Challenge: A Fetus Without a Brain Is Not a Person

Posted: April 24, 2012 by Amy Hall in Do the Right Thing, Weekly Challenge

The challenge today comes from a post on arguing that it’s okay to abort a fetus if it doesn’t have a functioning brain:

The proposition on offer is that abortion before a fetus’ brain is functioning is not wrong. There are at least two considerations that support this position.

First, it is commonly held that a person’s personality is contained in the brain. For example, nobody seriously thinks that one somehow would retain their personality if their brain were removed or somehow wiped clean. Furthermore, if one considered a situation with two people (Jeff and Clara) and a transplant surgery that moved Jeff’s brain to Clara’s body, nobody seriously believes that Clara’s body retains Clara’s personality. Indeed, it is obvious that the situation would be that Jeff’s personality has moved to Clara’s body. In fact, it would be more accurate to refer to the entity that inhabits Clara’s body as “Jeff” and to consider that person to BE Jeff, but simply in a different “container.” Similarly, if Jeff’s brain and conscious were somehow recorded into a computer where he retained communicative capabilities, we would consider the computer to be Jeff.

Thus, it becomes obvious that the contents of a person’s personhood are dependent on a functioning brain. The notion that a fetus may be “part of a person” is a silly idea. One cannot be “part of a person” any more than one can be “partially legally married.” One is either a person, or not a person. Since a brain is a necessary prerequisite for personhood, it must be the case that entities without functioning brains cannot be people.

You’ll notice he said he would cover two considerations that support his position. We’re going to save his second reason for the next time Alan does the video challenge. For now, let’s just cover this first one. Is the fetus without a brain a person? If so, why? If not, is it okay to kill it? How do you respond to this challenge? Alan will be here on Thursday to let you know how you did.

  1. tnoflahc says:

    It is “commonly held” that a person’s personality is contained in the brain? There are lots of ideas that are “commonly held” but are actually false. Go check out for some examples. “It is commonly held” is not the same thing as “it is actually true.”

    This person does nothing to show that the fetus is somehow not a human being. I’d say there’s some clever misdirection going on here. I’ve never argued that if I can’t observe a personality in a human being, that it’s then ok to kill that human being. My argument, and the one I’ve seen on this site and others, is that it’s wrong to kill an innocent human being. To say that without an observable personality, there is no person, is a separate argument. The issue here is: is it moral or immoral to kill innocent human beings? And because fetuses are human beings in an early stage of development, the answer to the issue at hand will affect them as well.

    Also, this person is making the argument that the fetus is not a person until its brain is “functioning.” What does he mean by “functioning”? Is this “function” strictly limited to the brain, or can we accept a developing nervous system with electrical activity as “functioning” as well?

    But really, one doesn’t even need to go into all of that because this person has given us no good reason to believe that the fetus is somehow inhuman at any point during its development. A living human being without a “functioning brain” is still a living human being.

  2. Kevin Walker says:

    Wow there are quite a number of little mini-arguments and things going on here right? Difficult to know where to begin. To gain some clarity, we might summarize the argument something like this, I think.

    1. It is not morally wrong to take the life of something that does not have a functioning brain.
    2. The fetus does not have a functioning brain.
    3. Therefore, it is not wrong to take the life of a fetus.

    Now I imagine (although I am not sure) that premise 2 is true. That is, the fetus does not yet have a functioning brain. At least for now we may conceed this for the sake of argument. So the emphasis lies on premise 1 and the arguments given for it. So why think it is true?

    Well, the proponent seems to be arguing that the “brain is a necessary prerequisite for personhood” leaving the fetus in the non-person category, leading to the conclusion that they can be destroyed. After all, without personhood they don’t much differ from a plant or something right? And we destroy plants all the time. This is how the thinking goes.

    The absolutely CRUCIAL assumption here is that the brain is a necessary prerequisite for personhood. But this suggests that the proponent is merely assuming from the outset his physicalist/materialistic/atheistic view of the world and interpreting the mind/body problem in light of that. OF COURSE if humans are merely material objects, then there is no other place for their personality to be contained other than the brain. However, a Christian theist is not limited in this regard and not forced to interpret in this fashion. He in fact, holds that there are MANY examples of persons that exist independent of brains, or bodies (God, angels, demons, etc.).

    One tact I might take would be to argue for the existence of God contrary to this premise (brain necessary for personhood) via some of the traditional arguments (cosmological, teleological, moral, ontological, transcendental, resurrection, etc.) and use this as evidence contrary to the claim, and then the objector would need to demonstrate why these are not sound, since they suggest that a person can exist without a brain.

    Another way to dispute the claim would be to argue that it is simply because we constantly see personalities conjoined with brains, does not in any way suggest that it MUST (necessarily) be this way. After all, the personalities we have seen have also been consistently conjoined with the property of “being on the earth” but this does not at all mean that it is NECESSARY that they be on earth (took this example from Plantinga). It just does not follow. Moreover one could argue, that there is a possible world in which I (my personality) exist(s) but my brain (body) does not. Think of all the movies in which this sort of thing takes place. People switch bodies but nevertheless retain their own knowledge and personalities. If this is even POSSIBLE, than we are not NECESSARILY identical to our brains, in which case the argument fails because it asserts the, not merely POSSIBLE, but the necessary connection between personalities and brains. I’m not sure what this means to say if it does not mean “logically” necessary. Perhaps “physically” necessary? So this idea of reducing the personality to the brain is multiply flawed and more things could be said.

    But all of this, as tnoflahc said above, seems to miss the point because personhood is being defined in terms of a certain function, which has problems. One, it is arbitrary. Two, it fails to make the distinction between immediate function and some sort of innate capacity for the function. Failing to do this leads to other things we know to be persons being killed, and ends up reducing the view to the absurd. So I guess the final point would be that the proponent would have to demonstrate 1. why the arguments for God fail, 2. That the brain is logically necessary for the personality to exist, and 3. why the functioning of the brain is to be the relevant consideration when dealing with the value of human beings as opposed to something else.

    Sorry for the long post. Forgive me. Have a good day everyone.

  3. Well, this is a more complex challenge from the abortion choice side, and I know the first time I heard it, it shook me a bit. A lot can be said about this challenge, and I know Christoper Kaczor dedicated nearly an entire chapter to it in his book The Ethics of Abortion. I’ll summarize the points that I think are most important.

    First, it is important to note that the vast majority of abortions take place at eight weeks gestation and beyond, at which point, the fetus has detectable brain waves. Thus, from the get go, this challenge is nullified if the challenger will not accept the abortion of a fetus with a functioning brain. However, this in itself is the not the morally relevant objection seeing as the question is whether or not value actually comes from a functioning brain.

    I think the most important tactic to use in this challenge is Take the Roof Off. If you really follow this challenge to conclusion, you will reach a great deal of counter intuitive premises that the challenger is unlikely to accept. The following analogy from Christopher Kaczor is helpful in doing this:

    What if you were given the choice of losing your thumb or losing your whole arm but retaining your thumb, attaching it to your shoulder where your whole arm used to be? Most people would pick the former, but does it follow from this that your thumb isn’t even a part of your arm? It may be a less important part in virtue of the fact that without the rest of the arm, it wouldn’t be very useful, but it is still part of your arm, and someone wouldn’t have any more right to cut off your thumb than they would to cut off your whole arm.

    If a person is really only their brain, than very few people see a person on a regular basis. After all, a person consists only of a few pounds of grey matter. No one ever hugs or kisses a person. Furthermore, if you break someone’s leg, you don’t injure “them”, you only injure a piece of their property or something they make use of. In fact, it would be ridiculous for that person to say, “My leg hurts,” because their leg isn’t even a part of personal identity.

    Or suppose a man drugs a woman so that she becomes unconscious, then rapes her. Since he never violated her brain and she was not conscious to remember the event, he didn’t actually violate “her”, he violated her body, which isn’t a part of who she really is.

    I agree with the science fiction scenario where if we were to put a person’s consciousness into a robot or some other body we would still refer to them personally. However, this shows only that a person’s brain/consciousness is the smallest possible reduction of a human being. It does not show that the rest of their body isn’t even a part of them.

    From the moment of conception, a fetus is a living, distinct, and whole human being. It is not really correct to say that they don’t have a brain. There merely lack the current ability to use it, but do have the inherent capability. Besides, the notion that a person is found only in the brain is ludicrous.

  4. Kenneth says:

    We harvest organs from “brain-dead” individuals routinely. I’m not going to elaborate, nor do I have an opinion. As a physician, I am just stating a fact.

  5. Chris Martens says:

    Ah, the old, “Your brain isn’t functioning, so we can abort you ploy”. There are several problems with the proposed argument. For simplicity, the argument I’m focusing on can be summarized as:

    1. A functioning brain equals a person
    2. A fetus does not have a functioning brain
    3. Therefore, the fetus is not a person (and we can take its life)

    The first premise contains the most grievous error, so that is the issue I will concentrate on. If we follow that line of thinking (a functioning brain equals a person) where does it lead us? The proposed definition that to be a person requires a functioning brain leads down a hill that is quite icy. According to the argument, the term “functioning” corresponds to an observable personality, so even if the personality (brain) were to be placed in another “container” the personality remains the same, and therefore has value. So given this definition, what can we say about certain mental illness, coma patients, those getting a good night’s rest or even under general anesthetic? Are they no longer valuable humans beings because their brain doesn’t fall under the given “personhood” definition? I don’t think so Tim. The mistake here, of course, is with the idea behind definition itself. The writer is hanging value on personality and not on merely being a human. I would argue that all human beings have intrinsic value based on the fact they are, well…human, and not a just a brain state with personality. This would include all humans no matter whether they are big or small, a zygote or elderly, live in Canada, on the moon or in the womb, or how much they depend on mom and dad to take care of them.

    The proposed argument is just another way to try and disqualify certain human beings by re-defining them as a non-person. This is so one can free oneself of the obligation to protect human life in order to “choose” to do what one wants with them. Even end their life.

    (Good post Kevin! I didn’t see your post until I was pasting my reply – I like the way you think!)

  6. Kevin Walker says:

    Haha! Yeah Chris, I see that we were heading in the same direction with this. Funny how we both wrote out the syllogism like that. Always helps me to see what’s going on tho… you know? Excellent response mayne!

  7. Lyle says:

    A woman who had been declared brain-dead became the mother of twins, according to a news story I just read today. God makes babies, and God makes babies human.

  8. Brad Swiger says:

    The statement that “it is commonly held that a person’s personality is contained in the brain” subtly implies that personality is solely a by-product of the brain. As a theist, even more so as a Christian, I do not believe this to be a completely accurate description of personality. Instead, it is more likely the case that, given a Christian worldview, the soul contains personality and this is channeled into the physical realm via the physical brain, but that the brain can influence physical manifestations of personality.

    The personhood of a baby born without a brain is, I admit, a tricky case. First, it must be more properly described. As a biologist, I can say that a baby born without any part of the brain will be dead. This is because the centers for controlling heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and other involuntary functions are all found in the brain stem. If the brain stem is not present, then a still birth will result. When it is said that a baby was born without a brain it simply means that the baby was born without his/her cerebral hemispheres or cerebellum, a condition known as anencephaly. The brain stem is still present; hence the baby has a pulse.

    Second, as a dualist, I believe that body and soul are separate entities. It seems clear from Scripture that the soul can live apart from the body (2 Corinthians 5:8). I have often wondered at what point God imparts the soul to the body. Is it at conception or a few days/weeks later? Since Scripture indicates that the soul does not need a body to exist after physical death, then I see no reason why it would need a fully formed body at the beginning in order to exist. Others have made the case that a human embryo is a human person from conception and I agree with them. That being said, there is no reason to believe that God does not impart the soul at the moment of conception since, as I mentioned above, a fully functioning body is not required to sustain the existence of the soul.

    Furthermore, if God withdraws the spirit, then the body dies (Luke 23:46). At least, that seems to be the case in Christ’s account. Therefore, it seems reasonable on the Christian worldview that if the baby without cerebral hemispheres has a pulse, then it has a spirit, which imparts personhood. Of course, that would lead us to ask how long must a person not have heart function before considered dead, but that is a topic for another time.