Listening to people discuss abortion is often interesting and revealing. A case in point is a podcast discussion by anarchist commentator Stefan Molyneux. The thrust of his argument can be summarized in this particular quote from his talk:

“It is fairly indisputable that a woman owns her own body, of course, there is no question of that. If a woman owns her own body then she owns all the cells within it. One of the things that we know is the case is that a fetus is a potential human being in the way that a child is a potential adult and an adult is, I guess, a potential corpse. But the actuality of humanity has not come to be for a fetus, it is a potential, therefore I do not equate it as equal with a human life.”[1]

I find so much imprecision and undue assumptions here that it is impossible to cover all of them in detail in a short commentary but I will attempt to focus on one particular statement I find important. However, let me digress a little here on account of context.

First, it is not indisputable at all that persons own their bodies. Such is a rather controversial philosophical proposition along the lines of metaphysical or ontological dualism. If a person owns her body we are establishing that a person (a conscious and desiring self) is different from her body; her body being property, possessing instrumental value. The instrumentalization of the body is at the heart of the proclamation that we own our bodies. Property cannot own property, only persons can; therefore, consciousness (or the soul or a mind or what have you…) must be identified with a kind of non-physical reality whose locus is difficult to ascertain. This tells us that a person is a sort of ethereal entity, a consciousness that might be related to the body but is different from it. This separation of the body from consciousness is a difficult proposition, in no way indisputable, but that discussion is for another day.

Second, if the woman owns her body it does not follow that she owns all the cells within it. After all, babies are within a pregnant body and mothers do not own their babies. Even if you see the body as property and the property of the child (his body) is within the mother, this does not entail the mother with ownership of the child. That your property happens to be within my domain does not offer you automatic ownership of it. Unless one asserts that a baby is a part of the body of the mother, a sort of tumor, as some used to say in the pro-abortion camp.  I refuse to believe that Mr. Molyneux has such crass ignorance of the facts of biology. Another alternative is along the lines of metaphysical dualism which, again, denies personhood to a child in the womb. Yet, even under the “body is property” idea, we do know that such being in the womb is not biologically a part of the woman’s body, it is, so to speak, “stuff” belonging to someone else. But, again, that is for another day…

Third, do we really know that a pre-born baby is a “potential human being”? Mr. Molyneux’ seems to ignore the avalanche of scientific evidence that contradicts such assertion. It is in no way true that “we know it to be the case.” Is he referring to personhood? If he is, he ought to be more clear and try not to confuse terms as introducing personhood muddies the discussion instead of revealing with exactness what is he trying to say. There is no reason to establish his rather metaphysical theory of personhood as a fact about human beings when science clearly tells us what constitutes a human being. Interestingly, he thinks that humanity is something that “comes to be” for the being in the womb; in other words, an accidental characteristic instead of an intrinsic one. In effect, he is mixing terms and assuming meaning of conflated terms in a very mystifying fashion. But, again, this is a discussion for another time. Yes, yes, I am getting to it…

Finally, to my point. Molyneux states:

One of the things that we know is the case that a fetus is a potential human being in the way that a child is a potential adult and an adult is, I guess, is a potential corpse.

There is an important equivocation here. When one tries to create a comparison using a continuum one needs to observe carefully the possible breaks within that continuum and what they might mean. In this case he equates a supposed continuum between a fetus and a human being with a continuum from a child becoming an adult and later, to use his term, a corpse. As they say, a chain is as strong as its weakest link and the same happens to your argument about the chain!

The problem I observe is that he is comparing apples and oranges to establish an equation. In the first continuum of potentiality there is more than a developmental change that converts a fetus into a human being.  To use Michael Sandel’s failed analogy[2], just as acorns are not trees, fetuses are not human beings. Here we are before a substantial change in the nature of a being into another and that is what it seems Molyneux, and Sandel, fail to realize. Although there is a continuum here, the leap between one step and the other is radical, the change from one sort of being into another. Thus, it is false to affirm that a fetus is a potential human being “in the way” that a child is a potential adult.

Here we have a clear inordinate mixing of categories. The term fetus, in my view, simply means a human being at that stage of development; a unified and continuous organism that proceeds from one stage of development into another. My point here needs to be elaborated, of course, but the comparison on continuum that Molyneux presents is certainly not self-evident ( and definitely not something that “we know”). As it is not self-evident, I am curious of what is the non-arbitrary substantial change that occurs to a fetus that instantiates humanity. He will not find such trigger anywhere in science, lending to the belief that his viewpoint is a metaphysical theory of personhood. It is ironic that the so-called “pro-choice” position has been reduced to rather inefficient dualistic metaphysical theories about personhood after years of telling us not to introduce religion (a kind of metaphysics) into a strictly scientific discussion!

 There is a clear and objective continuum from embryo to fetus to child to adult; these being stages in the development of the same kind of being. That is not the case in the supposed continuum between a fetus as a potential human being and a human being. Here we refer to a clear change in the substance, the nature, the kind of being in discussion.

Finally, Molyneux adds another perplexing conflation of terms when he ends the continuum at a corpse.  Calling it an obvious point, he first states that humans own their bodies. Later he adds that a fetus is not a human being but a pre-human entity with the potential of becoming one. This seems to posit humanity in some sort of trigger of consciousness. As stated previously, his is a body-consciousness dualism where there is a separation between the body as property and consciousness as true self. If that is the case, why is an adult a “potential corpse”? A corpse is merely a body, a substance lacking the same actualized consciousness he previously associates with being a human being. Therefore, under the logic of his construct, an adult is not a potential corpse, the corpse would be only discarded property left by the ethereal consciousness that once existed.

Anyhow, when people talk about abortion it is often interesting and revealing…

 

 


[1] Stephan Molyneux, “Marriage, Homosexuality, and Abortion”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzX1pVaKhRY

[2] See Michael Sandel, “Embryo Ethics – The Moral Logic of Stem Cell Research,” New England Journal of Ethics 351 (July 15, 2004) p. 208.

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