultimate sacrifice made lasting atonement for those who accept Him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • thompsonsbrent says:

        This is a thought-provoking and enlightening analysis by Ms Tarico. But it is not advanced by red-herring judge-y comments about non-existent passages in the Bible. For example, nowhere in the Christian Bible or Jewish Torah — regardless of which version or translation you look at — does it read, “At birth one receives the breath of life, and becomes a living soul.” The passage most closely resembling that one is Genesis 2:7 (in the Orthodox Jewish Bible it is cited as Bereshis 25:17) where, referring to the first human created by YHWH, the passage translates into English as, “And Jehovah God formed man (adam) of the dust of the ground (ha-adama), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man (adam) became a living soul.” Nothing there about “birth.”


      • For millennia, Jewish theologians have interpreted their sacred text as meaning that the life of the spirit begins at birth.


      • Gerard Clark says:

        Again the “reply’s aren’t where I’d like them.
        First in understanding the Hebrew tradition of Torah, the oral Torah is just as important as the written Torah. Fiddler On The Roof’s “Tradition” is very accurate and very Jewish.

        The Hebrew word ruah sometimes ruach means wind, spirit and sometimes breath. The play on words and intertextuality are standard fare in Hebrew literature which includes the Bible, pseudepigrpha and apocrypha. Valerie’s understanding comes from the Mishnah and Talmud, equal in authority with the Tanakh. Another screamer for the Evangelicals.

        The tetragram YWH is Yaweh. Jehovah is a JW thing.

        As another example the Books of Macabees are not included in the Jewish canon of Scripture. But 2 Macabees is the source of the Jewish Festival of Lights, Chanucha. It is the story of the revolt of Judas Macabees and the rabbis gathered at Javna in 92 CE did not want to include those Books in the canon for fear the occupying Romans would kill them. When they were celebrating Chanucha the would play a game with the dreidel,
        a top with the Hebrew letters for “A Great Thing Happened Here” . During another time of persecution, in Germany, chocolate was wrapped in gold colored foil, making chocolate coins for gambling with the dreidel. Although Chanucha is not in the wriiten Torah it is a part of the oral Torah and is very much celebrated. The Book of Baruch is not in the Hebrew canon because although he was Jeremiah’s scribe, he traveled to Alexandria Egypt and Babylon both outside Roman control, so his writing could not be included. It is interesting to note the Evangelic hysteria over Jerusalem in support of Trump. The intellectual center of Judaism in Jesus’ time was Alexandria. Babylon was the largest and wealthiest Jewish population center at that time. There are two Talmuds, the shorter Jerusalem Talmud that was finished in Babylon and the larger Babylon Talmud.

        I hope this provides some clarity.

        Liked by 1 person

      • mriana says:

        It seems you have a good handle on the Hebrew, Gerard Clark. I thought about mentioning ruach, but nephesh seemed to apply more to the topic at hand because, as I understand it, that is the “breath of God” that brings about life after birth and is not received before then.


  8. ssilha says:

    This column is totally brilliant – may it speak across chasms of ignorance!


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  9. Gerard Clark says:

    Often I have asked the protestors in front of the local Planned Parenthood office why they are not
    as concerned about the living dead”. Those children born into poverty and suffering from all the forms of abuse that comes with poverty including “toxic stress”.
    Further I asked why these protestors weren’t working as hard on relieving the stress and other factors that lead to a woman wanting to have an abortion. These questions need to be asked with an objective of providing support not judgment. This is where a peer support network would be a most effective mechanism.
    Way before the pregnancy occurs, there needs to be support for single women and single mothers who are themselves victims of toxic stress. C-PTSD in all of its forms including RTS is a significant stressor.
    “Just pray harder” or “Give more to God in the collection basket.” are stressors not stress relievers. All of the pat epithets are like Scott tissue.

    Too often those who worship the Crucified, don’t realize that proper worship of the Crucified is to serve the “cruciifed”, the widow, the orphan and the oppressed.(Isa 1:16-17) Just as God wanted no more holocausts offered, He and She don’t want anymore hooting and hollering on Sunday with nothing done to serve the least on Monday through Saturday. The elitism of “I’m saved and your not” is without Scriptural, theological or spiritual foundation.


    • Marietta Alexander says:

      Almighty God is angry at the wicked of this world that reject His Commandments and His Son, Jesus Christ. Nibiru is coming, it is a solar system that has a twin star to our own sun. Demonic entities are coming with a planet from this system. They will show up after a nuclear event here on earth and claim to be the creators of mankind. They will act friendly by cleaning up the atmosphere but they will bring horrible evil upon this planet. THIS IS a deception; God created the Heavens and the Earth so DO NOT TAKE THE MARK OF THE BEAST, which is the RFID chip, all that do will be damned forever. Monsters will roam the earth and Giants will hunt mankind. Repent of your sin right now and Turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and salvation. Run to Jesus RIGHT NOW, before this all happens. We are approaching the Great Tribulation period, it will be mankind’s worst nightmare. Do not get left behind!


  10. Gerard Clark says:

    Not in the right place but, for Mrianna,
    Thank you for the compliment about the Hebrew. There are often different Hebrew words with similar meanings that came from different historical contexts. Hebrew words generally have three consonant roots, like the tetragram I referenced above. These can lead to variations that stretch
    the images of the words, or become metaphors, so the rabbi’s speak of the “remez”, hint of a word ” drash” metaphor or allegorical meaning. If we are a product or victim of either/or literal thinking rather than both/and inquisitive thinking it is difficult to recognize the beauty and richness of diversity. Other Hebrew writings, pseudepygrapha and apocrypha, help us understand the historical context and some of the vocabulary variants.


    • mriana says:

      That is the difficult part of learning Hebrew- no vowels. Here’s the interesting thing- I once had a rabbi (who ironically was female and came from a more liberal group of Jews) tell me there is no heaven or hell and we have to make the best of this life. I found that interesting and at the time I was still in the Episcopal Church (my last stop before I left completely) and I asked her what the incentive was to obey God’s laws if there is no heaven (I didn’t believe in hell at the time). There was none, except to be good to others, basically the “do no harm” or “do onto others…” response. I don’t know if all Jews believe what this liberal Jewish rabbi taught and believed, but it was an interesting encounter and learning experience. For all I know, it might have been my first encounter with an atheistic Jew who happened to also be a rabbi. Incidental, I learn from another Jew, that even her sect was more liberal concerning LGBTs and even has a sister who is gay. So one can’t put a blanket label on the religious nor can one say all sects of various groups believe alike. The Lutheran doctor, who was killed for performing abortions, also came from a liberal sect of the Lutheran Church. What is a sin for one group isn’t a sin for another. So, when one explores religion, it begs two questions- What is Xianity really and why not live my life as I see fit, with or without God. Obviously one can be good without a god and morality, right down to abortion, is subjective and individual.


      • Dave Haase says:

        That depends on your definition of good. If the domain is restricted to only humans, then I would agree that some humans are good relative to other humans, but it still remains a relative definition of good. If one believes in God, or a supreme being, does not that change the definition of good? And if so, isn’t that the definition of good that should matter?


      • mriana says:

        Dave Haase, I wasn’t talking about the human group, I was talking about “one”. Humanity as a whole isn’t necessarily good nor is it necessarily bad either. Let’s use Valerie’s topic as a definition of good- bombing abortion clinics is bad and is doing exactly what they say their are against. It’s hypocritical. Having an abortion because a woman isn’t married and wants to get an education so she can get a job to afford a baby, isn’t bad or good. Aborting a baby due to the health of the fetus or the mother is neither good or bad. It just is. Being 22, unmarried, pregnant, and choosing to keep the baby is neither good or bad. Using abortion as a form of birth control, having an abortion every time one gets pregnant, instead of using actual birth control, is just stupid. Helping a mother who is poor and uneducated get W.I.C., SNAP (food stamps), affordable housing, health care for her and her baby, and an education to get a (better) job is good.


      • Gerard Clark says:

        There are three main groups within the Jewish tradition. Orthodox, must walk to the synagogue, the Conservative, parking lot is across the street from the synagogue and the Reformed, the parking lot is next to the synagogue. In general this describes their theological orientations. The Sadducess did not believe in an afterlife while the Pharisees did. We have Messianic Jews, those who believe in Jesus (Yes there is a Jewish New Testament and a Jewish New Testament Commentary, both are sold by Christian Book Distributors) and Hasiadic Jews who live in isolated communities. The unity comes from the Great Shema (Deut 6:5) “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your god with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Jewish Study Bible translation) which pious Jews say at least 3 times a day, others 5 times a day, which is the norm for our sisters and brothers in Abraham, the Muslims, surely there are many secular Jews who know the tradition but have abandoned it. This is the first of the Two Great Commandments Jesus quotes in response to the scribe’s question of the Greatest Commandment Mt 22:34-40, Mk 12:28-34, Lk 10:25:28. All of Jesus’ answers make reference to Lev. 19:18b “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

        John’s version of this is in the Last Supper discourses (John Chapters 13-17), this takes place during the last cup of the Passover Seder, (the Last Supper) which in the Jewish tradition is the Cup of the Kingdom, at which time in the celebration, the front door of the house is opened and another cup of wine is poured to indicate a welcoming of the Messiah. Jn 13:32 and 15:12 a New Commandment “love one another as I have loved you”. The Catholic Catechism paragraph 1970 refers to this as the Law of the Gospel.

        There is great physical, mental and spiritual damage done when people assign more importance to other verses or pericopes. This agape love does not allow religious elitism
        and fosters compassion which includes religious, cultural and spiritual humility.

        I hope this helps put your liberal rabbi’s responses in some kind of perspective.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Michael C says:

    I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons because they aren’t self-aware.
    But doesn’t that same logic apply to new-born babies? That’s what troubles me most about abortion.

    I think the strongest defense of abortion begins with the claim that any dividing line between persons and non-persons will be somewhat arbitrary. A dividing line that gives the woman a reasonable opportunity to end a pregnancy seems like it might be the best way to balance the competing values. I see it as a modest extension of the non-controversial right to prevent the pregnancy in the first place.

    I want to add that I would not be comfortable with a dividing line that occurred any time after a fetus was able to feel more than neglible pain. In fact, ability to feel pain might be the best place to draw the dividing line. However, I’m concerned that I don’t know enough about how easy it might be to kill painlessly and what the implications of that might be.


    • I agree with you that we have an ethical responsibility to minimize suffering in any fetus and in fact all animals that are capable of experiencing pain. And that said, I am at this moment sitting at a ranch that regularly kills animals for meat–as painlessly as possible and after providing the highest quality of life possible–because at least for the time being, that is considered the highest good. Ethical people also make decisions to terminate animal life because of our perception that the harms (including pain) from continuing that life would be greater than terminating that life as painlessly as possible. So i agree with everything you said, but am also noting that to my mind the capacity to experience pain doesn’t provide a clean line either.


      • Michael C says:

        Thanks for your reply. And I did imply, incorrectly, that ability to feel pain could be the dividing line between persons and non-persons. I think my point is that the combination of a fetus not being self-aware and not being able to feel (more than negligible) pain is a strong defense of abortion rights. I may be mistaken but my sense is that a human being is not self-aware until between two and three years old–not immediately after birth. Yet I’m horrified at the idea of baby killing. Of course advocates of abortion rights don’t defend baby-killing. My worry is that if babies, like fetuses, are not self-aware (and therefore not persons) what makes killing babies morally wrong and killing fetuses morally permissible? Babies can survive without being physically attached to the mother but babies still need a great deal of care to continue living. Adoption is an option but my understanding is that generally the parents, if able to do so, are legally required to provide support unless and until a baby is adopted.

        My solution-if that’s the right word-is to look at abortion rights as an extension of contraception. If a fetus is not a person and cannot feel pain, there is no reason why a pregnant woman should not have a reasonable opportunity to end a pregnancy. However, because the fetus, like a baby who is not self-aware either, is some kind of human life, the fetus, after that reasonable opportunity ends, should ordinarily be protected in the same way and for the same reasons that babies are protected. It seems to me that does a fair and reasonable job of protecting both a pregnant woman’s right to end a pregnancy and the value of human life-whether self-aware or not. It balances those two values.

        There are other considerations too which I haven’t been able to address and which may change the argument in some ways. First, my understanding of the legal right to abortion involves the notion no person exists unless and until the fetus/baby can survive without being attached to the mother. Thus, legally, babies are persons even if they are not self-aware. I am questioning that.

        Second, consciousness and self-awareness may not be identical as I have been assuming. Perhaps some kind of consciousness-that is significant enough to create a person-precedes full self-awareness. Or maybe babies have more consciousness and self-awareness than I realize.

        Finally, babies obviously can feel pain even if they are not self-aware. But I’m not so sure that babies couldn’t be killed pretty much painlessly and they would involve none of the pain that self-aware persons would experience due to the awareness that their lives are in danger. Again, that’s why it’s important to me that fetuses not be able to even feel pain for abortion to be permitted. That’s an important distinction between a fetus (at least at a relatively early stage) and a baby.


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