ON JOHNSON AND ABORTIONS
I was dismayed to find, in the letters section of the September issue of REASON, an argument which betrays ignorance of basic libertarian principles: the "No on Abortion," from Thomas Johnson. Although I am not an Associate Professor of Biology (I switched to Electrical Engineering and mathematical psychology, after receiving an MS in biology from MIT), I know enough to be positive that there are no valid grounds for government action against voluntary abortion.
As an organization, a government has no valid authority except that delegated to it by individuals; no authority to punish unless such authority has been delegated to it by a particular criminal's victim. One cannot delegate to the government the authority to protect one's right X without, at minimum, desiring to preserve X. But one cannot desire anything without being conscious. Clearly, one cannot delegate any authority to the government before achieving consciousness. The government has no authority to act on behalf of a pre-conscious embryo.
Professor Johnson is deliberately ignoring the facts of biology when he claims that an embryo is an individual. Two separate embryos developing in the same uterus often fuse to produce a single person (mosaicism). Is Prof. Johnson ready to claim that such a person consists of two individuals? Would Johnson accuse someone marrying such a person of bigamy?
Yet even if Johnson had been more honest in presenting his argument, the argument itself would still have been beside the point. When we refer to the protection of life in the political context, we do not mean the protection of life in the biochemical sense, but of conceptual consciousness. If a criminal damaged someone's brain so that the victim could never think again, we would rightly consider that criminal guilty of murder. Even if the victim's corpse remained alive in the biological sense, in the political context it would be just a hunk of meat, good only as material for transplants.
The question of when a human being becomes conscious remains to be answered, but it will be answered by scientists. Until and after it is, the government should not act on abortion unless it can prove that the consciousness of an already conscious human being has been destroyed.
Adam V. Reed
ABORTION AND HUMAN BEINGS
In his letter in the September issue of REASON, Professor Johnson takes a stand against abortion because "a human embryo is an actual human being in the first stage of its life." This causes me to wonder how Professor Johnson would define what he means by "human being" or "man."
As Ayn Rand has correctly stated in INTRODUCTION TO OBJECTIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY, in the definition of man ("a rational animal") "animal" is the genus and "rational" is the differentia. Here "rational" means "possessing the faculty of reason." To my knowledge a human embryo does not possess the ability to reason, and hence does not fall under the definition of "man." That it has the potential to reason is irrelevant in the case of abortion.
The issue here is the cognitive development of the embryo, or potential human being. At some point after physical birth a human being is "born" when his cognitive development has matured to the stage when he possesses a primitive ability to reason. Where the line can be drawn between "human being" and embryo is difficult to determine; but the fact remains that an embryo is not a human being, and consequently abortion is not immoral.
Newbury Park, CA
The letter by Prof. Thomas Johnson (Sept. 1972) opposing abortion on the grounds that a fetus, too, is human, and hence has rights, is rather far off the mark. Instead, the moral dilemma to be resolved is this: in situations where one person's survival absolutely depends upon actions by other men, may the endangered individual properly demand these services as his right, i.e., independent of, and perhaps in conflict with, the will of the donor? We meet this same question when, e.g., a drowning man calls for help, or when a terminally ill person is maintained only through external aid, and it happens to lie at the root of the abortion issue as well. One's attitude to abortion will be determined by one's answer to this wider question.
But the resolution of the problem readily follows from the basic principle upon which a free society, one recognizant of individual rights, is founded—namely, that any transfer of values between men must involve the voluntary consent of both sides. This principle is in no way affected by the relative importance of the value to one's own survival (though I expect this might up the price a bit!), thus the consent of the donor of values is required just as much in survival situations as in any other. And so it is with a woman: her consent is necessary in the provision of a value—nurture—to her unborn child, up until the time when she can be replaced in this function by other consenting persons. The "time" which therefore has to be determined with precision becomes—not when a fetus should be "considered human"—but simply when it is able to live independently of its mother.
Indeed, this analysis considers a fetus at all times to be human, and hence, just like any other human, not possessed of the right to sustain itself by means of values obtained involuntarily from others. The taint of "murder," of "cheapening human life", of setting "dangerous precedents" and the like, which has disturbed many thinkers about this question, is thereby removed.
Dr. William R. Havender
University of Calif, Dept. of Genetics
Commenting on Miss Rand's philosophical approach to abortion, Mr. Thomas Johnson's letter to the editor appears to reflect the training of a biologist.
No doubt I am also reaching into an occupational repertoire of responses by suggesting that a legal criteria be applied. In other areas of the law, such as homicide and torts, protection is afforded only to a viable fetus. This means that the fetus is substantially capable of sustaining its life independently of the Mother. I say substantially because one case has held that for purposes of the manslaughter and murder statutes, human life may exist where child birth has commenced, but has not been fully completed. (People v. Chavez 77 Cal. App. 2d 621, 624, 626, 176 P.2d 92.)
The rationale for the viable fetus requirement becomes apparent when one asks the question: Where is the fetus prior to birth? Obviously it is in and a part of the Mother's body. The more reasonable approach would be to apply this test to the legality of abortion.
Advocates of the "right to life" concept will cite cases where certain rights of the unborn have been recognized in the areas of property law and tort law failing to realize that in nearly every instance the protection was granted to a viable fetus or one which was subsequently born alive, or it was the right of the parents rather than the fetus.
Prior to the point where the fetus becomes viable, there should be no legal objection to an unmarried woman obtaining an abortion. In the case of a married woman, the husband's consent might be required in some instances.
Some may even quarrel with the husband's consent requirement for did not the Swedish author, August Strindberg, contend that we never really know the identity of the father? But the less said of this, the better.
Paul F. Hyer
Los Angeles, CA
VICTIMS WITHOUT CRIMES
The phrase "crimes without victims" is one of the premiere shibboleths of the libertarian movement. We see it occur again in Gilbert Geis' recent admirable article entitled "Crimes—But No Victims" (REASON, Sept. 1972). Though I am fully in sympathy with the intentions expressed by this phrase, I'd like to play the part of gadfly. The concept neatly begs the question submitted by its opponents, thereby (unfortunately) rendering it ineffective. For I think we can all agree that there are at least some victims in the so-called "crimes without victims." True enough, there are no victims in many instances. I have in mind the laws making homosexuality, pornography, and other such activities illegal.
But if a person uses heroin, we may properly say that he is the victim of his own actions. This is the truth we may grant to our opponents. The fallacy of illiberals—that what is unethical is also necessarily illegal—is what must be attacked by libertarians. What we ought to be complaining about is actually the problem of victims without crimes (and where there are no victims to be found the complaint is magnified). A person becomes the victim of his irrational actions, but he has the right to choose those actions. If you smoke cigarettes, you may succumb to cancer—but that is no reason to make it a crime. That is to say, one has the right of becoming one's own victim without it invoking criminal sanction.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Letters".