Pro-Life Critique of Mary Anne Warren’s “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” Part 2

Opinion   |   Clinton Wilcox   |   Aug 20, 2013   |   9:39AM   |   Washington, DC

In part one of this examination, I showed that the pro-life position is not logically incoherent in considering the unborn to be human beings, both in the genetic sense and the moral sense. In this article, I’ll examine Warren’s criteria for personhood and show how the unborn certainly qualify.

2. Defining the moral community.

Warren says that it can’t be established that genetic humanity is sufficient for moral humanity. I believe that she is partially correct — what makes someone part of the moral community is not simply the species they belong to. But human beings are much more than their genetics. Being genetically human means that we, the preborn included, have a certain nature. We have an inherent nature as rational, moral agents. It is this inherent nature that makes us a part of the moral community. So it’s not by virtue of their biological species, but the inherent nature of the species they belong to, that makes them part of the moral community.

The problem with this section is that Warren makes absolutely no argument for her position. She claims that it’s self-evident that the unborn are not persons because they don’t perform the functions as persons, but as atheist philosopher Quentin Smith wrote“A principle p is self-evident if and only if everybody who understands p believes p.” It is not self-evident that the unborn are not persons because not everyone agrees with that position. As another famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens, has noted, “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” If this principle holds true, then we have grounds for dismissing Warren’s entire argument.

Warren concedes that she is not going to give an exhaustive view of what a person is, but believes she has come up with five basic criteria that a person should satisfy. She argues that we have no right to assume that genetic humanity is necessary for personhood. This is true, of course, but since all humans are persons, due to their inherent nature, this does mean that genetic humanity is a sufficient condition for personhood. She asks us to imagine a space traveller who encounters an alien race and wants to know if he should act morally toward them and asks what qualities we should look for. But the pro-life position works here, too — if the alien species is an intelligent species with the same inherent nature as rational, moral agents that we are — Klingons or Vulcans of Star Trek lore, for example, then we should act morally toward them and not treat them as a source of food. Looking at the adults of that species will give us an idea of their inherent nature, but we shouldn’t just assume that only those of the alien species who are old enough to exhibit personal qualities are the only ones it would be wrong to kill.

So what are the criteria she suggests a person must fulfill? They are as follows:

1) Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
2) Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
3) Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);
4) The capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on infinitely many possible topics);
5) The presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.

An immediate problem should hit us like a bullet train — if these criteria are necessary, then that would also justify infanticide. Warren recognizes this and subsequently tries to weasel out of it in a postscript added sometime after her essay was published, but we’ll get to that in the last part of this series.

Now I don’t know why she was being so wishy-washy about establishing necessary criteria. She first says that certainly all five don’t need to be present for someone to be a person. (1) and (2) may be sufficient for personhood, or (1) through (3). But another problem presents itself — if you don’t know how many someone would necessarily have to satisfy to be considered a person, how do you know a person must satisfy any of them? Why couldn’t something that doesn’t satisfy any of the criteria be rightly considered a person? Also, if not all of them are necessary, then that means that a being that doesn’t satisfy those conditions can rightly be considered a person for other reasons.

It gets better. She writes, “All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of (1)-(5) is certainly not a person. I consider this claim to be so obvious that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of (1)-(5) was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is — perhaps because he had confused the concept of a person with genetic humanity.” This is sheer intellectual laziness. First, I have already demonstrated why Warren’s claim is not self-evident. Second, rather than actually argue for her claims (what sort of philosopher doesn’t believe she has to support her claims?), she just says “anyone who disagrees with me clearly doesn’t even know what a person is.” This is an attitude that should be relegated to an elementary school playground, not rigorous intellectual discussion.

Pro-life philosopher Stephen Schwartz, in his book The Moral Question of Abortion (Loyola University Press, Chicago, Il., 1990) explains that Warren is confusing being a person with functioning as a person. As Schwartz explains, “Imagine a person in a deep, dreamless sleep. She is not concious, she cannot reason, etc.; she lacks all five of these traits. She is not functioning as a person; that is what being asleep means. But of course she is a person, she retains fully her status of being a person, and killing her while asleep is just as wrong as killing her while she is awake and functioning as a person. Functioning as a person refers to all the activities proper to persons as persons, to thinking in the broadest sense. It includes reasoning, deciding, imagining, talking, experiencing love and beauty, remembering, intending, and much more.”

Schwartz gives an analogy. Imagine two children. One is born comatose and will emerge from his coma after nine years. The second child is born healthy, but as soon as she gains the ability to see herself as a continuing self, she, too, lapses into a coma and will emerge after nine years. If Warren is consistent she would have to say it’s okay to kill the first child for any reason and not the second. But this is absurd. Clearly not being able to function as a person does not disqualify someone from personhood.

Warren ends this section with a discussion of certain humans she does not believe to be persons besides simple healthy fetuses. The entities in question are a man or woman who has had her consciousness permanently obliterated but remains alive, and defective human beings, such as an anencephalic human. However, I believe she is mistaken about this. These two entities are clearly still persons, or at least they differ in relevant ways to healthy fetuses.



First, the man or woman whose consciousness is permanently obliterated. Even if this person is no longer a person, he/she differs from the fetus in a morally relevant way. The fetus does not exhibit personal qualities yet because he is still at the beginning of his life, developing his capacities. The human fetus is more comparable to a person in a reversible coma than to a brain-dead human. So as Schwartz would again argue, the reason we consider brain death the death of the person is because the potentiality to function as a person is irreversibly lost. In the case of the embryo or fetus, the potentiality to function as a person will come.

Second, the severely deformed human. Warren is not clear on what she means by a “defective” human being, but if we’re talking about a child with a disability, then that clearly doesn’t disqualify that child from personhood. But what about the case of a severely deformed human, such as an anencephalic fetus, which is a case in which the brain doesn’t develop fully or at all, and the child will die shortly after birth, if not die in utero? This is a very difficult case for all involved. However, as difficult as this situation is, the fact that someone will live only a short time does not justify killing them. Christopher Kaczor, in The Ethics of Abortion (Routledge, New York, NY, 2011) argues that it is immoral to kill a death row inmate a few days before his date of execution. Since the severely deformed human still has the same intrinsic nature as the rest of us (they just tragically won’t actualize these potentialities), they are still a part of the moral community and we are not permitted to intentionally kill them.

Warren has not even attempted to argue her position. We are now finished with the second section and the pro-life position stands firm. The unborn certainly qualify as persons. In the next section, Warren will try to determine when it can be said that we actually have a right to life.

LifeNews Note: Clinton Wilcox is a member of Secular Pro-Life, where this post originally appeared.