AROUTIOUNIAN: Standing up for personhood

Using tired scare tactics to avoid fundamental ethical questions may be fitting of the caliber of debate in Washington or on cable television news, but not for Yale students. We should expect more than Planned Parenthood talking points that have not been revisited to check for accuracy or persuasive ability since – quite likely – 1973.

Micha’le Simmons’s guest column addressing Mississippi’s Personhood Amendment (“Criminalizing a woman’s right,” Nov. 8), constituted a blatant attempt to focus on technical detail and glittering generalities to cloud what is at the heart of the abortion debate: the moral and legal status of the fetus.

It is true that the natural implantation of an embryo does not always take place — indeed, instances of death in nature abound. Humans become sick with cancer and die. Miscarriages take place. The fact that what some call “spontaneous abortion” occurs in nature does not give us license to advance it; to make this appeal to nature is a fallacy of relevance. Just because something is sometimes “natural” does not automatically make it just.

The perpetual claim that Initiative 26 would “ban birth control” is at best inaccurate and at worst a lie. By acknowledging the status of a fetus as a person from the moment of conception, the initiative bars it from being willfully destroyed. Contraception that blocks fertilization from taking place would not have been affected in any way. Indeed, the word “contraception” is a contraction of “contra,” which Latin for “against,” and “conception.”

Simmons is right in deducing that the law would ban abortifacients — drugs and mechanisms that cause abortion — that we colloquially (and incorrectly) define as birth control. But the medical and scientific fact remains: Any form of “birth control” which causes the destruction of a fertilized embryo does not “control” anything. Indeed, it does nothing but destroy the embryo. Those are the facts.

In no broadly recognized and legitimate legal, ethical or religious text is abortion deemed a “necessary, basic human right.” (Unless, of course, Simmons considers Planned Parenthood’s charter to be this sacred – in which case I would caution her against putting so much faith in an organization which has its historical roots in the eugenics movement.) Contraception, for its part, would have been completely unaffected by the Personhood Amendment.

And now, to the crux of the issue: All the talking points consistently used regarding “more unwanted pregnancies,” “stigma,” and “basic choices about … fertility” are empty, extraneous words that only serve to mask the philosophical discussion to be had about fetal rights and the ethics of abortion. So are questions like “What kind of a life is the child going to lead?” when we consider the alternative is murdering the child. “Ah, but it’s not murder!” We have arrived at the core issue.

When does a fetus become a person worthy of legal rights? For, as Justice Harry Blackmun admitted in 1973 in explaining his vote in favor of Roe v. Wade, the decision he reached would “collapse” if the “suggestion of personhood [of the fetus] is established.” This question has but one logically consistent answer: conception. All other boundaries, including the “age of viability” that Roe suggests, are arbitrary and moveable.

But scientifically, there is a right answer. Before we were able to conclusively judge the world to be round, many people posited it to be round or flat. Both were entitled to express their opinions, but there indeed was an objectively correct answer. Other boundaries also fail to pass the consistency test: Many say that abortion becomes impermissible when the fetus can experience pain or is conscious. So, then, do we have no qualms about killing patients in comas or those suffering from familial dysautonomia — the inability to feel pain? No ethical or logical framework, except that which establishes conception as the beginning of life, passes this test.

The right to life — expressed in the Declaration of Independence and revered in this country and around the world — is the most fundamental, basic human right of all. It is well past the time for the law to reflect this reality.

John Aroutiounian is a freshman in Morse College and a member of Choose Life at Yale. Contact him at john.aroutiounian@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    “It is true that the natural implantation of an embryo does not always take place — indeed, instances of death in nature abound. ”

    STOP READING AT THE END OF THE PREVIOUS SENTENCE.

    This where YOUR argument stops and irrationality begins.

    There is zero agreement and zero proof “death” occurs when an embryo fails to be implanted because there is zero agreement that and embryo is LIFE.

    • Catherine08

      But when in doubt, shouldn’t we assume that there is life?

      • Standards

        There’s life alright, but life doesn’t really matter. What’s at issue isn’t whether it’s a human organism, but whether it’s a human person.

        And contrary to this articles weak contention otherwise, there’s no reason, at all, to think that fetuses are people. No reason at all, to assume, because we’re “in doubt.”

        This isn’t a matter of chance or ambiguity. Fetuses just don’t have any relevant features of personhood. Might as well stop eating meat. Why even stop there, don’t even cut your grass. After all, when in doubt, we should just assume personhood.

        • GeoJoe

          Agree with most of the above, but would argue that non-human animals are much closer to personhood than fetuses and therefore deserve some rights.

          I think that anti-abortion people don’t deserve the term “pro-life” unless they are extreme enough to actually care about all forms of life.

          • Jerry

            I’m willing to give the term to them if it’s kept strictly in quotes, so that there’s no risk of accidental conflation with people who actually, as you rightfully point out, care about all forms of life.

  • Jerry

    With all due respect, the author’s arguments on personhood statutes not banning birth control are… at best inaccurate and at worst a lie. Look it up, John, since I feel that the most vigorous “pro-lifers” have a disturbing tendency to look past some basic facts and science. Estrogen and progestin, among many other things, thin the uterine lining, making the implantation and further development of a FERTILIZED EGG much less likely. Using the Pill absolutely willfully reduces the chance of the development of a fertilized egg, and no amount of smug wordplay changes that. The point stands, personhood statutes would have to illegalize birth control to be legally consistent, and that’s just the tip of the repugnant iceberg.

    • ChrisPag

      I don’t think you two disagree. John noted that we incorrectly refer to some forms of abortifacients as “birth control,” which I would guess include the hormonal methods you suggest which do at times cause an abortion to occur (though also can prevent fertilization by preventing ovulation). Contraception that relies on barrier devices (male condoms, female condoms, diaphragms, etc) prevent an egg from being fertilized in the first place, and personhood amendments would not discourage their use.
      (Personally, I’m also hoping that one of the male oral contraceptives in development becomes reliable soon.)

      Excellent piece, John.

      • Jerry

        Let’s be clear – this definitional point is only the tip of the iceberg, I don’t vaguely agree with John on any of the other points. But I’ve set my moral convictions aside and only want to talk about how birth control actually works. Specifically, the Pill, which is by far one of the most reliable methods of birth control and also generally less vulnerable to sabotage by abusive partners than other methods, uses hormones to a) minimize the probability of ovulation and b) minimize the probability of a fertilized egg implanting in the uterus. The world of personhood statutes necessarily illegalizes the Pill because it carries a non-zero chance of preventing the development of a fertilized egg. I think it was utterly irresponsible of John to dismiss this criticism (only one of dozens of relevant criticisms) as scare tactics while also misrepresenting what the Pill is and attempting to cover up this lack of understanding with smug, ignorant wordplay.

  • LouieLouie

    “Simmons is right in deducing that the law would ban abortifacients — drugs and mechanisms that cause abortion — that we colloquially (and incorrectly) define as birth control. But the medical and scientific fact remains: Any form of “birth control” which causes the destruction of a fertilized embryo does not “control” anything. Indeed, it does nothing but destroy the embryo. Those are the facts.”

    Those are not the facts; they are your interpretation of the “facts”. I do not define abortion or any abortifacients as “birth control” and I think most people would agree. Anyone who attempts to use abortion as birth control quickly realizes the risks associated with this choice and that it is not a viable solution. Birth control is something that prevents “personhood”; it doesn’t eliminate what has already begun, it prevents a “person” from getting started in the first place.
    We will never come to a satisfactory conclusion, using science, philosophy, or any number of holy books, as to when and how “personhood” begins. The two sides are beyond compromise. But what we can do is remove the mandate and allow choice. Choice to decide what is best for this evolving person and what kind of life it may have. It’s my body and it is my choice. You want to make this about “personhood”, then take the embryo out of my body and raise it yourself.

  • River_Tam

    You know why we have to jump through all these legal hoops to ban abortion? Because of *Roe v Wade*. Most European countries are far less permissive with their abortion laws – many ban it after the first trimester – because they didn’t have Ruth “Black People Shouldn’t Reproduce” Ginsburg deciding that the Constitution guaranteed the right to terminate a pregnancy.

    Ginsburg in 2009:

    > Yes, the ruling about [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] surprised me. **Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.** So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.

    • bfa123

      She doesn’t say that’s how she feels; she said that’s what she thought the rationale was. She is commenting on others. Way to incorrectly malign Ruth…

      (Upcoming River_Tam onslaught…)

      • River_Tam

        Sigh. “We don’t want to have too many of” implies membership in the group.

        Does pointing out basics of grammar qualify as an onslaught?

        • MapleLeaf14

          She was using the “we” about society…not about herself. Jeez. Read in context.

          And do we really want to get into who is more racist on the Court: the liberal members or the conservative members…

          • River_Tam

            Someone needs to learn to diagram a sentence.

  • ac826

    “This question has but one logically consistent answer: conception. All other boundaries, including the “age of viability” that Roe suggests, are arbitrary and moveable.”

    It’s silly to say that because a boundary is movable, the only correct position is at the beginning. The boundary between red and purple may be arbitrary and movable, that doesn’t mean red and purple are the same color.

    It’s just as silly to suggest that because people in comas aren’t conscious, or because there are people who can’t feel pain, it’s logically inconsistent to have abortion. You might as well argue that its okay to kill people who are asleep. People in comas are capable of being conscious, and if they weren’t they’d be vegetables. Almost every pro-choice individual would have no problem with saying a vegetable is’t a person. Similarly, someone who feels pain is conscious, so still a person.

    • redman

      Well said, anything after conception is arbitrary.

      • Branford73

        If you haven’t already declared victory and left the field, using the conception point as the start of “personhood” is just as arbitrary in my view. The swimming sperm cells are human life, too, potentional babies once combined with an egg or eggs. I see it as a continuum, without bright lines of delineation. The shifting interests of state vs. pregnant woman as the potential gets closer to birth makes sense to me.

        I was heartened to see that a state as conservative as Mississippi rejected the personhood concept so resoundingly. It suggested to me that there are voters who cannot admit outside the secret ballot that they are pro-choice. Yay!

  • The Anti-Yale

    “There’s life alright, but life doesn’t really matter What’s at issue isn’t whether it’s a human organism, but whether it’s a human person .”

    There’s the same LIFE that is in an accumulation of cells called a brain tumor.

    What is in question is not even personhood: It is viability—-can it survive on its own.

    • Standards

      Viability is irrelevant.

      There are people who need respirators to live. There are some who require blood transfusions. I don’t think we should say those people don’t have moral standing simply because they can’t live on their own.

  • WilloughbyChase

    Bravo! What a well written column. I’m glad that Choose Life at Yale has such promising freshmen.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “There are people who need respirators to live. There are some who require blood transfusions. I don’t think we should say those people don’t have moral standing simply because they can’t live on their own.”

    A trifle thick. Those are “people”. They are not an accumulations of cells with intentionality toward becoming a people.

  • The Anti-Yale

    toward becoming “people” not “a people”.

  • Standards

    So it’s personhood that matters, and not viability. Glad we agree.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I was born 2 months prematurely and required an incubator. I was not a “person” until I exited the womb into the world of “others”.

  • The_Lorax

    If human life is so very precious, why don’t we invest more energy into preserving the life of those already walking around? We’re surrounded by true suffering–the mentally ill, the veterans who can’t get back on track, beggars on the streets of every city in the world, refugees in Somalia…it is endless. How can the status of a set of cells be comparable to this true human, sentient suffering? How do you square your consciousness so you can ignore this suffering and yet rail and flail for the cells? Doesn’t the dissonance make you ill?

    It makes me ill, I can tell you, and that is why I won’t entertain any discussion regarding the potential relevance of a fertilized egg until all who are already born are allowed to fulfill their fullest potential by being safe, educated and loved.

  • Mikelawyr2

    Consider the two-body system consisting of an ovum and the “about-to-win” sperm. Consider that two-body system an infinitesimal interval of time, say, a nanosecond, before the about-to-win sperm actually wins the race. That two-body system, considered as a whole, satisfies every criterion for “personhood” that right-to-lifers establish, i.e., it’s got all the required genetic material, it’s on its way to becoming a person, it’s unique, blah, blah, blah. And the laws of physics also identify with all the mathematical certainty you could ask for which sperm is the winner, just as when a ball dropped from your hand is infinitesimally close to hitting the ground, the ability to predict accurately the place where it’s going to hit approaches certainty. So that two-body system, a small enough moment before conception, is also a person, if the right-to-lifers are right.

    Now it gets a little more interesting. If you back up another infinitesimal moment, the ability to predict the winning sperm becomes vastly more difficult, because there are all sorts of forces acting upon the sperm and the ovum and you’d need a vast amount of computing power to resolve them (kinda like predicting the weather — you can predict the weather with great accuracy a day ahead of time but predicting the weather a week in advance with any degree of accuracy is still virtually impossible). But that does not mean that, with sufficient computing power, you can’t back up time another instant and still be able to get the answer as to which sperm consitutes, together with the ovum, the two-body “person.” And with even vastly more computing power, you can back it up another instant, and another, and another. You get the point.

  • River_Tam

    > How can the status of a set of cells be comparable to this true human, sentient suffering?

    All humans are sets of cells.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “How do you square your consciousness so you can ignore this suffering and yet rail and flail for the cells? Doesn’t the dissonance make you ill?”

    “the cells” ?

    We are talking FIFTY MILLION acts that we do not know are NOT murder since Roe v. Wade was passed. The cultural guilt of this number —TEN TIMES THE NUMBER IN THE HOLOCAUST—IS INCOMPREHENSIBLE. http://sexandabortion.blogspot.com

  • yalie1420

    Your argument about personhood is wrong. I don’t have an answer to the personhood question, but I can say that your reasoning doesn’t hold.

    Your first argument is that any boundary but conception is not consistent. You are correct that there is no scientific basis for establishing any magical age at which someone “becomes” a person (birth, for example): any such age would have to be arbitrary. So you say, clearly the time at which someone “becomes” a person is at conception! But this argument is flawed: why does there need to be a point at which someone becomes a person? Does there always have to be a brightline? For example, there are clearly negative health effects to consuming even moderate quantities of alcohol at age 2. Those consequences are clearly much less pronounced at age 21. If I am trying to advise someone as to when it is okay to start consuming alcohol, it is impossible to pinpoint an exact age. Any such age would be arbitrary. The fact is that someone doesn’t suddenly gain all the qualities that make him able to drink alcohol; instead, these qualities are gradually acquired. We can’t pinpoint a certain age then, but we do know that it is okay for a fifty-year-old to drink a beer and not okay for a newborn.

    Similarly, we all agree it is wrong to kill a ten-year-old. I believe (and I think most people would agree, though certainly not all) that IUDs are permissible: one day after conception, I think it is okay to abort the fetus. But I don’t believe there is a clear brightline for when the fetus is a person. There doesn’t have to be. Your argument is that since conception is the only possible brightline, it must be the true definition of personhood, but that’s just not true.

    Secondly, you say that scientifically there is a “right answer” to the question. This is not true (due to the is-ought fallacy; the question of personhood is fundamentally a moral one, not a scientific one, since a “person” is not a scientific concept). Of course, you don’t even use science in your paragraph: you use moral arguments about whether or not it is okay to murder coma patients.

    That you didn’t see these logical flaws in your argument is understandable, because you are a freshman. At Yale, try to take classes that challenge you to use solid logic in your writing, like ENGL 114, or even better, take a class in logic itself.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “But I don’t believe there is a clear brightline for when the fetus is a person”

    I know it’s archaic to invoke religion in 2011, so I won’t; but I will invoke religious language. I

    t is not the zygote/fetus/embryo that is “sacred” as a person but its INTENTIONALITY to become a person that is sacred according to religious thinkers.

    You don’t destroy what is sacred unless you are a blasphemer.

    50 MILLION such acts of destruction make the description of our culture in the last three decades beyond blasphemous, IF you are a religious ethicist. If you are secularist, you simply removed unwanted cells.

    http://sexandabortion.blogspot.com

    • The Anti-Yale

      Albert Schweitzer might call this “Reverence for Pre-Life.”