Originally, today’s blog post was going to examine the tendencies of some radical feminists to insist that abortion should be universally celebrated, instead of reluctantly embraced. However, I’ve read a number of articles recently that refute this idea, and I’m not sure I have anything new or enlightening to add to the conversation.
Instead, I would like to highlight a paper written by American philosopher Eric T. Olson. He seems so wrapped up in his work and thought experiments that he has forgotten basic biology. In a nutshell, Olson attempts to answer the question “Was I ever a fetus?” and comes up with “No, I wasn’t.” Wait … what?
If a human male – or any human, for that matter – is not a human fetus before birth, what is he? Is he a fish? Is he nonexistent? If either of these are true, the birth canal turns into some sort of magical “grow a full term baby very quickly” chamber. The very idea is preposterous.
Pardon my attempts at humour – let’s try to address some of Olson’s actual claims. In the “Standard View” of personhood and “personal identity,” Olson explains that, “you are that future being that in some sense inherits your current psychological features: that being whose memories, beliefs, preferences, capacity for thought and consciousness, and so on are for the most part caused, in a certain way, by yours.” You are also the past creature whose memories, etc, you have “inherited.” Since we lack consciousness at some point during fetal development, we cannot inherit these things from that stage of life. Therefore “no person was ever a fetus, and no fetus ever comes to be a person.” According to Olson, this means that people may not actually “be present” at birth either. A satisfactory level of consciousness, and true existence, is only possible months later. Does that not sound crazy, or at the very least scarily Singer-esque?
Olson made an attempt to replace the “Standard View” with the “Co-location View,” which states that at “a certain point in a fetus’s development, the atoms that make it up begin to compose something else as well — a second being — and that thing is the person.” This makes no sense. Though as children we are made up of many of the same bodily structures and cells as fetuses, it does not follow that we are still fetuses along with our present selves. Let’s move on to the view Olson actually stands behind.
The “Biological View” states that a human organism comes into existence at conception without making any reference to consciousness, “psychology” (Olson’s word, not mine) or personhood. He makes no further differentiations between biological existence and becoming a person. Even though “brute physical continuity” is enough for these “non-persons” to exist, Olson has the gall to say that “the embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization.” I’m sure many esteemed scientists such as Maureen Condic would disagree.
I’m not sure what to make of all of this, and there is a lot more I could have explored. Having taken a few philosophy classes throughout my time in university, I guess the only conclusion I can leave you all with is “Don’t turn discussions of personhood and human existence into your day job.” You might adopt some rather ridiculous lines of thinking, and fall in love with some of the eccentricities of your own discipline at the expense of science.
Taylor Hyatt is a Summer student at The Interim.