The Equal Rights of the Unborn - Scott Klusendorf

This week's post is written by Scott Klusendorf, founder and president of Life Training Institute and author of The Case for Life (Crossway: 2009). Scott travels the world helping individuals think through the philosophical case for life and has participated in a number of professional debates on the issue. I (Randy) have known Scott for a decade now and he has served as a bit of a mentor for me as I've been personally involved in this issue. He's been gracious enough to lend his voice here as our second contributor in a conversation about life!

Three decades ago, Carl Sagan wrote a wildly popular piece entitled, “Pro-Life and Pro-Choice” which sought to strike a middle ground on abortion. Sagan’s tone was civil. There is no name-calling. He didn’t poison the well by demonizing his opponents. His case was philosophical, not political.

And yet, despite his laudable tone, his functionalist account of human value severely undermines fundamental equality for all persons.

Many pro-choice advocates agree with the science of embryology—namely, that from conception forward, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. But now a philosophical question presents itself: Does each and every human being have an equal right to life or do only some have it in virtue of some characteristic which may come and go within the course of one’s lifetime?

 If Sagan is correct that having neurological development capable of supporting adult-like brain wave activity bestows value and a right to life, it’s difficult to argue that those with more neurological development shouldn’t have a greater right to life than those with less—born or unborn. After all, development does not end at birth.

 Moreover, Sagan presents no argument as to why adult brain waves patterns bestow value—he merely asserts that this is so. Indeed, later in that same passage, he concedes that his standard is arbitrary! Most troubling, his assertion proves too much. For example, newborns lack adult brain wave patterns which means they are disqualified along with human fetuses. This is Peter Singer’s point and he’s not alone. According to Harvard researchers Conor Liston and Jerome Kagan (Nature, 2002), frontal lobe maturation necessary for supporting memory does not happen in infants until they are almost two-years old!

As to what Sagan means by “characteristically human thinking,” I can only guess. I suppose one could follow David Boonin and argue that it’s not brain waves or memories per se which bestow value, but having desires which are immediately exercisable—which doesn’t happen for the fetus until weeks 28-32. But, contra Boonin, the argument not only disqualifies human fetuses; it disqualifies newborns as well. Having “desires” presupposes belief and judgement, which newborns lack until several weeks after birth. At the same time, a slave can be conditioned not to desire his freedom, but I think we all agree (hopefully) that he’s entitled to it anyway in virtue of his humanity. Or, to borrow an example from Francis J. Beckwith, suppose a scientist surgically alters brain of a developing fetus so it can never desire anything. Five years later, the child is killed so his organs can be harvested to treat disease in others. Given he didn’t desire anything when he was killed, was he harmed? If so, what’s doing the moral work is the nature of the individual human being, not his immediately exercisable desires.

Or, to pick one more characteristic, we could say that consciousness bestows value and a right to life. But, again, why is that value-giving? It sounds ad-hoc to me. And what do we mean by consciousness? That is, do we mean one must be able to immediately exercise it or do we mean something else? As Christopher Kaczor points out, requiring actual consciousness renders us non-persons whenever we sleep. Requiring immediately exercisable consciousness excludes those in surgery. Requiring the basic neural brain structures for consciousness (but not consciousness itself) excludes those whose brains are temporarily damaged. On the other hand, if having a particular nature from which the capacity for consciousness is present makes a being a person—even if one can’t currently exercise that capacity—then those sleeping, in surgery, or temporarily comatose are persons, but so also would be the normal human embryo, fetus, and newborn.


Think, for a moment, about your 10 closest friends. Would you agree that each of them has the same basic rights and that each should be treated equally? But if all of them should be treated equally, there must be some quality they all have equally that justifies that equal treatment. What is that characteristic? As my colleague Steve Wagner notes, “it can’t be that all of us look human, because some have been disfigured. It can’t be that all of us have functional brains, because some are in reversible comas. It can’t be one’s ability to think or feel pain, for some think better than others and some don’t feel any pain. It can’t be something we can gain or lose, or something of which we can have more or less. If something like that grounds rights, equal rights don’t exist. And if we look at the whole population of America, almost 300 million people, there is only one quality we all have equally—we’re all human. We have a human nature and we all have it equally. You either have it or you don’t.”

Indeed, why are sexism and racism wrong? Isn’t it because they pick out a surface difference (gender or skin color) and ignore the underlying similarity all of us share? Steve is right: We should treat women and men, African-Americans and Whites, as equals and protect them from discrimination. Why? Because they all have a human nature. But if the unborn also has that same human nature, shouldn’t we protect her as well?

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