Nothing stirs up controversy like abortion. To some, it carries the steep moral cost of destroying human life, while to others, i...
This is my final essay in a series of three on the topic of abortion. In the earlier essays, I explained that some people think that referring to the unborn as “embryos” dehumanizes them, and just like the dehumanization of racial and ethnic minorities, this way of speaking is used to legitimate their murder. This analogy is mistaken. To dehumanize others is to think of them as dangerous animals or evil, monstrous beings. That’s not the case with embryos. Describing a being as an embryo is a far cry from considering it to be a creature akin to a cockroach or a beast or a monster.
Even so, opponents of abortion can still argue that if embryos belong to our species—which they obviously do—then they are human embryos, and they are therefore human beings. And if that’s right, they can argue that because killing innocent human beings is morally wrong, abortion is morally wrong.
I briefly explained in the previous installment why this argument doesn’t hold water. Now I want to dive deeper into why it doesn’t work and offer a diagnosis of what’s really at stake when people argue about the morality of abortion. This will open up basic questions about what it means to be human.
The problem with the pro-life argument that I sketched above is that being human and being a member of our species aren’t the same thing. Consider an alien from a distant planet that looks and behaves just like a member of our species. Is that alien human? You might answer, “No, of course not. She’s similar to a human, but she can’t be human, because she’s not a member of our species.” Or you might answer “Yes, the alien’s human. She’s just not an Earth human.”
Both responses turn on the question of whether the being in question is a human being. In that way, it’s similar to the pro-life argument. But there are big problems with this way of thinking. First of all, “human” isn’t even a scientific category. “Homo sapiens” is a scientific category, but “human” is a folk category. This means that the question of whether Homo sapiens are humans is a question about whether a scientific term (“Homo sapiens”) and a vernacular term (“human”) name the very same things. When identifying water with H2O, we’re saying that everything that people call “water” (when using the term correctly, according to the rules of their linguistic community), is what chemists call H2O. That identity can be confirmed by performing chemical analyses of samples of the stuff called “water.”
But “human” is far more referentially promiscuous than “water” is. There are many examples of groups of people reserving the term “human” for themselves and describing other groups as non- or sub-human, and there are even cultures that include some other species in the category of the human. On top of all this, the scientists themselves don’t always equate humans with our species. Sometimes they characterize Neanderthals or other prehistoric hominids as humans too. So, it’s incorrect to say that “human” and “Homo sapiens” name the same beings. At best the relationship between the two terms is inexact, fluctuating, and contestable.
We’ve considered the question of the human taxonomically. Now let’s examine it developmentally. Some ways that we categorize living things only pertain to stages of their lives. For example, the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) begins life as a fertilized egg, which hatches into a tadpole, which gradually becomes a frog. All of these developmental stages are stages of the same species, but only the final stage is properly characterized as a frog. Similarly, we can say that a fertilized ovum belongs to the species Homo sapiens but it only becomes human at a certain stage in its development. And just as there is no sharp boundary between the tadpole stage and the frog stage of the developmental trajectory of Lithobates catesbeianus, there is no definite point when Homo sapiens become human beings. So, even if all Homo sapiens can become human, it doesn’t follow that all Homo sapiens are human.
These reflections raise daunting questions about what it means to be human. The closer we look at the concept of the human, the more indefinite it appears.
The search for some definite property—some fact of the matter—that makes an individual a human being looks more and more like a wild goose chase. Fortunately, we don’t have to conceive of humanness in this way. There is a much more realistic interpretation of what’s going on when we regard others as human beings, and it’s one that has the advantage of encompassing the multitude of ways that we deploy the concept of the human.
To regard a being as human isn’t to recognize some fact about them. It’s to endow them a certain moral status. We don’t grant them that status because they are human. Rather, it’s our granting them that status that makes them human. Perhaps an analogy will help. When someone is knighted by the Queen of England, it’s not because they already possess the property of being a knight. When the Queen said to Elton John “I dub thee Sir Elton John…” she made him a knight by assigning him that status.
Similarly, we make individuals human by assigning them a human status. That’s why the question of whether or not an embryo is a human being can’t be settled by facts about it. Strange as it may sound, it is neither true nor false to say that “human” embryos are human beings. It follows that the controversy over abortion isn’t really about the true nature of the unborn, even though it is often misconceived as such. It’s about whether to grant embryos the honorific title of “human” or to withhold it from them.
Image by Dr. Vilas Gayakwad on Wikimedia