In a recent discussion among fellow opponents of “personhood,” someone raised the question of how to effectively counter the claim made by “personhood” advocates that “science establishes that life begins at conception [i.e. fertilization].” Here’s how I answered… and yes, I did write more than I intended!
Here’s my take on these issues:
The discussion of “when human life begins” just isn’t relevant to the question of rights in pregnancy or “personhood” for zygotes. Biologically speaking, a zygote is a new human life… but that doesn’t imply that the zygote has any rights. The crucial question is philosophical: When does the embryo/fetus become an individual, meaning a person in its own right, such that rights apply to it?
Those questions can (and should) be answered based on a fact-based theory about rights. So to say “God imbues the zygote with the light to life” — as “personhood” advocates do — will not suffice. People are entitled to hold that view as a matter of personal faith and practice it in their own lives. Yet for them to attempt to impose it on others by force of law is a violation of our rights, as well as a violation of the proper separation of church and state.
To answer questions about rights in pregnancy, we must first understand the nature and purpose of rights. Rights are not part of our DNA; they’re not some kind of organ that develops at some point in fetal gestation. Instead, rights are moral principles that establish boundaries for our social interactions: they permit people to interact only by mutual consent, so that no one is robbed, enslaved, theatened, murdered, and otherwise brutalized by others. Right are — or should be — the basic moral principles governing society: by demanding that every person respect the life and autonomy of others, they enable people to live peacefully and happily together.
On that understanding, rights only apply to autonomous beings in society — meaning to biologically separate individuals. That’s why Ari Armstrong and I argue that rights begin at birth — because only then do you have autonomous individual. The infant is a person, entitled to the full protection of rights. The embryo or fetus is not: it’s wholly encased in and hence a part of the pregnant woman. The pregant woman has rights, and her rights protect the embryo or fetus from assault and other harms if she wishes to bring the pregnancy to term — or permit her to abort, if she doesn’t. Any attempt to grant rights to the fetus (even at the point of viability) denies rights to the pregnant woman, including the right to make her own decisions about medical care, giving birth, etc.
Whether you agree with that analysis or not, I’d recommend explicitly rejecting the debate about “when human life begins.” That’s not the relevant question, and the “personhood” advocates will gain the upper hand by framing the debate in those terms.
Instead, remind them that they’re not proposing to write biological textbooks, but to fundamentally change our laws by granting rights to embryos. Insist that they defend that. If they attempt to say — as they usually do — that every human life has rights, then you’ll have to ask them whether kidneys or lungs have rights. Why not? Because they’re not individuals, but just parts of a person. That gets you to the question of what qualifies as a person — and that’s the critical question. Or, you might remind them that all rights are individual rights — and demand that they explain how the zygote can be an individual when wholly encased in and depending on the pregnant woman.
More generally, remember that our opponents have the burden of proof here. It’s clear that infants and onward are persons. We might debate whether viable fetuses are persons. Advocates of “personhood” are making the extraordinary claim that embryos are persons — before any awareness, before any movement, before the development of functional organs, and even before pregnancy begins at implantation. Such an extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary proof — meaning a compelling and detailed argument about the nature and source of rights — not glib assertions about “the tiniest boys and girls.” If they fail to provide that proof, then you’re entitled to reject their view, even if you’re not quite certain of your own.
Moreover, you’re entitled to reject “personhood” on the grounds that granting legal rights to embryos would violate the known rights of known persons, such as the right to birth control and in vitro fertilization. (Rights can’t conflict — if they do, then you’re not talking about rights but something else like interests or desires.) Hence, to establish that granting rights to embryos would violate the rights of women is to proof enough that “personhood” is wrong.
Whew! I wrote more than expected… but I hope that’s helpful!
For further exploration of these issues, I recommend Ari Armstrong’s and my recent paper for The Objective Standard: The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties, as well as our much longer 2010 policy paper, The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life.