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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

ethwc's gravatar image

ethwc ♦

I also spent a lot of time thinking, discussing, and writing about this when I was in college, with our Objectivist student group. We wrote and published a long newspaper column with our attempt to provide the most rational and ethical answer. As I still believe, it all derives from individual rights. Where there is no individual being, there can be no rights. In uncertain or gradient cases (as in pregnancy), the mother certainly is an existing individual, therefore her rights always have precedence. The actual must be valued over the potential. To be continued...

(Nov 30 '10 at 22:33) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

The actual must also be respected over the potential when it comes to rights. Where it becomes less clear, more complex, is when the fetus is capable of existing as an individual being, although it hasn't actually been put into that status yet. But often the crucial fact is lost that most abortions happen in the first trimester when there's no meaningful chance the fetus could survive.
So I would restate your question to capture the crucial attributes that define rights: when does a fetus become an individual human being? Or the ability to exist as an individual living organism?

(Nov 30 '10 at 22:44) QEDbyBrett ♦ QEDbyBrett's gravatar image

I'll take a stab at this...

The question as posed seems to me to be fundamentally flawed. I would submit that it wrongly assumes that "human beings", per se, have inherent fundamental rights. My understanding is that rights extend only to persons, per se. That it is persons, and only persons, who are capable of having rights. And the reason for this is that the concept of a “right” subsumes both an entitlement and an obligation to a person in the context of social interactions.


(Dec 01 '10 at 14:02) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

Therefore there is a fundamental distinction between an incredibly complex biological system-the human being- and a person. A human is a biological entity, albeit incredibly complex; less so as a zygote or an embryo, and more so as a fetus. But so too is a mature Panda Bear. As a purely biological entity a human being has no inherent rights. Just as a rock, a tree, an octopus, a chicken embryo, or a mature Panda Bear can have no rights. Rights pertain exclusively to persons, and "personhood" can only begin at the moment of live birth.


(Dec 01 '10 at 14:03) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

It is at that point where the unborn changes to an independent individual capable of survival on its own (with the help of its biological parents, or anyone else), and with time increasing levels of political rights are obtained. The point here is that genuine rights do not conflict, but they do require an obligation: your right to (entitlement) X means you recognize everyone else’s right to the same.


(Dec 01 '10 at 14:03) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

A true right does not require sacrifices by your neighbors in order for you to enjoy your perceived entitlement – and vice versa. Rights mean a freedom to act coupled with the obligation to not violate others freedom to the same action. And the whole notion of rights pertains uniquely to rational independent beings known as persons.


(Dec 01 '10 at 14:03) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

Prior to birth, a human zygote/embryo/fetus, it is a potential person because until live birth it is totally dependent upon a real person (imbued with full individual rights – both moral and legal), namely the pregnant women carrying the embryo or fetus. A woman’s status in this is unique, profound, and immensely important to understand.


(Dec 01 '10 at 14:04) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

While some may argue that there is an entitlement ascribable to a fetus (or even-by some-zygotes and embryos), no one argues that a zygote, embryo or fetus could possible comply with the other side of the rights coin – obligations. It is only the pregnant woman who can legitimately deal with both the entitlement and obligation features of the nature of a right.


(Dec 01 '10 at 14:05) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

As stated by Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh in The 'Personhood' Movement Is Anti-Life, ". . . embryos and fetuses cannot be granted rights based on their potential to develop into human persons. The proper view of rights during pregnancy is based on fundamental facts about human nature. Those facts dictate that only pregnant women--not embryos or fetuses--have rights."


(Dec 01 '10 at 14:05) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

While a human embryo or fetus is a developing human being that biological fact ought not obscure the fundamental distinction that as complex as it may be, or as "person-like" as some people think of it as being, it is a potentiality. And this potentiality only changes at the moment of live birth.

(Dec 01 '10 at 14:05) bildanielson bildanielson's gravatar image

There are several questions in the queue asking whether it is moral to steal or otherwise violate another person's rights in order to survive or to achieve necessary personal values. My own perception is that objectivism does not allow for seizing other's properties or values in order to advance ones' own values or objectives. This leads to my question as to when a fetus becomes a person. Is it at conception, viability, birth, age one, age 13, age ?, or some other landmark? You mention survival on its own, what of handicapped children, are they never individuals?

(Dec 04 '10 at 18:23) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image
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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."
[Ayn Rand, FHF Q&A following "The Wreckage of the Consensus", 1967, Ayn Rand Answers pp.126-127]

"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).
Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered."
[Ayn Rand, "Of Living Death", 1968, The Virtue of Selfishness pp.58-59. Also, cited by Leonard Peikoff regarding abortion in his book Objectivism (see below).]

"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."
[Ayn Rand, FHF Q&A following "The Moratorium on Brains", 1971, Ayn Rand Answers p.125]

"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."
[Ayn Rand, FHF Q&A following "Egalitarianism and Inflation", 1974, Ayn Rand Answers p.17]

"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"
[Ayn Rand, "A Last Survey", 1975, The Ayn Rand Letter p.383. Also, cited by Leonard Peikoff regarding abortion in his book Objectivism (see below); there he drew particular attention to her speaking of an embryo.]

"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."
[Ayn Rand, FHF Q&A following "The Moral Factor", 1976, Ayn Rand Answers p.17]


Quotes from Dr. Leonard Peikoff on Abortion and Rights

Just as there are no rights of collections of individuals, so there are no rights of parts of individuals -- no rights of arms or of tumors or of any piece of tissue growing within a woman, even if it has the capacity to become in time a human being. A potentiality is not an actuality, and a fertilized ovum, an embryo, or a fetus is not a human being. Rights belong only to man -- and men are entities, organisms that are biologically formed and physically separate from one another. That which lives within the body of another can claim no prerogatives against its host.+

Responsible parenthood involves decades devoted to the child's proper nurture. To sentence a woman to bear a child against her will is an unspeakable violation of her rights: her right to liberty (to the functions of her body), her right to the pursuit of happiness, and, sometimes, her right to life itself, even as a serf. Such a sentence represents the sacrifice of the actual to the potential, of a real human being to a piece of protoplasm, which has no life in the human sense of the term.++ It is sheer perversion of language for people who demand this sacrifice to call themselves "right-to-lifers."

[Leonard Peikoff, 1991, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp.357-358.
+ Rand, "Of Living Death", 1968 (see above)
++ Rand, "A Last Survey", 1975, Peikoff points out that Rand was talking about an embryo (see above).]

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:

When does the transition from the potential to the actual occur in regard to the fetus? In that form, I do not regard that as a philosophic question. That would have to be a biological question. What I can say is this: the moment that the entity is born and the cord is severed, and it's biologically now a separate entity, that is obviously an actual human being. There is, however, a borderline area in there, where it's to all intents and purposes formed -- it wouldn't even need to be in an incubator, let us say, and it's still in the mother but simply hasn't been born. Where you could argue that the thing has already been actualized and is just sort of resting between two dimensions. Now, how much structure has to be formed internally before you say it's actualized? I don't know enough biology to know. Certainly, it has to be viable -- and beyond that it has to have its main growth done, so that it's not like taking an egg out and sticking it in an incubator and then it grows for eight months. That does not make it actual. Not only does it have to be viable -- that is, capable of living outside the mother -- it has to be essentially formed.
[Leonard Peikoff, 1991-1992, Advanced Seminars on Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Lecture 14 Disk 1, 34:00. Peikoff later reiterates not recognizing any political rights before birth.]

answered Dec 06 '10 at 14:38

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

edited Apr 05 '12 at 19:15

I am going to need to read this a few times to fully grasp it. It does seem apparent that the demarkation is not at all clear. Perhaps the good news is that one can fairly readily eliminate the outliers. Fertilized embryos considered "excess" for use in exvitro insemination have no rights. At the other end, post delivery, most would agree that we have a human being with full right to life free of abuse. Probably most of us would agree that a fetus in the third trimester has a right to life.

(Dec 06 '10 at 18:10) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

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%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

I agree that I should have limited the "rights" to that of life rather than all rights inherent to persons. Over the centuries of human thought, the time of onset for right to life has been placed by various thinkers as at conception, at viability, at birth, at naming, at onset of speech, at becoming an adult. What rationality makes birth the point as opposed to say viability? In the mid 20th century, viability was somewhere around 32 weeks of gestation. Now, it is closer to 21 or 22 weeks. If one opts for viability, did the point change?

(Dec 06 '10 at 11:21) ethwc ♦ ethwc's gravatar image

The new-born does have the right to liberty, that is, it cannot be used as raw material for whatever purposes. It must be cared for for its own sake, not just kept alive.

(Dec 07 '10 at 00:13) Mindy Newton ♦ Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

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Asked: Nov 30 '10 at 21:49

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