Monday, April 16, 2012

What do identical twins have to do with Oklahoma's Personhood Bill?

A lot, actually. The process of twinning may pose one of the clearest grounds for challenging the proposed legislative assertion that personhood begins at conception.

In fact, the philosopher who is arguably the most important philosophical defender of the pro-life position, Don Marquis, has argued that his case against abortion does not apply prior to implantation--precisely because of the twinning issue. And the reasoning here (which has been laid out by a number of philosophers, including Peter Singer) has clear implications for Oklahoma's so-called Personhood Bill.

Since I've talked about the Personhood Bill on this blog, I thought I'd spend a few moments connecting the dots between this bill and some of the philosophical arguments that relate to it. Let's start with Don Marquis's anti-abortion argument.

Marquis recognizes that there are enormous problems in making one's moral case about abortion rest on the question of personhood. We simply don't have a clear enough understanding of personhood to do that. So, instead, Marquis begins by asking what is wrong with killing adults. What makes homocide so presumptively seriously immoral? His answer is this: it deprives someone of the future they would otherwise enjoy. And not just any future. It deprives them of a certain kind of future--what we'll call a human future.

But if the chief wrong-making property of killing an adult human being is that it deprives the individual killed of a human future, that immediately motivates Marquis's key question: What kind of future does a fetus have?

A human one, of course. All of us started out as fetuses. And every human fetus is on a developmental trajectorty to become "one of us," and as such has a future like ours. And this means that killing a fetus has the same wrong-making property that killing an adult has.

Now there are various ways to object to Marquis's argument, but the one I want to focus on--the one that's interested me the most--has to do with identity over time. If you kill me, you deprive me of my future--the future I'd otherwise have. There is, in other words, a victim here. Someone who is being deprived of something they'd otherwise enjoy. And in order for there to be a victim, the one who enjoys the future in question has to be the very same individual as the one who is killed. Marquis's argument here depends on positing identity over time. The question is this: At what point does the organism who possesses a future like ours come into existence?

I'm inclined to say that this question is related to personhood (I've made an argument to this effect in conference presentations and have been working on a journal article on the topic). A necessary condition for A and B being the exact same individual is that A and B are essentially the same kind of thing. Since a person is an essentially different kind of thing than a corpse, the body that remains after I die won't be me. The question is when, on the other end of the course of my life, I came into being. I think the answer is this: whenever the biological organism developing in my mother's womb became a person.

And since the notion of personhood is difficult to explicate in uncontroversial terms, it follows that the question of when I came to be is a vexed one.

Marquis disagrees (and has expressed this disagreement in an e-mailed critique of my conference paper). He thinks that what is essential to me is not my personhood, but my status as a living human organism. So, on his view, when the living human organism came to exist, I came to exist (even if my personhood only came later). Given this view of things, Marquis thinks he can sidestep the vexing question of personhood and still argue that abortion is presumptively wrong.

But despite our differences on this issue, he and I would agree, I think, that if the organism has not yet come to exist, then neither has the person. And if the person comes to exist at conception, so does the organism.

Here is where Oklahoma's Personhood Bill becomes relevant. The Oklahoma state legislature is, in effect, poised to declare that the organism identical with me comes into existence at conception (and that this organism is a person to boot). According to this law, I came into existence the moment my father's sperm fertilized my mother's egg. I am identical with that zygote--we are the same individual at two different stages of development. Likewise, my student, "Tammy," is the same individual as the zygote from which she developed. And her sister, "Bri," is the same individual as the zygote from which she developed.

If this is true, then each of these zygotes would have been deprived of its future--a human one--had it been killed.  But even Don Marquis argues that this can't be.

And why not? Here's where twinning poses a problem. The problem is born out of what logicians call "the transitivity of identity." It's a basic logical rule that goes like this: If A=B and B=C, then A=C. In terms of individual organisms, if A is the very same individual as B, and B is the very same individual as C, then A is the very same individual as C.

So let's apply this rule to my student, Tammy, and her sister, Bri. As mentioned above, according to the Personhood Bill Tammy has to be conceived (pun intended) as the very same individual as the zygote from which she developed; and Bri has to be conceived as the very same individual as the zygote from which she developed. But Tammy and Bri are identical twins, identical in the sense of emerging from the same fertilized egg or zygote. According to the Oklahoma Personhood Bill, Tammy would have to be conceived as identical with that zygote, and Bri would have to be conceived of as identical with that zygote. By the rule of transitivity of identity, Tammy and Bri are the same person.

But they're not. Tammy greets me enthusiastically whenever we pass each other on campus. Bri has no idea who I am. I've seen them walking down the hall side-by-side, and I can assure you that they're not merely different people, but physically distinct biological organisms.

Marquis follows up this line of argument with another one: Much of the early "conceptus" (the product of conception) develops into what, later in pregnancy, is the placenta and other extra-embryonic structures(amniotic sac, umbilical cord) rather than any part of the fetus. These considerations, along with certain others, drive Marquis to the conclusion that the human organism comes on the scene only after implantation, when the embryo begins to differentiate itself from the extra-embryonic structures. This is still, of course, very early in pregnancy--usually before the person even knows they're pregnant; certainly before most abortions are performed. But not at conception.

If you embrace the Personhood Bill, you embrace the idea that I was a person when my father's sperm met my mother's egg--and hence that the organism that is me came into existence at that point. But holding that the organism exists at conception leads to absurd results in twinning cases; and there are important developmental milestones (the differentiation of embryo from the extra-embryonic structures being a crucial one) that could readily be understood as the point at which the organism emerges without leading to such absurd results.

In short, there are good philosophical reasons not to hold that the fertilized egg is a person--even if, like Marquis, we maintain that the fetus is a potential person (at least) by the time most abortions are being contemplated; and even if we hold, like Marquis, that being a human organism that is potentially a person means that killing it deprives it of a future like ours and so is presumptively very seriously wrong.

You can, in conclusion, take a strong stand against abortion without embracing this Personhood Bill. And the philosophical reasons not to regard the fertilized egg as a person are, to my mind, quite strong. In my last serious post on this subject, I argued that legislative fiat is not the best way to try to settle an essentially philosophical dispute. The kinds of arguments offered here constitute a better approach...and even the arguments of a well-known philosophical opponent of abortion speak against the currently proposed legislative pronouncement.


  1. Hi, again!

    I have to say that I think you are barking up the wrong tree here, with philosophical arguments and technicalities. Rights, such as the right to life, to not be killed, to fairness under the law, etc., are political creations. We give them to each other as part of the deal of coming up with communities.

    They do two things, which are to accommodate our practical needs, and to express our feelings.

    If the political system wants to kill murderers, that is its right, philosophy or no. What philosophy can do is to rationalize our feelings afterwards, or in the ideal case, reform our feelings. But there is no objective quality to such political questions- they are measures of our feeling.

    Fetuses are not political actors in any way, so there are no practical issues involved in abortion, as there would be in killing adults, for instance- the peace of society is not at stake. The issue is purely an expression of our feelings.

    On abortion, the feelings involved have been very nicely whipped up by both sides. One side maintains that fetuses have no well-formed feelings of their own, nor does society have any great stake in the matter, so if the mother's feelings allow her to have an abortion, so be it. The other side, of course, portrays the fetus as the ultimate defenseless innocent, (ignoring for the moment all the other defenseless innocents that we gladly send to slaughter every day on our farms), projected forward to be the doe-eyed infant that evokes such strong feelings.

    Then there is the ulterior battle about patriarchy, whether we as a political community feel that women should be subservient in this respect- that their bodies are sacred vessels to be sacrificed, if need be, to the ultra-sacred boon of new life. I am sure that the legislature couldn't care less about twin exceptions to the personhood-at-conception theology they are positing .. about trajectories, implantations, and all the rest. Nor should they.

  2. And if the political community "felt" good about the systematic marginalization of women, relegating them to the status of nothing but baby-producing vessels, there would (on the subjectivist philosophy you espouse here) be no philosophical reason to object? Just want to be clear on what you take to be the actual implications of the philosophical theory of ethics you are confidently professing here.

  3. Yes, I think that is correct. Plenty of philosophers labored and still labor happily in such systems, doing philosophy. It all depends on what criteria you bring to the table, which are not themselves philosophical.

    I think the best you can say is that philosophy constitutes a sensitive way to get in touch with our (i.e. the philosopher's) intuitions and then work out their consequences as rigorously as possible, (which is unfortunately not very rigorous, given the defects of self-critique and human psychology in general), noting where they interact with other intuitions. But the starting point is always going to be irrational, otherwise you would be doing science.

  4. Hi Eric

    This idea of development trajectory interests me. I'm not sure how we avoid the point raised satirically in your earlier link, and memorably in Monty Python's 'Every Sperm is Sacred'. The sperm too, is on a development trajectory. Sure, only a vastly small proportion will make it to the point of the genetic shuffle, but it's also true that not all foetuses are on development trajectories to personhood. And while the sperm needs not only an extra ingredient, but also a willful act to get there, so too the foetus develops only with the external resources and consent of the mother to be.

    Is there a further, unspoken distinction being made here, that provides a clearer sense of what makes a foetus' development trajectory unique in this sense?


  5. Bernard: Yes, the notion of developmental trajectory, while not Marquis's terminology, is crucial to the success of his argument. And one of the persistent challenges to his argument is precisely what you raise here. In a nutshell, how do we avoid a slipperly slope back to the gametes, resulting in the view that gametes (either seperately or as a "meriological whole") have a "future like ours," with the counterintuitive conclusion that contraception may have something like the same moral status as killing an adult?

    Here's an initial attempt to characterize what "X is on a developmental trajectory towards personhood" means in the context of Marquis's argument: (1) Given X's internal powers and capacities and granted that a set of facilitating conditions are in place and remain in place for a specifiable time frame, X will develop into a person; (2) The requisite facilitating conditions are in place such that, should X not develop into a person, it will be either because (a) X's internal powers and capacities have broken down, or (b) one or more facilitating conditions that were in place have been removed (perhaps by deliberate agency but not necessarily so).

    There are numerous difficulties here (among them, what does it mean for something that is not a person to "develop into" one?). But I'm actually on my way to master's thesis defense on this very topic, so I need to run.

  6. Just so I have this correctly:

    Eric: “And if the political community "felt" good about the systematic marginalization of women, relegating them to the status of nothing but baby-producing vessels…there would be no philosophical reason to object?”

    Burk: “Yes, that is correct.”


    And Burk, are we also to understand you correctly that all philosophical endeavor is irrational and only scientific endeavor is rational? How convenient for you. Sort of sounds like every fundamentalist’s assertion of a corner on the Truth. Nice. What more need be said here?

  7. I think that, as Eric has taught us, philosophy consists of working out one's preconceptions and intutions, not necessarily altering them. Our intutions come from .. by some models from god, and by others by more material sources. In any case, there is not very much we can do about them, and when it comes to our human values and politics, there is no objective criterion to alter them- they are axiomatic.

    That doesn't mean that one person's or one culture's values can not be critiqued by anyone who feels otherwise or thinks they are internally inconsistent. Nor does it mean that philosophy doesn't have a role in drawing out all the consequences of one emotional position in order to highlight other emotions, perhaps more powerful ones, which attend its consequences, conflict with it and may defeat it.

    But if oppression is the order of the day for people of a culture, then their philosophers will, at best, observe that and comment on its consequences, which will likely be the end of it. Example- slavery in the ancient world, for all its fine philosophers. Mostly, philosophers ignore issues that are settled in a culture, no matter how unjust or absurd they may appear to outsiders.

    Even the question of who counts as a person is quite up for grabs, (getting back to the point this post), and philosophers may say all they want about it, but can not say anything definitive, for the simple reason that personhood is an empathic gift that we extend to others for emotional reasons. For a prospective person, no objective characteristic (such as human potentiality, trajectories, etc.) compels personhood on a community. (Though a clear display of agency by way of the power to do harm is frequently helpful.) To some, dogs are persons. To others, adults of another ethnic group are not persons. It is people like Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe who extend the sphere of empathic concern- i.e. personhood. Cultivation alters emotions far more than philosophy does.

  8. Hi,

    This idea of development trajectory seems somewhat problematic to me. It seems to imply there is some entity existing at an early stage and somehow preserved while experiencing a growth process.

    But is there really such a thing? There is a set of instructions (nothing to do with a blueprint) controlling in a very complex manner when some events will occur which, in conjunction with an appropriate environment, will eventually produce, if all goes well (and most of the time it doesn't), a recognizable human. Moreover, this process goes on for a long time even after birth.

    What makes us what we are is precisely what happens along the way – and, without all this “happening”, how can we say “we” exist in any meaningful sense? It is a bit like saying a bunch of construction material should be considered a house because, if all goes well, it will end up being one... I cannot make sense of this.

    We are in large part the result of interactions with a very complex environment, physical at first, but also involving countless encounters with others. These encounters define and make us who we are. How can we be said to exist before any of this happens?

    Likewise, I don't see how we could identify a moment when properly human life or personhood begins. The whole process is very gradual and, essentially, continuous. There is certainly a sense of “becoming” but there may be nothing at all that is experiencing the becoming. This very “becoming” is what we are.

  9. Burk,

    How do we get from: “…there would be no philosophical reason to object?”

    To: “That doesn't mean that one person's or one culture's values cannot be critiqued by anyone who feels otherwise or thinks they are internally inconsistent.”


    “It is people like Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe who extend the sphere of empathic concern- i.e. personhood. Cultivation alters emotions far more than philosophy does.”

    As if Dickens and Stowe were not writing out of that peculiar philosophy called Christianity and without which one could hardly understand the impetus for much of their work. All cultivation is derived from a philosophy of some sort and, in fact, is impossible without it.