The obsession with classification

Of fetuses, persons and something in between

Romanian version of this story

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet

A man buys a land plot to build a house upon. In the beginning, the plot is empty except for the weeds growing on it. The man obtains a building permit, hires an architect and a crew and begins the construction. He lays the foundation, raises walls… Two years later, the house is ready and the man moves in it.

At what point does he begin to refer to his house as a house, not as a land plot, construction site or otherwise? The answer probably varies from person to person. To some, the house becomes a house when they move in; before that point, they call it a construction site. Perhaps others refer to a certain moment in the construction process: the roof, the walls, the doors and windows, something that gives the house its shape. Still others bear fond memories of the first brick they laid or the first shovelful of dirt they removed. Almost certainly, there will be a transition period when the man mixes words like house and construction site.

There may be people who call the house a house before they even get the building permit, perhaps even before they buy the land plot. But that is an abstract sense of a project that, with time and effort, may lead to a house. (People who use house literally to refer to an empty land plot will be very disappointed if they try to take shelter from the rain in such a house).

The obsession with classification

What is certain is that there is no precise property that a construction can acquire at a precise moment in time, that it did not have five minutes before, and that makes it a house, unequivocally for everyone. And that is OK. Life is full of gradual changes. When exactly was the last day of summer this year? At what age do people become old?

Yet half of Earth’s population cannot stand this vagueness. They insist to have a term, a nominal definition of a house. They consider that, since we cannot point to the precise moment when a construction becomes a house, the only solution is to refer to it as a house from the moment the land is bought.

I know it sounds absurd and it would probably be hard to find one person on Earth who, when asked out of context: “Is a land plot a house, yes or no?”, would answer “yes”. But we are not really talking about land plots and houses, are we? We are talking about fetuses and persons and the ethics of abortion.

Lady amoeba

Let us undress the analogy. When can we refer to a fetus as a person? In this wording, tens of percent, perhaps over 50% of people (depending on the poll) will answer: from the moment of conception. The logical consequence is natural to them: abortion is murder.

Photo by Omar Lopez

The reasons why antiabortionists believe fetuses are persons fall into a few categories that, to me, seem related:

  • We cannot point to a precise moment when the fetus acquires personhood. Lest we should err and kill something that might be a person, we must treat fetuses as persons beginning at conception.
  • Any fetus is a member of the Homo sapiens species and any member of the Homo sapiens species is a person. The first implication is indisputable. Genetically, fetuses belong to the human species. So the core of the dispute comes back to the question: is any human being a person?
  • The argument from fetal potential: fetuses have the potential to become persons with right to life, so we must extend them the right to life as well.

Clearly, if the woman’s womb housed a parasite, nobody would object to the woman going to the doctor to have the parasite removed. So the essence of antiabortionist arguments invariably returns to the fetus’s personhood, even when it has the neurological development of an amoeba.

A brief list of absurdities

Here are a few directions worth exploring once we accept that fetuses are persons.

Social security, passport, citizenship

If a fetus is a person, and seeing as it is under 18 years old, it should receive social security (child benefits).

If a fetus is a person, then it needs a passport to travel abroad. But passports are conditioned by citizenship, which is granted (among others) by birth. So fetuses are… stateless?

The in-utero humanitarian crisis

If fetuses are persons, what do we do about the countless miscarriages? Under half of pregnancies conclude in live births. A sizable part are lost due to implantation errors or genetic defects, without the woman ever learning that she was pregnant.

If every miscarriage is morally equivalent to the death of a person, then this is by far the largest humanitarian crisis the world has ever seen. Every nation should immediately redirect its entire budget to solve this problem.

I can see why it doesn’t sit well with us that nature doesn’t care, that we are a species like any other, subject to reproduction using the same error-prone mechanism. But the refusal of reality leads to absurdities.

A bit of criminal inconsistency

Genetically and morphologically normal adults, born of loving parents, deserve to live. It is abominable to murder them.

Adults with birth defects or serious genetic mutations, or adults born of incest or rape, deserve to live. It is abominable to murder them.

Genetically and morphologically normal fetuses, conceived by loving parents, deserve to live. It is abominable to murder them.

However, fetuses with serious genetic mutations, or fetuses conceived of incest or rape, can be aborted. Most countries allow abortion in one or more of these situations.

Why are we treating the fourth category differently? If fetuses were persons, we would need other criteria to distinguish the category. Thus, we would allow abortion based on physical or mental defects or based on the origin of the pregnancy. Are we somehow endorsing eugenics-style murder? In this regard, ultrareligious countries that ban abortion without exceptions are, at least, consistent.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda

At first sight, the argument from fetal potential appears to stand. The difference between a house fly and a fetus is that a fetus, with patience and effort, will one day become a person. Therefore, it is acceptable to kill a house fly, but not a fetus.

Photo by svklimkin

But this argument includes another leap: that, if A has the potential to become a B, then it must receive the rights owed to a B (and, during its evolution, people around it owe it patience and effort). This leap also leads to logical monsters. If a fetus has the potential to become a person, then its constituent halves (the sperm and egg) also have this potential.

That would make contraception murder. Even abstinence would be murder, since you would be locking up all these potential persons without offering them a right to life. You could make a one-dollar genocide by using a condom.

A second counter argument is that, in similar situations, the potential object doesn’t receive treatment equal to the mature object. I too have the potential to become a virtuoso pianist, but also a doctor. Please address me as Maestro and get me a prescription pad.

The mother in the hand and the fetus in the bush

Photo by Glasgow Science Centre

If fetuses were persons, then the complications that can arise during pregnancy should be handled by giving equal rights to mother and fetus. Yet the overwhelming majority of countries favor the mother when her life is in danger, regardless of the development stage of the fetus. We can debate for ages if fetuses in a vacuum are persons; but when we weigh them against real persons, the argument from fetal potential loses its value.

Chronicle of a malnutrition foretold

Children are not little adults. Hardships that adults can survive relatively easily can be devastating to children. A poor nutrition may later in life cause diseases of all kinds: respiratory, cardiovascular, bone-related, diabetes. The lack of company, of conversation, of intellectual and social stimuli, hinders the development of their brains.

Many children are born in families that don’t know how, or simply cannot, offer them a good start in life. Antiabortionists ignore this possibility and insist that parents (or often the single mother) see the pregnancy through. The argument from fetal potential precludes any argument during the first weeks of pregnancy, when the woman has two options: (a) to give birth to a person condemned to a life of torment and inferiority, and (b) to not give birth to a person.

Antiabortionists substitute choice (b) with choice (c): to give birth to a person and raise it reasonably well. But talk is cheap. Raising a child well requires sacrifices from other family members. Perhaps siblings will get less food. Or perhaps the mother will work more and the children will grow as they may. In effect, the fetus takes priority over real persons.

Out of my loaf of bread¹

Choice (c) follows (I presume) from the conviction that N + 1 lives are better than N lives, even if the quality of each of those lives decreases a bit. Except theory and practice are the same in theory, but not in practice. We are not living in Hilbert’s hotel with infinitely many rooms. When the hotel fills up, it’s full. And people and institutions occasionally decide that it is preferable to have fewer people with better lives.

Photo by Maxime Roedel

One example are the exorbitantly expensive treatments for some diseases, such as Zolgensma, a gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy. With the exception of Japan, no state pays $2,000,000 using public money to save a life. Why? Because other lives also need the money.


This article does not advocate permitting abortion under any circumstances. I am not claiming that we can blithely abort a 39-week fetus. I am not pretending to understand what happens in the mind of a pregnant woman. I am not insinuating that an abortion is like an expensive manicure. I am not asking anyone to disregard their convictions, either conservative (such as religion) or emancipatory (such as women’s rights). I agree that abortion raises profound ethical dilemmas.

This article strictly advocates removing the equality fetus=person from discussions about abortion. I have proposed thought experiments that highlight irreconcilable paradoxes stemming from the equality fetus=person. My intention is to hold a mirror:

  • to those who blindly repeat statements heard elsewhere and
  • to those who never considered the logical implications of their convictions, but live candidly in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Photos by Peter Neish, Justin Kern

Thousands of volumes were written on abortion. BBC has a very well written primer on the subject, itself quite thick. We may never all agree on what is acceptable and what is not. We can talk about this to crystallize some equitable norms. That is how democracy works. But, to talk productively, we must first remove illogical axioms.

A one-second-old fetus is not a person. A one-second-old child is a person. The gradual, unseen transition happens over 40 weeks. We owe everything to a one-second-old child, just as much as we owe ourselves. We owe nothing to a one-second-old fetus.

[1] A Romanian folk song goes “Out of my loaf of bred / I raised a man and a dog”.

software engineer living in Bucharest, Romania

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