Abortion and Humanity

12 October 2020

In my last blog I discussed how some opponents of abortion misappropriate my work on dehumanization to support their position. They claim that abortion advocates dehumanize the unborn, and that abortion is analogous to genocidal murder. I explained why this argument doesn’t work. 

My theory of dehumanization—as described, for instance, in my most recent book On Inhumanity—is that dehumanizing others boils down to conceiving of them as subhuman creatures in human form. But even the most ardent supporters of a women’s right to choose do not conceive of the unborn as vicious monsters or filthy vermin. So, my account of dehumanization can’t do the work that some right-to-lifers want it to do.

But my approach to dehumanization isn’t the only game in town. There are other conceptions of dehumanization that seem to serve the anti-abortion cause much better. How about understanding dehumanization as the denial that some human beings are really human. On this view, there’s no requirement that we conceive of dehumanized others as monsters or beasts—only that we see them as something other than human beings. This is, I believe, more or less what people mean when they say that abortion is predicated on dehumanizing the unborn.

 

Advocates of this argument often go on to say that conceiving of the unborn as non-human flies in the face of what science tells us. To be human, they say, is to be a member of a certain biological species—Homo sapiens—and that embryos are, as a matter of scientific fact, members of that species. It follows that aborting a fetus is snuffing out the life of a human being, and therefore morally aberrant. 

At this point, philosophical defenders of the right to choose often step up to say that biological species membership is a red herring. They say that the fact that human embryos belong to our species isn’t relevant to the ethics of abortion. What really matters is that embryos are not persons, and because they are not persons, it’s morally permissible to abort them.

I think that this response is deeply problematic. It’s not clear (to me, anyway) what personhood is supposed to amount to, how we can clearly distinguish persons from non-persons, and why personhood (whatever it is) is so morally significant. Traditional criteria for personhood, such as rationality and autonomy, exclude many members of our own species from this coveted status. And if killing embryos is acceptable on the grounds that embryos aren’t persons, doesn’t this license infanticide, the killing of mentally disabled people, and other atrocities?

As important as these considerations are, I don’t want to linger on them. I want to explore a deeper objection. I want to argue that both the right-to-lifer and her philosophical opponent share an error. They both incorrectly assume that being human is equivalent to being a member of the species Homo sapiens

“Human” is not a term used by biological taxonomists, and it does not name any set of biological properties. Homo erectus and Homo sapiens are genuine biological categories. Biological anthropologists can examine a fossil jawbone and determine that it belongs to Homo erectus. But there’s no amount of evidence that would allow them to figure out whether Homo erectus was human. Ask yourself how scientists could test the proposition that all and only Homo sapiens are human? What tests could they perform? There’s no conceivable test, because human is not a scientific category—it’s a social one.

What exactly is it to think of another being as human? A good starting point for answering this question is the fact that people generally take their own humanity for granted. “We” are human, but “they” may not. We see this in some autoethnonyms (names that ethnic groups use to designate themselves). Although by no means universal, it’s common enough for ethnic groups to refer to themselves as “the human beings,” or “the real human beings.” As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss observed, tribal names are often “not formal designations, but merely equivalents of the pronoun ‘we.’” 

I think that Levi-Strauss was spot on, and that his claim applies across the board. In practice, to be regarded as human is to be regarded as one of “us”—as belonging to “our kind.”

Seen from this perspective, humanness isn’t a property that some individuals possess and others lack. Instead, it’s a consequence of an act of inclusion. Humanness seems to be equivalent to membership in the species Homo sapiens only because we are committed to the view that what makes someone a member of our kind is their biological species membership. But even a nodding acquaintance with the history of colonialism, genocide, and oppression shows just how malleable the category of the human really is, and shows that we are perfectly capable of denying the humanity of others without denying that they belong to the same biological taxon as ourselves. Humanness and species membership have often come apart.

This analysis suggests that, despite the claims of both right-to-lifers and many of their philosophical opponents, the human status of the human embryo is contestable (to pre-empt an objection, the term “human embryo” does not entail that these embryos are human beings any more than referring to your left foot as a “human foot” entails that your foot is a human being).  

The question of whether or not human embryos are human beings can’t be resolved by appealing to scientific evidence. There aren’t any biological facts that can settle the question of whether embryos are human or at what gestational stage they become human. The controversy about abortion is a moral and political one—a controversy about which beings should be included as members of our kind, and which should not. I’ll explore some of these moral and political in the third and final installment of this series on abortion.

 

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash