I earlier explained why the question of fetal personhood is, in the end, a red herring diverting attention from the glaring sexism that underlies opposition to abortion rights. It comes up at all because a huge fraction of forced-birth advocates devalue women and ignore trans people to the point where one wonders whether they know that uteruses are inside people and not something people keep on their coffee tables.
But red herring or not, the question of fetal personhood has a number of interesting wrinkles that are worth addressing and which can influence how we think about conception and pregnancy. These wrinkles also highlight the pernicious role that religion plays throughout this topic.
“Fetal personhood” is the concept that the ethical status afforded to ordinary people, and our understanding that people ought not to be tortured or killed if it can be avoided, should extend to humans that have not yet been born—from fetuses to zygotes, all the way up to fertilized ova. As this idea’s proponents have it, every zygote is a precious thing, possessed of a unique character comparable to what makes ordinary people special and therefore worth saving. They hold this idea in opposition to the “gendercides” of India and China, where sex-selective abortion has unbalanced national sex ratios and caused social problems, ironically little realizing that misogyny underlies both this phenomenon and their own position.
Like the doctrine of double effect, this is a slick PR move that falls apart on further examination. It’s easy to show a picture like this one…
…and imagine that a fetus is a separate, unique being, simply being housed and fed inside its host until it’s ready for eviction, in a too-clean metaphor for adolescence. But that ease hides a litany of complications that put lie to all of that.
For where do we draw that line?
Sperm and egg combine to form zygotes, unique biological constructs with human DNA and the potential to create one or more new, unambiguous persons each if the right other things happen to them. Or so they tell us.
But before that, deep within the ovaries and testes, ova and sperm were produced by the millions. These are unique biological constructs with human DNA and the potential to create new, unambiguous persons if the right things happen to them. Are these now persons? Is every woman party to manslaughter every 28 days? Is every furtive teenage ejaculation now a massacre?
And further back? DNA from a somatic cell can be removed, placed in a vacant ovum, and shocked into producing a zygote, in the most basic form of genetic engineering. This construct differs even from the person that provided the DNA. Are somatic cells now incipient people? Is an overindulgence of alcohol not only a health hazard, but a new Srebrenica on the liver’s possible engineered progeny?
So they punt, with the idea that somewhere in there, an omnipotent cosmic wizard injects one of these stages with an immaterial essence that is the only part that has ethical value, a notion tangled in all sorts of monstrosities of its own and which has led religious conservatives to condemn people created by in vitro fertilization as soulless abominations.
“Life begins at conception” is a catchphrase that is deeply ignorant of the most basic facts of developmental biology: that everything is a process, that life is omnipresent, and that almost all of prenatal development relies on a deep, pervasive interplay between the zygote and its host. This idea we have that a baby happens if “nothing goes wrong” has the situation backward. The creation of a baby is not the result of “nothing” happening any more than an unattended spark plug will spontaneously morph into a car. Prenatal development, from gametes to birth, is an intricate exchange between the incipient baby and the parent-to-be, the result of a long and exceptionally complex process that involves both of their bodies. We can regard the center of this ongoing construction as a “person” only if we also regard a silkworm cocoon as a “dress” and a bowl of flour as a “pie.” A zygote does not grow into a fetus and enter the world as a baby “on its own,” and the VAST majority of the matter and complexity that exits a womb at birth was not present in either the baby or its parent at the time of conception.
This recognition of the zygote as the most important material in the amazing, unfathomably wondrous process of human development also highlights another difficulty with the idea of fetal personhood.
Those materials are dirt cheap.
With no confused notions of magical homunculi clogging our sight, we can see that, for every bouncing baby that joins our society, millions of sperm and dozens of ova died unceremonious deaths in uterine discharges, and millions and dozens more exited their owners before conception was even attempted. For every baby that joins our society, an entire brood of zygotes failed to implant and sloughed out with menstrual blood, and another brood still persisted for months only to be rejected by the uterine wall. Built ineluctably into our biology is the principle of trying and trying again, seeing what works and what doesn’t, throwing everything one has at the wall and seeing what sticks.
This is where the terror sets in.
If we recognize that every step in human development before birth is awash in the axiom of quality control, if zygotes are so abundant and so expendable that the uterus itself rejects a majority of them, then the idea that every zygote carries an ethical imperative for its preservation falls apart. These are not unique persons lost before their time—they are trial runs, options, shots in the dark. These are mere possibility. And in a world that has several billion more people than it needs, and where billions of those people live lives the rest of us would regard as inhumanly cruel if we imposed them directly on someone, and where the difference between generations of hardscrabble poverty and a life of middle-class potential is the timing of a first child, possibility can be very dangerous.
We cannot know whether some hypothetical potential person being lost with a woman's menstrual flow, or being dissolved by methotrexate during lifesaving treatment for an ectopic pregnancy, might hypothetically have turned out to be a remarkable violinist if the right sequence of other events followed. We also can't know if that zygote would have been the next Ed Gein. What we can know is whether that zygote, if developed, would emerge into the world as a wanted child. What we can know is whether that zygote, if developed, would emerge into a family that is capable of giving it the life it deserves. What we can know is whether that zygote, if developed, would emerge into the state foster system, likely condemned to the same emotional damage and poverty that too often follows an unwanted life. What we can know is whether that zygote, if developed, would live a short life of gasping pain, put everyone near it through an emotional maelstrom, and finally die. What we can know is whether that zygote, if developed, will probably kill its host in the process.
What we can and do know is that possible people are in infinite supply, but actual people are precious. We owe it to those actual people not to bring them into this world unwanted. We owe it to those actual people not to bring them into this world with their deaths already written on their heads. We owe it to those actual people not to bring them into this world knowing that their families won’t be able to provide for them. We owe it to those actual people not to bring them into this world knowing that their arrival, and the earnest desire to do right by them once they are here, will strain entire families until university educations are a distant, impossible dream. And we owe it to people out there who know how many children they can afford to raise, to let them bring forth only that many children.
We live in a world where people can know prior to pregnancy how many children they want to have and when they want to have them. We owe it to them to let them use that information. We owe it to them to let them be responsible about which zygotes they bring into personhood. We owe it to them not to let misguided, animistic veneration of trivial, expendable raw materials lead us to condemn real, actual people with emotions and feelings and hopes and goals and dreams to substandard living.
We have the power to make unwanted offspring and cruel genetic diseases a distant memory of a more savage time. We have an imperative to make that happen.