Acorns, Aristotle and Abortion

I wish to speak to the issue of abortion and personhood, but I want to do it in a somewhat roundabout fashion. I want to first look at a long-standing line of thought in philosophy which can help throw some light on what we mean by a person, and how that impacts the issue of abortion.

Philosophers going as far back as Aristotle have spoken of predication, properties and the like. Predication very simply refers to the attributing of characteristics to a subject or a thing. What a thing is may have different properties or ways of being characterised.

For our purposes here I wish to speak of two basic predications, or predicates, which have been distinguished in intellectual history for nearly three millennia now. These two main predicates are the essential and the accidental. It is important to be clear about how these differ, since discussions about personhood and the like depend upon these distinctions.

In very simple fashion, let us define our terms this way:
An essential predicate, attribute, or property is one that belongs to the very nature or essence of a thing. They are necessary and permanent properties of a thing.
An accidental predicate, attribute, or property is a quality which is not an essential part of a thing’s essence. They are contingent and temporary properties of a thing.

Thus something which is essential is that which must be true of a thing. If that quality or characteristic is missing, then that thing or object no longer is or can be. As John and Paul Feinberg explain: “An essential characteristic is a quality that is part of the very essence of a thing. If that quality is lost, the thing ceases to exist. On the other hand, an accidental quality is one that is not part of a thing’s essence. It can be lost or gained without the thing ceasing to exist.”

So let’s flesh this out and start applying it to people. It is not hard to show how the two predicates are quite different:
-If we say that Socrates is a human being, we are saying something basic or fundamental about what kind of a thing Socrates is: this is an essential predication.
-If we say that Socrates is tall, we are saying something which is not fundamental or essential, but something that merely happens to be the case: it is an accidental predication.

There are plenty of accidental properties. The colour of your hair is one. A human being can have red hair or brown hair or black hair or blonde hair or no hair. It does not matter what the hair is like – that does not determine what a human being is.

A person can be left-handed or right-handed, or have no hands at all. But a human being still exists, regardless of the accidental predicates of one’s hands. Being male or female, thin or fat, short or tall, are also accidental predicates. These things can change or differ, but they do not make a human being any less human.

So let’s apply all this to abortion. Often three things are said about the unborn baby by pro-abortionists:
-it is not alive;
-it is not human;
-it is not a person.

The first two objections are quite silly and can be quickly dismissed. Any fetus or embryo is of course alive. If it is growing, developing, has a metabolism, and so on, then yes of course it is alive. And a human embryo is of course a human. It can be no other. It is not a carrot, a dingo or a porcupine.

So it is the last point that is the real and only serious objection. The pro-abortionists will claim the fetus or embryo is not a person. Thus here we get into a question of definition. Most pro-aborts take a functional or utilitarian view of personhood.

One must have certain functions before one can be a person, they claim. These often include self-awareness, consciousness, sentience, and related functions. They say that these functions are missing from the unborn, at least at earlier stages, so they are not persons. This has been argued by thinkers such as Peter Singer, Mary Anne Warren, David Boonin, and Michael Tooley.

The other view may be termed the structuralist view of personhood. Basically this says that when human life is present, there is a human person with rights. Thus personhood is an essential predicate, not an accidental attribute. That is, to be a human is to be a person. Any attempt to arbitrarily start personhood on the human continuum is bound to fail.

Personhood begins at the moment of conception, and continues until the final death of a person. There is no gradualism here, where a human at some stage becomes a person. A human being always is a person, and is always therefore worthy of dignity and respect – and the right to life.

Francis Beckwith further explains this understanding of personhood: “According to the substance view, a human being is intrinsically valuable because of the sort of thing it is and the human being remains that sort of thing as long as it exists. What sort of thing is it? The human being is a particular type of substance – a rational moral agent – that remains identical to itself as long as it exists, even if it is not precisely exhibiting the functions, behaving in ways, or currently able to immediately exercise these activities that we typically attribute to active and mature rational moral agents.”

The gradualist or functionalist view of personhood of course denies these innate or inherent essential features of personhood. Therefore they offer many possible starting points for when personhood begins, such as animation, viability, birth, and so on. But all seem to be quite arbitrary. Why for example should we say a baby is a person one minute after birth but not one minute before birth?

As William Hurlbut has written: “Zygote, morula, embryo, fetus, child and adult: these are conceptual constructions for convenience of description, not distinct ontological categories. With respect to fundamental moral status therefore, the human being is an embodied being whose intrinsic dignity is inseparable from its full procession of life and always present in its varied stages of emergence.”

Another way to describe this major difference is to speak of personhood either in terms of endowment or performance. Christopher Kaczor explains: “The endowment account holds that each human being has inherent, moral worth simply by virtue of the kind of being it is. . . . The performance account … denies this and holds that a human being is to be accorded respect, if and only if, the being functions in a given way.

“With respect to human beings, the endowment view is inclusive; the performance view is exclusive. According to the inclusive view, all human beings regardless of any consideration whatsoever have fundamental dignity and are therefore owed respect. According to the exclusive view, not all human beings deserve respect and share fundamental dignity, but rather only those human beings possessing particular characteristics.”

Thus a performance or functionalist advocate, such as Peter Singer, fully supports abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide, since according to his view of personhood, these three groups lack these functions needed to be considered a person. As such, these theories of personhood have very real practical implications.

Acorns and embryos

In all this we can compare the issue of personhood to the issue of an acorn and an oak tree. The gradualist position would argue that an acorn is not an oak tree, but it at some point becomes one. The substance view would say an acorn is already an oak tree potentially, and there is no arbitrary line that we can draw when that transition takes place.

As Kaczor puts it, “the transition from acorn to oak tree involves no substantial change, but merely growth and development of the very same thing. If by ‘person’ is meant ‘mature members of the human species,’ then of course, no human embryo is a person in this idiosyncratic sense of the term, but then again neither is any toddler. The proper analogy is therefore: Acorn is to oak tree as embryo is to adult.”

So just as an acorn at no point crosses some arbitrary line to become an oak tree, but always is an oak tree, just in embryonic form, so too there is no arbitrary line at which point a fetus or an embryo becomes a person. The fetus is already a person just at an early age of development. So it is incorrect to speak of an embryo as a potential person. It is more accurate to speak of an embryo as a person with great potential.

Norman Geisler puts it this way: “Neither an acorn nor an embryo is a potential life. It is a misunderstanding of botany to say an acorn is a potential oak tree. An acorn is a tiny living oak tree inside a shell. Its dormant life does not grow until properly nourished by planting and watering, but it is a tiny living oak tree in a shell nonetheless. All the genetic information that comprises an oak tree is in the acorn. And all the genetic information that comprises an adult human being is in the fertilized ovum.”

Science in general and embryology in particular are quite clear about this. At the moment of conception, when the 23 chromosomes of the male sperm unite with the 23 chromosomes of the female egg, a wholly new, unique and distinct 46-chromosome being comes into existence.

It has its own unique DNA, and is entirely separate from both mother and father. While it requires the nourishment and shelter of the mother, it is nonetheless a fully unique and completely new individual human, with even its own sex established at the moment of fertilisation.

Everything needed for this new entity to grow, develop and become a fully complete adult member of the human race is already fully contained within its DNA. It simply needs time, and eventually a change of location, to keep reaching its full potential.

The sperm and egg cease to be, and a wholly new and distinct organism begins to develop. It is a self-directing course of development, with all the instructions and information for this development already fully contained in the DNA. Thus we have at fertilisation a new human individual which has come into existence as “a single, unified, and self-integrated biological system” as Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen put it.

In sum, the substance view of personhood is preferable to the gradualist view of personhood. As Geisler notes, we need to “make the distinction between essential and accidental characteristics. Essentially the fetus does not change from conception until death. The only changes that take place are accidental, such as location, size, and shape. And accidental changes do not affect the nature of a being, but only its secondary qualities.”

If the fetus is a person it is subject to all the rights of a person, including the most fundamental right – the right to life.

[1849 words]

18 Replies to “Acorns, Aristotle and Abortion”

  1. Hello Bill,
    Although I lack the education to fully understand some of the subject matter discussed on your blog, this one has opened my eyes (and spirit) to the reality of how we know that a human person’s life starts at conception.
    God bless you for your insight into so many areas, and your ability to explain the subject matter so clearly for someone such as myself. And I am certain, many others.
    God bless you, brother.
    Paul de la Garde, Sydney

  2. Thought provoking article Bill.

    Regarding a plant embryo – interesting that it is not referred to as a ‘potential plant’, but is called an immature plant.

    “Inside the seed coat is the embryo, an immature plant with all the parts of the adult plant. A close look shows leaves and a root — they may be tiny but they are the beginnings of a plant.” Seed Germination, Washington State University

    A human embryo is an immature human, the beginning of a human. Human nonetheless.

    Annette Nestor

  3. Thank you Bill, for a wonderfully clear and logically presented argument. Anyone reading this and still doesn’t get it, well, must be either blind or have a personal agenda from which they are not prepared to deviate, come hell, hail or shine – scary thought.
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

  4. This is a very clear, logical exposition, a compelling defense of human life from its conception. I am grateful for the hard intellectual work you put into this Bill as it saves me the long time and effort to do half as well.

    We are dealing with a subject which should be clear to blind Freddy but which is opposed by minds that are even more blind than he. Personal and excessively selfish interest, guilt, political agendas and financial gains will continue to be brought to bear as motives for the most outrageous distortions of the Truth. At the foremost of these will be the ‘My Body: My Choice’ brigade of Feminists, chanting their war slogans as they march upon the defenceless and vulnerable. They will even quote verbatim from UN ‘Rights’ documents but carefully avoid the initial Declaration of Human Rights (1947) which in its preamble specifically identifies the unborn as needing the protection from the same mendacious feminists, eugenicists, and sundry fellow-travellers who demand ertzatz ‘Right’ for themselves.

    With your permission I will send extracts and a link to all on my email list.

    Chris langan-Fox

  5. A point not mentioned is: taking any life form out of the environment it requires to live will kill it. If you take a fish and put it on dry land with no way to get back to water, it will die, if you take any air breathing creature and hold it under water long enough, it will die. If you take a developing baby out of its environment ie: the womb, it will die.
    If this is done deliberately, then the person doing this has “killed” the creature (whether animal or human). When a person does this to a human its called murder pure and simple. Thus anyone killing a developing human being has murdered them.

    Pretty cut and dried to me.

    Neil Waldron

  6. Nice Bill. I am glad you have tackled this aspect of the abortion debate.

    The Aristotelian metaphysic is, to me, crucial to winning the intellectual war over life. Geisler is right to say that an embryo is not a potential life. What IS in potency are its capacities for sentience, rational thought, etc. But as a human being it is already in act. It is not disposed towards humanhood it is already occurantly a human (and so should be entitled toward all the resultant rights).

    It is remarkable how much modern DNA discoveries have confirmed the Aristotelian picture. The human fetus is fully human in its DNA, but the DNA acts as the “code” that is the informational system that directs the development of the fetus to the full actuality of human capacities. There is inherent directedness to the DNA. This inherent directedness is a capacity that no other biological cell (including the sperm or egg) possesses.

    Final causality finds confirmation in modern biology!

    Damien Spillane

  7. Bill I entirely share your view on the rights of the developing person from conception to natural death but I do have one question. I either read of, or watched, a science program on the development of all vertebrate life forms including humans. The program content related to the over estrogenation of the planet from a variety of causes and the effect this is supposedly having on male gender development. The view offered and defended was that gender is always “female” at least in the genitalia until the third (I think) week of pregnancy when the release of specific hormones trigger the necessary changes for male development. The argument was that environmental pollution was disrupting this natural process, causing greatly reduced volume and motility of sperm in all vertebrates as well as other damaging changes affecting reproductive ability. The program also claimed that significant numbers of all vertebrates suffered defects in the formation of clear cut masculinity. Do you know of this research and whether the study was reputable? Does it help to explain some of the problems facing society today?
    Anna Cook

  8. Thanks Bill for another clear and logical case you have presented.
    It is interesting too that the prophet/king David was also well aware of his pre-birth status whilst in the womb – hence his references to his personality in God’s eyes, to the extent “that all his members were written” and recorded by God!
    Psalm 139
    Graham Wood, UK

  9. Hmm, it’s very late but the same thinking applies to marriage.

    Essential characteristics or predicates: monogamy, male-female complementarity, life-long covenant, exclusivity, co-habitation

    Accidental predicates: children, common interests, emotional attachment/’love’/passion/lust or whatever.

    Am I on the right track?

    John Angelico

  10. Yes pretty much so John. Philosophically this goes back to Aristotle and his final causes, and has to do with finding out and adhering to one’s in-built purposes and directions. The purpose of sex is procreation, and all that goes with it, while the purpose of an embryo is to develop and mature into the full form of whatever it is. So yes living according to the way we were fashioned or designed by nature, or the way God made us, is what this is all about.

    Damien speaks to this a bit above, and I have just now been re-reading one of his favourite authors, Edward Feser, and his book on the new atheism, showing how the rejection of Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas has led to pretty much all our mess of today.

    Bad ideas in others words lead to bad consequences.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Indeed, this quote of his nicely ties things together. Feser argues that our secular humanistic thinking has lead to the point where “we are well past the time when slippery-slope arguments might be used to try to shock a liberal or a secularist out of his folly. You can no longer attempt the reductio ad absurdum with him, for he will now simply embrace with enthusiasm any absurdity that follows from his premises and thank you for suggesting it to him. He is well through the looking glass, his mind and his moral sensibility so thoroughly corrupted that to him it is obvious that black is white, up is down, sodomy is marriage, and scraping a fetus from its mother’s womb is compassion.” Edward Feser, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. St. Augustine’s Press, 2008, p. 225.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. Bill

    This goes to what you said in the infanticide post. They will not be moved by the fact that abortion implies infanticide. They will just embrace infanticide!

    Damien Spillane

  13. Years ago there was a rather gruesome movie of an abortion being shown. I never saw it but it was widely reported. It was clear that the baby was trying to get away from the device intending to destroy it. This proves that the baby had emotions (fear), reasoning (trying to escape). Thus it had life and other characteristics of personhood.
    John Bennett

  14. Great article, Bill. The philosophy, and science, contrasts sharply, I think, with the actual situations, and motivation, in which mothers decide to dispose of their babies: selfishness – basically, women choosing to believe these utilitarian ideas of “personhood” because this allows them to do what they want to do – remove the consequences of their earlier actions – without having to feel too bad about it. Such people know, deep down, that their baby was a human person, and – it has been said – they are later denied peace until they acknowledge what they have done (some don’t care, of course).
    John thomas, UK

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