By Dale Emery Lempa
The recent nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court has renewed interest in the abortion debate. Critical to the abortion debate is the question of when a fetus becomes a person. Proponents of either side will agree that all persons have inherent rights—what is in question is when a person receives those rights.
Pro-lifers such as myself and others on this blog contend that personhood begins at the moment of conception, which occurs when a human sperm fertilizes a human egg to produce a human zygote. Others will declare personhood for a fetus at other milestones in a pre-born child’s in-utero development, such as the moment the heart starts to beat, or the moment of detectable brain-waves, or even as late as the moment of birth. Some, like Peter Singer, will even go so far as to allow parents to kill their children under a certain age.
Though these are markedly different positions, they yield remarkably similar ethical consequences, because they all agree that at the moment a fetus becomes a distinct human being, that person deserves all the rights that we would normally give to any other member of society.
While I and others on this blog have placed this moment at the point of conception, let us for the sake of argument assume uncertainty regarding this critical issue. What then shall we do? Since we cannot determine when personhood begins, abortion risks killing a person.
Perhaps an illustration here will help. Suppose I am on a game show in which there is a hallway with ten locked doors numbered one through ten, and that behind one of these doors is my friend Frank, standing quietly and waiting for me to open the door. Also waiting behind each door are what we will call personal “conveniences,” such as cash prizes, a burden-free education, and luxury items. At each door I have the same choice: I can either choose Frank my friend, or I can choose the personal conveniences. But the catch is that I don’t know which door Frank is waiting behind, whereas I am guaranteed personal conveniences behind all ten of the doors. If I choose Frank, I forfeit the personal conveniences for that door and all the following doors, but if I choose the conveniences I may continue my choices at each of the following doors.
The catch comes in the mechanism of my choice: I choose Frank by simply opening the door and shaking my friend’s hand, thereby signaling my forfeiture of those and all following conveniences. But if I would rather choose the conveniences for any particular door, I must fire a gun point-blank through the center of the door, such that were Frank behind the door I would most definitely kill him.
As I proceed through the doors making my choices, at what point should I stop choosing the conveniences and choose Frank instead, forfeiting the conveniences? If I know with certainty that Frank stands behind door number four, my choice is easy: I simply shoot doors one through three, claim my prizes, and then open the fourth door to shake my friend’s hand. But supposing that of all ten doors he might possibly be behind, I cannot determine which door hides my friend—at which door am I morally obligated to stop shooting?