The fantasy of fetal personhood

Most debates about abortion begin from the assumption that the fetus is a more or less isolated entity that can be considered in itself, that it is an individual. We talk about when this entity has “life” in the relevant sense, what its rights are, etc., completely ignoring the distinctive trait of fetal life: that it is radically dependent on, and indeed takes place entirely within, an autonomous human being.

This framing concedes the debate in advance, placing the fetus in the series of other entities with human DNA that were belatedly recognized as being entitled to full human personhood, with the attendant rights. Yet the fetus is not at all like those other human beings, because all of those human beings were, though not fully autonomous or independent of others, at least autonomous and independent in the ways considered to be relevant. The fetus’s situation is radically different — qua fetus, it can never display the requisite autonomy and independence, by definition. Its situation changes radically after birth, when it becomes an individual entity separable from its mother (even if requiring vastly more care or medical intervention than an adult), but as long as it is a fetus, it is not an isolatable individual.

Given the unique situation of the fetus, the only coherent outcome of granting the fetus personhood is to deny the pregnant woman personhood. The fact that misogyny often accompanies pro-life positions is not an unfortunate accident — it is necessarily entailed by the pro-life position. The pro-life position takes an autonomous adult human being and makes her into the unconditional servant of another (ostensible) human being. Hence the fact that the pro-life movement is populated either by misogynists or sentimental people who avoid thinking their position through to the end (as when protestors at abortion clinics can hold up signs declaring “abortion is murder” and yet resist the idea that the woman seeking an abortion should be treated as a murderer).

Only in this perspective can we understand the token gestures toward a rape or incest exception (or Senate candidate Akin’s fantasy, apparently shared with a significant number of people, that pregnancy by definition can never happen in cases of rape): our liberal democratic instincts lead even the most conservative among us to grasp for some sense in which entry into the temporary suspension of full human personhood represented by pregnancy in the pro-life view would be a voluntary choice. Yet we all know that’s not really how it works — pregnancy is never fully predictable, never fully chosen in advance. It always takes us by surprise, at least to some extent, and so it can only be “chosen” in retrospect, “endorsed” after the fact.

Hence the only way to preserve the voluntary nature of pregnancy — a position that even the most retrograde misogynist bigots feel compelled to gesture toward in their own ridiculous and offensive ways — is to give women the option of ending pregnancies once they have begun. If you don’t allow that, if you declare that the human fetus is a person with full human rights, then you are necessarily simultaneously declaring that the pregnant woman is not a full human person.

Including the fetus in the series of human entities granted human rights undermines that series by excluding one of its established members. It is thus by definition a retrogressive position and can never be part of a progressive agenda. To be a liberal democrat committed to human rights always and everywhere entails being committed to abortion rights.

44 thoughts on “The fantasy of fetal personhood

  1. I may deviate slightly, while in reality I think go one further and insist that it is the mother herself who deems when the life of her fetus begins. This, it seems to me, is the element that makes valorizing the woman’s right complex and hard to codify.

  2. When you speak of being “committed to abortion rights” at the end, what do you mean, exactly? It seems to me that, setting aside what makes the news (not to say that these things are unimportant), the bulk of the debate about abortion policy in our country involves incremental disputes over when and how it is appropriate.

    When you make a blanket commitment “to abortion rights” necessary for liberal democrats, do you mean that there should always be a right to have an abortion up until the moment of birth? I’m not trying to be facetious here… it’s just that the only line I see you drawing in this post is the leap to personhood that occurs at birth. And this is a very plausible account of things – at least as much as talk of “viability” as constituting personhood. I just don’t know what that means for what you take to be appropriate commitment to what you call “abortion rights”. Are there any other factors to be taken into account here?

    It’s not a small question, as this lack of consensus is often what fuels the fearmongering of the debate… Republicans who push for tighter restrictions are such as a waiting period, or requiring an ultrasound, or certain standards of consent are, of course, always really pushing for an outright ban on all abortions. Likewise, Democrats who seek to make abortion procedures more accessible through clinics and public funding are, of course, always really just trying to make abortion into an “industry”, up and running as an option until the day of delivery!

    Sometimes these theories are probably true, often they aren’t. My point, though, is that there is a lot to talk about with regard to restrictions, and simply attaching personhood to “birth” (or “conception”) doesn’t answer any of these ambiguities (or, if it does, it does so in a rather monstrous way, as you point out above).

    Also, though this is a more abstract point, I don’t see why “the only coherent outcome of granting the fetus personhood is to deny the pregnant woman personhood”. The sharp either/or you draw is certainly a coherent outcome, but I don’t see why it’s the only one. Can’t we recognize situations where personhood in an extremely symbiotic or parasitic relationship simply creates basic conflicts between the rights of two persons, without saying that it outright “denies” the personhood of one of the parties? You seem to want to make things too clear-cut here… as if we can’t fathom that two persons can exist in a genuinely conflicting situation. If something like that occurs, well, one of them must actually be denying the personhood of another!

  3. Jason, I’m not.

    Evan, In an ideal world, I think we could discuss reasonable regulation of abortion. An example that jumps out is restricting abortion late in the pregnancy, when one could reasonably say that the woman has de facto “endorsed” the fact that she’s pregnant. Such regulations exist in other developed nations, and I don’t think it’s a violation of abortion rights in principle. I also don’t think that criminal laws that treat attacks on women that result in damage to the fetus as particularly heinous necessarily reflect a dehumanization of women.

    The language of “full human personhood” is what poses the stark choice between the pregnant woman or the fetus — that’s not something I’ve arbitrarily chosen or “forced.” Before birth, it would make sense to say that the fetus has legal protections contingent upon the woman’s recognition and acceptance of the pregnancy. It would also make sense to say that “after a certain point,” that recognition and acceptance is irrevocable. Rules along those lines would not constitute “full human personhood” for the fetus, but would correspond to the fetus’s position of radical dependence on the mother. Echoing that biological dependence, the fetus’s qualification for legal protection would depend on the mother as well.

    The problem, as you point out, is that the American situation dictates a stark either-or: either we have unrestricted abortion rights, or we’re on the slippery slope to none at all. I don’t trust our actual-existing political elites to regulate abortion in a sensible way that presupposes that a woman has a right to an abortion — the proposed regulations are always offered in bad faith as far as I can tell. I do, however, trust women’s individual moral judgment to produce outcomes that approximate those that a more sane and less patriarchal society would produce through explicit regulation of abortion.

  4. Jason, Okay, now that I’ve said all that… I don’t think we can talk about “paternal rights” if the presupposition is that the father ever has the right to force the woman to carry the pregnancy to term — to veto her decision to withold recognition and endorsement from the pregnancy. The veto is always in the hands of the person on whom the fetus is biologically dependent. Perhaps someday there will be technology allowing aggrieved prospective fathers to gestate the disputed fetus themselves, but until then, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about “paternal rights.”

  5. I was leaving the issue of paternal rights as an open question, in part because I believe it addresses issues that are tangential to the current discussion. But that itself is a decision, which you also apparently share when you deny the father significant rights in abortion decisions. It does make sense to talk about paternal rights, but my point was to indicate that the issue of when they begin and what they entail is quite different than for maternal rights.

  6. I just finished reading a book called The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, by Emily Martin. It’s from 1987, but all of the trends in it are still salient today, even more so. It’s not about abortion at all, but rather women’s experience of pregnancy, birth, menstruation, menopause and of the medical establishment related to same. And it struck me anew how much the ways in which the medical establishment approaches these issues in its dealings with women is from a basically pro-life perspective. It’s even worse now. But it could be argued that the structural metaphors of mechanical production which basically infuse all of these issues, inexorably lead to various versions of a pro-life logic.

    (This is one of the many reasons why I’ve concluded that feminism, logically, must be anti-capitalist, and anti-capitalism, in order to have any liberatory meaning whatsoever, must be intensely feminist–in the sense of women, collectively, having control over all aspects of biological reproduction.)

  7. I’ve been thinking about this topic fairly recently as well. However, I think that encouraging ‘abortion rights’ and other forms of ‘planned parenthood’ is the only way to actually be pro-life because only the planning, willing, and acceptance of pregnancy is the only way to treat ‘fetal personhood’ as ‘sacred’ through the process of humanising the inhuman even before conception. I have in mind couples who have problems with infertility (though also other couples) that actively want a pregnancy but are unable to; they have, in my opinion, already made the unborn — and unconceived — into human persons. I think the only way this kind of ‘pro-life’ idea can only be fostered by treating pregnancy as an STI with the necessary training and mindset of preventing it until one is ‘really ready’.

  8. Yet the fetus is not at all like those other human beings, because all of those human beings were, though not fully autonomous or independent of others, at least autonomous and independent in the ways considered to be relevant.

    … by some. Other people think other ways are relevant.

    Many of the ways in which a fetus is non-autonomous and dependent can be simulated by sufficiently advanced illness (not being physically inside another person, of course).

  9. For instance, a friend of mine thinks—how seriously I’ve never been able to determine—that being able to provide for oneself is the relevant sense of autonomy and independence, and that until a child is relatively financially independent of its parents, the parents should be allowed to kill it with impunity. Others, familiarly, think that the relevant sense of autonomy is more biological—got its own beating heart? Done deal! You can’t resist the framing you object to just by pointing to what “we” consider to be relevant.

    Given the unique situation of the fetus, the only coherent outcome of granting the fetus personhood is to deny the pregnant woman personhood.

    What is denied the pregnant woman, such that she is denied personhood? I mean: what gets into “person” for the purposes of this position?

  10. Ben, Stupid opinions like your friends’ detract from my argument. I’m talking about publically recognized rights, not the sum of every individual’s opinions. The “we” is the big Other, not the agglomeration of all individuals.

    I think it’s evident from my argument what gets into “person.”

  11. I’m talking about publically recognized rights, not the sum of every individual’s opinions

    But what rights to recognize is precisely what’s at issue! My friend’s opinion is stupid, and also the opinion of those who think that having a heart is all it takes is, I think, stupid, but at least in the latter case there is a sizeable number of people who think that’s right, and I don’t think the response “the conception of autonomy for which you’re agitating is not the publicly recognized conception of autonomy” cuts much ice.

    I think it’s evident from my argument what gets into “person.”

    Help me out? Is a fetus a person, and a pregnant woman not, because the claims of justice attach to the former and not the latter (in particular the claim against being deprived of life)? Because the former, but not the latter, has the right to do what it wants to its own body? (In California I don’t have the right to put nitrous oxide in my body.) Because the former, but the latter, is autonomous and independent? But I don’t see how the latter isn’t autonomous and independent, unless because of a claim of the former not to be deprived of its life, and even there, the conclusion doesn’t follow immediately, that I can see.

  12. Ben, The whole point of my argument is that to extend the rights of an autonomous human person to a fetus is to undermine already recognized forms of human personhood. The fact that people are agitating for other forms of recognition doesn’t matter.

    Just read the Thomas article.

  13. The whole point of my argument is that to extend the rights of an autonomous human person to a fetus is to undermine already recognized forms of human personhood

    You say undermine, I say change. Maybe it does change already recognized forms of personhood—why is that an argument? Is it supposed to be by modus tollens? (If extension of rights to fetus, then not current forms of personhood. But current forms of personhood. Therefore not extension.) But to whom is the argument addressed? Those who agree with the minor premise don’t need an argument addressed to them at all—or anyway not that argument—and those whom we would like to accept the conclusion don’t agree with the minor premise.

    I have both read and taught (as a TA) the Thomson article.

    A better attempt: a “full human person” is an end in herself. Being forced to serve as the means of survival of another (ostensible) person abrogates your personhood.

    Whether treating the fetus as an end in itself would force the pregnant woman to treat herself as a mere means strikes me as a casuistic question which cannot be answered simply by noting that the one is an end. (And why does it have to shake out that way? Why doesn’t the end-ness of the pregnant woman abrogate the personhood of the fetus?)

  14. In international and comparative constitutional law, prior to birth, even if the zygote, the embryo and later on the fetus are objects worthy of gradual protections, but that does not equate to being a rights-holder.

  15. legal treatment of the ‘fetus’ and its ‘personhood’ is ambiguous at best. in some jurisdiction an assault/injury caused to a pregnant woman resulting in the death of the child (whether that death occurs prior to birth, or after delivery, the injury being the proximate cause of death) constitutes homicide. see MA v. Cass, the court deciding that the death of an 8-month old fetus due to injuries suffered in an automobile accident, constituted vehicular homicide. and these magic words from the court: “An offspring of human parents cannot reasonably be considered to be other than a human being, and therefore a person, first within, and then in normal course outside, the womb.” the court never touched the delicate issue of abortion directly in its decision. this ruling directly contradicted hundreds of years of english common law that held that the death of a fetus could not be classified as a homicide (the rationale apparently being the inability of then-existing medical science to accurately sort out the cause of death. or so the court summarized.)

  16. Wait, what’s an “autonomous” human being? One that can produce its own energy? One that can live outside of any social contact? There is no such thing as an “autonomous” human being in the sense that you mean – we are dependent on larger social/political/relational structures that allow for our species to survive. The “autonomous modern person” is already wrapped up in the womb of the political structures that allow any semblance of order to a system that would naturally devolve in to an animal-like state. And we don’t assume animals are “autonomous” – hence the reason we slaughter them and use them for food, production, and resources.

    This idea that a woman is somehow “independent” is right up to a point – sure – she can certainly make decisions within certain structures, but she certainly can’t control the fabric of the social/linguistic order on her own (obviously nor can the man). The personhood of a fetus is the same, no less a person by kind, but only of degree. The fetus can do less, but the same goes for those who are handicapped, disabled, or mentally ill. Are they less a person because they are less autonomous? Obviously not, that’s a contemptuous, vile idea.

    Obviously I’m rejecting the premise that any of us (male or female) are meaningfully autonomous to the extent that we obtain personhood – or, to put it another way, autonomy is no measure of personhood because the the human species is inherently and utterly dependent by nature.

    I guess I can’t see why Others must “confer” personhood upon others, as if to Christen them into the human race Proper (indeed, this idea of personhood “beginning” at some point actually sounds like a kind of pseudo-Christian one.)

  17. “A better attempt: a “full human person” is an end in herself. Being forced to serve as the means of survival of another (ostensible) person abrogates your personhood.”

    So is being drafted into the military an abrogation of personhood? What about being taxed to pay for said military, or for the healthcare of violinists with kidney diseases? That is also a limit on your freedom for the sake of the survival of another. This principle seems clearly too strong, as stated.

    (FWIW, Fichte held both that persons are ends in themselves and that there is an unconditional moral duty to die if it saves someone else: you are morally obligated to jump on grenades. Being a moral person does not mean doing what is best for one’s own life only.)

  18. Aric, I already anticipated your objection.

    Daniel, Involuntary servitude to a particular private individual (the fetus) is vastly different from involuntary conscription to serve society as a whole. Similar with taxes.

  19. Adam, so you are saying that it’s OK to be involuntarily conscripted to serve the powers of Caesar, but not to serve a weak and helpless being who depends on you? And you call this a Christian position? Your argument strikes me as nothing more than assertion–the fundamental, dehumanizing assertion that lies behind the prochoice position, which is that the personhood of the mother and the personhood of the fetus are mutually exclusive. This assumes that personhood is synonymous with autonomy. Quod gratis asseritur gratis negatur. It isn’t.

  20. I suppose an equally shrill response might be that anyone who makes autonomy paradigmatic for the human condition and regards obligations to the dependent as inimical to human freedom regards not only the young but the disabled, the indigent, and the otherwise disadvantages as sub-human (as opposed, since we are so readily ascribing prejudice, to able bodied and privileged white males), and necessarily believes that imposing any obligation on the able and privileged to provide in whatever way for the dependent renders them slaves and therefore supports political platforms that neglect the needy and favor the strong. Kotsko the Randian.

    But perhaps political discourse needs something more than wild mischaracterization, the imputation of either prejudice or ignorance of the contents of one’s own beliefs, careful consideration of the arguments of others, and disciplined argument. That is, perhaps we need not only to rise above Rand’s putrid anthropology but also her boorish and reckless argumentative tactics.

  21. I said that conscription into the army is different, not that I support it.

    Overall, I’m arguing within liberal terms because we live in a liberal political order. It doesn’t imply total acceptance or non-criticism of every aspect of a liberal political order!

    It would have way more credibility if an actual woman showed up and said I was being horrible — the men who are objecting don’t really seem to have much “skin in the game.” This is where the all-male comment thread becomes truly creepy.

  22. Not exactly; I was trying to imagine a response equally shrill to your accusation. I do think that the idea that the conflation of imposed responsibility for those who are depended on us with servitude is, well, exactly how Rand understood the relation between freedom and responsibility, and the association of dependency with the sub-human likewise is central to her thought. Does anyone deny that?

    I think the similarity with Rand is actually much stronger with the style of the post. Arguments that proceed by insult, by addressing only the weakest form of an argument, by wildly imputing views to others that they do not hold and then asserting that any denial of these views could result only from one’s stupidity rather than principle … all of this is the Randian method par excellence.

  23. I suppose I thought the post was inspired by Rand, given its similarities.

    Anyway, this is the first I’ve heard that noting the resemblances between a blogger and a famous political theorist counts as a personal insult. I’d think that rather than be insulted, you would attempt to distinguish your views from hers.

  24. “Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living: the right of young people to set the course of their own lives.” Ayn Rand.

  25. Adam, you appear to be confusing someone pointing out some unflattering implications of your position with someone making personal insults. The former is not in violation of the comment policy is it?

  26. I didn’t say we should kill all babies. I didn’t say that women should never choose to take care of children. I didn’t base my position on any of Rand’s logic, and it’s obvious to me that Thomas is trying a guilt-by-association, ad hominem attack — and pulling it off in a really passive-aggressive way (“You should be happy to agree with such a famous person!”).

    People are in violation of the comment policy when I say they are. I do not want Thomas to comment any more in this thread, nor do I want anyone to discuss the matter further. Any comments defending Thomas or comparing me to Ayn Rand will be deleted, no matter who makes them.

  27. The only way this thread has any hope of becoming interesting is if a woman would weigh in, but I doubt this thread strikes any woman as a welcoming environment. So comments are closed.

Comments are closed.