Is The Fetus Merely A Potential Life?

During this Pro-life week, I taught a class that emphasized the pro-life position. I present the position in favor of the embryo being seen as a living human being in this way. First, I note that the factual question "What is it?" is the first that must be answered. Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason and Scott Klusendorf of Prolife Training give the same illustration as a way of presenting the importance of this question:

Suppose that you are standing at your sink washing dishes when your five year old son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter comes behind you and asks "Can I kill this?" What is the first question you should ask? Of course, the first and most important question is "what is it?" If it's a cockroach, kill it! In fact, if you find anymore cockroaches, kill them, too. If it's a puppy he found in the street, then I doubt anyone would be in favor of allowing the child to kill it. What if "it" is the little boy who lives down the street? No one (except the criminally insane) would say that it's okay to kill the little boy. You see, if you don't first know what "it" is, then you cannot make a rational decision as to whether killing it is okay. As Greg Koukl, paraphrasing Francis Beckwith, says: "If the zygote or embryo or fetus is not a human being, then no justification for either abortion [or Embryonic Stem Cell Research] is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human being, no justification for taking her life is adequate."

So, how do we know that the fetus (beginning with the embryo) is a human being. Well, we know that life begins at conception. The unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. The parents are human beings and the law of biogenesis says that everything recreates after its own kind. The law of identify says that whatever a thing is it remains such as long as it exists. Moreover, it's alive! If allowed to proceed to normal development, it will grow into a full human being. It's features may change but it is fully a human being. Since it is a human being, then certain rights follow from that.

During the talk, I was confronted by a scientist who took the position with me that the fetus/embryo is merely a potential life only. Sure, everything I said was true, but the fetus had to undergrow a great deal of growth which depended upon many factors (such as being left in the womb) before it could qualify as a human being. I decided to respond in two ways.

First, I told him that the term "potential" was difficult to understand. After all, a one year old is a potential five year old. A seven year old is a potential eight year old. I am a potential ninety year old (many years in the future). I am not now a ninety year old, and I will only reach the stage of being a ninety year old depending upon many factors such as being left in an environment in which I can survive in order to become a realized ninety year old. You see, the fetus is fitted to its environment. If you take it out of its intended environment for its stage of development, it will certainly die. But is that a reason to think of it as being non-human? Consider, we all live in an environment that we are suited for in our level of development. Because we can’t live outside that environment (space, deep in the ocean, in the Antarctic) does that make it okay to kill us?

But then I took a second tact. I asked him if he was certain he knew when a "fetus" went from being a non-human being (or a potential human being) to a fully realized human being. If not, then how can he know when it has crossed the line making it okay to kill or not to kill. Isn't the better approach if we don't know when the "fetus" passes from the "potential human being" category into the "realized human being" category to refrain from killing?

In other words, I presented to him the abortion quadrilemma discussed by Boston College philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft. Here's how it works. You begin with the question such as the following: "So, if we don't know when life begins that makes it okay to kill something? Doesn't that argue for not killing something until we're sure?" Then you throw out an illustration to make the point cleearer. Picture a hunter who hears a rustling in the bush. The rustling could be an animal that he is licensed to hunt, and killing that animal would be perfectly legal and (setting aside the difficult moral issues that involve hunting of animals not for food) ethical. But what if the rustling in the bush is another hunter? It could be, but the hunter doesn't know. Should he shoot before he's sure it isn't a human being? Obviously not. The law puts an obligation on us to not kill negligently.

The quadrilemma makes capital of the fact that there are only four options available concerning the humanity of the fetus. It is either a human being or not, and we either know what it is for certain or not. Combining these options, we come up with four categories:
Category 1. X is a human being and we know it for certain.
Category 2. X is a human being and we don't know it for certain.
Category 3. X is not a human being and we know it for certain.
Category 4. X is not a human being and we don't know it for certain.

If the fetus is a human being and we know it, it seems apparent that we shouldn't kill it since that would be a form of murder. If the fetus is a human being and we don't know it for certain, or if the fetus is not a human being but we don't know that for certain, then it is very much like the rustling in the bush. Wisdom tells us that it's wrong to kill the thing in the bush when we aren't certain what it is because it may be a human being. By the same token, we shouldn't kill the fetus in the womb if we aren't certain whether its a human being or not because it may be a human being and to kill a human being by accident due to mistake about his or her nature is also wrong (at minimum, negligent homicide in most states). It is only if the fetus is not a human being and we are certain that it's not a human being that it would be okay to kill it.

Of course, unless they are pro-choice zealots, they are going to have to admit that they don't know for certain that the fetus is not a human being. In fact, the argument that the fetus is necessarily a human being is much stronger than the argument that it isn't a human being. So, if they can't say with certainty when the fetus crosses the line between humanity and non-humanity, then the only wise and appropriate course is to not kill the fetus through abortion.

Anyone have other answers to the "potential human being" argument?

Cross-blogged at Apologia Christi


Anonymous said…
Another answer is, or rather another question is if it's not a human being what kind of being is it?
sarah lee said…
I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.

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