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  • Paul Stark

Do unborn humans have rights? Appearance, ability, and attitude don't justify lethal discrimination

Human infants are inconvenient, expensive, and life-changing. But almost everyone agrees that we may not kill them. Many people do, however, think that we may kill and discard human embryos and fetuses for those very reasons.

What's the difference? Most abortion supporters don't think human beings in utero are as important as infants (though many hold their position at least partly on other grounds, such as bodily autonomy). Unborn children, according to this view, don't have the same value or deserve the same respect. They aren't "persons" who have human rights—such as the right not to be intentionally killed.

"The aborted fetus is not a person," writes Amy Littlefield, a journalist and former abortion center counselor. "It is not a baby. It is medical waste." Willie Parker, a prominent abortion practitioner, acknowledges that "abortion kills a human being" but says "if I thought I was killing a person, I wouldn't do abortions. A fetus is not a person."

What accounts for this huge moral difference between born and unborn members of our species? Why might someone think unborn children are expendable? Why don't they have rights?

Here are three main reasons for the view that unborn human beings aren't persons—and why these differences cannot justify lethal discrimination.


Unborn children, at their very earliest stages, don't really look like us. Young embryos are tiny and lack many characteristically "human" features. That can make it hard to regard them the same way we regard older human beings. Even many people who oppose the killing of 20-week-old fetuses have little objection to the destruction of embryos in the earliest weeks through abortion or for the purpose of biomedical research.

"People treat as human that which appears to be human," writes the late Harvard professor James Q. Wilson, a defender of abortion early in pregnancy. He offers this thought experiment:

Imagine a room on the walls of which are arrayed, in chronological order, exact color photographs of the human embryo, suitably enlarged, from first fertilization, through early cell divisions and implantation, through the emergence of various human, or human-like, features, and on to the complete fetus the day before normal delivery. ... Suppose we then ask a variety of people … to examine these photographs and to tell us in which one … they first see what appears to be "a baby." Having examined such pictures, most people, I speculate, would select those that represent life at around seven to nine weeks after conception.

Some people, Wilson acknowledges, may find that the unborn child looks like "a baby" even earlier than seven weeks. His claim, though, is that "it is precisely the degree of resemblance between a fetus and an infant that is of moral significance."

Appearances can illuminate reality and awaken moral intuitions. But they're also a notoriously unreliable guide for determining how to treat others. If resemblance to a prototypical person makes someone valuable, then Nick Vujicic—who has no arms or legs—is less valuable than most people. So was Joseph Merrick, the so-called "Elephant Man" with severe deformities that rendered him a "freak show" attraction. Many cultures have thought less of ethnic groups whose skin color (among other aspects of appearance) bore little similarity to their own.

Do human rights vary according to a human being's "degree of resemblance" to whatever we take to be the standard? Would Nick Vujicic count more if he had one or two limbs rather than none? Abraham Lincoln quipped that if light skin color entails superior value, as many Americans of his time believed, then "by this rule, you are a slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own."

The truth is that appearance, in itself, is morally irrelevant. That's why, to avoid serious injustice, we must see beyond it. Young unborn children may not look "human" to us, but they look exactly the way human beings are supposed to look at the embryonic stage of life. Each of us once looked like them—because each of us once was one of them. That's the reality of human developmental biology.

Surface differences like color, shape, and size can prevent us from seeing that in the most important respect we are the same. We are all human. And that's what matters.


Unborn children don't have rights, many people think, because they lack certain abilities. They are younger, less developed, and more dependent than us. They can't think or feel the way we do.

"[G]ranting that the fetus is a living human being does not resolve the question of whether it is wrong to kill it," writes Princeton ethicist Peter Singer. Although unborn children are human beings, Singer says, they generally lack "morally relevant characteristics" like "rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain and so on."

This kind of criteria might exclude unborn children, but it excludes others as well. Suppose that a lack of dependence on someone else makes human beings worthy of protection, as the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested. That standard excludes conjoined twins who are "non-viable" apart from the body of the other. Suppose that higher mental functions like self-awareness or rationality are necessary in order to have rights. That standard could exclude patients in temporary comas, people with advanced dementia, and people with severe mental disabilities. And it also excludes human infants.

"A week-old baby is not a rational and self-aware being," explains Singer, who, like a number of other leading pro-choice thinkers, defends infanticide in many cases. "If … the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either."

But this view doesn't just exclude vulnerable people from protection—it also undermines the equality of all of us. After all, we don't have equal abilities. None of us function exactly the same. Some are more intelligent and self-aware and some are less intelligent and self-aware. Some depend entirely on the support of caregivers while some need very little help from others.

If ability confers value, then human beings with greater ability are more valuable than human beings with lesser ability. We should, therefore, "abandon the idea of the equal value of all humans," says Singer, "replacing that with a more graduated view in which moral status depends on some aspects of cognitive ability."

These are the troubling implications of the idea that ability determines whether someone counts as a person. It's an idea that, as philosopher Stephen Schwarz explains, confuses functioning as a person with being a person. All human beings are persons because they have an inherent capacity to think, and choose, and love—whether or not that capacity is developed or immediately exercisable. This is why rights belong even to human beings who don't yet (e.g., unborn and newborn children), no longer (e.g., dementia patients), or never will (e.g., persons with disabilities) exercise particular functions. And it's why we are all equal. We share a common human nature even though we differ with respect to every ability.

It's not what we can presently do that makes us valuable. It's what we are.


Some people believe the value of an unborn child has less to do with the child herself than with the attitude of other people toward that child—their desires, decisions, and feelings.

"When does life begin? I submit the answer depends an awful lot on the feeling of the parents," declares former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry. The scientist who developed the RU486 (mifepristone) abortion drug, Étienne-Émile Baulieu, asserts: "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."

Such thinking seems implicit in much of our culture. Consider the way people often talk about unborn children: If those children are welcomed into life, they are called babies; if they are unwanted by their parents and targeted for abortion, they are called "pregnancy tissue" and "products of conception." In fact, in the United States, legal recognition of unborn children depends on the attitude of their mother. Most states classify the killing of unborn humans as homicide—except in the context of abortion.

But this view is clearly mistaken. Attitude doesn't dictate reality. We don't get to decide whether or not other human beings matter. What if, for example, a woman doesn’t want her child 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.

"Somehow the child is being measured by the parent's attitudes and being defined by the parent's feelings," writes feminist scholar Sidney Callahan. "In the same way, men have 'wanted' women through the ages. … The unwanted woman could be cast off when she was no longer a desirable object. She did not have an intrinsic dignity beyond being wanted."

Human dignity and human rights—as affirmed in such landmark 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 attributed or bestowed by other people; they make demands on other people whether those people like it or not. That’s how rights work. "The powerful," Callahan explains, "cannot be allowed to want and unwant people at will."

Our attitude toward helpless human beings might say something about us. It says nothing about the value of those children.

Human rights belong to all of us

The abortion debate isn't the first time people have thought that some human beings are inferior to others because they lack certain characteristics. All forms of unjust discrimination point to differences between humans that aren't actually important—while ignoring the shared humanity that is.

"Every previous division of humankind into two classes in which one half was permitted to dispose of the other at will … [is now] universally recognized as evil," writes philosopher Christopher Kaczor. "In every case, the powerful judged the vulnerable as lacking some characteristic which, in the view of the powerful, made the weaker human beings unfit for basic respect."

Human rights don't depend on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or socioeconomic status. Nor, however, do human rights depend on appearance, ability, or the attitude of others. We have human rights because we are human beings. That's all it takes. We don't need to look a certain way, or perform a certain way, or be regarded a certain way.

"Do we really have reason to believe," Kaczor asks, "that for the very first time in human history we are justified in treating some human beings as less than fully persons? Or will we be judged by history as just one more episode in the long line of exploitation of the powerful over the weak?"

Human rights belong to all of us. That's why the person with deformities counts. It's why the person with disabilities counts. It's why the newborn who is "unwanted" counts.

And it's why the child in the womb counts too.


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