Some persons are brainless

Neural pathways are developing at 5 weeks, Caroline, but the fetus has the neural capacity of a shrimp. I do think independent function and brain activity should be the rubric for when it becomes a viable human life. Late term abortions are EXCEEDINGLY rare. And since these new abortion bans are all around the 6-8 week mark, what we’re really talking about is aborting a fetus that has no autonomy and the brain capacity of a shrimp. 

Nope…it is potential human life when there is no brain activity….and by law and science it is legally dead.

A fetus is not a human being either. A zygote is not a human being either. Until brain activity….all of these are only potentials.

Prior to significant brain development and independent function, it’s difficult to distinguish between a human zygote and most other developing animal life. It’s our brain that distinguishes us from each other, it’s what allows us (eventually) self-awareness and situational awareness. Without significant brain functions, we are just blood pumping machines. As lisa mentions above, we often take people off life support when significant brain function is no longer present. 

These, again, are actual comments from the same Facebook thread I referenced in this post. My debate opponents employed a number of the arguments for abortion rights Francis Beckwith answers in his book I’ve been going through(1), including this one from brain functioning. But is there any good reason to believe that a functioning brain is necessary for full personhood?

The abortion-rights advocate would agree that the unborn entity prior to brain activity will eventually develop brain functioning if left alone and protected. But Beckwith points out that in this, he or she “affirms the personhood of the unconscious unborn, since a being who lacks a certain characteristic it will by nature eventually attain means that it is a certain sort of being, in this case, a human person, who possesses the essential structure necessary for the manifestation of certain functions.” In other words, what the unconscious unborn lacks at this stage is simply a capability it will eventually acquire at a later stage of development which it has not yet reached. Just as we do not degrade the personhood of infants because they lack the capacity of speech, neither should we degrade their personhood before they develop any other human capacity which is inherent in them by virtue of their being human.

As for the argument that since death is marked by the cessation of brain activity, life (or personhood) should be marked at the moment when it begins, Beckwith explains why this too fails. Quoting another author, he says, “The fundamental difficulty with this argument ‘is that brain death indicates the end of human life as we know it, the dead brain having no capacity to revive itself. But the developing embryo has the natural capacity to bring on the functioning of the brain.’” And again, “the two stages of human life are, then, entirely different from the point of view of brain functioning. The embryo contains the natural capacity to develop all the human activities: perceiving, reasoning, willing and relating to others. Death means the end of natural growth, the cessation of these abilities.”

Beckwith also points out a simple but important distinction between humans at opposite ends of brain function. “An embryo, in its earliest stages, does not need a brain to live, whereas human persons at later stages do.”

As I commented to my Facebook friends of my friend, the fact that an embryo is functionally-limited does not make it something other than human. Its development does not change it from one thing to another…it is the same being throughout pregnancy but at different levels of development. It doesn’t suddenly become something new when the brain begins to function.

Neither does the brain dead adult become something other than human at that juncture. A born person can be declared dead when there is no longer any brain activity because the body has ceased to operate as an integrated whole and will not regain that capability. But that is quite different than an embryo which does operate as an integrated whole and will develop a nervous and every other human bodily system if simply nourished and protected.

There are still a few more “decisive moments” for full personhood that need to be answered. Those will be for next time.

(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)