THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 173, May 13, 2002
YOU'RE ON MY LIST
Abortion: Pro-Choice (Conclusion)
by William Westmiller
Exclusive to TLE
To some degree, the issue is already settled: in law, in medicine, in ethics, even in public opinion, abortion is not murder. The debate has already been won, so why argue the petty and abstract details? Because the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Whether the issue is abortion or gun rights or privacy or drugs, they all boil down to basic beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. The choice is always to think, or avoid thinking, about the fundamental principles of good and bad. That's philosophy. Like it or not, those very abstract ideas about life and humanity will eventually determine whether you have any rights at all.
I won't regurgitate each argument for choice that has been the topic of this debate. The arguments: whether dandruff is human, or abortion bans are slavery, or rights are dispensed by government, all follow from the critical issue of whether people are uniquely people.
The premise that people are unique and special is under assault by "animal rights" and "fetal rights" advocates every day. It's important to understand that they are challenging the basic idea of humanity and the fundamental principles of human existence. Win that debate and you win all the other issues of individual human liberty.
Here's the issue: are human beings - persons - unique?
My opponent suggests that this is merely a biological question: whether human beings are "complete physical organisms" from conception. But, that can't be true ... unless it's also true for every cell with human DNA.
Many of those who support Roe also cling to the purely physical attribute of viability. But the thing that makes homo sapiens unique is sapience: the capacity for reason; the ability to think in abstracts; to reflect with wisdom and apply new knowledge to an uncertain future.
My opponent suggests that "An infant is not yet capable of forming abstract concepts, applying logic, or otherwise using reason." I disagree, and every parent is in awe of the ability of a newborn to understand cause and effect within moments of birth. An infant promptly recognizes that it is a distinct being, independent of all the other things in existence. It develops relationships, expresses glee or anger at pleasure or discomfort, and begins to explore and test its place in the world.
Human birth is a seminal event: everything changes. The potential for distinctly human acts is realized and the fetus gains the independent capacity for rational thought, becoming an individual. Only at birth does a fetus gain the physical capacity for independent survival; it is no longer a "parasitic" part of the mother. The newborn child begins to acquire the raw sensory materials for integration, abstraction and formation of concepts. The manipulation of these concepts -- reason -- is now within its mental capacity. The potential for human personhood only becomes reality at birth.
Mr. Antle is correct, that "the full capacities of these systems are not utilized at birth," but it is not the *utilization* of reason that defines human beings, it's the *capacity* for reason. No person is totally focused on a complete understanding of anything for very long and nearly every human chooses to suspend consciousness nearly every night. But, whether exercised or not, the capacity is still there. Capacity is an on-off switch: it's either there or it isn't. The exercise of a capacity is a matter of quantity, but the capacity itself is a matter of quality.
The same applies to all those who have diminished capacity. Having any capacity is sufficient and the law ought to presume that a person retains some intellectual capacity until it can be proven otherwise. Every day, physicians make that judgment and the law accepts their finding as conclusive. It's called death.
Once we have established a capacity for reason, we can properly classify the being as a person. Only a person has rights -- proper claims -- to its own life. No other living thing, plant or animal, has any capacity -- much less grounds -- for claiming any rights. We may choose to be "humane" in killing an animal, not because the animal is human, but because humans ought not relish the infliction of pain and suffering. We have no such qualms about broccoli.
"Consider what person stands for; which, I think, is a thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection." -- John Locke
Mr. Antle wonders whether a right that isn't exercised actually exists: "Can a newly born infant actually exercise rights to free speech or to keep and bear arms?" Again, the issue is not whether a right is exercised, but whether it can be asserted as a just claim. This is an ethical assertion; it is not a test of physical strength or vocal aptitude. A person who is mute has the right to speech without coercive restraint - in spite of the fact that he cannot actually exercise that right verbally. A right is neither an obligation nor a statement of ability, but only a meritorious claim to exercise self- ownership.
What this all boils down to is a simple assertion: only people have rights because only human beings have the capacity for reason. Not the potential ability, not the physical ability, not in varying degrees, but by the very nature of their being individual, self-sustaining, living human beings.
Flakes of dandruff, sperm cells, fertilized eggs, zygotes, and fetuses are not human beings, they are not persons, they have no justified claim to life, or liberty, or property, or the pursuit of happiness. Those rights belong to every human being and cannot be justly compromised by any other person, animal, plant or thing... including government. Requiring involuntary servitude of one person for the benefit of another is slavery. Coercing a woman into slavery on behalf of a "potential person" is even more repulsive than coercing her into slavery to a real person.
My preference is that every human child be wanted, nurtured, loved and cherished. Birth control and abortion are perfectly ethical and frequently wise choices toward that objective. Those choices belong to the pregnant woman, not to any other person or potential person.
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