Reframing the Abortion Debate: A Call for the Adoption of Philosophical Inquiry into the Mainstream

Updated: Nov 18

There has been an overthrow of legal precedence in the United States. In particular, the overturning of Roe v. Wade under the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision by the conservative-appointed-majority Supreme Court has ignited debates that have generally been divided into two: Pro-Choice and Pro-life.

However, both sides continue to miss a crucial point in addressing the real issue at hand, and that is the issue of personhood - a debate that has largely remained hidden from the public eye. This is essential because the mainstream arguments fundamentally boil down to whether morally justifiable ends matter more than the means. For example, the life of the mother matters more than that of the fetus because the mother is capable of producing more human life and should therefore be protected from the possibility of death when facing ectopic pregnancies (the ends are justified regardless of the means); or it is inherently wrong to take the life of any being regardless of the circumstances because it is a universal law that the taking away of human life is immoral (the means should be morally justified). While there is substance in these debates, they often obstruct the essentialities of what it means to be human.

Firstly, what exactly is a person? Those in medicine and in biology can provide an accurate definition for terms such as ‘Homo sapiens’ or ‘human being,’ but I have noticed that the term ‘human person’ never enters into their lexicon when writing about a textbook on the human species, human anatomy, or fundamentals of human biology. In a rare few cases, medicine papers use the term ‘person’, albeit in meeting the biopsychosocial needs of a patient rather than a comprehensive definition of what it means to be a person. This is because the term ‘human person’ transcends that of the ‘hard’ biological sciences to that of philosophy, illustrating that the question of personhood is not a mere scientific matter but a philosophical one. Philosophical literature utilizing the term ‘person’ or ‘human person’ is more common than in scientific papers. In ethics, a person is a being that is capable of making moral judgments, while in Metaphysics, a person possesses self-consciousness and reasoning. Ultimately, however, those pondering abortion should consider where personhood starts and ends.

One should ask about the importance of personhood in this debate. Those who characterize themselves as pro-life would equivocate the human person with that of human life. However, human life is manifested in different forms. Red blood cells, for instance, are ‘alive’ in the sense that these cells are capable of performing processes independent of our control. While red blood cells are considered a form of human life, they do not exactly constitute a human person because they lack qualities that we associate with the term ‘person’ even in common parlance. One may argue that these cells are not ‘alive’ due to bodily reliance. Generally speaking (and I know the pro-life camp would very much agree), these are indeed alive and to deny so on the basis of the bodily reliance on the human being is to deny their living existence, as equivalent to a fetus being physically reliant on a mother. One may then ask that even if they are a form of human life, are not all forms of human life valuable and thus worth saving from all harm, including an abortion?

Consider a hospital that has caught on fire. You, the reader, are a nurse who happens to stumble upon a room with two living objects: a man (the living being) in a hospital bed and some blood packs (the living non-being) adjacent to him. The fire has made the situation precarious to the point that you would have to choose which to save, for you do not have the time to save both. I anticipate that the common response (hopefully) would be to save the human person. This ethical test demonstrates that the value of human life is relative and that there are different moral considerations that we afford to each form of human life. This assertion refutes the pro-choice argument (although not all in this camp will make such a statement) that fetuses are not a form of human life and, at the same time, poses a question to the pro-life camp to clarify that which they are protecting.

In addition, a person is more than a mere living being. Consider a man who has a family driving on his way home at night. While on a dark road, his car’s headlights come across a deer that has abruptly crossed the road in front of him. Too late to hit the brakes, he swerves away from the road and hits a tree. After being taken to a hospital, the doctor consults his family that the accident has left the man in a coma. The man is put on life support, and machines replace his bodily functions. Months pass, the man suffers a stroke, and brain activity stops. The family is then consulted on his condition, and the hospital offers to pull the man's life support at their discretion. Would one want to cut the life support system? A common response would affirm, for the individual does not have the ability to regain consciousness; ceased to be a person, literally deceased. We should therefore define where personhood starts at consciousness rather than using the imprecise metric of life (beginning at conception or otherwise) because one can be a living being, but is not necessarily a conscious being; the beings we value above all else. One can replace all the organs of a human body with better mechanical versions of themselves, but without the conscious experience of the brain, the human being does not constitute a human person.

It is not a debate about whether or not the fetus is human life but rather if it constitutes a conscious being. So far, scientific research has shown that fetuses can only exhibit consciousness in the third trimester or roughly 22-24 weeks of the gestational period. Many countries have already set their abortion regulations taking this limitation into account. It is here where the mainstream pro-choice discourse fails, often failing to consider when personhood begins. This blatant disregard for conscious life may translate into policies that are inherently immoral from this point of view.

A common counterargument is a situation wherein a person has a horrible accident that renders them in a coma. Due to the loss of consciousness, they then argue that the individual is not a person and thus justifies the immoral act of not putting life support systems on them. This is then related to abortion: while consciousness is yet to be developed in the fetus, this does not justify performing an abortion. However, this is a false equivalency. It fails to differentiate between persons-in-existence from persons-yet-to-be. Persons-in-existence are human beings that have already asserted their consciousness and maintain the capabilities to assert that consciousness, while persons-yet-to-be, are human beings that have not asserted and developed the capability of consciousness before. While in a coma, the human being may have lost consciousness, but still retains the capabilities to be conscious once again in the future. There is a higher level of moral consideration afforded to the persons-in-existence compared to persons-yet-to-be for the simple fact that persons-in-existence has already made an impact, whether big or small, on this world. The man put into a comatose state was probably a father, a husband, or a brother. In contrast, a fetus (a person yet-to-be) has not asserted themselves as conscious beings in this world. It also does not have the capabilities to display a conscious experience until about the third trimester.

Overall, the mainstream abortion debate needs to be transformed to debates on personhood. On one hand, the pro-life camp overemphasizes the value of human life even though the nuanced forms of human life have relative moral considerations. On the other hand, the pro-choice camp ignores the issue of personhood altogether, at least in the mainstream narrative. This debate on abortion must go beyond its current state, consider the implications of the arguments raised in this work, and use these subsequent responses to further popularize ethical and philosophical debates on personhood that have remained an esoteric topic in the mainstream.