By Paul Stark
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life
“Abortion kills a human being,” said Willie Parker, who has killed some 20,000 human beings, in a debate last month about the ethics of abortion. Parker is a prominent abortion practitioner and author of Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.
“Women don’t give birth to puppies,” he observed, “so fetuses are human beings. But they’re not people. And if a fetus is not a person and a woman is a person, they may both have moral weight, but that moral weight is not equal.”
So why, according to Parker, aren’t unborn human beings equal to the rest of us? Why aren’t they “people” with rights?
A member of the debate audience asked Parker for an explanation of personhood. After all, Parker’s “life’s work” depends on the claim that certain human beings don’t have human rights. So he better have some good reasons for that view, right?
Here’s Parker’s explanation (he gives it from 1:25:00-1:28:22 in the debate video.) “I think a function of personhood is sentience, being able to have an interest,” he said, adding that this may involve “skill to reason and that kind of thing.”
He acknowledged that acquiring such mental abilities is “not an instantaneous event,” and that infants may also lack them, but he quickly ruled out infanticide by saying that “personhood begins at birth” because that “unambiguously” is “when we collectively decide that we have a compelling interest to protect the life of a person.”
Hold on. Isn’t birth a different criterion than sentience? Why did he say that personhood is tied to mental function, a standard that may exclude human infants (and others) from personhood, but then say that personhood is determined by birth instead?
It gets more confusing. Parker then suggested that fetal viability is actually what makes the difference. After viability, he said, “a fetus, when it becomes a baby at birth, can survive outside the womb. And the decision was, at that point, a woman cannot make the decision to end a pregnancy because the state now has a compelling interest.”
So, in the span of about three minutes, here’s what Parker said about personhood:
Which is Parker’s standard for personhood? Is it sentience? Is it birth or viability? Or is it — as he seemed to indicate when explaining these last two criteria — simply what we decide it is? (And who “collectively” decided in favor of birth or viability? Seven unelected men in 1973?)
Parker’s statements appear contradictory. One possible interpretation is that he thinks personhood in a moral sense is tied to sentience, but that personhood in a legal sense (what the law happens to say) begins at birth, and that even before personhood begins the state has some (lesser) interest in protecting the child at viability. He didn’t make these distinctions, though, and the debate was about ethics, not about what the law currently is.
In any case, it doesn’t really matter which of the four criteria Parker believes. All of them are terrible reasons to discriminate against human beings. And Parker offered no defense of them.
Mental functions come in varying degrees. This standard of personhood means that none of us are equal. And it excludes not just unborn children but other classes of human beings too—such as infants, people with severe cognitive disabilities, and patients with advanced dementia. Parker seemed to acknowledge this problem.
Birth is a change in a human being’s location. Location has no bearing on the nature or value of an individual.
Viability is a measure of an individual’s lack of dependence on someone else, which has nothing to do with human rights. A conjoined twin may be “non-viable” apart from the other twin, but she is still a person.
Finally, what about “when we collectively decide” that someone is a person? Is that what actually makes someone a person?
Of course not. Many cultures have “collectively decided” that certain groups of human beings are not people who deserve the protection of society. Those cultures were wrong. Human rights are not conferred on us by others. We have them already simply because we are human. And society must respect those rights as a matter of justice.
Parker should understand this well. He likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr., who articulated better than anyone the difference between what governments say and what justice requires. A law or court decision that “[relegates] persons to the status of things,” Dr. King wrote, is “unjust.”
Does Parker hold a different view? When he speaks, it often sounds like it.
Willie Parker became a celebrity abortionist by identifying as a Christian and invoking the parable of the Good Samaritan as a twisted rationale for dismembering inconvenient and helpless members of the human family. He is now lauded by the likes of Planned Parenthood, Gloria Steinem, and Lena Dunham. He is celebrated on The Daily Show and in the pages of The New Yorker and Rolling Stone.
They might want to rethink some of their praise. Parker’s debate performance showed that he can’t give defensible or even coherent reasons for his practice of lethal discrimination against a class of innocent human beings. (“I am not trained in debate. I am not trained in philosophy,” he told the audience after a rebuttal given by his opponent, Prof. Mike Adams.)
But Parker’s not alone. Historically, attempts to divide humanity into those who matter and those who don’t have never held up to scrutiny. They have always failed the test of reason and justice.
They fail because—despite Parker and the abortion industry’s shallow protestations to the contrary—human equality really is true.
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