Nithin Sam

Nithin Sam
Director of Janpragati,
a social organisation based
in Lucknow that works for the benefit of Children.

In the beginning is the message, and the message is in life, and the message is life. And if the message is a human message, then the life is a human life .
On May 30, 1996 a Canadian lady named Brenda Drummond gave birth to a baby boy at her home. An emergency scan revealed a pellet in the baby’s brain! Two days prior to his birth, Brenda inserted a gun in her vagina and shot the foetus. The baby however survives. Though charged with attempted murder initially, the charge was later thrown off; it was argued that Canadian law only protects PERSONS. Since foetuses were NOT PERSONS, there was no attempt to murder!
Gross, as it seems to many of us, was logically explained away by a simple idea: Foetuses have no rights! An idea, whose pathway of logic runs:
A Foetus is “NO PERSON” and hence proved “NO RIGHTS”.
If a foetus is a person, he deserves some rights. Consequently the right to survival may be extended to the foetus-person. There is just one reason, we contend for attributed personhood; namely Abortion. But we are yet to arrive at such a singular conclusion.
Rights alone don’t justify Moral Obligations- we know that. However in this article, I have lashed away every other factor that contributes to a Moral obligation. We are obliged to act morally, often outside the realm of Rights. As foetuses form a psychosocial part of human living, who affects and in turn be affected, with a relationship so binding and profound, our moral obligation turns drastic! But let’s stick to Rights alone for the time being. Do Fetuses have Rights?
Do foetuses qualify for Human Rights? Little contention exists to invalidate this point. The most voracious of abortionists accept this fact that they are human. Foetuses just don’t CONTAIN human nature, but by nature they are human. Cancerous cells, sperm, ovum etc may contain human nature and human genes, but they can never be described as human in wholeness. Genetically, a foetus contains the exact set of chromosomes as found in any adult Human being. In form, they differ from an ideal human person, and functions different from autonomous human activities. But this does not disqualify them from being human. As soon as the embryo is formed, this new human produces Human enzymes, which directs its own growth and development ! They contain human genotype and would express appropriate human phenotype in respective stages of development. This is the beginning of a new human life.
“Zygote… results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo ).
Peter Singer, an abortionist and one of the most widely followed philosophers of modern times says in his book called Practical Ethics.
“…there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and egg is a human being .”
This fact opens up for our consideration, the eligibility of a foetus for Human rights. We advertently reckon our responsibility to our own species. This in any manner does not imply selfish propagation; but implies protection of that which is human. Anyway we don’t have much of a contention here. The determination of human hood in an embryo is by large a scientific question and so there is no space for speculative arguments. Nevertheless bestowing Rights to an embryo paves a way for speculation. Why? Because Rights are not absolute! An improper understanding of Human rights can be confounded by personal interests and convenience, often placing Rights on flimsy grounds. So let us bring out the next valid question:
An embryo is human, but we cannot confer human rights, because it is not a person
Seemingly veritable, an embryo is unequivocally shorn of personhood. Here we are faced with a philosophical question which has to be backed by scientific facts. The denial is based on personhood theories, largely framed by utilitarian philosophers. But it is worthwhile to examine them. We will consider Peter Singer alone, because most theories resemble each other and he is the strongest proponent of personhood theories. Singer defines ‘persons’ based on four characteristics which constitute a rational self-conscious person. Let’s consider each
(i) “A rational and self-conscious being is aware of itself as an extended body existing over an extended period of time.”
Basically a utilitarian formulation in the tradition of Bentham and Mill, this statement is a juggling of moral calculations. There are many parameters to establishing rational superiority and the extent of self-consciousness. These parameters which are negatives and positives are balanced against each other by counting and weighing each. Practically an impossible feat, we can only finally presume that an entity has self-consciousness. This presumption has to be attested by the activities of the entity, and then the entity earns the distinction of rational quality and self-consciousness. It is therefore calculated that infants and unborn do not possess this quality. Surely a baby is not aware of its own existence! Singer points out that some animals can learn signs and show a level of intelligence. He therefore claims that animals like apes, dogs, cats and dolphins are rational beings. Scientifically though, it is herculean to conclude so. Nevertheless he suggests that we should give them the advantage of doubt and so protect them.
I wonder why this advantage is not extended to infants! This quality is not conferred to people in a state of coma, either. He indicates that such are not persons! For infants, Singer proposes a probationary period of 28 days after which it can be considered ‘persons’. But how does Singer really propose this period? There is no rationale behind this assumption; it is purely arbitrary. In fact when does a person really be ‘conscious of his body extending over a period of time’? Why not say “Two years” or “twelve years”? The essentiality of self-consciousness is a gradually developing quality and you can point out no particular stage when one assumes the complete attire of self-consciousness. If you do so, you’d always be too late!
Consider some facts about the unborn. She starts learning very early within the womb, through experience, repetition and association. She develops a preference for certain food and recognises both parents’ voices. Around the final 10 weeks of gestation, she starts learning language. She recognises her mother’s native language and foreign language. She even learns to enjoy music (which is truly human). She even remembers! These “learning” qualities are particularly significant since human beings learn constructively with the dimension of self-consciousness inherent in them. Who can deny self-consciousness in unborn children? If an animal’s capacity to learn signs is an indication of personhood, why are the unborn left out of the picture? So far, personhood seems to be something benevolently conferred by the mighty and powerful. It is attributed rather externally as a tag or a title! However being a human ‘person’ is more inherent. Rationality and self-consciousness do not define personhood anyway. Personhood is rather a matter of essence, and truly human essence. Rationality and self-consciousness are largely traits of human personality. Singer definitely borrows human traits and applies generally to all creatures to assign personhood. But animals are not judged based on human traits. They have qualities of their own; some quite marvellous to the human mind.
Finally it looks like ‘rights’ are conferred onto human qualities, so why deny survival rights to the unborn?
(ii) “It is a desiring and plan-making being.”
This statement looks drafted for preference utilitarianism. The applicability ensues only in relation with other organism. Again, as with classical utilitarianism, there is a juggling of preferences pitied against other preferences. However, it is self-defeating when applied to defending abortion. On the first show, it may seem that for desires, there has to be minimum criteria of consciousness. How can something desire, when it has no consciousness? A stretched rubber band, which has no consciousness, would ‘desire’ to come back to its normal state. However a living being’s ‘desire’ cannot be compared to a million rubber bands’ “desires”! A fish may not have the kind of consciousness we are looking for, but it has the quality of a life, which makes it different.
Indubitably an embryo has the quality of Human life. Let us assume that the embryo has no ‘desires’, and not a ‘conscious’ being! The underlying morality of preference utilitarianism is interestingly the golden rule! “Do unto others, as you would have them.” The rule allows you to place yourselves in shoes of the “non-conscious” entity, (assuming that you know all), and choose for the entity, its “desires”. If the case is applied for our embryo, counting and weighing the desires of any of us who have consciousness, abortion cannot be defended. Terminating the life of an embryo is depriving the choice of an embryo for future.
An embryo surprisingly seems to be showing “desires” and plan making! They prefer the voice of their mother; certain food and even certain music! Further the foetus seems to be particular in directing her own development. At all specific stages of fetal development, the foetus produces specific enzymes appropriate to its age, thus planning its own life! Though many of the fetal activities make no sense within the womb, they definitely do, for the external world! For example, a baby ‘practises’ breathing around thirty weeks of pregnancy, though there is no air to really breathe. If not for her plan to survive in the external, then what else can it be?
However are ‘desires’ and ‘planning’ still a personhood qualification? I still doubt it. Knowing the many who still ‘live’ in a ‘non-conscious’ state, I still regard them persons. They may not have ‘desires’ or ‘plans for the future’, but they are still human persons, because personhood is still an inherent trait!
(iii) “It contains as a necessary condition for the right to life that it desires to continue living.”
An extension of the previous statement, this formulation is not exactly Singer’s invention. He borrows it from Michael Tooley. Singer says that this argument is merely “alleged” than established. He “knows of no better argument’ and so accepts it. Tooley opines that to claim any Right, it should be supported with a corresponding ‘desire’. A child has the right to claim his toy, only if he desires so. If he does not possess this ‘desire’, he does not have the ‘right’ to that toy either. We may assume that the embryo is not conscious of its survival. But as per our previous discussion, this does not rule out the ‘desire to live’. That the embryo directs its own survival from conception onwards informs us that it contains that necessary condition to survival.
Singer at this juncture brings in the question of sentience and interest. Sentience is the quality of an organism to feel pain and enjoy pleasure. ‘Pain’ is important to Singer.
The capacity for suffering is the vital characteristic that entitles a being to equal consideration. … the capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way … if a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration … if a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience … is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others.
If sentience is important, then do embryos have pain? I have stumbled upon recent research on pain. It was so far believed that the unborn child is incapable of experiencing pain until late pregnancy, say around 32nd week. This was based on the assumption that the cerebral cortex is needed for experiencing pain. However recent medical research provides strong evidence that the cortex is not necessary to experience pain.
“Pain perception during foetal and neonatal development does not necessarily involve the same structures involved in pain processing as those in adults, meaning that the lack of development of certain connections is not sufficient to support the argument that foetuses cannot feel pain until late gestation.
When do these receptors develop?
“First nociceptors (Pain receptors) appear around the mouth as early as the seventh gestational week; by the 20th week these are present all over the body.”
So what do medical experts say?
“Although we do not know exactly when the foetus can experience pain, noxious stimulation during foetal life causes a stress response, which could have both short- and long-term adverse effects on the developing central nervous system.”
It is implicit that embryos experience pain, and since the mechanism of pain in embryo differs from adult, we cannot be sure when it starts experiencing pain. All that we can be sure is that by 20th week, the foetus definitely shows a response to pain stimuli. I can therefore safely conclude that in accordance to Singer’s definition, embryos do have that necessary condition to right to life. It should be noted that ‘pain’ in itself is not the condition for personhood, rather the capacity of sentience itself stands as a necessary condition to ‘Right to Life.’
But again, does a ‘desire’ to live simply confer ‘personhood.’ A person is a person, whether he has the desire to live or not!
(iv) Finally, it is an autonomous being.
This is pure functionalism. Here a person is defined as someone who can function autonomously. A person is not defined by the ability to be autonomous. His activities don’t define his person; rather his activities may provide a proof for his person. A seriously disabled person may not be autonomous, but he always had a potential for autonomy. A blind man is a person; a lame man is a person; a paraplegic or a quadriplegic is also a person. They are not autonomous in the complete sense; nevertheless they are complete persons. There are no quasi-persons!
An embryo is not autonomous in this sense; neither an infant nor even small children. Therefore this is not a valid definition for persons.
I am not sure whether we can ever frame personhood theories. It would be much more than just rational assumptions. Perhaps we do not have enough understanding of who a person is. At this juncture, it is erroneously criminal to deny rights to a foetus at any stage. We would never know when the so called “personhood’ is assumed by the foetus. The only logical deduction we can honestly bring, is that an embryo at its conception is a person. As a person, and as one of the weakest and the most dependant of human persons, she deserves our protection. We are morally obliged to confer rights to her; for her survival.
I found the following dialogue from the 1968 TV series “The Planet of Apes” quite interesting. Notice that the characters are apes and apes are the dominant species in this planet; humans are ‘animals’ here. Dr. Zira as well as Dr.Zaius are apes as well.
Anonymous Ape: I don’t understand these animal psychologists. What is Dr. Zira trying to prove?
Dr. Zaius: That man can be domesticated.