“Potential Persons” in the “After-Birth Abortion” Article

As readers of The Catholic Thing are well aware, the Journal of Medical Ethics, a periodical to which I have contributed, recently published the controversial article, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, written by the philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva.

Throughout the article, the authors refer to fetuses and newborns as “potential persons,” which, I am sure, sounds like an odd neologism for those uninitiated in contemporary moral philosophy. It is, however, a phrase that has been used in the bioethics literature for over four decades.

According to Giubilini and Minerva, “fetuses and newborns. . .are potential persons because they can develop, thanks to their own biological mechanisms, those properties which will make them ‘persons’ in the sense of ‘subjects of a moral right to life’: that is, the point at which they will be able to make aims and appreciate their own life.”

This is why, argue the authors, it is morally permissible to kill fetuses and newborns. They are only potential persons, not actual persons.

The authors “take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” So a fetus is not a person, because it is not mature enough to appreciate its own interests. But that is precisely what a fetus is. Thus, a fetus is not a person because it is a fetus. That is an airtight argument, precisely because it has the virtue of being perfectly circular.

Although “potential person” is a stock label in the world of academic bioethics, the two terms, “potential” and “person,” have a long and rich philosophical pedigree that very few in professional bioethics, including Giubilini and Minerva, seem to appreciate.

For example, the oak tree in my back yard is a potential desk, which is to say that a carpenter can build a desk with the parts that were once my oak tree. When the oak tree is killed before the carpenter works on its parts, it literally ceases to be. There is nothing in the nature of the oak tree by which it is ordered toward “deskness,” neither when it was an acorn nor when it was ordered toward becoming a mature version of itself.

So when the authors say that the fetus is a “potential person,” they do not mean this sort of potential, for they maintain that the fetus remains the same being before and after it “becomes” a person.

Perhaps they mean “potential” in the sense that I am a “potential Amherst College faculty member.” But I don’t think that’s right. For such a potential is the potential to acquire an accidental property unessential to my nature. That is, if I remain at Baylor, I am still me. Whether I am 192 lbs or 202 lbs, a plumber, a professor, a baker, or a candlestick maker, makes no difference to the sort of being I am.

But, as we have seen, Giubilini and Minerva claim that all fetuses have the same nature, “because they can develop, thanks to their own biological mechanisms, those properties which will make them ‘persons.’”

To summarize, according to Giubilini and Minerva, you are the same being as your fetal self, and your potential to exercise certain personal powers – including the potential to exercise the abilities to “make aims and appreciate [your] own life” – are not accidental to your nature. Thus, the fetus is not a potential person in the sense that it “becomes” something else – as the oak tree “becomes” the desk. And it is not a potential person in the sense that acquiring personal powers is accidental to its nature – as when my weight changes from 202 lbs. to 192 lbs. 

This means that the capacity to exercise these personal powers is essential to the fetus’ nature, a nature it retains before and after it is capable of exercising these personal powers.

The fetus, then, is not a potential person. It is what it is: a being with a personal nature, and for that reason, it has essential properties that include capacities for personal expression, rational thought, and moral agency. The maturation of these capacities are perfections of its nature, and thus, contrary to what Giubilini and Minerva claim, the human fetus can be wronged even before it can know it has been wronged. 

Imagine, for example, that a scientist brings several embryos into being through in vitro fertilization. He then implants them in artificial wombs, and while they develop he obstructs their neural tubes so that they may never acquire higher brain functions, and thus they cannot become what Giubilini and Minerva consider “persons.” It is because the scientist wants to harvest the organs of these fetuses that he is engaging in this experiment.

Suppose, upon hearing of this scientist’s grisly undertaking, a group of prolife radicals breaks into his laboratory and transports all the artificial wombs (with all the embryos intact) to another laboratory located in the basement of the Vatican. While there, several prolife scientists inject the embryos with a drug that heals their neural tubes and allows for their brains to develop normally. After nine months, the former fetuses, now infants, are adopted by loving families.

If you think what the prolife scientists did was not only good, but an act that justice requires, it seems that you must believe that embryos are beings of a personal nature ordered toward certain perfections that when obstructed results in a wrong. But in that case, embryos are not potential persons. They are just persons with potential.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).