Decisively aware and now here, not there
\ ˈsen(t)-sh(ē-)ənt , ˈsen-tē-ənt\
You and I are sentient creatures…except when we’re not. Every 16 hours or so we become non-sentient and then eventually return to sentience until we go out of it again for 6-8 hours and start the non-sentient/sentient cycle all over again.
Question: While we are non-sentient, are we something other than human persons?
The attainment of sentience in the unborn is one of the “decisive moments” that some abortion-rights advocates argue must be reached in order to enjoy full personhood. Until the point in the child’s development when he or she can feel pain, there is no harm done in extinguishing its life, so therefore, abortion up to that moment is morally permissible.
But as Francis Beckwith argues in Chapter 6 of his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1), “There are several problems with this argument. First, it seems to confuse harm with hurt as well as confusing the experience of harm with the reality of harm.” Just as smothering to death a temporarily comatose person would not hurt or cause him to experience any pain but still most definitely harms him, so too the avoidance of causing pain to the unborn does not avoid causing them harm.
The second problem is that “if sentience is the criterion of full humanness, then the reversibly comatose, the momentarily unconscious, and the sleeping would have to be declared nonpersons.” The abortion advocate might object that these conditions are not analogous because they occur after the individual has already attained sentience.
But let’s look closely at what they affirm regarding these post-sentience, temporarily non-sentient persons. They would agree that the person upon returning to sentience is the same person who was temporarily non-sentient. So they are assuming “some underlying personal unity” to the individual. But this means that sentience is not a necessary condition for personhood, which undercuts their argument.
Therefore, the pre-sentient unborn, having an inherent natural capacity to attain sentience just like the post-sentient, temporarily non-sentient, are just as fully human as they. The reason why it is morally permissible to “pull the plug” on a non-sentient, respirator-dependent, brain-dead person is that he no longer possesses that natural capacity.
The final decisive moment that Beckwith addresses is the one that the US Supreme Court has declared applicable in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, though it is the least defensible. According to those decisions, the moment when the unborn attain full personhood with the right to life is at birth. On one side of the canal the unborn is not worthy of protection; if he makes it to the other side, he is.
The author cites two reasons why those who argue for birth as the definitive moment of full humanness usually hold this position: 1) that’s when we begin calculating a person’s age, and 2) it’s only after birth “that a child is named, baptized, and accepted into a family.” But, of course, these are only “social conventions,” not necessary, binding realities.
And, as the process of being born is just a very short journey through a very tight space, birth is merely a change in location. Quoting another philosopher, Beckwith writes, “surely personhood and the right to life is not a matter of location. It should be what you are, not where you are that determines whether you have a right to life.”
If not location, then what exactly is personhood and the right to life a matter of? Beckwith tackles that next.
(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)