The employment of the idea of human rights has been woven into our country’s vernacular and legal code since Jefferson penned those now illustrious words which established our country’s independence. What is much less established, however, is the distinct point at which those rights begin.
On November 13, Dr. Sarah Byers, a member of Boston College’s Philosophy Department, outfitted the crowd gathered in Higgins Hall with both scientific and philosophical tools for answering that very question.
Dr. Byers began by formally defining a “right” as a “natural entitlement,” a definition articulated in consideration of the Greek conception of justice, which assigns to one what is owed to her, and a philosophical conception of “humans,” which the UN characterizes as “rational social animals.”
With this framework of human rights, Byers shifted to the biological dynamic of when life truly begins, referencing the philosophical conceptions of ‘life’ and ‘organism,’ entities which have a capacity for metabolism and are organized structures, respectively. Consequently, Byers argued, because a fertilized zygote can metabolize as an organized structure, beginning at the moment of conception and progressively into the fetal stage, the zygote’s unchanging essence necessitates that it be classified as a human. As she stated, “There is no other place to draw the line between a human and a non-human living thing except at the karyotype, and the karyotype is present from conception.” That fundamental right to life cannot be taken away because the fetus cannot, itself, voluntarily harm the well-being of another, which is the only justifiable reason to remove a person’s right. Therefore, the child is entitled to every universally recognized human right.
Later, laying out a timeline of how children mature in the womb, Byers highlighted several points at which momentous developmental events occur, each of which are within the period where abortion can legally be performed. For example, Byers stated that at a mere 20 days there is a recognizable heartbeat and even a response by the child to outside stimuli. Moreover, Byers added that fetuses lack fortifying anesthetic capabilities that mature humans have, and, consequently, experience pain to an even sharper degree. At 5 months, too, the baby is considered to have sufficient chances of viability outside of the womb. Acknowledging these points, Byers concluded, “You have the capacity for sensation from the minute you exist.”
Byers then refuted several common objections to her points. One such claim is that children in the early stage of development cannot think; Byers quickly noted, on the contrary, they do possess a potentiality to think and process. Moreover, she insisted that that this consideration of the child as a non-thinking thing was based on an “accidental” quality of the child, which is wholly apart from its true unchanging essence as a human. Byers warned the audience of this approach concerning a determination of rights based off of “accidents,” saying, “The cost [of denying the right to life] is pretty high, because it means any social right can be justifiably revoked by the power of a tyrant or an oppressive majority, depending on which accidents they think are important.” It holds that even if the child was too underdeveloped to think, it would not change their inherent essence as a human being, and thus endowed with human rights.
Byers also warned that when one situates the concerns of the mother over those of her child it is, at the heart, an appeal to pity. Placing rape within that category, Byers insisted that a mother’s circumstance, convenience, or privacy can never outweigh the natural right which children within the womb are entitled to, saying that although “we should help the woman [considering an abortion], it does not change the fact that the fetus has a right to life.”
Her arguments come after a relatively recent World Health Organization study which found that over a quarter of the world’s pregnancies result in abortion. Dr. Byers noted that if her assertions are true, the world has a major human rights transgression on its hands.