Salon op-ed claims some humans aren’t persons, so it is ‘ethical’ to kill them

scientific american, roe v. wade, preborn baby, fetus, biology

A pro-abortion physician and a professor have levied an attack on the pro-life argument in Salon, calling it “weak.” The authors — Dr. Nathan Nobis, an associate professor at Morehouse College, and Dr. Jonathan Dudley, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins — assert that abortion advocates need to be comfortable making an “ethical” case in support of abortion in order to counter pro-life arguments. However, their attempts to construct such a case collapse under the application of rudimentary logic. 

Claim: Some humans are not actually ‘persons’, so it’s acceptable to kill them

Their case is built upon two examples in which they argue that certain humans are not actually “persons,” and therefore are unworthy of legal protection. These nonpersons are organ donors and anencephalic babies. According to the authors, these commonplace cases undercut the pro-life argument because these are examples of things that happen all the time and that most people accept because — they argue — of the lack of consciousness involved. 

In the first case, they claim that doctors “kill” organ donors who have suffered “complete brain death” and are kept on respirators with hearts pumping blood throughout their body as physicians harvest their organs. To the authors, those who are “killed” by doctors for their organs in this way are not “persons” because “they lack brains capable of supporting any type of consciousness.” 

Regarding anencephalic infants, they note that common medical practice is to provide palliative care but not to artificially prolong their lives. For the authors, this somehow proves these babies “cannot be persons,” since they are unable to develop “consciousness,” and therefore a physician “ends their lives.”

To Nobis and Dudley, this ableism is the bedrock of their argument. To them, human beings must be conscious, or capable of consciousness. They write that “this suggests that beginning fetuses are not persons either, since they too lack consciousness-enabling brains. So the pro-life claim that all embryos and fetuses are persons is not true.” They continue: “So, is abortion murder? Does it violate human rights? Not unless other widely-accepted medical procedures that end human life are also wrong. But they aren’t, and neither is abortion.”

But their argument fails to stand up to basic logic, and neither case is analogous to abortion.

Debunking the organ donors and anencephalic babies argument

Organ donors frequently make a voluntary donation of their organs, with their intention declared with full knowledge and consent while they were capable of consciously making such a determination. Additionally, the idea that organ donors are killed by doctors is not medically accurate. Organ donors must be declared dead by a competent medical authority — not simply unconscious, but no longer capable of being alive except by extraordinary medical intervention, and then only temporarily — before organs are removed. As groups like the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE) point out, the declaration of brain death must be in accordance with accepted medical standards: “According to the American Academy of Neurology, brain death is the irreversible loss of clinical function of the brain, including the brain stem, and is a legal declaration of death.” 

READ: Ableism helped pave the way for legalized abortion and remains a factor today

Abortion takes the life of a preborn baby incapable of giving consent to the procedure that will deliberately and directly cause his or her death. In the case of a baby with anencephaly who survives to birth and beyond, treatment with palliative care does not constitute the deliberate ending of the child’s life; anencephaly itself eventually causes the death of the child, and palliative care is meant to provide comfort, not hasten death. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “There is no known cure or standard treatment for anencephaly. Almost all babies born with anencephaly will die shortly after birth.” But it is important to note that these children have not been declared brain dead, nor have they been legally declared dead. They are living children in whom parts of the brain and skull are missing. Some children with anencephaly have survived longer than expected.

“Consciousness” does not determine humanity

The authors’ use of the abstract notion of “consciousness” to make distinctions between humans who are and are not “persons” is flagrantly ableist.

Nobis maintains a blog called “Abortion Arguments” in which he addresses a question from a reader about his use of consciousness as a basis for calling preborn babies non-persons and how a sleeping person, for instance, does not lose personhood. Nobis responds by arguing that people who have once been conscious have memories and connections to their past consciousness, so killing a sleeping person does him harm. Yet, to Nobis, a preborn baby has never been “conscious” and therefore “things cannot go worse for them, since there really is no ‘them’ yet, since there is no person who experiences anything, and so there’s no person that things could take a turn for the worse for.”

This is absurd. Human beings have value because of who and what they are, not what they do or what they are capable of. Once we start judging people by arbitrary capabilities, we’ve crossed into highly questionable territory not only ethically, but also legally.

As Dr. Steve Jacobs said in response to a similar argument from Nobis, “a legal review of the distinction between ‘human’ and ‘person,’ within the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, made it clear that there is none,” according to National Right to Life News

“Ethical arguments — and ethics education — can support the pro-choice side after all,” Nobis and Dudley smugly write. If that’s the case, pro-lifers would like to hear them, as no such arguments have been provided to date.

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