On this blog I deal with topics of debate, points of contention as the title suggest, and there is perhaps no point of greater contention than the point at which developing reproductive matter counts as a new person. Determining this moment is fulcrum upon which most of the Abortion debate teeters. It has long ago been decided that women have the right to abort their pregnancies. Anti-Abortion champions, having lost that battle, have launched the same attack from a different angle. Since they can’t protect pregnancies, they attempt to define any stage of pregnancy as a person. A person has rights. A person can be protected. For many of the sanguine defenders of fetal freedoms person, life, and the right to it starts at conception, when first the egg is fertilized.
I will admit that the point at which reproductive material becomes a person is difficult to define, and a fetus mere days away from birth is, developmentally speaking, an infant. Despite the fact that I find birth an insufficient starting point for identity, assigning personhood to a fertilized egg is inconsistent, impractical, and indefensible. I have made the case elsewhere that personhood ought to be assigned at the point that the developing fetus has consciousness, but I will not make that case here. I wish only to demonstrate why the proposition that personhood be granted to a fertilized egg must be rejected.
Why should we grant personhood to a fertilized egg? The answer you will most often here is that at this point there is potential for human life, and that potential ought to be respected and granted dignity in the form of a right to life.
I am afraid this is inconsistent for a number of reasons. If we value potential to create human life then why stop at the fertilized egg? This line is completely arbitrary. A fertilized egg has the potential for human life sure, but only if it is supplied with the materials and environment it needs. On its own a fertilized egg has no potential at all. New cells, organs, and bones require material to build, that material comes from the mother, and without it a fertilized egg has no potential at all. The same could be said for individual eggs and sperm. A sperm has the potential to create a human life if supplied with the material and environment it needs, namely a fertile egg. Eggs have the potential to create life is supplied with the sperm they require. If we value unrealized potential as human life then any ovulation that is not seized upon to reproduce is criminal neglect, and handjobs, as they say, are genocide.
There are still other reasons why a fertilized egg cannot qualify for protection as a person. Identity cannot be assigned to a fertilized egg. I owe this next example greatly to the commentators on the Reasonable Doubts Podcast, who gave an excellent presentation on this in their episode on Bioethics. I would recommend looking them up on iTunes.
Identical twins occur when an embryo, early in its development before any of the cells are specified, splits in half. If we assign personhood at conception then let us call the fertilized egg Mary. Mary develops as a normal zygote for a week or two and then splits. Do we now have two persons? When these zygotes split there is no “original” zygote left, there are two new ones. So if we say we now have two persons, we can’t very well call them both Mary unless we say they share the same personhood. If we say the addition of a new embryo means a new person, then we must conceded that we now have two new persons. In this case what happened to Mary? Did Mary die? This example shows how absurd it is to assign personhood to a clump of cells that do not yet have any specification.
Even if we could reasonably state that a fertilized egg qualifies for personhood, the social implications are dramatic. A large portion of pregnancies spontaneously abort. It is possible that a mother might not know she is pregnant, and her normal daily activities cause the pregnancy to abort when, had she been aware and under medical care, the development may have continued. Should we charge women who spontaneously abort with criminal neglect? What about couples that undergo artificial fertilization? Not all of the resulting fertilized eggs implant or are even necessarily used. Should we charge the doctors with murder and the parents with conspiracy to commit murder?
It is clear that fertilized eggs are almost impossible to assign personhood to, and even if some form of philosophical gymnastics managed to make the case with consistency, the social implications of protecting that personhood are abominable. The exact point at which an embryo becomes a person is still unclear, but what is clear is that conception is a poor point at which to assign that quality.