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  • Paul Stark

The worth of a human being does not depend on the desires or decisions of others

A journalist once asked Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, when she thinks unborn children become valuable.*

"I think every woman has to make her own decision," she said. "I'm the mother of three children. For me, life began when I delivered them. … But that was my own personal, that's my own personal decision."

Richards could have argued that a human embryo or fetus doesn't have rights because of some characteristic of the child (e.g., her immature appearance, her dependency, her inability to perform sophisticated mental functions). But Richards took a different tack. She said the worth of the unborn is a "personal decision" that each pregnant woman makes. The lives of Richards's own children began when she decided they did.

Many others have expressed a similar view. "I think [the status of the unborn is] up to each individual to decide what they believe," says Dawn Laguens, another Planned Parenthood executive. "When does life begin? I submit the answer depends an awful lot on the feeling of the parents," asserts former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.

The late James McMahon, a practitioner of second- and third-trimester abortion, claimed that "the soul or personage comes in when the fetus is accepted by the mother." Étienne-Émile Baulieu, a French doctor who developed the RU486 (mifepristone) abortion drug, declares, "It is up to each person to define whether there is, or is not, a person developing in the uterus. The definition ... may change for each pregnancy." One Presbyterian minister said, "I think someone becomes a person when they are loved."

According to all of these assertions, the value of an unborn child is determined by factors external to that child. It is determined, in particular, by the desires or decisions of someone else. Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen call this the "attribution view": Rights are attributed or bestowed by others.

It's difficult to believe that an idea like this is widely held. But the attribution view is at work, implicitly, in the way many people in our culture talk about the unborn. If unborn children are welcomed into life, they are called babies. If they are the targets of abortion, they are embryos, fetuses, "tissue," or "products of conception."

The attribution view also is enshrined in our current laws relating to human beings in utero. Under Minnesota's fetal homicide law, for example, "Whoever … causes the death of an unborn child with premeditation and with intent to effect the death of the unborn child" is "guilty of murder of an unborn child in the first degree" (Minnesota Statutes 609.2661). But the law makes one exception (as the U.S. Supreme Court's abortion rulings require): "'Whoever' does not include the pregnant woman" (609.266).

If a pregnant woman wants the death of her unborn child, then killing is legal. If the pregnant woman doesn't seek the child's death, then killing her is an act of unjustified homicide. Legal protection of that human being depends entirely on the desires of another person. It has nothing to do with the child herself—it has only to do with how someone else feels about her.

That's the attribution view. So what, exactly, is wrong with it?

The attribution view completely misunderstands what rights actually are. "The thing about moral status," explains Oxford legal philosopher John Finnis, "is ... that it is not a matter of choice or grant or convention, but of recognition." Dignity and rights—as affirmed in such landmark human rights documents as the Declaration of Independence and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights—are inherent in the individuals who have them. They are not conferred by other people; they make demands on other people whether those people like it or not. "[I]t is the very nature of a right, or valid claim upon another, that it cannot be denied, conditionally delayed, or rescinded by more powerful others at their behest," writes feminist scholar Sidney Callahan.

The attribution view, if true, would entail all sorts of absurdities. "What, for example, would be the case if a mother conferred a right to life upon her unborn embryo and a father did not?" ask George and Tollefsen. Can someone have rights and not have rights at the same time? What if a pregnant woman changes her mind about the value of the unborn—does the child transform from non-person to person and back to non-person again?

And what would happen if a woman didn't "accept" or "love" a child, or "decide" or "feel" that she mattered, even after birth? In ancient Greece and Rome, a father or family patriarch often decided whether to "accept" a newborn baby or kill her by exposure.

The attribution view seems to amount to a form of moral relativism. There is no objective fact of the matter about whether someone has basic human rights—about whether, for instance, it is wrong to kill her. It may be wrong for one person and right for another. The permissibility of killing is a "personal decision," Cecile Richards says. Our feelings dictate moral reality.

But no one holds this view consistently. Indeed, Richards and other defenders of abortion think that women have a moral right to abortion regardless of the desires or decisions of others. Women have this right even when legislatures, courts, governors, or presidents say otherwise.

Abortion defenders also, presumably, recognize that workers have a moral right not to be exploited by employers, that women have a right to protection against sexual assault, and that homeless people have a right to life even if they are not "wanted" or "loved" by anyone. None of these rights depend on what other people think or feel or decide.

So nobody holds the attribution view as a general rule. People only hold it with regard to those particular human beings whom they wish to deny protection against lethal violence. The attribution view, in practice, is very selective.

It is an attempt by those who have power to define out of existence the rights of the powerless who have gotten in the way. Richards, in her interview, offered no reasons to justify excluding the unborn from the respect and protection that are owed to every other human being. But she wanted to exclude the unborn. And so she said that we can simply decide that unborn children don't matter.

This is moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of NRL News.


* The question and answer were ambiguously framed, as they often are, in terms of "when life begins." I interpret Richards's answer (and similar statements by other abortion defenders) as concerned with the moral question of when a member of the human species becomes valuable or acquires rights, rather than with the empirical fact of when the life of a human organism begins (which is at fertilization). If Richards meant, instead, to be talking about science, then she would be claiming that each of us gets to make up our own scientific facts.

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