THE LIVING BODIES OF POTENTIAL
AND DEAD PERSONS
It cannot be known for sure in advance whether a zygote,
an embryo, a (postembryonic) fetus or a baby is the living body
of a preexistent person. If no member of the animal species
concerned ever develops into a person, it may be said that it is
not the living body of a potential, let alone a preexistent,
person. But if the fetus or baby belongs to an animal species of
which the members normally develop into persons, it may be said
that it probably is. As a living, or
there is no difference between the one fetus or baby and the
other; the difference lies in its relation to
the fetus or baby which is to develop into the body of a person
at a later stage, is not (yet) a person itself, and not even the
body of a person.
Traditional antiabortionists have claimed that the fetus in
a human mother is a human being or a potential human being; and
rightly so. Every fetus is a being belonging to the same species
as that of the parents (granted that the parents are members of
the same species, and that no important mutation has occurred).
This is not typically human, and there is nothing typical about
being human or potentially human in this respect. As a (potential)
human being the human fetus is a living being, an animal
being and, perhaps, a happiness-catenal being, not a fetish with
the magical power of membership of an exclusive club. The
traditional antiabortionist argument that the human fetus would
be a person with its own right to life is, naturally,
nonsensical. Or, if person is used as a mere synonym of human
being, it suffers from the same speciesism as in the former
tho, is the
claim that the human fetus is a potential person.
This is the claim that it is possibly the living body of a preexistent
If abortion were wrong because a person who had existed in
the future will not exist 'anymore', then this would also make
contraception wrong — as has been pointed out. And
contraception would not only be wrong, it would be equally wrong,
something the antiabortionists would probably not have intended
(except for those methods of contraception not preventing
fertilization but causing the rejection of fertilized eggs,
which are indeed techniques of very early abortion). When the
reply is that the fetus is a potential person that has already
started its existence, the problem is why terminating the
process would be wrong at this stage and not at a previous
(One rather sweet-toothed human being conceived that 'if it is the cake
you are interested in, it is equally a pity if the ingredients were
thrown away before being mixed as after being mixed'.)
This antiabortionist position is but one remove from both
spermatism, the belief that the human spermatozoon contains
all properties of a new human being, and ovism, the belief
that a new human being is already formed in the ovum before
being fertilized by the male's sperm.
The antiabortionist might now rejoin that it is precisely the absurdity of
both spermatism (with its obsession about and fear of the masturbation of
male humans) and ovism which justifies
'er drawing the line at
conception or the fertilization of the ovum.
But this moment is not necessarily the moment that a new, individual
human being starts its life either, because one fertilized egg may still
split up later, or two eggs may still combine.
Moreover, even the fertilized egg which does not split up or combine
(anymore) is not an individual human being if the prerequisite for being
an individual, or whole, living being is the capacity to survive
outside the body of another living being.
The difference between the new (potential) human being and
the separate ovum and spermatozoon is one in the packages of
This is a purely biological difference, and from the perspective of
potential personhood it is not relevant whether the body of a person or
potential person has the same genetic information as that of a particular
woman, as that of a particular man, or a mixture of the two; the
reproduction might as well be metagenetic.
What counts is that if viability, that is the capacity to survive and
function outside a mother's or father's body, is not a criterion
of potential personhood, this applies to both the zygotes, or other
inviable fetuses, and the gametes of the human, or other animal,
Viability of the body cannot be a necessary criterion of
personhood (and of potential personhood), for it would mean that
a person whose body had become inviable on its own had to be
denied personhood even tho this person would clearly have and
express 'er own ideas about life or other matters. If the only
way to keep someone alive were by plugging 'er body into another
body, even if permanently, the person concerned would still be a
person despite 'er physical dependence. Now, if viability cannot
mark the end of personhood, it cannot mark the beginning of it
either. Moreover, viability is a shifting boundary: because of
medical developments the zone of probable survival of a fetus
has been moving back further and further. Once it is possible to
fertilize eggs and produce children entirely outside the womb
the boundary of potential personhood has moved back to the
individual ovum and spermatozoon, or their potential
Inclusivism urges us to respect not
only both living and nonliving things, both human and nonhuman beings,
but also both personal and nonpersonal beings.
The DNI does not know a
doctrinal principle of the
sanctity of life as such, of human life as such, or of personhood as such.
The significance of personhood derives from the
metadoctrinal principle, but it
does not follow that potential personhood is of any value in itself;
a being simply has
extrinsic rights and duties or
does not have them, and only persons have these rights and duties,
not their bodies.
That a being will have extrinsic rights and duties becomes
important later on; that it did have them was important before.
Another way to put it is: a potential person may have potential rights
(and duties), it does not have actual rights (and duties).
The potentiality criterion is logically erroneous.
A potential president, for instance, does not on that account
have the right to preside over a meeting, nor does anyone on
that account have a duty to obey 'er instructions. Person A who
may now be the president of country B, did not have any right as
a president, or as a potential president, when
'e was still a
baby, nor did anyone have any duties towards
'im as a president,
or as a potential president, at that time.
Given that only actual possession of the characteristics of
personhood may justify a direct difference in treatment between
living, animal or human beings, we must treat the living bodies
of preexistent or potential persons in the same way as all other
living beings, or as all other happiness-catenal beings of the same
unless there is a significant
difference in side-effects. Such side-effects have been stated
as a reason to differentiate between nonconception and abortion:
the effects of an abortion on the mother, the father, the
surgeon(s), the nurse(s) and all others involved are quite
different from those of a nonconception, particularly when the
abortion takes place at a later stage. Moreover, abortion is a
form of deliberate killing, and unlike nonconception it might
thus make it easier for people to kill living, happiness-catenal
or human beings in general. This argument can only be taken
seriously, however, if it is put forward by people who also
apply it to the killing of other human beings (for example, by
or for the state) and to the killing of living or happiness-catenal
beings of the same or a more developed type (for
example, for food or hunting).
While side-effects are important to distinguish our attitude towards
abortion from the one towards nonconception, they are still more
important to distinguish our attitude towards infanticide from
that towards abortion.
There are first the side-effects for those closely affected.
Yet, where the effects of having to kill
a neonate may be very bad to them, the effects of having a
child, and of rearing a child, which is radically deformed may
be much worse. Then there are the social effects of allowing
infanticide, even if only in exceptional cases. It is here that
we are confronted with the 'slippery slope' or the 'wedge
problem'. Arguments using the image of the slippery slope or
wedge are not only put forward in the case of infanticide but
also in cases of killing animals for food and in cases of
euthanasia, especially active euthanasia. Theorists distinguish
a logical and a psychological or empirical version of such
arguments. The logical version is that if accepting the thin
end of the wedge is justified, the rest of it cannot be rejected
anymore, because a cut-off point somewhere between the two ends
would always be arbitrary. But it has been rightly argued that
this interpretation fails, for altho there may be a field of
uncertainty to which carefully formulated moral principles
cannot be applied with precision, such does not mean that the
fuzzy border between what is allowed and what is not allowed
could lie anywhere.
(We do not have to choose between a ban on all motorized traffic and a
system in which people are permitted to drive at any speed anywhere.
Altho there may not be a precise justification for a particular speed
limit in, for example, a residential area, we tend to agree that certain
limits would be too low and that other limits would be too high.)
On the psychological version of wedge arguments it is
claimed that in fact more and more of the wedge will follow once
the thin end is allowed to be inserted.
This claim is empirical, and it is not up to a
normative doctrine to
validate or invalidate it.
As a general claim it is not convincing, however, for —as has been
pointed out elsewhere— many people also start to drink without
ending up as alcoholics.
(And is working wrong because some workers end up as workaholics?)
Nevertheless, the strength of the psychological version of the wedge
argument against infanticide is that the sharp boundary of birth is
removed by moving from abortion to infanticide as a form of
killing which may be warranted under specific circumstances. The
crucial question has now become where to draw the line between
an infant without any of the characteristics of personhood and
an older individual with the minimum characteristics of
It has been said that the whole complex of traits which make up personhood
is not obviously present until the second year of childhood, and this
would imply that the killing of babies in their first year would not be a
violation of their extrinsic rights.
In spite of this it may be a serious violation of their
intrinsic rights as living and
On the other hand —as has already been pointed out too—, not
killing or letting a neonate or fetus die which is (probably) going to be
severely deformed may be an equally serious violation of its intrinsic
That is why to religiously strive to keep radically deformed human babies
alive, while at the same time allowing or even participating in the
merciless killing of healthy adult human beings (such as young men in
warfare) or sentient beings (such as animals for food), makes a complete
mockery of the whole idea of the value of life.
What the body of a preexistent or potential person has in
common with living beings which are in no way related to
personhood is that there is no person who has this body and who
can decide on its use, or who has decided on its use. This
condition is quite different not only from that of the bodies of
living persons but also from that of the bodies of dead persons.
People cannot decide during their lives what must not have been
done to them (or rather to their bodies) as fetuses or as
infants, but they can decide during their lives what must not be
done to them when they will not be in a position anymore to have
or to express their own wishes. This is important when their
personhood has terminated, that is, when they are dead as
persons, but when their bodies are still alive or kept alive.
Such a body of which, for example, the heart is still beating
but the brain no longer functioning, is then only a living being
like all other living beings if the person who died never
expressed what should be done to it, or if 'e did lay down 'imself
that it should be treated as any living thing of the same
category of life. In the event that the dead person's living
body does not survive in a happiness-catenary state, it
should be treated as a non-happiness-catenal living thing, and in the
event that it does, as a happiness-catenal being of the
happiness-catenary category concerned, unless the body is under
the posthumous influence of the person who had it. If the
actions to be taken with respect to this body are affected by
the dead person's will, the relationship in question is not
really one between a person acting and a nonpersonal living
thing but one between several people. It is the role of this
kind of relationship in matters of life and death to which we
will now turn.