Separate from the legal, religious, and ethical debate regarding abortion is an issue not often addressed in a dispassionate manner, i.e., when does a fetus become a human being with all the rights inherent to that status? I should add that I have thought about and discussed this over a number of years and do not find myself with a clear answer. I look forward to hearing from objectivists.
asked Nov 30 '10 at 21:49
First, a little context:
Ayn Rand and Dr. Leonard Peikoff (her top student) are consistent and clear on the embryo's lack of rights in the first trimester of pregnancy, as well as on the absolute requirement of recognizing a child's rights after birth. But they appear to have shown some ambivalence regarding rights and personhood of the fetus in the later stages of pregnancy.
Rand held that birth is a critical event, an absolute (1967, see all quotes below), that rights are not possible until that point (1968), that life starts at birth (1971) -- but yet pondered the significance of the capacity for consciousness before birth (1967) and the medical status of the entity's life at six to eight months (1971). And importantly she qualified its application, saying that abortion at the "last minute" of a baby or child that is formed is a "different issue" than eliminating a mere potential (1974), and that "one may argue about the later stages of pregnancy" (1975). Her last available statement on the matter (1976) explicitly endorses the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which removes restrictions on abortion through the second trimester while allowing severe restrictions on abortions in the final trimester.
Then Dr. Peikoff wrote in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand that rights cannot belong to fetuses (1991) -- yet when a student asked him to clarify the actualization of personhood, he discussed a "borderline area" where this could in fact hold before birth, in fetuses which are "essentially formed" (1992).
It is of course only speculation, but this (uncharacteristic) cloudiness could perhaps stem from grasping, at least implicitly, certain late-term facts, while also (appropriately) taking care to guard against any possible undermining of two critically important, fundamental facts which they certainly grasp with full clarity: that people have no duties, and that individual rights are inalienable absolutes. An uncompromising recognition of these basic truths would be threatened respectively by any possibility of an unchosen obligation to a developing fetus, and by any "clash" or requirement for "balancing", "trading off" or otherwise compromising on rights between fetus and mother.
I have written a brief article, Abortion Rights and Parental Obligations, exploring the nature of the developing fetus and the resulting implications for the attainment of personhood, and explaining how late-term fetal rights are harmonious with the absolutism of rights and with there being no duties (unchosen obligations). The result is an integrated approach to fetal rights, reproductive rights, maternal obligation, and parental obligation.
(see below for the quotes referenced above)
Quotes from Ayn Rand on Abortion and Rights
"The fact of birth is an absolute -- that is, up to that moment, the child is not an independent, living organism. It's part of the body of it's mother. But at birth, a child is an individual, and has the rights inherent in the nature of a human individual. [...] It is debated that at some time before birth the child becomes conscious. I don't know; this is for science to determine. But what is not debatable is this: a human embryo does not even have the beginnings of a nervous system until a number of months (around three, I believe) into the pregnancy. [...B]before that point, there is no rational, moral, or semi-humane argument that could be made in favor of forbidding abortion. ... A piece of tissue -- an embryo -- cannot have rights."
"An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not yet living (or the unborn).
"A human being is a living entity; life starts at birth. An embryo is a potential human being. You might argue that medically an embryo is alive at six to eight months. I don't know. [...] The right of a living human being comes above any potential human being. I never equate the potential with the actual. I'm in favor of abortion, of birth control, of sex as such, as an absolute right of the parties involved. The right of a living human being comes above any potential human being."
"I'd like to express my indignation at the idea of confusing a living human being with an embryo, which is only some undeveloped cells. (Abortion at the last minute -- when a baby is formed -- is a different issue.) The right to abortion is the right to get rid of some cells in your body, which you can't afford to support if it grows into a child. [...] The basic principles here are: never sacrifice the living to the nonliving, and never confuse an actuality with a potentiality. An "unborn child," before it's formed, is not a human, it's not a living entity, it has no rights. The woman has rights."
"Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a “right to life.” A piece of protoplasm has no rights—and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable"
"I am certainly in favor of abortion. [...] I am in favor of a woman's perfect moral right to have one if she so decides. [...] I am in agreement with the Supreme Court decision on this subject."
Quotes from Dr. Leonard Peikoff on Abortion and Rights
In his "Advanced Seminars on Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand", conducted during and just after its writing, Peikoff was asked about the point of personhood:
The comments by bildanielson answer the question very well. Those comments actually would make a good formal answer instead of remaining in the form of separate comments butchered by the limit on comment length. The key point is that "'personhood' can only begin at the moment of live birth."
The specific rights that a "person" possesses depend on the capacities of the person. A normal adult, with rational faculty, has all the rights implied by his need for freedom of action in a social context, and reason as his basic means of survival. Note, however, that the question of when rights begin is not the same as the quesiton of when an individual person begins. A newborn infant, for example, has almost no rights -- i.e., no capacity (until later development) to exercise most rights, and no need to exercise them since a newborn infant is dependent on a parent or guardian to protect and nurture it. A newborn has no right to liberty (no capacity to walk or even crawl yet), no right to freedom of speech (no ability to speak yet), no right to vote, or to keep and bear arms, to own property (no capacity to do much with property except suck on it), or peaceably assemble, etc. The one underlying right that does apply to a newborn infant is the right to life, which actually serves more as a limit on what parents and others may do to the newborn than on what the newborn is free to do on its own.
One could similarly ask: when do conjoined twins have rights independently of each other? The answer is: when they are separated, i.e., when they become physically separate individuals -- if each has a rational faculty of his own.
answered Dec 06 '10 at 02:20
Ideas for Life ♦