Where does a person’s rights really begin?

This is of course the classic question in the abortion debate. The prochoice side generally selecting some moment after concept and sometime only after birth for considering the unborn to have right and with the right-to-life side generally selecting some point before birth or right at conception.

I am not going to debate the merits of either side here. Abortion is a topic on which very few minds are capable of being changed. What I want to do is take the idea that the unborn have rights and play them back within our new understand of human biology.

Drawing the line for rights as birth makes for easy law. You have a bright sharp dividing line between when you have to consider the rights of the child and when you do not. If it has not been born it does not have rights.

Drawing the line before birth makes the issue a little more murky. For insistence if you draw the ling at significant brain activity, well there’s the problem of the definition of significant. Then there’s the problem of how do you measure it? Is this exactly the same for each and every unborn child, or do we need to make some sort of neonatal brain scan on every pregnant woman to determine when the unborn child has rights?

So one the right-to-life side simplify matters by simply declaring that rights begin at conception. This seems like a bright and easy line, like birth, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Exactly when does conception occur? The moment the sperm cross the boundary of the egg? When division starts? It also tends to make all forms of birth control that are not barriers between the sperm and egg into some form of murder, but I know there are those on that side of the debate who would call that a feature and not a bug.

Let’s go ahead and say that rights begin at conception. Those who argue that position do so drawing a special case for a fertilized egg versus other humans cells. A single cell that is a fertilized egg is considered a person, but no other single human cell gains that distinction. If we look at the single cell at that moment in time alone there is little to distinguish it from other cells. On what basis can we grant it rights and not the other cells.

The answer of course is that left to its own devices the fertilized cell will become a person and no other cell will do that. That’s right, but only as far as it goes. In recent years there have been rows in politics over stem cell research. Scientists wanted to study stem cells taken from embryos because these cells are pluripotent — i.e. capable of becoming any kind of tissue in the human body — while stem cells from adult humans do not have the capability. Because the embryonic stem cells naturally had to come from embryos people who considered rights starting at conception saw this as a grave travesty.

Fairly recently scientist have made great headway in inducing pluripotency in adult stem cells. No matter where you stand on abortion this is big science and it may have an impact on this whole question of when do rights begin. Scientists in China have reported that from the Induced Pluripotent Cells they have created a living mouse. They went from adult stem cell, to pluripotent cells, to embryo and on to living organism. This is big.

I have yet to hear anyone in the right-to-life side call the pluripotent cells people. It seems that one set of cell capable of becoming people have rights and yet another set of cells do not. The difference seems to be that the stem cells, even after being induced into pluripotency do not naturally progress into people. Direct human intervention is required to make that happen — if it can happen the ethical issues around such experiments is self-evident — while fertilized eggs progress to people without any intervention.

It seems to me that the dividing line has become is this a potential person? The fertilized eggs are people in potential and therefore are treated as having rights. It is logically consistent and I can understand it, however it opens another kettle of fish which I will discuss in future postings when I show that rights might even start before conception.


2 thoughts on “Where does a person’s rights really begin?”

  1. Brad, please don’t buy into the “Partial birth abortion” garbage that the religious right introduced. There is no such thing and it is yet another example of the excellent (and repellant) job that the right does with naming and branding.

    Medical personnel have told me (from multiple sources) the the correct term is “induced labor abortion”. This means that the legislation against “partial birth abortion” has not stopped a single one of these procedures, since they never existed anyway. Additionally, this procedure is highly risky for the woman and it is never entered into lightly. It is used only in third trimester abortions when the lifel of the mother is at risk. This make this procedure a tragedy, pure and simple. You have a woman who wants to be a mother and who will not be, due to health reasons. This is definitely a murky area. Which life do you pick?

  2. Definitions

    Looking at the opposite end, defining personhood as beginning at birth, opens up particularly odious moral questions. Beginning with defining birth.

    What’s particularly noxious about using birth as the diving line is the way it lets legal abortion for birth control to overlap with abortion for infanticide. Which I’m sure to many people is a feature not a bug.

    In a modern Western society, children are expensive luxuries which also come with an 18 year long binding legal obligation. Many people don’t want to have to deal with that obligation and cost.

    That’s probably why the vast majority of the American public falls into the muddled middle when it comes to preferred abortion policy. They support contraception and also loathe infanticide. The problem is deciding when and what specific abortion practice falls into the realm of infanticide, hence the overwhelming rejection of the practice called ‘partial birth abortion’.

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