The humbug of the fetal right to life…

This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.

Now that I’ve conclusively refuted the central argument of the pro-choice position, the “reproductive rights,” it’s now time to refute to the central argument of the anti-abortion position, the fetal right to life.

I have two fatal refutations to present to the argument that the fetus has a right to life. I have already given some hints of my first refutation in my entries on Pakaluk’s Q&A: that the fetus only embodies rights because of the possibility of the future person. I want to clarify that refutation as much as I can, because I think it’s crucial to understand the abortion issue and the standing of the fetus in all this.

A human adult is worthy of all human rights by virtue of being a full person. The human fetus, on the other hand, has no rights in and of itself, since it is not at all a person, or only the beginnings of a person. However, it embodies rights (in the same way that an institution which owes its existence to violence embodies that violence in its later activities, an example I’ve discussed before).

To prove this, it suffices to think of the scenario of a pregnant woman who takes cocaine. It is obvious to us that the woman is guilty of something, because she is harming the person that will come to exist. There is a future actual person, and actions against the fetus in the womb are an attack on that future actual person’s rights, therefore the fetus embodies rights through this causal connection.

The existence of the causal connection is why the fetus embodies rights. The severing of the causal connection also severs the process of embodiment. Abortion, as the act which severs this connection, renders the fetus ethically irrelevant. The fetus has no rights because the abortion nullifies the possibility of a future actual person which might be hurt by the actions committed towards the fetus.

This is slightly complicated by the semantics involved. For instance, an anti-abortion advocate reading this may conclude that I believe that the abortion makes the fetus lose the rights that it had; based on this, ey may argue that the same reasoning may be used in favor of murder, by believing that the murder makes the adult victim lose their rights.

This is not my position. Rather, my position is that the aborted fetus never embodied any rights at all. Remember that the fetus embodies rights only on the basis of the causal connection between itself and the future actual person. If at any point that connection will be severed (by an abortion), then the fetus never embodied any rights at all; granted, we often cannot know a priori whether a fetus will be aborted or not, which is why we should in practice assume they will not be (e.g. we should still forbid pregnant women to take cocaine). The adult victim of a murder, on the other hand, already existed as a person and therefore already had rights; these rights were not erased by the act of murder because they are not contingent on any kind of embodiment.

The fetal right to life cannot possibly exist, since death itself (i.e. breaking this right) entails that the fetus did not embody any rights at all, let alone the right to life. This criticism does not apply to other rights, such as the right to health, which is breached by the cocaine example.

My second refutation is based on the fact that most anti-abortion advocates are right-wingers (whether they be conservatives, neo-conservatives, tea partyers, Libertarians, voluntaryists, fascists, or some other kind), which means that they don’t believe in positive rights.

Negative rights are defined as rights which forbid people to do something, while positive rights are defined as rights which force people to do something or provide some service. For example, the right to not be murdered is a negative right, while the right to health care is a positive right. Both are necessary for the right to life to have any meaning; to claim any right to life for a person without the person having the means to maintain eir health or being protected from murder makes such a “right to life” just empty words.

What does it mean for the fetus to have a right to life? An analogy may be useful here. The fetus’ life is contingent on the survival of its host, much like a person who depends on a ventilator to breathe. What does it mean for such a person to have a right to life? Obviously killing him directly would break such a right. So would smashing the ventilator. What about unplugging the ventilator, or withdrawing all power to it? What about refusing to repair or replace a suddenly defective, non-functional ventilator?

I think you understand what I’m driving at. When a person’s life is contingent upon something else, their right to life entails something like positive rights for that something else, which, in the case of a machine, means to provide it with everything it needs to fulfill its function. In the case of the fetus, attributing it a right to life means to attribute positive rights to the woman.

I am not implying here that the pregnant woman is just a machine that serves the sole function of keeping a fetus alive. Of course she has her own values. But insofar as her body serves that specific function amongst others, she is analogous to the ventilator scenario.

Now, the anti-abortion conservative believes both that the fetus has a right to life and that the woman (like everyone else) has no positive rights. Given these two beliefs, and my deduction that the right to life of a dependent organism depends on the positive rights of its host, how can this right to life have any meaning whatsoever? What does it really mean for a fetus to have a right to life when the woman hosting it may die because her human rights are not recognized by a conservative society?

The only avenue of escape for the anti-abortion advocate is to strip the right to life of any positive component and define the right to life as the right not to be killed, as this still serves eir interest in arguing against abortion. But it is unclear how this helps the anti-abortion position, as we end up more or less in the same place insofar as the ventilator scenario is concerned. It is no less true to say that the person who cut power to the ventilator killed the fetus, than it is to say that the person who cut power to the ventilator ended the life of the fetus. Logically, the act of cutting the power necessarily leads to the death of the fetus (always presuming that there will be no replacement ventilator or alternate treatment), and any reasonable person would know that for a fact. It’s hard to call that anything but a conscious act of killing.

The fact that a fetus does not embody a right to life is alone to debunk this concept. However, I also wanted to point out the deep inconsistency between this concept and the political beliefs of most anti-abortion advocates. Together, I believe they provide a powerful refutation of the central concept of the anti-abortion position.

4 thoughts on “The humbug of the fetal right to life…

  1. […] Can one be an anti-abortion atheist? (02/01) The humbug of “reproductive rights”… (02/07) The humbug of the fetal right to life… (02/13) Body ownership is semantic gobbledygook. (02/19) Do women have a right to make medical […]

  2. […] The humbug of the fetal right to life… ( […]

  3. […] for the supposed right to life of the fetus, which, as I already argued, contradicts the conservative beliefs that no one has positive rights, including pregnant women, […]

  4. […] beings to be of value* from the time of conception, because they are potential beings of value*. As I’ve pointed out before, this cannot mean that fetuses cannot be aborted, because abortion makes it so that the fetus is no […]

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