I was recently confronted in the Emergency Department with a situation I rarely encounter: a woman requesting “the morning after pill.” Since I practice in a largely conservative state, for a few minutes I introspectively debated whether I should provide her with such a prescription.
Anti-abortionists often claim that the fetus is a human being and, although within and part of the mother, it has individual rights. A consistent application of this view essentially makes the act of abortion an act of murder.
This view of the unborn fetus fails to make two vital distinctions-the metaphysical difference between the actual and the potential and between an entity and its parts. The anti-abortionist position also fails to recognize that human beings are granted rights qua man’s status as a rational animal, not qua animal.
In reality, the potential is not the actual, nor is an entity’s parts the same as the entity itself and rights can only be granted to actual rational entities. The potential of my financial success and making billions of dollars does not create the actuality of my purchase of Microsoft today. Likewise, the possession of a gun and an index finger to pull its trigger with which to potentially shoot my neighbor does not actually make me a murderer. The potential of my death does not permit my wife to now declare herself an actual widow and our daughter fatherless. Individual rights should not and cannot be granted to potentialities because they are metaphysically distinct from actualities. The potential and actual therefore have distinct moral and political implications.
Another flaw with the anti-abortionist view is the failure to acknowledge the proper metaphysical relationship between mother and the unborn fetus. The fetus is physically within the mother and connected to her via the placenta and umbilical chord. It is directly physically dependent on the mother for all of its life sustaining needs-oxygen, energy and safety from the external environment. The relationship between mother and fetus is not that of two distinct human entities, but rather that of an independent human being (the mother) with rights and a dependent physical appendage, something that is physically within and part of the mother and therefore cannot have individual rights.
Individual rights cannot be granted to the parts of human entities-to do so would make a surgeon a murderer when he removes a healthy kidney from a patient for an organ transplant, an internist a murderer when he poisons a tapeworm to achieve its removal from a patient’s intestine, a dermatologist a killer when he removes a mole from a patient’s face.
Anti-abortionists sometimes argue that within the womb, the unborn fetus moves and is capable of sensations. Because of this, the argument goes, the fetus is a living entity and therefore has a right to life. Even if the first premise of this argument is granted (the fetus is a living organism that moves and senses), man has individual rights qua “rational animal”, not qua “animal.” The essential distinction between man and all other animals is his rational faculty and it is this quality which confers political rights. In other words, man has rights by virtue of “rational living entity,” not by virtue of “living entity.”
Most (if not all) animals move and have sensations. The view that the unborn fetus has rights because of its ability to move and sense, by logical extension, is tantamount to arguing that all animals (and some plants) have rights. In other words, if you ate steak and potatoes yesterday you are a co-conspirator in murder and a cannibal.
The basis for individual rights lies in man’s nature as a rational animal, as a living being with a volitional consciousness (free will). The concept of individual rights can therefore only be properly understood in the context of a rational independent entity, not in the context of a living thing with rudimentary sensations.
The metaphysical act of birth, when the unborn makes the transition from mere potential to an actual human being and successfully separates from the mother to become a separate metaphysical entity, an actual living being with a volitional consciousness, confers the moral and political concept of rights. The act of birth enables the proper context in which individual rights can be properly understood and rationally applied.
This is the reason why I provided this patient with the morning after pill and the reason why I am not a murderer.