The Fetus vs. The Unconscious Person: Anti-Choice Straw Man Fallacy

1 Sep

On the weekend I got into a Twitter argument with an anti-choicer. Foolish, I know, but when she tweeted @ me, “Being #prochoice and #proabortion IS being #antichoice?” I couldn’t help myself. We sent back and forth a few polite tweets, ending with her tweeting, “It was not the fetus’ fault that he/she came in2 existence. R U 4 the death penalty 4 UNconscious human beings?” It is this last part that drives me batty, and it is an “argument” that antis use way too often. In the anti-choice world, a fetus is equivalent to an unconscious person. They usually trot out this “argument” when a pro-choicer notes that the woman is the conscious being, and thus we must respect her, and not the non-conscious, unthinking, unfeeling fetus. There are a couple reasons why this argument is totally fallacious and goes up in flames.


We can say with certainty that before 24 weeks gestation (and possibly after), a fetus is incapable of feeling pain. In order to feel pain,

“its nervous system would both have to have the ability to perceive noxious stimuli on a sensory level, as well as to process those noxious stimuli in the brain. The primitive component of the nervous system, the reflexes, develops fairly early but nerve fibers that connect the sensory and motor nerves of the body to the brain don’t seem to be fully functional until 29-30 weeks; that is, the message from the body that something annoying is happening doesn’t make it to the upper level of the brain (the cortex) in order to be perceived by the fetus until 29 weeks, and those connections that allow that to happen don’t even start forming until 23 weeks.”*

They do not have the brain or nerve capacity to sense pain or perceive the world around them. Reactions up until a very late stage in fetal development are reflexive. Poke a one-celled organism and it will reflexively move. Reflex is survival, not perception. On the other hand, an unconscious person has a very different experience. There is a further distinction between merely unconscious persons, and brain dead persons. I believe the appropriate parallel is between a brain dead person and a fetus, not an unconscious person and a fetus. We cannot be sure whether an unconscious person feels pain or other sensations, or perceives their world. That is why doctors often tell family members to talk to and touch comatose patients. On the other hand, part of the definition of brain death is non-reaction to stimuli. That is why doctors tell the family to say goodbye before they remove life-sustaining equipment. Removal of life-sustaining equipment is perfectly legal because the medical community realizes that this person is never going to be a functioning individual again. So when antis ask me if I am okay with the death penalty/killing of unconscious persons, I shake my head. A person may be unconscious, but we do not know if they have sensation or perception. If antis really wanted a legitimate comparison, it would be with a brain dead person, but they know that society accepts the “killing” of them, which is why they ignore the legitimate comparison.

There is also a distinction between un- and non-conscious; namely the former person can become conscious at any moment, whereas the latter is incapable of consciousness in its present state. When pro-choicers make the distinction between the conscious woman and the non-conscious fetus, it is to delineate that the non-conscious being should not trump the conscious being, not that we seek the death of all unconscious beings. This leads me into my next point.

The Double Standard

We’ve already determined that the fetus is nothing like an unconscious person and is, in fact, more similar to a brain dead person. One of the important distinctions between the fetus and the other two isn’t necessarily sensation and perception, but reliance. Unconscious and brain dead people rely on machines to keep them alive, and sometimes not even that for the former. There is a fundamental difference between a fetus, and an unconscious, or even brain dead, person. The key is that the fetus requires one person, that being the pregnant woman, to maintain its potential for life. The unconscious/brain dead person relies on machines and all persons involved can come and go as they please, not mention they are not risking their lives. A pregnant woman is effectively stuck. The only way for the fetus to survive is if she hands over her body to its development and growth. There are no machines that can keep a fetus under 24 weeks (or so) gestation alive and as we all know abortions after the point of viability are on wanted pregnancies and done for fetal anomalies. Nobody in their right mind would require a family member or hospital employee to hook themselves up to an unconscious/brain dead person to maintain their life; one would never even ask, let alone require, one of those people to risk their lives. If we won’t do it for a person who is already alive, why is it acceptable to tell a woman she must carry an unwanted pregnancy for 9 months, risking her life in the process? This is a blatant double standard.

This latter point raises some important questions, namely what happens if/when science can mechanically maintain the life of a fetus separate from the woman, at very early gestation. Does a woman have the right to control her genetic material; should she still be allowed to abort at 12 weeks? That is a post I hope to write in the near future.

Regardless, when antis trot out the unconscious person argument, you can very easily light their straw man on fire by pointing out how a fetus is to an unconscious person as a rock is to a sleeping person. Namely, there is no similarity between the two.

*Thanks to NYCprochoiceMD for the help here.

4 Responses to “The Fetus vs. The Unconscious Person: Anti-Choice Straw Man Fallacy”

  1. Jennifer September 1, 2010 at 2:03 pm #

    Absolutely perfect.

  2. Not Guilty September 2, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    Thanks! Sometimes I surprise myself with my insight!

  3. Austin Nedved September 4, 2010 at 8:03 pm #

    The unconsciousness of the fetus is irrelevant to its moral status. If consciousness begins at 25 weeks, can we kill babies born prematurely at 24 weeks? Is there a morally relevant difference between killing babies born prematurely at 24 and 26 weeks?

  4. Emily September 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    A fetus’ “moral status” is up to personal opinion. Your beliefs can certainly guide your actions, but they cannot guide anyone else’s. Besides, the argument isn’t about consciousness, as is the thesis of this post. It’s about sensation. As long as a baby is born alive, it’ll feel sensation, whether it’s born at 20 weeks or 24 weeks or 36 weeks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: