Debating Abortion, Part II

I apologize for starting this post with a Star Trek clip, but whenever sentience/sapience/personhood is brought up in the abortion debate, my geek brain always flashes back to this scene from The Measure of a Man in which Picard argues in favor of declaring the android Data a sentient being. Trust me, though — there is a method to my madness. The working definition of “sentience” that Maddox supplies here correlates pretty well with the common man’s understanding of the term, so it seems like a good starting point for my discussion. Let’s look at each of Maddox’s three criteria in turn so that we may discover why conferring human rights based on perceived “personhood” is fundamentally problematic:


As I noted in my previous post, a fetus spends the months before birth gathering sensory data and learning to recognize certain rhythms, melodies, and, most importantly, voices. Though this prenatal brain activity certainly can’t be compared to the writing of a doctoral dissertation, it is laying the foundation for the fetus’ future language development. Even before birth, in other words, a fetus prepares to engage in the most identifiably human of intellectual activities, spoken language.

Human intelligence is not static; as any developmental psychologist knows, it evolves through time. In the fetal brain, certain vital connections are already being made; as a consequence, we are born with a set of specific cognitive abilities that are tailored to help us grow as human beings. And grow we do. A newborn’s skill set is different from that of a toddler. A toddler’s skill set is different from that of a child beginning his first day of formal schooling. The kindergartner understands many things, but an eighth-grader understands far more. Is an eighth-grader more valuable than a kindergartner?

Human intelligence is also variable. Not everyone has the talent or the inclination to master rocket science; not everyone has the ability or the desire to commit thousands of baseball statistics to memory. Some are quite gifted intellectually, while others struggle in school either because of a global intellectual impairment or because of a learning disability. Are geniuses more valuable than the developmentally disabled?

Lastly, human intelligence is, evidently, hard to define and quantify. Take a look at the fierce debates that still rage within the scientific community regarding the validity of standardized intelligence measures. Consider too how the scientific consensus regarding the cognitive capacities of neonates has changed over the years. Testing pre-verbal infants takes a hell of a lot of creativity and patience; thus, a lot of uncertainty remains regarding what babies know and when they come to know it. And as for the baby in utero? Take the doubt swirling around post-natal infant intelligence and multiply it by several powers of ten.

Because human intelligence is difficult to define, is obviously variable, and is constantly evolving, it is exceedingly dangerous to use it to discriminate between those human beings who “deserve” to live and those who don’t. If you want to avoid flagrant abuses of power, you must tie the fundamental human right to life to a firmly objective standard of application — and “intelligence” is not and cannot be that standard.

(And with that, I think I’ll close for the moment, as this post is getting rather long. Don’t worry, though: I will continue this deconstruction of the “personhood” criterion tomorrow.)


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