A foetus is a human being


Abortion is a complicated and multi-faceted issue. For pro-lifers, the fundamental issue is a scientific one: the humanity of the unborn. If it could be proven that the foetus is not a human being, then pro-lifers have no argument. But the simple fact is that scientists and medical textbooks categorically state that a unique, individual human being is formed at conception.

It is hard for many to look at a clump of cells and agree that it is indeed as human as you or me. But science tells us that this clump of cells has an assigned gender, natural hair and eyes, and is a separate member of the human species – albeit at its earliest stages of development. The zygote, embryo, foetus, baby, teenager and adult are all stages in the human development cycle, and it is the moment of conception that this growth and development for human beings begins. If the foetus is a human being, then it is entitled to the fundamental and basic human right: the right to life.

There are those from religious or philosophical inclinations who accept the scientific consensus that it is a human being, but argue that an embryo is not, in fact, a “person”. They argue that without sentience or consciousness or a soul, we lack “personhood”, and thus the unborn are not “real” people in the same way as you or me. This is impractical, as science cannot tell us when one becomes conscious, sentient or self-aware.

Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, argues that because a foetus can feel neither pain nor desire, it cannot be considered equal to the mother. He applies this logic to newborns as well, because newborn infants do not have the same capacity for emotions as adults, and says that “killing a newborn is never equivalent to killing a person”. Singer qualifies this by saying it is still wrong to kill a newborn, because there are loving parents willing to adopt the newborn. This implies that because someone, when “wanted”, has a moral value, and because an unborn can sometimes be “unwanted”, they have very little moral value.

There are many who society considers “unwanted”, but being wanted does not determine one’s right to life. The right to life is universal, fundamental, and independent of personal prejudices. Excluding certain individual human beings from human rights because they lack a certain characteristic, are at a certain age, or are “unwanted” could lead to all sorts of humanitarian problems.

Most moderate pro-choice people accept a limit of around twenty weeks for abortion. The problem with these cut-off points is that each human being is different. We all grow and develop at different speeds; our physical and mental capabilities are unique to us individually. With the development of artificial wombs the idea of viability may soon become a non-issue. But why should our current level of technology determine which human being has a right to life and which doesn’t?

I have no problem with making choices. We all make choices everyday – some good, some bad – but all of them have consequences and responsibilities. When those choices harm another human being, the law intervenes to restrict our choices, preventing such harm. The pro-life ideology is not against choice, but against a choice that kills a human being.  The only precedent we have for taking the life of a human being is that of self-defence, i.e. when that human being is endangering your life. The Irish constitution protects the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother. Thus operating to save the life of the mother during a pregnancy is permitted under Irish law because it’s self-defence, even if the unintended consequences result in the death of the foetus.

Abortion is a very emotive issue and there is obviously more to this debate than the semantics and the science of whether or not the foetus is a human being. Women can be in very distressing and often traumatic situations, and there are many circumstances that affect the choice to have an abortion – the influences of parents, partner, poverty, and age among many others. The irony is that a woman might feel she has no choice but abortion. Thus the problem is not the lack of abortion, but the lack of sympathy towards women in this situation. Society needs to care for its citizens and with a support network in place women would not feel the need to resort to abortion.

There are, of course, many more issues I have not adequately covered in this article. But ask yourself: if it is not a human being, what is it? Why can’t it have a right to life? If it is a human being, what justifies killing it? Can you apply the same reasoning and logic to other human beings? Would we not be better placed putting our efforts in supporting women in these situations so they don’t feel the need to resort to abortion?