An article donated by Dr. Sanford Aranoff
A detailed analysis of diverse views about the
beginning of a person, with biblical references
IV. Warren's arguments about what is a person
Let us go to the third point. The issue that roils
people is that there is no physical distinction between a fetus immediately
prior to birth and the newborn baby. We all agree that infanticide is murder.
The logic based upon physical looks, is that we should consider killing a
late-term fetus as first-degree murder. Indeed, some states have passed laws to
There is a subtle difference between Kenny and
Warren. Whereas Warren discusses the idea of person or "human", Kenny focuses on
the concept of human life. Warren says that a fetus is neither a person nor a
human, and therefore it is not immoral to kill a fetus. A fetus does not have
the same rights as a person. Kenny, on the other hand, claims that human life
begins before birth, maybe even at conception. He discusses the question when
the life of an individual person begins. Again, Warren discusses whether a fetus
is a person, and Kenny discusses when the life of a person began. According to
Kenny, although a fetus is not a person, since the life of the person began as a
fetus, it is immoral to kill a fetus, and a fetus has the same rights as a
Warren states "neither a fetus's resemblance to a
person, nor its potential for becoming a person provides any basis whatever for
the claim that it has any significant right to life. Consequently, a woman's
right to protect her health, happiness, freedom, and even her life, by
terminating an unwanted pregnancy, will always override whatever right to life
it may be appropriate to ascribe to a fetus, even a fully developed one." Kenny
rejects this argument by saying that the question is not whether a fetus has the
right to life, but that the fetus is actually human life. Hebraic Law agrees
that a fetus is life, as mentioned above, for it is a crime to kill a fetus.
I wish to give a novel argument to support Warren,
by giving another argument to define a human being, giving a unique quality the
baby has upon being born, by applying some concepts from physics. Use of physics
to clarify this issue is legitimate, as our bodies obey the laws of physics.
Warren discusses that since a fetus has the
potential for becoming a person, does this fact endow it with some of the same
rights as people. Her response is that it does not.
Here is an example from physics. If we pass a beam
of helium atoms through a narrow slit, the atoms will behave as particles, as we
expect. If, however, we pass the beam through a pair of slits, they will
behave as waves and interfere as waves. The beam will display fringes on a
screen. That is, initially the atom is potentially a particle or a wave, after
passage, it actually becomes a particle (or a wave). The ancient Greek
philosophy of potential and actual helps clarify this. We normally think of
helium as a gas consisting of particles. In the double slit experiment, the
potential particles actually become waves. This is just an illustration that we
must not make decisions based upon potentialities, as Warren states. The birth
process changes the fetus from being a potential person to being an actual
person. This just gives a picture in your mind to support Warren.
The change from particles to waves is very
different from a phase transformation like ice into water. A wave is a very
different entity than a particle.
The particles slowly pass continuously through the
slits, whether it is one or two, and becomes particles or waves when we observe
the fringes. The fetus passes continuously through the vagina and becomes a baby
as it starts breathing.
The mathematical expression of the above is this.
There is a complex function ψ that describes the beam. The only thing we know is
| ψ| - this is the actual reality. The imaginary part of ψ is the potential
Potential reality is reality, and not simply
something that does not exist. This is a touchy and confusing point. The fetus
is in a sense a person. Therefore, abortion should not be permitted.
However, potential reality is not the same as actual reality. Killing a fetus is
not the same as killing a person. In the Biblical account of men fighting and
aborting a fetus, we see that it is a crime to abort a fetus, but not a capital
There are several points that we must understand
when discussing Warren's ideas. When we make laws or establish moral principles,
we do so in a general fashion. When we give criteria for a person being a
person, and then say that a baby satisfies these criteria and is therefore a
person, this does not imply the converse. If a baby is born that does not
satisfy these criteria, such as having almost no brain, we do not say that this
baby is not a person and we can practice infanticide. Since most babies do
satisfy the criteria of personhood, then we consider all babies as
Another point is that Warren's ideas by themselves
do not stand up. For example, she says that a person has the capacity to solve
new and relatively complex problems. Since a baby does not have this capacity
upon birth, it is not a person. Here the concept of organization discussed below
may help. The new organization, the baby independent of immediate physical
attachment to the mother, determines personhood. This new organization will have
reasoning capacity, and so the baby is a person immediately. We need both ideas
together, Warren's personhood and organization.
V. Human life and organization
Let us now discuss Kenny's point about human life.
His article consists of many subtle hints that there is something special about
human life, and this special something makes it immoral to kill a fetus. This
point is not clearly stated, and so is a challenge to refute. I will attempt to
challenge it using a concept from physics.
We spoke above about helium gas. If we cool it
enough, it liquefies. As we cool it further, it becomes something physicists
call a superfluid. Although we picture helium gas as a collection of atoms
bouncing around, we cannot picture a superfluid as a collection of atoms. It is
a single entity. The atoms have lost their individual entities to become a
collective whole. This change is instantaneous as we lower the temperature.
The concept of a collective group as being
different from its parts is basic to physics. Other examples are the concepts of
temperature and entropy in thermodynamics. There is no meaning to the
temperature of a single atom. The brain is another example of a collective
group, different from its parts.
I ask my students what is a molecule. They say it
is a collection of atoms. No, I reply! Take a drop of water, a tiny drop, the
tiniest drop you can take. This is a molecule of water. A molecule is the
smallest object of something that is the same something.
Break that, and you get hydrogen and oxygen. An atom is a molecule of an
element. Break that, and we get electrons, protons, and neutrons. Entities exist
because of organization. A molecule of water is fundamentally different from its
parts, hydrogen and oxygen. The existence of the entity depends upon the
Here is a simple, clear example. The atoms of
graphite and diamond are the same. The difference is the organization. Graphite
atoms are arranged in hexagonal sheets, whereas diamond atoms are arranged as
pyramids. To deny the reality of organization is to deny the reality of the
differences between graphite and diamond. Diamond is more than carbon atoms.
Imagine taking graphite and subjecting it to high
pressure and temperature so that it becomes diamond. At the moment it became
diamond, the reality changed. When ice melts, the reality has changed as the
organization of the water molecules has changed. Again, as the organization
changed, a new reality came into existence. Try telling a woman who just
received a diamond ring that the diamond is really just carbon. She will not
agree! She knows diamond is different!
A corporation is another example of a group as
being more than the sum of its parts. It is interesting that a 19th
century U.S. Supreme Court decision stated that corporations have legal rights
as persons. 2
The idea is that the person becomes a single
collective and separate entity upon birth. This means that before birth the
fetus was not this single collective entity, a living human. This point needs
Of course, at fertilization a new quality is
produced from the unfertilized egg to a zygote that is a different structure
from the molecular point of view. The zygote is a new organization. However, it
is not a person. We need both organization and personhood.
Warren discussed what would be in the future as
computers become more powerful. However, she did not go far enough in her
analysis. At some time in the future, a desktop computer will be more powerful
than the human brain. (This may possibly happen, or it may not.) These computers
will not be androids, as science fiction writers assumed, for all these
computers will be connected via the Internet. They will form a single logical
entity that will exist forever, for people will not be able to destroy it.
People will communicate with this entity in a fashion that people communicate
with each other. We do not know what people are thinking and what they will say
or do. Likewise, we will not know what this entity is thinking or what it will
say. People will relate to it as a living entity, as people consider God as
living. Of course, this is speculation, but it sounds probable. We do need to
think seriously about the issues that will arise.
The point is that today we do not, of course,
consider computers as living, even though they have the same physical form as
the future computers. There will be a transition point in the future when this
may happen, because of its complexity and organization, and separation from
human control. It will be a sharp point. This is analogous to the birth process.
The fetus is not a living human even though it physically has the same
structure. Upon birth, when the organization and separation from the mother, the
fetus becomes a living human.
This argument shows that the notion of human life
is based upon a collective complex independent entity. Examples such as this may
help the confusing concepts like human life, and show why Kenny's arguments are
We do not need to postulate the existence of the
soul to explain human behavior. The concept of collective complexity is
sufficient. The idea of the soul is what confuses people like Kenny, who say
that the fetus also has a soul.
The pro-life movement poses the wrong question
regarding abortion. The question is not when life begins. The question is
not can we destroy life in order to enhance a woman's health. If someone
donates blood, the blood is life, but can be destroyed. The question is when
the fetus becomes a person.
We need philosophical and legal analyses in order
to determine when the fetus becomes a person, defined by saying that killing the
organization is murder, i.e., a capital crime. We cannot rely upon Catholic
teaching, but must rely upon all that have contributed to American law and
culture. We have to examine Hebraic law to see how it influenced our government
at our beginnings, and how it is relevant today. Of course, American law did not
derive from the Hebraic Law, but it had some influence, and it would be useful
to examine the extent of this influence.
We must be careful not to use the power and force
of government to compel people to follow one idea.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better", S. Aranoff, BookSurge Publishing (2007).
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
The 1886 Supreme Court decision granting corporations the
same rights as living persons under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the
clause in section 1 of the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its
jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. See: http://www.ratical.org/corporations/
Originally posted: 2009-MAR-01
Latest update: 2012-FEB-21
Author: Dr. Sanford Aranoff, Adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics and
Science, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648