I think it would be useful to look at the philosophical basis for defending the right to life of unborn babies from the branch of philosophy called metaphysics. Metaphysics isn’t actually as abstract as it sounds. Essentially it’s just the thinking of being, of existence. Everyone is really capable of metaphysics; whenever we consider the existence of things, how things exist, whenever we know some thing and consider what is – we’re doing metaphysics. It’s actually impossible for any thinking person not to do metaphysics. If we never considered things with being, we would never consider anything. My point is: anybody can do metaphysics, this isn’t just something for intellectual high brows with PhD’s.
Let us begin with the facts that nobody disputes, the basic data that is not controversial, that is accepted by both sides of the debate, and which forms the basis for any further discussion.
Indisputable Fact No. 1: When a woman is pregnant, there is something in her. It has existence. It has being. That is in fact why there is any discussion on this whatsoever. If nothing existed inside the womb, what would be the point of an abortion?
Indisputable Fact No. 2: We all come from this something when we are born. When this something comes out of her, it is what we call a “baby”. It looks like the picture left. This fact naturally implies…
Indisputable Fact No. 3: At some point, whether sometime before birth, at birth, or after birth this is considered a “person”, a “somebody”, and has basic rights. This eventually becomes a toddler, teenager, adult, etc. All of us used to be that baby. We are all humans. So at some point this thing becomes or always was a human. Since I don’t know how you can say that human beings (all of us) aren’t actually human, I trust that this fact is not disputed.
So of course the question is: is the something a human being, a kind of being that exists as a human? If so, at what point in the history of its existence should it be considered as such? Conception, birth, sometime in the pregnancy, sometime after birth? Everyone agrees that it is at least a potential human being, and that if allowed to continue its existence will become a being that nobody would dispute is human. Let us examine the case if the being is only a potential human being, but not actually a human being.
At some point in its existence, the being in the womb must change. That is: it must move from potency to act. After that point, it will no longer be merely a potential human being but actually a human being. It is at this point, of course, that we must consider it as such (and consequently award it all the rights of humans). There are two kinds of changes: accidental changes and substantial changes.
In an accidental change, the accidents of a thing change. A thing’s accidents are “that which are able to exist only in another”. They’re qualities that can’t stand alone. For example: I have various accidental qualities. I’m tall-ish, I have blond hair, white skin, etc. An example of an accidental change would be, say, I decide to paint my face blue. I would still be me, but my facial color has changed. I still remain me. My essence, the underlying identity or nature of me, has not changed. A thing like blue-ness can’t stand by itself. You can’t go to the store and buy blue-ness.
In a substantial change, the substance of a thing changes. Here is when the essence of a thing changes, that underlying identity that can stand alone (that’s actually what substance means: sub(under)+stance(referring to ‘standing’). The substantial form, what makes it be the kind of thing that it is, experiences a change. So an example would be… say I take a piece of wood. I would change it accidentally if I did things like inscribed my name on it, sawed it in half, painted it, nailed it to another piece of wood, etc. But I would change it substantially if I were to burn it. After it burns, its substance is different. It’s no longer wood, it’s ash or charcoal. Its underlying identity has changed. Its substantial form has changed. It is no longer wood, it is a completely different substance than wood.
So, obviously, the kind of change we’re looking for is not an accidental change but a substantial change. When does the being in the womb’s substance change? In fact, when do any humans experience substantial change? If I set myself on fire, but I’m still alive afterward, I may look like a hideously grotesque non-human. But if I’m alive, I’m still me, and I’m still human. All that’s changed are my accidents. But if I were to die as a result of being set on fire, I would no longer be me. Thus I would have changed substantially. My substantial form (which is, incidentally, what I believe the soul to be) is no longer there. What’s there is a corpse. It’s not me anymore. A corpse is not a human being.
Now, there is an event in this being’s existential history that is a substantial change. It is called conception. After this event it begins to exist as the kind of thing that it is. Before, there was sperm and egg, and then after there was this new thing that’s causing all the trouble. This is the point at which the being begins to exist. The potency of a thing’s existence is actualized, a thing’s essence exists in the world of actual things. St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that this, existence, is the essence of a thing’s first or primary act. The essence has gone from potency to act, and it’s first act is existence. Make sense?
Could there be a candidate after this, aside from death itself? When does the essence of this being ever change, except when it begins to exist and when it ceases to exist as that being (i.e. conception and death)? When does it become a completely and totally different being?
Now, I could just stop here and say: ok, everybody, look at this website and come back and tell me when you’ve found another substantial change. Because, scientifically, this thing is human from this particular moment. But advocates of abortion provide several points where they might consider the being in the womb to be a human, so I’m going to address some popular ones and demonstrate how they are not substantial changes.
Birth: So the big things that happen at birth are really a change in location/environment and the cutting of the umbilical cord. A change in environment is not a substantial change. I’m in my basement right now. If I go outside, where it’s all cold and snowy, I’ve changed my environment. I’ve experienced a number of accidental changes, but the me-in-the-basement is still me when I’m outside. So merely being in or out of the mother’s womb does not effect the essence of the fetus. Cutting the umbilical cord certainly doesn’t either. If I were even to cut off my arms and legs, as long as I was still living I would still be me. The fetus is not an accidental quality of the mother. So: birth is not a substantial change.
Viability: Viability really doesn’t even have a whole lot to do with the fetus but is more about advances in medical technology. If I am a victim of a very serious disease that currently does not have a cure, I do not experience a substantial change when they find a cure. Even if the cure is administered to me, this is still an accidental change. So: Viability is not a substantial change.
Growth/Size: The growth of any particular organs or body parts or growing in size are not substantial changes, but accidental ones. Again, removing any particular organs does not make me not me. You could even swap out my organs for other people’s organs, but that doesn’t change my being. I am still myself. But this leads us to a specific point often referenced…
Growth of Brain/Consciousness: Now, most people assume this happens later… but actually the embryo has brain waves by 6 weeks two days. Many women don’t even know they’re pregnant by then. But anyway, the growth of a brain is once again an accidental change. And here let’s just think about it from the standpoint of causality: only a human could grow a human brain. A non-human can’t grow a human brain. A non-person can’t grow a personal brain. The effect cannot be greater than the cause. The only fruit of non-existence as a human being is non-existence as a human being. As the saying goes “you can’t give what you don’t have”. The same thing applies to consciousness. I am less conscious when I’m asleep, but I’m not experiencing a substantial change there. If someone knocks me unconscious, I’m still the same person. Even, in fact, if all my memories were to be gone. Bits of me have changed, but these are accidental qualities. So: growth, brain development, and consciousness are not substantial changes.
It doesn’t look like a human: This is similar to growth, of course. A clump of microscopic cells may not look like a human, but if it were to look like a human that would once again be… an accidental change. Refer back to my analogy of setting myself on fire. So: Looking like a human being is not a substantial change.
It doesn’t act like a human: Human beings think, ask questions, choose things, reason, communicate, etc. But. Identity, essence, substance are not limited to actions. Aristotle said: action follows upon being. The actions of a thing depend first upon its existence. And as we’ve shown above, the first act, the primary act is of existence. And that happens at conception. Plus, I don’t ask questions, choose, reason or communicate in my sleep usually, or at least when I’m in a “dreamless sleep”. But going to sleep is not a substantial change. So: performance of personal actions are not substantial changes.
There may be other examples pro-abortionists might provide, but in all of these cases the changes they are speaking of are accidental ones and not substantial ones. And the only substantial changes we can pinpoint in the history of our existence as beings are: conception and death. Unborn babies are just as human as we are. Therefore: human existence begins at conception. And thus any being existing past that point should be awarded all basic and fundamental human rights, the most fundamental of all being life itself.