Philosopher David Boonin, who is a prominent advocate of abortion rights, is in my opinion one of the most sophisticated defenders of abortion rights out of the authors I have read. He is somewhat different from most abortion rights advocates in that he wants to craft an argument that will support abortion rights, but will avoid the pitfall of infanticide. Since most arguments that deny the personhood of the unborn could very well be used to justify infanticide, Boonin does not want to go that route. Instead, he argues that even though both the unborn and newborn are not self-aware, the newborn is a person because it has a certain cortical brain activity that allows it to have desires. Once it has the ability to have desires, it can desire a right to life and hence have a right to life. We might call this the “desire” argument for convenience. Boonin’s argument, as outlined in Francis Beckwith’s essay Defending Abortion Philosophically: A Review of David Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion, can be seen as follows:
- Organized cortical brain activity must be present in order for a being to be capable of conscious experience.
- Prior to having a conscious experience, a being has no desires.
- Desires (as understood in Boonin’s taxonomy; see below) are necessary in order for a being to have a right to life.
- The fetus acquires organized cortical brain activity between 25 and 32 weeks gestation.
- Therefore, the fetus has no right to life prior to organized cortical brain activity.
Beckwith gives two responses to Boonin’s argument, but I will only focus on one for the sake of time. Beckwith claims that Boonin’s argument cannot account for possible indoctrination of someone to no longer believe they have a right to life. Beckwith writes, “a person, such as a slave, may be indoctrinated to believe he has no interests, but he still has a prima facie right not to be killed, even if he has no conscious desire for, or interest in, a right to life. Even if the slave is never killed, we would think that he has been harmed precisely because his desires and interests have been obstructed from coming to fruition.” (Beckwith 187.) But Boonin might respond by saying that the slave did have a right to life because he had ideal desires, which included the right to life, even though his actual or occurrent desires ran in the opposite direction.
But there seems to be a more serious objection for Boonin’s desire account for personhood. Beckwith illustrates this well: “Imagine that you own one of these indoctrinated slaves and she is pregnant with a fetus that has not reached the point of organized cortical brain activity. Because you have become convinced that Boonin’s view of desires is correct, and this you are starting to have doubts about the morality of indoctrinating people with already organized cortical brain activity to become slaves, you hire a scientist who is able to alter the fetus’s brain development in such a way that its organized cortical brain activity prevents the fetus from ever having desires for liberty or a right to life.” (Beckwith 188.) As a result of this operation, the fetus’s potential and basic capabilities to form into a more mature human being who will eventually have desires and possess organized cortical brain activity will never come to pass.
If Boonin is right that desires determine whether one has a right to life, and since the fetus’s brain structure was deliberately altered so as to prevent it from having desires, it follows that the fetus was not harmed in what happened. Was the fetus in fact harmed by this operation? I would say yes; but how would Boonin account for the wrongness of this act? Because according to his account of personhood, it is precisely the presence of organized cortical brain activity that establishes the capacity for the fetus to have desires and a right to life. Prior to that stage, the fetus does not have any desires or interests for anything, and hence cannot be harmed, because it does not have the present desire not to be harmed or killed. Only persons who have interests or desires not to be harmed – whether actual or dispositional – cannot be harmed or killed without moral justification. But since the fetus lacked all of these qualities, it was not harmed by the surgery and it was not deprived of anything since it did not have desires, if you accept Boonin’s argument for desires grounding a right to life.
To make it even more absurd, suppose you had a mother who intentionally wanted to give birth to three children who had no desires for anything, and arranged for their brain structures to be operated upon in such a way so as to prevent them from reaching organized cortical brain activity. And after giving birth to them, she kills them, harvests their eggs, and donates them to the Center for Disease Control for research. Has she done something morally wrong? Yes, because she deliberately consented to an operation that blocked the fetuses’ developmental capacity to desire anything and hence she hindered their growth process. The fetus was harmed because its potential growth was blocked from coming to completion, not merely because it failed to reach the state of desiring anything.
At the end of the day, Boonin’s account for personhood fails because it cannot explain why intentionally preventing someone from ever having desires prior to reaching organized cortical brain activity would be morally wrong or why it would harm the subject in question.