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Tuesday, 2 October 2007


A common argument claims that a fetus is not a human being until it is capable of surviving independently of another individual. Prior to this period, it does not have an independent existence from its mother; hence killing it is not homicide. This position is common in many legal and ethical arguments about the morality of abortion. Susan Sherwin, for example, notes that a fetus “is wholly dependent on her [the mother’s] unique contribution to its maintenance, while a newborn is physically separate, though still in need of a lot of care” [1].

Two things can be said about this claim. Firstly, the ability to exist independently of another is not an essential property of human beings. Secondly, the inability to exist independently of another is in fact present in both fetuses and infants and so does not provide a reason for distinguishing between feticide and infanticide.

1. Viability is not an essential property of human beings. Fetal viability is contingent upon the medical technology of a given culture. A fetus that is not viable in Chad is viable in Los Angeles. If viability is necessary for something to be a human then a woman pregnant with a viable fetus in Los Angeles who flies from Los Angeles to Chad carries a human being when she leaves but this human being ceases to exist when she arrives in India and yet becomes human again when she returns.

A similarly-strange implication of the viability criterion is that it implies that Siamese twins are not humans either. Consider Siamese twins Bob and Scott. If Bob is a human being, then since Scott cannot live independently of Bob, Scott must not be a human person. However, it is difficult to see what property Bob has that Scott lacks which would justify considering one a human and the other not. It appears then that one would be forced to conclude that they both are, and are not, human. However, both Bob and Scott are human and killing one or both of them would be homicide despite this entailing that they are both human beings even though one cannot live independently of the other.

2. Not only does making viability the demarcer of humanity entail numerous absurdities but the property Sherwin points to to justify its doing so , dependence, is not something that ends at birth. Oderberg puts the point well.

A born baby is also totally dependent on its mother, only instead of being fed and sheltered by the mother’s automatic internal processes, it is fed and sheltered by the mother’s consciously controlled external, behaviour. How can that make a difference to whether or not a foetus is a human being? [2]

A new-born is totally dependent on its mother if it happens to be born in an isolated area where there are no other lactating women or the means of bottle-feeding. An elderly woman may be totally dependant on her children looking after her. A hiker who breaks her leg a week’s walk from a road will die if her companions do not bring help. Yet in these situations, it remains that it would be homicide for the mother to kill her baby, the children to kill their mother or the hikers their companion. Further, one could not plausibly say that the hiker, the elderly women or the baby are not human beings. Consequently, it is not plausible to suggest that the dependence of the non-viable fetus upon its mother makes it non-human.

These examples preclude an objection often raised against this type of criticism. Some critics have tried to argue that the position of a new-born infant in terms of dependence is different to non-viable fetuses in that after birth or viability other options are available. The dependence for survival can be handed on to someone else. However, before viability this is not the case. Hence, while infanticide is wrong, abortion prior to viability is not. This feature is absent in the cases of the hiker, the elderly mother and the infant.

In fact, Sherwin notes;

It is doubtful, however, that adoptions are possible for every child whose mother cannot care for it. The world abounds with homeless orphans; even in the industrialised West, where there is a waiting list for adoption of healthy (white) babies, suitable homes cannot always be found for troubled adolescents; inner city, AIDS babies, or many of the multiply handicapped children whose parents have tried to care for them but whose marriages broke under the strain.[3]

Sherwin's observation entails that some infants (and even older disabled children) are entirely dependent upon their parents and no one else is available to look after them. However, this confession is fatal to her position. Suppose society, as Sherwin argues, is racist and refuses to adopt dark skinned children. Does it follow that killing white children is homicide, whereas killing dark-skinned children is not? Suppose society is sexist or only wishes to adopt babies with blond hair and blue eyes or those that are able-bodied. Would non-Aryan babies, baby girls and those disabled cease to be human? If one’s humanity depends on societal conventions, the position is problematic.

[1]Susan Sherwin, “Abortion a Feminist Perspective,” in Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine, 5th ed., ed. Bonnie Steinbock & John D. Arras (Mountain View CA: Mayfield Publishing Co, 1999), 364.
[2] David Oderberg, Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Co, 2000), 5.
[3]Sherwin, “Abortion a Feminist Perspective,” 366

Is Abortion Liberal? Part 1
Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2
Sentience Part 1
Sentience Part 2
Abortion and Brain Death: A Response to Farrar
Abortion and Child Abuse: Another Response to Farrar
Abortion and Capital Punishment: No Contradiction
Imposing You Beliefs Onto Others: A Defence
Published: Boonin's Defense of the Sentience Criteria - A Critique
Published: Abortion and Capital Punishment - No Contradiction

1 comment:

  1. The levels of viability and independence prescribed to attain 'personhood' are assigned arbitrarily.
    There is no concrete reason beyond self-interest of the more powerful party why a full-term newborn should have value over a 22-wk foetus, where the latter can both be deliveried prematurely or aborted. Both are viable and both are dependent, both are genetically human, but it always comes back to 'personhood'. What is it and who AWARDS it?

    Is the foetus a 'person' or is its value in flux depending on circumstances, a little like being a Jew, a Bosnian, or an African slave?


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