The obvious, unmentioned problem

I spotted the tweet:


Which led to this story:

Considering the Humanity of Nonhumans
By James Gorman | Published: December 9, 2013 | A version of this news analysis appears in print on December 10, 2013, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Humanity of Nonhumans.

What is a person?

“Beings who recognize themselves as ‘I’s.’ Those are persons.” That was the view of Immanuel Kant, said Lori Gruen, a philosophy professor at Wesleyan University who thinks and writes often about nonhuman animals and the moral and philosophical issues involved in how we treat them.

She was responding to questions in an interview last week after advocates used a new legal strategy to have chimpanzees recognized as legal persons, with a right to liberty, albeit a liberty with considerable limits.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, an advocacy group led by Steven M. Wise, filed writs of habeas corpus in New York last week on behalf of four captive chimpanzees: Tommy, owned by a Gloversville couple; two at Stony Brook University; and one at the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. The lawsuits were dismissed, but Mr. Wise said he planned to appeal.

He believes that the historical use of habeas corpus lawsuits as a tool against human slavery offers a model for how to fight for legal rights for nonhumans.

There’s a lot more at the link. The story continues to note the efforts, and arguments, of some interested people, many of them scientists, to confer a form of legal personhood on animals deemed to have some particular aspects of behavior which would commonly be associated with a self-aware intelligence: tool use, self-recognition and the ability to plan for the future. But even though the article, at least in the web edition, has an illustration of three elephants, the article completely ignored the elephant in the room, that being the legal non-personhood of human beings prior to birth.

The New York Times has been quite liberal about publishing articles which advocate personhood for some non-humans, including, two months ago Dogs Are People Too.  But, when it comes to recognizing actual human beings who have yet to make their way through the birth canal, the Times is a bit more reticent.  In November of 201, the Times published an article by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, telling readers about all of the problems with declaring an unborn child to be a legal person, giving us arguments against doing so based solely on the fact that an unborn child possesses unquestionably human DNA:

Accordingly, the case against the morality of all abortions, no matter how early, needs to appeal to features of the newborn that are present at every stage of development beyond the fertilization of the egg.  Here the only plausible feature seems to be having the DNA characteristic of the human species (the structure that, in the natural course of things, will lead to the newborn baby).

The problem, however, is that a fertilized egg itself has this DNA.  Therefore, if we grant that killing a fertilized egg is not murder, we must also agree that the mere fact that a fetus or embryo possesses human DNA does not show that killing it is murder.  It also seems to follows that at least some early-term abortions are not murder, since it’s hard to see any moral difference between a fertilized egg and, say, an embryo of two or three weeks.

A possible response is to claim that there is a person with full moral standing only once the fertilized egg has been implanted in the uterus (about five days after fertilization).  But why think that implantation confers personhood?  The only plausible reason seems to be that an implanted egg is on a natural path that will, if all goes well, lead to a full-term birth.  But the same is true of a fertilized egg.  So it’s hard to see that the potential to develop into a newborn morally differentiates a fertilized egg before and a fertilized egg after implantation.

The basic problem is that, once we give up the claim that a fertilized egg is a human person (has full moral standing), there is no plausible basis for claiming that all further stages of development are human persons.  The DNA criterion seems to be the only criterion of being human that applies at every stage from conception to birth.  If we agree that it does not apply at the earliest stages of gestation, there is no basis for claiming that every abortion is the killing of an innocent human person.

More (both above and below) in the original.  I find it odd, however, that a professor of philosophy at such a prestigious Catholic university would be pushing the edge examples to argue against the very Catholic position that live begins at conception.  Dr Gutting tries to push the difference between fertilization — the point the Church defines as conception — and implantation, a distinction the Church does not take, because he wishes to legitimize the use of the so-called “Plan B” contraceptives, the “morning after” pills which impede the implantation of a human embryo in the uterine wall. The Times is, of course, a strong supporter of abortion.

Your Editor finds it rather odd: our friends on the left are just so eager to protect the lives and health of animals, yet so willing to allow a living human being to be just thrown away if the wrong person — his mother — does not want him.

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