Plumb Lines

March 18, 2009

Abortion and Being Human

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:22 am

Freddie has a characteristically anguished (and honest) post about abortion up at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. He writes that the arc of American liberalism is to extend human rights to ever broader groups of individuals. I think he’s right, and whether that arc is a good one or not, American liberals — good old-fashioned big-D Democrats — ought to be pro-life. Of course, the problem with giving fetuses a right to life is that you are diminishing the autonomy of women. This is why abortion is such a torturous issue, or should be, for liberals. Broadening human rights and maximizing autonomy are both cherished liberal ideals, and in the case of abortion there really is a zero-sum conflict between them.

One of his commenters makes an often heard but false claim:

It is worth pointing out, in such discussions, that if humanness (in the mere biological sense) is sufficient for rights, then every single cell in a human body has such rights — including malignant cancer cells.

It should be clear that something different is meant when you call a person “human” and when you call a human skin cell “human” even without delving into the unpleasant details about the set properties of the predicate. You can say of a newly fertilized egg, for instance, that it has a particular mother and father and a particular predisposition to develop Alzheimer’s. In short, it is a human, a member of the human species. While skin cells are “human” in some sense, they are not in any sense members of the human species. Being a human being does not necessarily mean you get human rights, of course — perhaps you can be a human being but not a person, which is what pro-choicers generally say about embryos and fetuses — but any particular human cell is not a human, as an embryo is.

David Schaengold



  1. It is important to make this clarification, David. This error was at the heart of the exchange between Robby George / Pat Lee and Lee Silver. George’s article addressing this precise question can be found over at NRO:

    Comment by P. Langdale Hough — March 18, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  2. It is possible that some people’s concern with the outlawing of abortion on the grounds of an extension of the meaning, and rights understood to belong to a, “human,” are not so much ethical, but legal. I apologize in advance if these appear to be silly re-hashed arguments.
    At what point, if the government has the mandate to “protect” these “humans” from “murder,” will the government cross a line? If humanity begins at conception, the fetus must be considered an infant of some sort. (Unless you propose the drafting of an entirely new set of laws which deal only with weeks 0.1 to 27 or thereabouts) If this is so, can a state mandate pre-natal vitamins, exercise, etc., and legally prohibit smoking, driving, jumping too much, or skydiving to a pregnant (between weeks 0.1 and 27ish) woman? There are a possible 3 to 4 weeks minimum when a woman could be carrying a little human and abusing the hell out of him (neuter pronoun for all you who would protest). Some might say that this is an excuse for moderation and self-control at all times, but screw them. If humanity truly begins when the egg and the sperm get together and decide to give it the old college try, most forms of chemical birth control are absolute murder, as intent and planning are definitely present. These seem to be silly scenarios, but not impossible.

    While previously birth on the land (officially) owned by the USA has been one requisite for citizenship, what about conception? Could a German couple honeymooning in Hawaii produce, by virtue of passion, the next little Ger-merican?

    My intent here is not to insult, or mock, but to raise an issue which I have not yet heard discussed in the trench warfare of the anti-life/anti-choice war.

    Comment by zach — March 18, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

  3. whoops. read some other blogs. the arguments are out there.

    Comment by zach — March 18, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  4. This is a good point about conception and citizenship. Citizenship begins unquestionably at birth, and I think if there’s a pro-choice legal argument to be made, this is it. Even if the fetus is a human being, it is not a social human being. It has only one relationship. Since it does not participate in human plurality, it a purely apolitical being who cannot call on the state to protect its claim to, say, life.

    Birth control doesn’t generally work that way, as I understand. The chance of chemical birth control preventing implantation in any potential pregnancy is quite low.

    The point about mandating prenatal vitamins has indeed been made before, as you point out, but the absurdity of this kind of law isn’t as scandalous to pro-lifers as some think it should be. We all recognize that our obligations to persons depend on what kind of persons they are, what our relationship to them is, etc., and that’s before the state even gets involved. It does seem clear that we are obliged to all persons not to take their lives by violence, with very few exceptions.

    Comment by David Schaengold — March 18, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

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