Abortion, Fetuses, and the Capacity for Rational Thought


A few weeks ago, I wrote an article explaining that the only thing that matters in the abortion debate is the humanity of fetuses. Since fetuses are human beings just like you and me (albeit at a younger, much less developed stage of their life), they also have a right to life just like you and me. That, and that alone, is the decisive factor.

However, as things usually go in short articles, that is a bit of an oversimplification (albeit a necessary one). While at the end of the day, the humanity of fetuses is the key factor, proponents of abortion often complicate the issue by arguing that other considerations are actually more important. In particular, many contend that since rational thought is what makes us persons (beings that can’t think rationally, like rocks and butterflies, are not persons), fetuses must not be persons with a right to life because they cannot think rationally.

At first, that may sound convincing, but if we examine this argument more closely, it becomes clear that rational thought cannot be the real key to the abortion debate. Instead, as I said in that prior article, the only thing that really matters is the humanity of fetuses. To see this, we can compare fetuses and two classes of people that definitely have a right to life: infants and people in reversible comas.

The Case of Infants

Let’s start with infants. The main point here is that infants cannot think rationally, but it is obviously wrong to kill them. As a result, we can see right off the bat that if we cannot kill infants, then to be consistent, we have to say that it is wrong to kill fetuses too. In response, proponents of abortion can point out that infants are more developed and therefore have brains that will one day allow them to think rationally, but very young fetuses do not.

However, this difference is not all that important. Why does simply having a brain give you a right to life if that brain cannot think rationally? The only possible reason is that it shows that an infant is the kind of being that can think rationally. It just hasn’t fully developed that capacity yet (as opposed to, say, a rock, which is simply not the kind of being that can think rationally; it can never have that ability).

But we can say the exact same thing about a very young fetus. From the moment of conception, an unborn human is also the kind of being that can think rationally (because it is a human being). Even though it hasn’t fully developed that capacity yet, it is actively developing itself along the same path that infants are on; infants are simply a bit further along.

Because of this, the fact that very young fetuses do not have brains is not morally relevant. Brains matter only because they show that an infant has the inherent (albeit undeveloped) capacity for rational thought, but fetuses have that inherent capacity too. Consequently, there is no morally relevant difference between fetuses and infants. If infants have a right to life, then so do fetuses.

People in Reversible Comas

Next, let’s look at people in reversible comas. Not only are they unable to think rationally, but they are not even conscious, so in that sense, they are even more like very young fetuses than infants are. Nevertheless, it is still wrong to kill them, so it must be wrong to kill fetuses too. In response, supporters of abortion can argue that people in reversible comas used to be conscious and capable of rational thought and one day will be again, but fetuses haven’t ever reached that stage.

That may sound like an important difference at first, but let’s think about this a bit more. It is odd to base a person’s present moral status on their past and future capacities. Shouldn’t their present status depend on what they can presently do, not what they used to be able to do or what they will be able to do in the future?

The only way those things can be relevant is if they are somehow indicators of what the person is at present. In other words, the fact that a person used to be conscious and capable of rational thought and one day will be again is relevant only because it shows that even though they have lost those abilities temporarily, they are still the kind of being that has them inherently (again, as opposed to a rock, which never has and never can have those abilities).

But once we look at it this way, we can see that people in reversible comas aren’t different from fetuses in any morally significant way. As we saw before, fetuses are also the kind of beings that have the capacity for consciousness and rational thought in the same fundamental way that infants and people in eversible comas do. As a result, if it is wrong to kill people in reversible comas, it must be wrong to kill fetuses as well.

No Morally Relevant Differences

At the end of the day, there simply aren’t any morally relevant differences between fetuses and born humans. From the moment of conception, every human being already possesses everything they need to have a right to life. They have the inherent, fundamental capacities that define us as persons, albeit in a very undeveloped, biologically immature way, so there is no morally relevant difference between them and any other humans. Simply put, every single one of us, whether born or unborn, has the same right to life, and the difference in development between us and fetuses does not change that.

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