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One ethical issue that has been heavily politicized and dominates American politics is the treatment of the unborn. This issue disproportionately affects college students because of the rising number of unwanted pregnancies resulting from college “hookup culture.” An overwhelming 60% of abortion patients are reported to be women in their twenties. Hence, abortion is relevant to college students because it disproportionately affects college-age women. Moreover, college students are called to take a stance on abortion when they become voters and are compelled to pick either the pro-choice or pro-life side.
Numerous people with a rudimentary understanding of abortion fail to approach the issue from a philosophical perspective because they incorrectly believe that science alone proves why either side is right. Science is an important tool when pondering abortion, but ultimately the question of how the unborn should be treated needs to be answered with critical ethical thinking. When evaluating abortion, it is essential to stay on the central question: what are the unborn? The debate becomes unproductive with pro-choice slogans such as “my body, my choice” and “no uterus no opinion,” and pro-life arguments such as “abortion is wrong because adoption is a viable option.”
The pro-life argument can be summarized with these three statements: it is generally immoral to kill innocent human beings, science tells us the unborn are human beings, therefore it is wrong to kill the unborn. Everyone agrees that both the human fetus is a part of the human species, and abortion terminates said fetus. The best way pro-choice advocates can refute the pro-life argument is by claiming that there is something beyond simply being a human being that gives people the right to life. I agree with this criticism. While Superman was not quite a member of the human species, I think we can all agree Lex Luther was wrong in trying to kill him. We can also see how it would be wrong to kill a human-like extraterrestrial species even though they are not fundamentally human. This leads to the pro-choice advocate claiming that it is wrong to kill innocent persons, and the unborn aren’t persons yet so abortion is morally acceptable. Consequently, the pro-life stance adjusts its position by claiming that the unborn are in fact persons. Therefore, the issue becomes centralized around personhood and when humans become persons.
If the pro-choice position is rooted in the unborn not being people, they must provide a definition for personhood. These unique definitions fall short because they either set the bar too low, too high, or are obviously arbitrary. For example, one definition of personhood may state that one becomes a person when they can feel pain. This definition sets the bar too low because it would make animals people too, and rat exterminators would need to go to jail for mass genocide. Another definition of personhood may state that one becomes a person when they can think rationally. This definition sets the bar too high because it excludes numerous types of born people such as infants and people in comas. Lastly, some definitions use two requirements such as the ability to feel pain and being a part of the human race. I disagree with these types of definitions because if one condition is not sufficient, it is a blatant attempt to purposefully exclude the unborn through an arbitrary definition. These arbitrary definitions can be very dangerous because they have justified the inhumane treatment of women, African Americans, Jewish people, and more.
If pro-choice definitions fail to solve the personhood issue, what is the pro-life solution? The most compelling argument states that a person is an organism that belongs to a kind with a rational nature. In order to understand this concept, it is essential to understand first and second-order capacities. For example, I am a person as I write this paper because I am acting rationally. This immediate capacity means I have the first-order capacity to be rational. However, when I go to sleep, I am unable to act rationally, but I do not suddenly lose my personhood. This is because when I am asleep I have the capacity to wake up and act rationally. In other words, I have the capacity to be rational. This “double capacity” is known as second-order capacity. Through this concept and this definition, the unborn are persons because they have the second-order capacity to act rationally through belonging to a rational kind. This definition is perfect because it includes all beings with a right to life, whether they belong to the human species or not, and it eliminates all animals and other non-persons.
The definition works, but the pro-life position still needs to prove why one’s nature matters as a factor in establishing value. I believe one’s nature is important because it is a criterion for human flourishing. In other words, a being’s end goal and value are dependent on if they act according to their nature. For example, I am not able to breathe underwater, but that does not mean I am not flourishing because breathing underwater is not a part of my nature. It is, however, a part of my nature to be able to speak. This allows us to conclude that if I was mute, I would not be flourishing, or living to full capacity. Furthermore, if we eliminate nature we lose the ability to make judgments on a being’s value.
The rational kind argument states that a being is a person if they belong to a rational kind. This rational nature is what separates humans from everything else and gives our lives value. The unborn have this rational nature because they have the second-order capacity to act rationally. Consequently, the unborn are persons, therefore giving their life value. A subsequent benefit to accepting that our value comes from our rational nature is the promotion of human equality. If someone believes that the unborn’s life does not have value, they shift the determining factor of value from innate nature to something based on personal ability. This way of thinking accepts the proposition that a person’s value changes based on what they are able to do, and rejects the notion that all human beings are fundamentally equal. When value is rooted in rational nature, however, there is concrete evidence for basic human equality.
The belief that human life is valuable because humans have a rational nature leads to the conclusion that the unborn have personhood and it is morally unacceptable to directly end their life through abortion. This is an important ethical issue, especially amongst college students, because the legalization of abortion furthers a culture of death, as opposed to a culture of equality and the protection of life. As college students, it is vital to take a stance against abortion because we are the most influential in altering the politics and culture of the future. If we truly want equality, the first step is realizing our value comes from our rational nature, and that value gives us inalienable rights both born and unborn.
Update 08/10/2022: Read the author’s follow-up article to “A Rational Defense of the Unborn” here.