The question of the permissibility of abortion stands at the intersection of a multitude of ontological, ethical, legal, religious, and historical debates. What the right to life consists in, what bodily autonomy entails, the role of religion in politics, the definition of liberty, of life, of humanity, etcetera, etcetera. Encompassing such a broad range of topics, one may wonder where the sciences fit into this discussion. With their insistence on empirical verification, their methodological guarantee of objectivity, their unparalleled success in investigating the physical world, surely they must take center stage – right?
As a matter of fact, they’ve been more or less silent on the issue. But it isn’t that they have nothing important to say. Rather, their influence has been diminished by pro-abortion advocates who ardently insist that the term “person” and the phrase “[living] human being” are not coextensive. In other words, they claim it is possible to be a human being and not also necessarily be, by virtue of being a human being, a person with intrinsic value and inalienable rights and liberties. The result of this is that if the biological sciences are able to objectively determine what a living human being is, pro-abortion advocates can claim these findings are irrelevant because “human being” doesn’t equate with “person.”
What is to be made of this? Are there issues with this view? And if so, are there alternative frameworks that allow a greater say to the natural sciences? Answering these questions requires a foray into the historical and philosophical roots of this distinction.
John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, laid the groundwork for the modern distinction between a human being and a person. He writes, “person stands for… a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places… [by means of] that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and [is] essential to it…” In other words, what makes me me is the implicit conscious recognition that I am myself and not something or someone else. Locke continues, “Self is that conscious thinking thing… which is sensible or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.” Indeed, “[the] self is not determined by Identity or Diversity of Substance… but only by identity of consciousness.” Locke makes these remarks in the context of diachronic personal identity, but what can be gathered from them is that to be a person consists solely in having temporally continuous subjective experience. Nothing beyond this subjective experience, like facts about one’s genetic makeup, physical characteristics, personality traits, or anything else that the natural sciences could investigate, matters for personhood. As philosopher Derek Parfit observes, “Locke claimed that, if I was conscious of a past life in some other body, I would be the person who lived that life.”
The main point, however, is that personhood, “[in which] is founded all the right and justice of reward and punishment,” is in principle separable from the fact of one’s being a human being. That is, being a person and being a human being, for Locke, are not necessarily the same thing. Robert Pasnau remarks summarily that, “Locke carves out the notion of a person, as something distinct from the biological human being, to be analyzed… in terms of psychological continuity.” It is the possibility of this distinction that Locke has bequeathed to the abortion debate.
Now, this is not to say all pro-abortion advocates are claiming that personhood is grounded in conscious recognition of oneself as a persistent thinking subject. On the contrary, pro-abortion advocates do allow the biological sciences some input insofar as they often attempt to ground personhood on empirically verifiable characteristics. However, disagreements on what these characteristics and the criteria for personhood are significantly diminishes the efficacy of the sciences.
Justice Harry Blackmun, for instance, remarks in the majority opinion on Roe v. Wade, “The Constitution does not define ‘person’ in so many words. The use of the word is such that it has application only post-natally. None indicates, with any assurance, that it has any possible pre-natal application.” Blackmun later considers when a fetus has the capacity for what he calls meaningful life, noting that “[w]ith respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the ‘compelling’ point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications.” Here the relevant criteria is the vague and ever changing threshold of viability-currently considered at around 24 weeks gestation. Others have invoked cardiac activity as the defining characteristic of a person. Typically, the electrical impulse productive of a heartbeat begin to occur at around 6 weeks gestation, but this itself elicits further disagreement on how to define a heartbeat (as crazy as that may sound). Still others bring up autonomy or the capacity to react to external stimuli as the relevant criteria. But, regardless of their differences, insofar as the present discussion is concerned, all of these views amount to the same thing. They each posit some more-or-less arbitrarily selected, empirically verifiable property as the criteria that makes a human being a person. But unless there can be some agreement on what this criteria should be, the sciences will remain shut out of the discussion.
Given these disagreements and the ethical issues they potentially give rise to (for instance, Chief Justice Roger Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott vs. Sandford that enslaved African Americans, weren’t “people” with the “rights and privileges” ensured in The U.S. Constitution), perhaps the important question should be; are there any good reasons to think a human being can be different from a person in the first place? What if the belief that such a distinction is even possible is rooted in a more fundamental philosophical error? To offer a solution to this hypothetical error would be to offer a greater say to the natural sciences in the abortion debate-a tempting prospect. What then, might this error be?
The 14th century logician, William of Ockham, famously remarked that “the tendency to multiply entities according to the multiplicity of terms, so that for every term there is a thing… is a wrong-headed approach, and… it leads one [away] from the truth.” This (not the oft-repeated claim that the simplest explanation is the most likely) is known as Ockham’s Razor. The point Ockham is making, insofar as concerns us, is that there’s a difference between the meaning and the reference of a word. And when meaning is confused with reference, people are led to believe that more, and different, things exist than there actually are.
For instance, consider the words “triangular” and “trilateral.” The word “triangular” means having three angles that add up to 180 degrees. The word “trilateral” means having three connecting sides. However, anything that is triangular must also be, necessarily, trilateral. They both refer to triangles, and only to triangles, in spite of their different meanings. Again, difference in meaning doesn’t necessarily entail a difference in reference. In this case a difference in reference would be altogether impossible, as a matter of fact. Could this then be what is happening with “person” and “human being?” The issues noted above about the inability of interlocutors to settle on definite criteria that make a human being a person gives good reason to think this is what the problem may, in fact, be. What is needed however, is a complete and sufficient account of how it is that “person” and “human being” are co-extensive.
Enter Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. The traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic (hereafter, A-T) metaphysical and logical framework offers serious advantages in regards to the current debate. For not only does it provide an exceptionally robust and fine-grained semantic theory to accommodate the distinction between meaning and reference, it also gives free reign to the natural sciences in determining what things are and what physical features these things have. This may sound doubtful to some “scientifically inclined” readers who have some basic familiarity with A-T metaphysics and logic. And sure, prima facie, the language in which the A-T system is formulated is rather unappealing to a modern audience. But a deeper understanding of what this language is trying to convey reveals it to abide quite well with common opinion and a scientific understanding of the world.
Of particular interest to the current discussion are the A-T notions of form and soul. While the former may conjure up images of some Platonic “heaven” and the latter images of ghosts or spirits, neither involves any such “spooky” entities in any way. As a matter of fact, this is precisely where the genius of the A-T system lies. A form is just whatever it is about a thing that makes a certain definition or description true of it. For example, the form red is what makes the descriptive word “red” true of an apple. In a similar way, for the word “dog” to be true of a thing is simply for that thing to have the form dog. It is simply for it to be a dog.
On the other hand, a soul for the A-T philosopher is a certain kind of form in living things. St. Thomas Aquinas remarks that “soul is the first principle of life.” That is to say, a soul is the form that makes the word “living” true of a thing. It is, for the A-T philosopher, merely another word for, say, the form dog. Or the form man. And upon reflection this is rather intuitive. What is a man or a dog? They’re living things, of course! To be a dog is to be a living thing. To be a man is to be a living thing. Granted, they each live in different ways and have different properties and characteristics. But to discover what these differences are, exactly, is not the task of the philosopher. Instead, this falls to the natural sciences.
This shows several things: first, the same thing can be referred to by different words that express different aspects of it. Second, the natural sciences are intimately involved in the A-T account. They provide exact descriptions of what the forms of things are. And third, for a living thing to start to be what it is, is just for it to become alive. That is, for a dog to be a dog, or for a man to be a man, is for the certain kind of thing that they are to come into existence. And for a living thing to start to exist is for it to start living.
What does this all have to do with the issue of abortion, however? Well, consider that what is meant by “person” in the context of this discussion, as alluded above, is just a thing with intrinsic value. That is, a person is a thing that is valuable by virtue of being what it itself is. In other words, it is valuable by virtue of its form. But what is the form of things typically regarded as “persons?” Human beings, of course! We typically assume that human beings (e.g., you, me, King Charles III, and whoever else) are persons. But that means they are persons by virtue of the same thing that makes them human beings-viz., their form! What this all means is that a thing becomes a person at the same time it becomes a human being and, because a human being is a living thing, this all happens when the thing starts living. So the words “person” and “human being” are, assuming no nonhuman things are persons, coextensive.
The upshot of this is that the natural sciences are in a position to determine what a person is, by virtue of being able to determine what a human being is. And the question relevant to the abortion debate-viz., “when does a person with intrinsic value start to exist?”-just becomes the question of when a human being starts to exist. And a human being starts to exist when that distinct organism begins living. When does a human begin living? The sciences can tell us: during the process of fertilization, where two distinct organisms (ie., the sperm and the egg) combine to produce a third distinct organism, a zygote, a human being.
Thus, there is a rather simple and scientific solution to the problem which seems to confound so many. The post-Lockean distinction between a human being and a person unnecessarily muddles the issue. Let philosophy lay the groundwork for the noble task of the sciences. Like Virgil, the A-T philosopher can only lead the sciences so far. As they venture onward to truth, let them recall his words:
“Here I have led you, by skill and art: now, take your delight for a guide: you are free of the steep path, and the narrow. See, there, the sun that shines on your forehead, see the grass, the flowers and the bushes, that the earth here produces by itself… Await no further word or sign from me: your will is free, erect, and whole—to act against that will would be to err: therefore I crown and miter you over yourself.” (Purgatorio, XXVII)