Wednesday, October 7, 2020

"Fetuses are human beings; all human beings are equal in dignity & worth; so abortion is wrong." Good or bad argument?

At about 4:40 of this video (which someone sent along to me), Robert George - a professor and well-known critic of abortion - says something like this:
"Millennials want to hear reasons and arguments, and it's very clear that when the arguments are presented, it's clear who wins this 'battle' over abortion." 
He then gives a quick argument like this:
  1. "The basic facts of science": (human) fetuses are human; they're human organisms.  
  2. Every member of the human family is equal in worth and dignity. 
  3. So, human fetuses are equal in worth and dignity. 
  4. So, abortion is wrong (in most circumstances). 
Is any age-group generally more or less interested in having arguments and good reasons for their views, compared to any other age group? Are younger people really more critical thinkers than older people? My experience suggests this: not really. 

But more importantly, let's quickly look at this common argument to see if things are as "clear" as George says they are in this soundbite interview. 


About the first premise, (human) fetuses are clearly biologically human; they are clearly biologically human organisms; they are even clearly biologically human beings, at least on one understanding of that term: "human beings" are beings that are biologically human

That's all clearly true, right? Right. 

But isn't it also true that (human) corpses are all this? Yes. 

But what's meant is living human beings, right?

OK, but aren't "brain dead" but living human beings human beings

Aren't human beings in permanent comas also human beings? 

Yes and yes. 

We'll want to remember that in thinking about the second premise of the argument. 

But the first premise here is clearly true. The big question though is whether anything follows from this truth and, if anything does, if that's as "clear" and obvious as George and others claim it is. 


So, brain-dead and permanently comatose human beings are human beings. 

But these human beings get treated quite differently from more human beings, like adults, children, and babies, who we interact with most often. And the ways they are treated aren't wrong or illegal. 

For one, they are sometimes let die, and that's not wrong. 

But if it's generally wrong to let persons die when we can keep them alive, something must explain that difference between how we are treated and how brain-dead and permanently comatose human beings are treated: although they are also human beings, they are importantly different from human beings who are wrong to let die, like us. (What could that difference be? This is discussed below).

Second, they are sometimes not just let die but are activity killed. That's what happens in organ donation from brain-dead bodies. And that's not wrong. 

Again, although these are human beings, they are importantly different from human beings who are wrong to kill, which makes that killing OK. (What could that difference be? Again, this is discussed below).

So, here's the point: fetuses are human beings; we (anyone reading this) is a human being (unless there are space aliens, or spiritual beings, reading this??), but there are some human beings who are OK to let die and even kill. (And that's not even bringing in killing in self-defense). So, this is what people would be thinking about if they deny that all human organisms have the right to life

So here's an argument against premise 2:
A. If every member of the human family is equal in worth and dignity, then it's wrong to let brain-dead human beings die or actively kill them. 

B. But it's not wrong to let brain-dead human beings die or actively kill them.

C. So it's not true that every member of the human family is equal in worth and dignity.

So, just because something is a human being doesn't mean it's wrong to kill it: there are morally important and relevant differences among or between different types of human beings. 

So, yes, fetuses are human beings, but that fact, in itself, doesn't mean they are wrong to kill, any more than brain-dead or permanently comatose individuals being human beings means they are wrong to kill (or let die, or end their lives). 

So premise (2) is not true. This argument is pretty clearly unsound. All we need to do is think about a wider range of human beings than most of us ever think about. Most of us don't encounter brain dead human beings or human beings in permanent comas, and so we don't think about what a premise like (2) would imply for them. 


Another reason why (2) is false comes from thinking about why human beings have dignity and worth. 

Again, this is a question that not many people think about: they know that human beings have worth, but don't think about why that is is so. They really have no reason to think about that.

This is actually a disputed topic: there are many different answers.

Everyone who thoughtfully engages the issue, however, realizes that saying human beings have dignity and worth just because they are human beings isn't an informative answer: it doesn't say why: it doesn't explain. 

Here's a better answer: human beings have dignity and worth because they are conscious and feeling beings, whose lives can go better and worse for us, from our own point of view. Philosopher Tom Regan describes us as being "subjects of lives":
we are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death - all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals. 
Corpses, brain-dead individuals, and permanently comatose individuals are not like that at all. That is why it can be OK to let them die and sometimes even actively kill them. 

Human embryos and early fetuses also are like that, in that they are not conscious or feeling. And that contributes to why they are OK to kill, or so many argue. 

And this is another reason, or another way of seeing, why premise (2) is false. 

(This also suggests another way that people use the term "human being": when some people say that fetuses are not human beings, they might be saying that they are not conscious or recently conscious biologically human organisms and that that's what a "human being" is. I don't think this is the best way to think about this - "human person" is probably a better way to put this - but this seems to be what some people have in mind). 


This discussion can take us back to defining "human beings."

Some might respond that, contrary to appearance, brain-dead or permanently comatose humans are not "human beings" and maybe not even "biologically human organisms" anymore. And this is for reasons other than the fact that they are permanently unconscious. 

Why's that? They'd likely say this because various "potentials", such as the potential for rational thought, are no longer there, given the brain damage.

Is this correct? If they could be repaired with (future) technology from somewhere like Wakanda, or if, say, God could repair this person, this is doubtful. So, perhaps "potential" is never lost. 

"Potential" is also sometimes understood in a vague manner as "the same kind of being." But isn't a brain-dead or permanently comatose human in some sense the "same kind of being" as you or me, just as they are also not the same kind of being? If the former is true, then these humans still are human beings or human organisms, which seems pretty clearly correct anyway. 

I suppose, however, that some would propose that to be a "human being" or a "human organism" requires various types of potential, and we'll just overlook the possibilities for "potential" that brain dead humans have. So the claim would be that fetuses are human beings or human organisms because they have these types of potentials. 

This then takes us back to the question of whether premise (2) might be true and the deeper question of what makes human beings have rights or why they have rights. We know fetuses have these potentials and can be described as this "kind" of being, but why does that make them usually wrong to kill?

What's clear is this issue isn't simple in the way George suggests it is. But it might very well be that better responses here have pro-choice implications. If so, George is just incorrect here in his suggestion who "wins" this "battle."


Now, this is all responding to just one quick, off the cuff argument, although one given by a well-known person. (Here's some discussion from me of more complex versions of this argument, and here too).

However, this type of argument is common and many people think the above argument is a great argument, but it's not. (Indeed, most philosophers and ethicists - experts - think it's a bad argument, and so would think that George is mistaken and misleading in his claims about what's "clear.")

At least, it's an argument that needs a lot of explaining and engagement for it to be reasonable to hold, given all the concerns relevant to it. And that includes the question of whether women are obligated to provide assistance for fetuses, however the discussion above is resolved, which wasn't discussed here.

Hopefully, this post will help people - of all ages! - understand some of the complexity here and engage others on the issues with greater understanding. 

P.S. This post raises hard questions about simplifying complex issues. If an issue is complex, then over-simplifying the issues can be bad: e.g., on the basis of this video someone could come to believe that the initial simple argument here just proves that abortion is wrong when it really doesn't, and having that false belief (which is not uncommon) is bad in many ways. On another hand, declaring "look, these issues are complex and so I don't want to simplify for fear of misleading anyone!" is paralyzing. I suppose the best response is to simplify but also make it clear that there are complexities that really need to be engaged. Also, to be fair, I should also note that Robert George does engage many of these complexities at least in his book Embryo [here's a review of that book] and at least many of these articles from the philosophical literature: whether his responses are, and should be, convincing is something readers should investigate if they are interested. 

P.P.S. Here's another "popular" thinker, Frank Turek, giving a similar soundbite argument against abortion, which would be responded to in ways similar to what's above:

Many of the ideas above are also in this Salon article, 
Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking
Many medical procedures are ethically similar to abortion — but without the outcry. Why?
PUBLISHED APRIL 11, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)


  1. Hi Dr. Nobis, Isn't there a tertium quid to the analogies you make to fetal life, namely someone in a reversible coma? Such a person, unlike the permanently comatose or brain dead, is in a temporary state of dependence through no fault of their own, just as fetal humans are; and, also unlike the brain dead or permanently comatose, those in reversible comas will, with time, come to exercise in full those unique mental faculties they possess by virtue of their human nature, just as fetal humans do. The recovery of one's rational faculties seems more analogous to the development of one's rational faculties than to someone who has been permanently dispossessed of them.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hi, thanks for your comment. First, I don't know what a "tertium quid" is, but a fetus is very different from, say, you going into a coma and coming back. The main difference is that you have a past that, when you awake, you will be psychologically connected to. The fetus has nothing like that. This is discussed here:

      And my review of the Beckwith book:

      At least.

      Also, I would want to discourage thinking of these various cases as "analogies" since all these cases are different in some ways, but the same in others, and so if you think "this is like that and so . ." that can lead you astray. Better to think of them as cases to test principles from or develop principles from, probably.