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Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion – Part 9

Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion – Part 9


Apr 17, 2008 / By: Jeffrey Jones
Category: Abortion Arguments

In this post we will look at one of three more arguments used in favor of protecting human life from conception, which Boonin calls “The Essential Property Argument” (49-56). This argument is closely linked to the one we looked at in Part 8, as it has to do with the potential a zygote has to become an adult. That is, since zygotes eventually become adult human beings and an adult was the very same person he was when a zygote, the adult and his former zygote self should have the same right to life. Put in philosophically language:

P1: I am the same individual being as the zygote from which I developed.
P2: I am a person essentially.
P3: If an individual being has an essential property at one point in time, then it has that property at every point in its existence.
C: The zygote from which I developed was a person.

Boonin thinks that the validity of the argument largely depends on how we define the word “person” in P2. He gives two options: a person is (1) “a biological organism that is a member of the species homo sapiens” (this is actually the dictionary definition) or (2) “an individual with the same right to life as you or I.” If we go with option (1), Boonin thinks the argument would certainly be valid, but would only prove that the zygote is biologically human. And this, he thinks, does not prove anything that is morally significant (since he has already shown that species membership by itself does not guarantee right to life). If we go with option (2), it would mean that “having a right to life” is an essential property for every human being and no one could be without it, without also ceasing to be a person. Boonin thinks that this cannot be an essential property for personhood. He brings up the examples of the irreversibly comatose individual and the capital felon, who do not uncontroversially have a right to life. Therefore, since we cannot clearly prove every human to have the “right to life” as an essential property of personhood, the argument cannot be used to protect the zygote either. In other words, personhood as defined as “individual with a right to life” is not an essential property of a human being. Taking the right away would not make someone any less a person or any less human.

Boonin does give us a challenge here. He challenges us to give solid reasons for why membership in the human species should guarantee a right to life. We pro-lifers often think that by simply pointing out the fact that a fertilized egg is biologically human, we automatically win the debate. But is this enough? Many defenders of abortion are happy to acknowledge that a fertilized egg is a genetically distinct human being, but want to know what that means concerning our moral standpoint toward it.

To say something about all this, I would first point out that the dictionary defines person as “a human being,” as in option (1) above. And this at least means, according to Boonin, we are safe to assume that a zygote is essentially a person, a biological human being. Or, if you like, Dr. Seuss is also right: “a person’s a person no matter how small.” Second, since Boonin does not believe that “being human” is morally significant, I would want to ask him why he puts the burden on me to prove that it is. Why should have to justify the belief that I shouldn’t kill a person? Shouldn’t the one who thinks it permissible to kill a person be the one who has to justify his belief? I think my belief, at least, is the safest default position.

In any case, I should say something concerning the belief that “being human” guarantees a “right to life.” To begin, if we are going to talk about “rights” we have to talk about where “rights” come from. Do they come from the government? Are they inherent? And who says? For me personally, I don’t know how else to think about these questions except as a Christian. And I therefore believe the “right to life” ultimately comes from God. He grants the right to live or not live, and as Christians, we should, for the most part leave, leave the decisions to take life or not take life up to God. But, whatever we think about where rights come from, I think it is actually better to abandon the use of “rights” language and instead start talking about “responsibility.” I do not know if any conceived child will be carried to term or how long it will live outside the womb, the child could miscarry, be still born, or die in a tragic accident later in life – those decisions are out of my hands and in God’s. What I do know is that I am responsible to love and care for every human being, as God himself does. As Christians we cannot put limitations on who we are morally obligated to love – we are to love even our enemies. And the reason for this is that all human being are made in God’s image, no matter what their size, their race, their past, their age, their stage of development, etc. I do not know how long a life God will grant any given person, but I do know I have a responsibility to love every person, i.e., every human being


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