Consciousness, Personhood, and the Fetus

Are fetuses persons? Interestingly enough, according to some philosophers of mind and certain pro-choice advocates, the answer is no. This means that you yourself were never a fetus despite biological science stating that your body was once the size of a peanut with a developing heart, lungs, and nervous system. On the face of it, this view seems rather absurd. If biology tells a person she was once a fetus then why would philosophers take the view that she was not? Their conclusion follows from a prominent theory of personhood originally developed by John Locke which is still widely accepted by philosophers today. Namely, it is the psychological-continuity theory, something which Eric Olson calls, “The Standard View” (1). It is an answer to the question, what makes you the same person today as 30 years from now despite all the change your body will undergo? This view maintains that what makes you the same person today as you will be in 30 years is a continuation of psychological or mental states whether these be memories, intentions, rationality, etc. Since you cannot share these same mental states with a fetus, it follows that you as a person were never a fetus. Further, it follows that a fetus is not and could not be a person since no human person shares a continuation of mental states with a human fetus.

Some pro-choice advocates argue this line of thought in order to conclude fetuses are not persons; therefore, fetuses possess no human rights because these rights are exclusively reserved for human persons. The argument usually takes the following form:

  1. The continuation of mental states (i.e. memories, intentions, and/or consciousness, etc.) is a necessary criteria for human personhood.
  2. A fetus lacks these mental states.
  3. Therefore, a fetus is not a human person (from 1, 2).
  4. Human rights apply exclusively to human persons.
  5. Therefore, a fetus has no human rights (which includes the right to life) (from 3, 4).

In this essay, I plan to argue that premises 1 and 2 are false and so by extension is the first conclusion (premise 3) and the second conclusion (premise 5).

Firstly, I will clarify the relationship between the personhood debate and abortion. In arguing the Standard view of personhood, philosophers seek to answer how a child at the age of 5 could be the same person at the age of 80 especially if most of this person’s body will undergo significant change. Most cells in the body are replaced at some point with the exception of brain cells, but a person is obviously not merely a brain (brains do not become sad, people do; in other words, a person is not identical with her brain). Appealing to psychological continuity establishes a continuous basis off which a person could be the same person at any two points in time. Therefore, whatever being does not share this continuity is not a person, and since fetuses have no such continuity, they could never become persons and are not persons.

As I have discussed before, the scholarship surrounding the abortion debate does not focus on the humanity of the fetus due to the overwhelming scientific consensus that a fetus is, in fact, a human being (2). Rather, the conversation among philosophers is whether the unborn are persons and deserve the same protection and rights given to persons after birth, or whether certain liberties of a woman are greater than the rights of the unborn. Many pro-choice advocates state fetuses lack consciousness (or any mental states) and that this is a tenable reason for denying their personhood despite their humanity, so the main objective of this article will be to dispute this claim beginning with the first premise.

Premise 1: The continuation of mental states (i.e. memories, intentions, and/or consciousness, etc.) is a necessary criteria for human personhood.

There is no single unified theory of the Standard View to which all its adherents conform. The position is fragmented into multiple factions with each group being either broader or narrower in what qualifies as psychological continuity than the last. Some rely on the perseverance of certain mental contents like memory, consciousness, or reasoning, while others maintain simply the mind itself (whatever that may be) must endure for continuous personhood.

Mary Anne Warren, a prominent philosophical pro-choice advocate, argues for the division between what she calls genetic humanity and moral humanity, or personhood (3). She identified five criteria which she claims allows one to distinguish between mere genetic humanity and personhood:

“1. consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;

2. reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);

3. self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);

4. the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;

5. the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both” (4).

According to Warren, “All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of (1)-(5) is certainly not a person. I consider this claim to be so obvious that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of (1)-(5) was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is—perhaps because he had confused the concept of a person with that of genetic humanity. If the opponents of abortion were to deny the appropriateness of these five criteria, I do not know what further arguments would convince them” (5).

For Warren, these criteria are necessary to distinguish moral humanity (personhood) from genetic humanity because these attributes demonstrate a person’s interaction within a moral community. A being needs to have consciousness, reasoning, etc. because this means this being can participate in said community, so it seems Warren herself adopted a version of the Standard View.

Regardless of which form an adherent of this theory affirms, this theory in general faces some difficult objections.

a) What happens to the fetus?

One such challenge is the question of what happens to a fetus if it never becomes a person? According to Olson, “The Standard View allows for two possibilities. One is that the fetus ceased to exist, and a person (I) took its place. The other is that the fetus survived but never came to be a person, it merely came to share its matter with a person numerically different from it (me)” (6). Neither option is appealing.

According to the first option, every fetus to have ever come into existence has vanished upon gaining certain psychological traits. By virtue of gaining these traits it ceases to exist. This is a horribly sad fact because it means every fetus once conceived has disappeared without ever beyond the fetal stage of development. On the face of it, this view seems absurd. It is difficult to see how gaining something otherwise beneficial to an organism like psychological traits could somehow simultaneously oust this organism from existence, and this problem is not limited to fetuses. Every infant to have been born would disappear as well once it gained the necessary qualifications to make it a person on the Standard View since infants also fail to meet certain criteria for personhood, so this first option is not satisfactory (7).

Via the second option, the fetus would endure beyond the development of certain psychological traits but at this point the fetus would not become a person; rather, another being (you) would come into existence and share the same matter as the fetus. In other words, two beings inhabit the same space: the fetus and the person. Not only do you exist, but a human animal accompanies you throughout your life. Two things of the same kind then share the same space exist simultaneously. Of course this also is unacceptable on any standard biological account of the human being which still maintains continuity of a sole organism from zygote to adult (8).

b) Infants are not then persons.

As Eric Olson notes, the problem of whether this view of personhood means the question of whether you were ever a fetus also applies to whether you were an infant since six month old infants similarly lack certain cognitive facilities and in certain respects are not psychologically continuous with the adults they later become (as far as biology is concerned) (9), so the problem cannot be quarantined to the fetal stage of development. It must expand to include infants as well depending upon which characteristics of psychology must endure in order for a fetus to be identical with a later person. If these characteristics include (as the theory typically does) memory, cognition, and rationality, then the problem extends to infants as well.

The problem with this conclusion is rather obvious. Namely, if infants do not qualify as persons under the Standard View, then they similarly do not qualify for human rights as expressed in premise 4. Therefore, not even infants get a pass when there is a conflict between a woman’s desire for bodily autonomy and an infant’s life. Since they are not persons, then they can be disposed without moral dilemma if the logic is kept consistent. (It should also be noted this problem does not end with infants but also extends to mentally handicapped humans who exhibit only the most basic of human functions like those with advanced stage Alzheimer’s. They would also not qualify as persons under different versions of the Standard View including Warren’s.)

When this critique concerning infants was levied against Warren’s argument for the difference between genetic and moral humanity, her response was rather astonishing. She attempted to distinguish somewhat between a fetus and an infant primarily on the grounds of what value the infant brings relative to other adult persons. For example, it would be wrong to kill an infant because this might bring much distress to those who are persons. In other words, there is nothing inherently valuable about the infant itself; rather, it should be protected only to protect the sensitivities of actual persons. She also goes on to postulate scenarios in which infanticide could be a viable option. Via Warren:

“[W]hen an infant is born into a society which-unlike ours-is so impoverished that it simply cannot care for it adequately without endangering the survival of existing persons, killing it or allowing it to die is not necessarily wrong – provided that there is no other society which is willing and able to provide such care. Most human societies, from those at the hunting and gathering stage of economic development to the highly civilized Greeks and Romans, have permitted the practice of infanticide under such unfortunate circumstances, and I would argue that it shows a serious lack of understanding to condemn them as morally backward for this reason alone” (10).

One cannot help but wonder why must her criteria for personhood be what establishes value in humans especially when it leads to rather atrocious conclusions. Why accept her criteria in the first place? Her response would be that these things are necessary for participating in a moral community, but what is it about a moral community which somehow imputes values or worth upon its participants? Could not a similar community be established by certain intelligent animals?

Groups of chimpanzees and dolphins do show traits 1-4 to some extent, and Warren admitted above that not every trait should have to be fulfilled in order to necessarily qualify as a person. According to her, it is simply that the more of these traits a being possesses increases the probability of it being found to be a person (11). If this is true, then this makes chimpanzees and dolphins rather close to persons, yet they do not have the same rights humans have. A potential response to this could be that these animals are not part of a moral community, but what defines a moral community? According to Warren, it is a group of beings who are already persons, but this response merely begs the question (or argues circularly) in favor of her own view of personhood. Why could not these animals maintain their own moral communities to which they belong along with their own sets of rights? How could we say which group’s rights superseded the other group’s rights? What makes our group so special? Her criteria is, ironically, rather broad as it does not focus on human value as intrinsic to humans by virtue of them being what they are: humans. According to her view, human persons are not intrinsically valuable but are only valuable among other persons, but evaluating a person on this person’s own terms is the bedrock of rights theory.

What if someone rejects the moral community? Does this person lose her personhood? What of hermits who are determined to be cut off from society? One could say that the potential is there for moral community (just simply add the community), but this could be said for the fetus itself! (Just add the required traits for personhood.) So it seems this view needs another qualification for personhood in order to be consistent: the moral community itself. Obviously, a person can be a person on her own merits independent of any kind of community. Her view represents an ontology of human personhood which cannot be understood on its own terms but only in relation to other humans which tells us nothing about the person as it exists independently as far as her other criteria is concerned. In other words, a person possesses an inherent value which is present whether or not there is any moral community within which to participate.

Overall, it does not seem Warren’s qualifications for personhood are sufficient to divorce genetic humanity from moral humanity; rather, our intuitive beliefs about human worth persist. A human being is valuable simply by virtue of her being a human.

Objection: But what about more modest versions of the Standard View?Couldn’t one escape these conclusions by adopting a version of the Standard View where the only kind of psychological continuity which matters for consistent personhood is the mere existence of mental states? Then the problem could be contained to only fetuses since infants do display characteristics of possessing minds or consciousness (i.e. intentionality, etc) while fetuses do not.

I address the question of whether fetuses possess mental states below under my rebuttal of premise 2. For now, this objection does not succeed because it does not avoid the rejoinder offered under a) above. The question of addressing how a fetus could become an infant without either losing its existence to becoming conjoined to another being’s existence still remains answered by this objection. The same holds true even if a pro-choice advocate conceded fetal mental states but exempted them from embryos and zygotes. In other words, it is pushing the problem back further without actually dealing with it. What happens to the embryo or zygote would still need to be addressed.

Zygotes have no observable way to confirm mental states especially since there is no brain at that point in development. But if a human person was never a zygote, this also creates similar biological problems.

The zygote possesses a unique set of human DNA and a human genetic code upon its formation. Embryology states that as long as this being is without defect and sustains proper nourishment (as all organisms must), it will eventually develop and obtain its own blood type in week 4, a heart week 5, a brain week 6, and nerve cells week 8. In other words, the zygote will become a fetus! Biologically speaking this process has happened to every human person to have been born, so if all zygotes become fetuses then what happened to the zygote? Those who deny this must overcome the scientific data or else accept one of the two implausible alternatives discussed above under a). It is unappealing to accept either one of those options, so a pro-choice advocate cannot avoid the problems discussed above if he wishes maintain even a minimalist version of the Standard View. These problems inevitably arise; it only depends upon whether one wishes to find them at the infant, fetal, embryonic, or the zygotic stage.

Therefore, biology substantiates pro-life claims: namely, human persons were once fetuses, embryos, and even zygotes albeit they were primitive in development. Attempts to separate oneself from this process do not succeed, so it seems there is not a good reason to accept premise 1. You as you are now were once in fact a fetus. I could expound further upon other philosophical objections to the Standard View such as Bernard Williams’ Duplication Problem, but I believe my case against premise 1 thus far is well substantiated. Most versions of the Standard View are not tenable for establishing personhood, but even should my rebuttal here fail, there is good reason to think that fetuses do, in fact, possess certain mental states.

Premise 2: A fetus lacks these mental states (i.e. memories, intentions, or consciousness, etc.).

Often pro-choice advocates argue that a fetus possesses no moral worth because it is in essence a mere physical clump of cells which is totally absent of any mental activity or anything by which we could identify it as a being with moral worth. The criteria by which some pro-choice advocates identify a person is a human with some form of consciousness or recognizable mental state. Assuming my rejoinder to premise 1) above fails, this premise is the crux of the pro-choice argument as it is the more important and highly defended assumption. Of course, the lack of mental states alone is not sufficient to subtract moral worth from a fetus as it needs another premise to bring about a conclusion similar to premise 3) above, but it is feasible how a pro-choice advocate could see this solitary premise as sufficient. Nonetheless, is premise 2) correct?

It seems not.

The only way to identify the presence of mental states is in the same way the average person does. The mental states must produce intentional actions which are recognized as such. Suppose Pam picks up a glass of water, her hand movement would slow as she approached the glass. Her hand would grasp the glass, pick it up, drink from it, and place it back all at various speeds rather seamlessly (assuming she has no ailment which would prevent her from doing so). This movement would signify to the average person that she is indeed a consciousness being with mental states, so actions like these reflect some kind of mental activity. Do fetuses demonstrate these actions?

It seems they do. One study examining this activity was published in 2010 by a team of Italian researchers (12). In this study, five pairs of two twin fetuses were examined between the 14th and 18th weeks of gestation. The researchers came across a rather interesting discovery: not only were the fetuses already demonstrating intentional activity, but these fetuses’ activities increased over the course of the four weeks.

Objection: How do we know these actions were truly intentional? Would not this involve getting into the mind of the fetus itself? This is something we cannot do, so isn’t saying these movements were intentional a premature claim? Why not chalk these fetal movements up to mere reflex, or accidental movement? This is something even the most basic of life forms exhibit yet we do not proscribe moral worth onto these organisms.

The researchers were able to distinguish between accidental and intentional actions due to the fetuses’ movements varying depending upon the object of the movement. When Pam (the subject) picked up the glass of water (the object), her hand movement varied depending upon the object she engaged with. Her hand movement while beginning to approach the glass would not be the same as when she reached the glass or else she would have knocked it over. In the same way, the fetuses’ responses were varied depending upon whether the object of their movement was themselves, their twin, or the uterine wall.

Prior to this study, as the researchers note, inter-twin movement in fetuses was detected as early as week 11 with considerable differences between monochorionic diamniotic (same amniotic sac) and dichorionic diamniotic (different amniotic sacs) twins (13), but it is unknown whether these movements are intentional in the same way the Italian team searched for intentionality. The Italian researchers viewed it in terms of, “plan[ning] and execut[ing] movements directed towards each other.” Contact is certainly made between the fetuses, and this contact even increases as the pregnancy continues on, but whether these acts have intentionality is a separate issue.

Nonetheless, according to the researchers, “Three types of hand movements were isolated and subsequently analyzed: movements ending at contact of fingers with the mouth, movements ending at contact of fingers with the eye, and movements directed away from the body, towards the uterine wall. The results showed that the spatial and temporal characteristics of foetal movements were by no means uncoordinated, but depended on the goal of the different motor acts, suggesting a surprisingly advanced level of motor planning.” In other words, they saw that these fetus twins varied in their movements depending upon the aim of the movement which is a key feature of even the most rudimentary forms of consciousness or mental states.

This caused them to conclude, “that performance of movements towards the co-twin is not accidental: already starting from the 14th week of gestation twin foetuses execute movements specifically aimed at the co-twin.”

The significance of this conclusion cannot be overstated. If fetuses are exhibiting intentional movements as early as 14 weeks, then they possess some form of mental states, and, depending upon which form of the Standard View a person adopts, this fact defeats the second premise. Of course, these mental states will not be enough to substantiate memory or rationality, but it certainly undermines the notion that the unborn do not possess consciousness of some sort especially since intentionality requires consciousness in order to exist.

Objection: Don’t animals exhibit these same levels of variation regarding their actions? Wolves don’t treat their prey the same way they treat their young, which shows they too have rudimentary mental states. Yet they don’t have the same rights as human persons because they are not persons. Why are these similar movements significant?

The movements are significant because it places the proponent of the Standard View in an awkward position if these states really do determine personhood. It forces the pro-choice advocate to adopt more complex and exclusive versions of the Standard View (i.e. ones which maintain psychological continuity by way of rationality, memory, etc.) if he wishes to avoid the conclusion that the fetus is a person, but these more complex forms of the Standard View do not answer the objections offered above and so are fraught with problems.

Therefore, regardless of which version of the psychological continuity theory of personhood a pro-choice advocate or philosopher may adopt, they simply cannot provide a cogent account of personhood without running into problems which both violate science and our common sense notions on our identities as human beings. As such, saying the unborn are not persons on the basis of psychology is ultimately a dead end, and it is not a viable basis for dividing personhood from humanity and thereby denying the unborn the innate right to life.

“Provide justice for the needy and the fatherless; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3, HCSB).


(1): Olson, Eric. “Was I Ever a Fetus?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. 57, No. 1 (March 1997): 95. http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/772/1/olsonet8.pdf (accessed 10 January 2019).

(2): https://theresidenttheologianblog.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/self-evident-truths-a-defense-of-the-pro-life-position/

https://theresidenttheologianblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/19/the-pro-life-ethic-part-one-introduction-and-on-abortion/

(3): Warren, Mary Anne. “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” The Monist Vol 57, No. 4 (1973): 2. Part II reprinted, with postscript, in “The Problem of Abortion,” 1984, Joel Feinberg, ed., Belmont: Wadsworth. https://www.amber-hinds.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/warren-moralandlegalstatusofabortion.pdf (accessed 15 January 2019).

(4): Ibid, 5.

(5): Ibid.

(6): Olson, 100.

(7): Ibid, 100-101.

(8): Ibid, 101-102.

(9): Ibid, 97.

(10): Warren, 8.

(11): Ibid, 5.

(12): Castiello U, Becchio C, Zoia S, Nelini C, Sartori L, Blason L, et al. “Wired to Be Social: The Ontogeny of Human Interaction.” PLoS ONE Vol. 5, No. 10 (7 October 2010): e13199. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0013199 (accessed 10 January 2019).

(13): Sasaki M, Yanagihara T, Naitoh N, Hata T. “Four‐Dimensional Sonographic Assessment of Inter‐Twin Contact Late in the First Trimester.” International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics Vol. 108, No. 2 (25 November 2009): 104-107. https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1016/j.ijgo.2009.09.025 (accessed 10 January 2019).

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