Friday, November 01, 2002

Michael Kinsley: (wrong) on embryos

Allow me to link for you Michael Kinsley's latest piece at Slate, entitled, "Embryos Made Easy".

Michael's concern is this: does or does not President Bush believe that embryos are human beings, and therefore subjects of the same rights which we (adult human beings) are?

Kinsley's own views on the moral & ontological status of the fetus -- and the motivating factor of those who do not share his opinion -- are hinted at early on, but eventually become clear. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind them lacks that clarity.

Kinsley states, "An embryo has no feelings, no self-awareness, nothing that would give anyone a concern about its welfare except for its potential to develop into something we recognize as human. Religion can give you that concern as a matter of faith, but government policy should not be based on this belief any more than on the religious belief of some people that plants have souls."

Oh boy.

Okay, first of all, I'm not exactly sure what his point is in the first sentence; is he making a statement about the qualities of personhood, or just stating that its potential to develop into something we recognize as human is the source of our concern for it? The answer to that question doesn't really matter, though, because either way, he's wrong: actually having feelings is not what makes something a person, nor is actually being self-aware. I've covered this before (here and here): the key to personhood is having the actual potential to reason, freely-will, be self-aware to a certain degree, etc. Actually doing or having those characteristics is irrelevant, because if that were the case, then the comatose wouldn't be persons!

That's the first half; Kinsley is also on dangerous ground when he speaks about how the fetus has the potential to develop into something we recognize as human. I hope Michael isn't arguing that personhood is bestowed when another recognizes something about that being. This makes personhood completely subjective, dependent on what each and every person believes about personhood. Again, I hope that's not Kinsley's intention.

Moving on...

Michael's second sentence is far, far worse. Michael apparently believes that the only basis for recognizing the personhood of the fetus is religious dogma. He doesn't seem to even consider the notion that there is a rational, philosophical case to be made for fetal personhood. (Again, see my old post linked above for such a case.) And of course, if religion is the basis for this view, than it has no place in the public policy forum.

Things only get worse in the next paragraph: "What bothers people is that there is no clear moment in human development when an embryo becomes a fetus or a fetus becomes a person. The gradual way fetuses take on aspects of real personhood is what makes the second line so controversial. The first line is not nearly so fraught with implications."

Remember, Michael has already either dismissed the possibility of rational argument for embryonic personhood, or isn't even aware of it. Either way, it's pretty sorry. He only adds to his errors in this paragraph, speaking about the absence of a clear division between "embryo", "fetus", and "person" [sic].

I am astounded how abortion rights supporters are able to invest terms simply used to categorize stages of development with the ontological differentiation they do. The fact is, there is no moral or ontological difference between a zygote, and embryo, a fetus, a neonate, an adolescent, or an adult. These terms are nothing more than different words, used to speak about the different stages of development in the human being.

Of course, we still have Kinsley's erroneous view of personhood present, when he states that the fetus "take on aspects of real personhood." Mr. Kinsley, all the fetus is doing is self-actualizing itself. It already is a person, because a human person is a member of the species homo sapiens that has the actual potential to develop into an adult human being, and to do the things that an adult human being does.

I am truly astounded by the inability of all sorts of people to grasp this simple argument. I'm not tooting my own horn here... this is the basic argument for embryonic personhood put forth by innumberable individuals.

Why are people still so focused on appearances, when it comes to recognizing personhood? Why are we unable to get past the irrelevant factors (the accidents, in Aristotle's terminology), and consider the essence of a thing? In the past, personhood has been determined by sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Today it is still recognized by non-factors: stage of development, degree of dependency, etc.

It's frustrating -- very frustrating -- to see someone like Mr. Kinsley -- someone who is obviously intelligent -- fail to comprehend what is really a very simple argument.


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