Widgets Magazine


Op-Ed: Rights of an unborn fetus

Does human life begin at conception? And is that sufficient to extend the right to life from that moment on? Adam Johnson’s column last week argued for this case, but the issues here are more complex than a simple yes or no.

Is a fetus just after conception an example of human life?

If we are using the term “human life” in its strictly biological sense, then any assembly of cells with human DNA would be an example of human life. A fetus would qualify. But so would HeLa, a strain of cervical cancer cells sourced from Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta “died” from cancer in 1951. If the presence of living human cells is the necessary and sufficient definition of a continuing human life, then Henrietta did not “really” die in 1951.

It is clear that such a definition of a human, while useful to biologists, is not applicable in the domain of law and ethics where the discussion of rights is properly situated. To give another example, a brain-dead person is considered “dead” even though the majority of her organs or cells may still be alive and may be kept alive indefinitely into the future.

Many ethicists have argued that the language of rights can only be applied to organisms with adequate levels of consciousness, volition and intentions. A fetus less than two months old does not have any brain structures that can sustain even minimally conscious or unconscious neural activity. Such a fetus is not a human being in the morally relevant sense of the term.

But not so fast

A person sympathetic to the pro-life viewpoint might argue that the reason a post-conception embryo is different from all other clumps of cells is that this collection of cells represents the first stage in a developmental process that results in a “morally relevant” human being to whom the language of rights and responsibilities may be coherently applied. Thus we cannot hope to confer any protective rights to human beings without conferring some rights to the developing entity on which their very existence initially depends. A fetus is therefore a necessary existence condition for a human person. Surely that fetus needs to be protected for the right to life to operate in the social realm?

It is here that we arrive at the great divide: Which things acquire protected status when the right to life is conferred upon human persons?

Two theories about the right to life

1) Pro-choice advocates define the right to life as a protecting persistence condition only. If a “morally relevant” human being is already present, then a persistence-defined right to life protects all things necessary for that being to continue to exist. Simple examples include access rights to food, water and medicine, among others. Conditions necessary for existence of future persons, according to this view, are not protected de facto. They might be protected to a limited extent if current persons hold future persons as being valuable for enhancing their own life purposes. In this sense, a “wanted” fetus enjoys the same kind of right as, for instance, national treasures like the “Statue of Liberty” may enjoy in the United States. If that “wantedness” is lost, so go all rights.

2) A secular pro-life advocate defines the right to life to cover all necessary existence and persistence conditions for human persons. So as far as knowledge allows, entities and resources necessary for the coming-into-existence of persons are protected as well. Using a campfire analogy for this viewpoint, to protect the rights of a fully burning stage of a human life, the kindling stage of life also needs to be protected and tended to, even though it is still not “fire.”

It is difficult to advocate one view over the other, and the rights of women to choose also matter in this debate. But if this article encourages you to think more on the topic, my job is done.

Sayak Banerjee
Ph.D. Mechanical Engineering ’13

  • Adam Johnson


    While I appreciate that you engaged with my piece, I believe you are mis-characterizing my argument. Though I did argue that a human life form is created at conception, I disagree with your implications that my argument has regarding a strain of cancer cells and a brain-dead person.

    A strain of cancer cells does have human DNA, true, but it is not subject to the same evolutionary pressures as an embryo/baby/child/adult is (I mentioned “subject to evolution” at an individual level in my piece). For instance, part of what determines the evolutionary success of the embryo will be how its circulatory system functions, which is also part of what determines the evolutionary success of an adult. The success of the cancer strain (and the success of an average human cell) is determined by nothing of the sort.

    And a brain-dead person is still a human life (brain-dead men and women can even artificially reproduce), we just generally don’t think this life as worth prolonging or, due to its artificial nature, having any moral claim.

    Primarily, though, I never argued that this human life should be granted the same rights as you and me. I did not even say that it should be granted any rights. I said: “logical reasoning makes a strong claim to grant this human life certain rights.”

    I would also qualify your assertion that “the rights of women to choose also matter in this debate.” I do not see how it has relevance for determining when a human life starts. And it only seems to matter in debating the rights of the embryo if we make the rights of the embryo contingent on the rights of the mother (which we both agree is one potential position, that the embryo has rights when it is “wanted”). I guess what I am trying to say is that if one wants to take an “agnostic” stance on the rights of the embryo, one cannot presume that the rights of the women to choose are necessarily relevant in the ultimate determination.

    The rights of the women to choose are certainly relevant for access to abortion, though. That, however, is an entirely different debate in my mind, and you may be surprised regarding my stance on that.


    Adam Johnson

  • sayak banerjee

    The contrast between our views come out best with the example of brain-dead patient. The reason a brain dead person’s biological systems are not being prolonged by medical means is because there is no “person” left in that body who can be protected or sustained by such means. This is not a decision we may make for a patient who is in a deep coma; in which case the brain is not damaged beyond recovery and the person can still be saved.

    I approach the question of “rights to life” by asking the question:-
    What properties, behaviors and activities a configuration of matter must have or exhibit for it to be accorded a right to life?

    a)One necessary condition is for that matter condition to exhibit the biological processes associated with life. But that is not enough, (because I still like to eat chicken and swat flies!)

    b) The part you seem to focus on in addition is having human biological processes (DNA, circulatory systems etc.). But why would having a human DNA and a human circulatory system make that matter configuration subject to protective rights to life than having Trout DNA and Trout circulatory system? What is “relevant” difference between the two life systems here? Not DNA or circulatory systems surely? This is why your argument looks unconvincing to me.

    c) It seems clear that the relevant difference is the “kind” of mental life that a human brain is capable of generating that a trout brain cannot. Having a kind of a brain that generates properties like desires, intentions, volition and consciousness is the difference that make the distinction of life rights between trouts and humans. Now we do not know very much about how brains like our do this , but surely we know enough to say what rudimentary brain systems must be in place to at least be able to generate this mental, intentional life which I think is the human person. It is this person, the mind, that has the rights, as it is this person which has consciousness, volition etc. etc.

    At least that is the first part of my argument in the article.

  • Adam Johnson

    Returning briefly to the brain dead “person,” again I would not accord it rights, so it seems we are in a agreement there. I disagreed with your assertion that it is not a human life, though. It still is a human life, it just may not be a “person.” Just like an embryo is a human life, though we may not consider it a “person.” I made the distinction between the two in my piece.

    If you say c) is what is necessary for a right to life, than I fail to see how a newborn baby should be granted any rights. Some do make this argument- that the right to life only starts midway through one’s childhood when one gains “consciousness” or “volition” or what have you (some argue that children should have to pass a psychological test to be granted a right to life).

    One could even make the argument that free will, or intentionality, is nonexistent at all stages, thus no one would have a right to life under this definition. Much of the neuroscience I’ve encountered supports the conclusion that free will is an illusion. I am, however, not an expert on this.

  • sayak banerjee

    Now we are delving into questions about what kind of mental capabilities the fetus is capable of sustaining and when. I would say (based on what neuroscientists are saying at least) that a fetus after the 2nd trimester is beginning to develop neural capabilities that give pause to the “no mind” argument (see a detailed discussion that goes over these issues by Dr. Gazzaniga in the link below.)
    Free will as traditionally defined seems incoherent to me. What is free will supposed to be free from? If decision making is the result of information analysis and processing going on in the brain, then obviously the decisions that are made by the brain will depend on the activities occurring in the brain. Mind is something that the brain does. So the question that is relevant is whether the brain has developed the kinds of capabilities that make the language of rights applicable to it.


  • pol_incorrect

    All I have to say is this. After thinking hard about the issue, I cannot understand how one can be “lightly” pro choice. Let’s face it, the lines below “But not so fast” are the crux of the problem. A fetus is not just a bunch of chemicals but a potential human being. James Thomson, the pioneer in stem cell research had this to say about stem cell research with embryonic cells http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/22/science/22stem.html,

    “If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a
    little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he
    said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”He
    decided in the end to go ahead, reasoning that the work was important
    and that he was using embryos from fertility clinics that would have
    been destroyed otherwise.

    Now, if destroying an embryo for worthy research purposes is itself ethically questionable, what about destroying it, or a fully formed fetus, or a 7 month old fetus, for reasons of convenience as the vast majority of abortions are? I just don’t get it. The pro choice stance, after thinking long about it, makes me, using Thomson’s word “uncomfortable”. I am pro life and I think that at the end of the day if science has anything to say at all in the pro life / pro abortion debate, is that a human fetus or embryo is not “just some cell” but something whose destruction should not be taken lightly.