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Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 4

Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 4


Jan 29, 2008 / By: Jeffrey Jones
Category: Abortion Arguments

In this post we will explain another of the conception criteria arguments discussed by Boonin (A Defense of Abortion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003): the species essence argument (23-25). The species essence argument is Boonin's label of Stephen Schwarz's argument for the protection of fetal life based upon the notion that human beings (including fetuses) are persons (in his The Moral Question of Abortion, 1990). The argument runs as follows: the essential property of every human being is that it has the capacity to function as a person. And, a person is "a being who has the inherent capacity for thinking in the broadest sense regardless of how developed or blocked it is" (23). According to Schwarz, "[we] respect and value humans, . . . because it is the nature of the human being to be a person." Thus, if having the capacity to function as a person (i.e., to think) confers upon such a one a right to life (no matter how developed or blocked this capacity is), then being a member of the homo sapiens species ensures this right - because it is the essence every human being to have this capacity. This means that even though a fetus may not have yet developed the capacity to function as a person, it is still a person nonetheless since the capacity for functioning as such is there.

Boonin argues against the above line of thought by pointing out (what he sees as) two fundamental problems. First, Boonin argues that the claim that every member of the homo sapiens species has the capacity to function as a person is false. He points out that some human fetuses have such deformities that they will never develop a brain capable of thought. He concedes that this lack of capacity for thought could be described as "blocked," but then ponders why a spider cannot qualify for personhood. That is, is not a spider simply a person whose capacity for personhood is blocked by the fact that he will never have a large enough brain? Additionally, he points out that some human beings permanently lose their ability to think through brain damage. Does this mean that they were once persons but now are not? Boonin's point is that, even if the ability to function as a person suffices for having the right to life, it is not the case that being a human is sufficient criteria for being a person (according to Schwarz's criteria). Since some humans lack the capacity for thought, it shows that this cannot be the "essence" of the human species and therefore it is a mistake to make the capacity for thought something that is morally relevant.

Second, Boonin argues that the species essence argument rests on the claim that having the capacity to do something later (i.e., to think) imposes moral limitations on how one is treated now. His point is that even if we can find moral significance within one's future potential (in this case, the potential a fetus has for thought), this only shows that a fetus has the right to life because of its capacities and not because of its species membership. All this for Boonin entails a rejection of the species essence argument.

To review, the species essence argument claims that the essence of every human being is the ability to function as a person, which refers to thinking in the broadest sense regardless of how developed or blocked it is. Being a person is sufficient for having a right to life. Since a fetus is a human being with the capacity to function as a person, it has a right to life. What Boonin attempts is to show that the "capacity to function as a person" is not the essence of being human and therefore the species essence argument cannot be used to protect fetal life. He argues that since some fetuses will never have the capacity for thinking and some adults lose the capacity (both of which are human), "functioning as a person" cannot be the essence of being human.

Without commenting on the strength of the species essence argument, I do not think Boonin has successfully shown it to be false. Boonin has not sufficiently dealt with the claim that functioning as a person entails "thinking in the broadest sense regardless of how developed or blocked it is." First, Boonin brings up the thinking capacity of deformed fetuses, spiders, and brain-damaged adults. However, as it seems to me, he only deals with their potential for thought in terms of rational thinking. I'm not sure that rational thinking alone covers "thinking in the broadest sense." Though certain individuals may have a hindered capacity for rational thought, does this rule out every form of thinking? Second, Boonin seems to insufficiently deal with the qualification "regardless of how developed or blocked it is." Later in this chapter Boonin will utilize concepts such as one's "potential, ideal desire," but in his critique of the species essence argument here, he is unwilling to speak of personhood in terms of the potential of a fetus to develop a capacity for thought in an ideal situation. Thus, on these grounds, I would critique Boonin. Now however, lets hear from you: Is the species essence argument a good one? Should the idea of personhood or the capacity to "function as a person" come into play in the abortion debate? How would you define "person"?

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