Biology shows that abortion kills a human being — a human embryo or fetus. This should be enough to settle the issue of whether human embryos or fetuses have a right to life, since every human has equal and inherent fundamental rights.
However, some philosophers argue that, although a human embryo or fetus is a human organism, it is not yet a person. In order to be a person, they object, a human organism must have some additional characteristic — usually a capacity for higher mental functions, such as for self-consciousness. The argument may sound plausible at first: Are we not different from other animals precisely because we possess the capacity for higher mental functions?
Human embryos, in one sense, have the capacity for higher mental functions. If provided a suitable environment, they will actively develop themselves to the stage where they perform all of those types of actions. So the objection must be that human embryos or fetuses are not persons (bearers or rights) because they lack the immediately exercisable capacity for higher mental acts (that is, a capacity that can be exercised now or in the immediate future).
However, if this argument were correct, it would also follow that human infants are nonpersons and it would be morally permissible to kill infants, subject to parental approval. Some philosophers (Peter Singer, for example) say that intentionally killing infants — subject to parental approval — can be morally right. Still, most people still believe killing a newborn is wrong.
A second problem with this argument: If it were right, then it’s hard to see why it would be wrong to kill someone in a temporary coma. A human being in a coma lacks the immediately exercisable capacity for self-consciousness, although still a human being. The clearest reason why it’s wrong to kill a human in a coma is that he is the same kind of being as you and me: He is an individual with a nature that orients him to having self-consciousness and shaping his life by deliberate choice. But this same point is also true of the unborn human being.
Someone might object that, unlike an unborn human being, the individual in a coma did have self-consciousness in the past. And this being is a person, a bearer of rights, only because of that past self-consciousness, and that is why killing him is wrong. But suppose I had surgery that put me in a coma from which I gradually regained consciousness and knowledge and experience, but none of the memories and skills I possessed before the coma. In other words, I survived but never regained any of my past memories, skills, habits, and so on.
Would it be right to kill me after the surgery while I was in a coma and recovering? Of course not! But that would not be because of my past self-awareness, since all of that is gone forever. Rather, it would be wrong to kill me because it would deprive me of my future as a rational being, a being that, although not now conscious or self-aware, has a nature orienting him to develop to the stage where he will perform all of those distinctive human actions.
The best explanation of why it would be wrong to kill me in such a situation is that I am identical with the thing that eventually will have rational consciousness. So what makes you or me valuable as a subject of rights is the fundamental kind of being (substance, in philosophical language) we are. It’s wrong to kill you or me because we are beings with a rational nature, a nature orienting us to rationality and shaping of ourselves by our choices.
But a human embryo or fetus is the same kind of being as you and me. He or she also is an individual with a rational nature; only, it will take this being some time to actualize his or her rational nature. Another way of putting this is that every human being is a person, using the word “person,” though, to mean (as St. Thomas Aquinas used it) an individual substance with a rational nature.
You and I once were adolescents, before that we were children, before that we were infants, and before that we were fetuses and embryos. And just as it is wrong to kill you or me now, it would have been wrong to kill us when we were adolescents, wrong to kill us when we were infants, and wrong to kill us when were fetuses or embryos.
PATRICK LEE, PH.D., is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.