Increasingly, in response to accusations of religious bias and violations of church-state separation, the evidence marshaled by antiabortionists to affirm the personhood of the fetus is not its alleged possession of a soul but its possession of a human body and genotype. In addition, by relying on biological, or genetic, determinism, the "right-to-life" movement asserts a claim to scientific objectivity. Biological determinism grows out of the social Darwinism and eugenics of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which were applied in the service of racism, class domination, and population control. Its essential core is an attempt to explain the meaning and direction of human society, behavior, and values in terms of biochemistry and what we can observe about heredity: "For sociobiologists and believers in natural aristocracies of class and sex, the properties of society are determined by the intrinsic properties of individual human beings, individuals are the expression of their genes, and genes are nothing but self-replicating molecules."27 All human life is reduced to its chemical bits. It is no accident, of course, that the "right-to-life" movement draws on mechanistic biological explanation as well as religion to legitimate its moral and social philosophy. For it does so in a general ideological climate that has seen the revival of genetic "theories" of race and reductionist theories of genetics; the rise of sociobiology in the social sciences; and, as part of the backlash against feminism, the renewed respectability of biological arguments supporting gender distinctions.28
"Fetal personhood" doctrine draws upon biological determinism in several ways. Its crudest expression is the profusion of antiabortion imagery presenting the fetus as "baby." It is a propagandistic tour de force to have taken the notion of "personhood" (a metaphysical, moral idea) and translated it into a series of arresting visual images that are utterly physiological and often just plain morbid. Various techniques are used to convey the idea that the fetus is literally a baby from the moment of conception: (1) photographs of fetuses at different stages of development, revealing recognizable physiological features; (2) photographs of aborted (bloody, gory) fetuses, particularly those aborted late; (3) clinical descriptions of fetal development, with special emphasis on the formation of heartbeat, fingerprints, fingers, and toes; (4) juxtaposition or alternation of pictures of fetuses with pictures of live babies, reinforcing the idea of their identity; and (5) the constant use of language referring to fetuses as "babies," "children" or "unborn children."29
The fetus as an image of the small, the helpless, and the mortal is made to embody one’s desire for protection, for the safety of the womb; hence its power as a symbol to manipulate emotions. Through an erroneous attempt to portray the fetus as a miniature replica of you or me, this imagery not only denies the subtle processes of biological development but also seeks to arouse one’s sense of identity with the fetus. Indeed, continually stressing the "small fingers and toes" or the capacity of the fetus to "feel pain" excites this kind of identification, through a psychological mechanism that reduces the sense of "humanity" to its most primitive biological and sentimental manifestations. The purpose of shocking, scaring, and eliciting morbid fears is connected to the biolo – gistic reduction of the meaning of "human life." "Right-to-life" rhetoric communicates the worst horrors of our age; abortion is "killing babies," clinics are "death camps" and "abortion chambers," clinicians who perform abortions are "death peddlers" and "Nazi murderers." Their emphasis on fetuses "hacked to pieces" or "burned" in saline solution is polemical, since it refers to only 5 percent of all abortions. For people who claim to uphold "life," as critics have frequently noted, "right-to-lifers" are enormously preoccupied, even obsessed, with death and the remnants of aborted fetuses, apotheosizing and even displaying them in public rituals.
This symbolic representation of fetal "personhood" in the guise of human embodiment (in contrast, note, to "ensoulment") is reinforced on a more sophisticated level through an appeal by antiabortionists to biological science. Thus Jesse Helms, in introducing the "human life statute" (S. 158) in the Senate, cited, not moral and religious authorities, but sources on human embryology; and Noonan takes for granted that the argument for fetal personhood is established in "biological knowledge common to all Americans."31 Using biological and theological language almost interchangeably, "prolife" spokesmen, in supporting the Helms statute in the Senate, argued that science is now able to determine "when human life begins" and that this settles the matter of the moral and legal status of the fetus.32 Because it can be shown that every fertilized human egg is genetically unique, possessing a distinct human genotype, they claim, it can be inferred that the zygote is a human person in a moral sense. The Protestant theologian and opponent of abortion Paul Ramsey expounded this argument, which Peter Steinfels calls the "genetic package" argument, back in the 1960s:
. . . microgenetics seems to have demonstrated what religion
never could, and biological science to have resolved an ancient
theological dispute. The human individual comes into existence first as a minute informational speck, drawn at random from many other minute informational specks his parents possessed out of the common gene pool. This took place at the moment of impregnation. There were, of course, an unimaginable number of combinations of specks on his paternal and maternal chromosomes that did not come to be when they were refused and he began to be. Still (with the exception of identical twins), no one else in the entire history of the human race has ever had or will ever have exactly the same genotype. Thus, it can be said that the individual is whoever he is going to become from the moment of impregnation. Thereafter, his subsequent development may be described as a process of becoming the one he already is.33
Ramsey’s statement is a wondrous example of theological opinion masquerading as biological fact. Into the randomness of human fertilization and genetic pairing he conveniently reads the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: We are all that we can ever be from the moment of conception. Indeed, there is even the suggestion, in the image of millions of possible combinations "refused" and only one selected, of a divine and inscrutable will. Such an interpretation is peculiarly alien to the stance of modern science, including molecular biology, which is one of rigorous indeterminacy:
. . . the traditional opinion, which most of us are still unconsciously guided by, is that the child conceived on any one occasion is the unique and necessary product of that occasion: that child would have been conceived, we tend to think, or no child at all. This interpretation is quite false. . . . Only over the past one hundred years has it come to be realized that the child conceived on any one occasion belongs to a vast cohort of Possible Children, any one of whom might have been conceived and born if a different spermatozoon had chanced to fertilize the mother’s egg cell—and the egg cell itself is only one of very many. It is a matter of luck then, a sort of genetic lottery. And sometimes it is cruelly bad luck—some terrible genetic conjunction, perhaps which once in ten or twenty thousand times will bring together a matching pair of damaging recessive genes. Such a misfortune, being the outcome of a random process, is, considered in isolation, completely and essentially pointless. It is not even strictly true to say that a particular inborn abnormality must have lain within the genetic potentiality of the parents, for the malignant gene may have arisen de novo by mutation. The whole process is unhallowed—is, in the older sense of that word, profane,34
Abortions occur continually in nature, and we do not experience them as sacred events—quite the contrary. Even in a narrowly biological sense, it is impossible to say with certainty that a particular embryo will develop into a particular human being, since it may be spontaneously aborted or may turn out to be a decidedly unhumanlike mutation.35
If molecular biology cannot be relied on to ascertain the sanctity of genetic uniqueness, how much less can it tell us about the relationship between the genotype and the person. The most striking fallacy in the genetic arguments of antiabortionists is their leap from the fact of genetic individuality—a characteristic not only of humans but of all living things, including cows and chameleons—to the value of human personhood. This is a problem, in part, of confusing the self, the person, with her or his genetic basis, ignoring the enormously complex interaction between genes, environment, and development that ultimately determines who or what an actual person becomes. To say that who I am is codified from the moment of my conception is to deny most people’s common-sense assumptions about who they are, their selfhood, and its roots in conscious experience. But it also contradicts the caveats of well-known geneticists (those of a humanist persuasion) against confusing genetic potentiality with actual human personality and character, which are highly influenced by culture.36 Manier sums up this genetic fallacy with great elegance:
Since our general concept of humanity is more than a biological concept, no amount of biological evidence can provide adequate warrant for any claim concerning the starting point of individual life. . . . Further, it is misleading to assert that "a being with a human genetic code is a man," as if there were specific evidence from molecular biology warranting that assertion. In fact, it has no more empirical significance than "a rose is a rose," since the only means of identifying genetic material as human is by direct comparison with DNA already identified as human.37
Thus the broader problem with the idea that the fetus is a "person" from conception is its concept of personhood, or even humanity, for it either rests on a theological premise—"ensoulment"—or it reduces to a crude, mechanistic biologism. In legal and moral terms, this means that the concept of "person" (moral) is totally collapsed into the concept of "human life" (biological, or generic).38 In fact, as Dr. Leon Rosenberg testified in the Senate hearings on S. 158, there is not agreement among scientists about the question of "when human life begins," nor any way to determine the answer definitively.39 But I submit that the beginning of human life is not the issue, for it can be argued that fetuses, even if they are "human life," are still not human persons. It might be conceded that the fetus is a form of life insofar as it is alive (as established by EEG readings, heartbeat, and other biological responses) and it is human (in the narrow and morally insignificant sense that it is composed of authentically human genes or DNA, derived from genetically human parents). Yet, agreeing on this reduction of the fetus’ identity to its genetic material does not move us one step toward knowing what value to give the fetus, what rights it has (either as a class or in a particular case), or whether to regard it as a person in the moral and legal sense (which is the only sense there is).40
That the fetus is human and may even have a "right to life" does not prove that abortion is "morally (im)permissible," because being "human in a genetic sense" is distinct from being "human in a moral sense"— that is, from being a person. The fetus is not a human person in this latter sense; therefore, whatever rights it may have "could not possibly outweigh the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, since the rights of actual persons invariably outweigh those of any potential person whenever the two conflict."41 This position suggests that we may acknowledge the fetus’ "potentiality" and its "sanctity of life" while rejecting its "per – sonhood." To deny that the fetus is a "full human person" does not necessarily mean denying that the fetus, as a potentially human and presently sentient being, is morally deserving of consideration, or even that it can make moral or emotional claims on those in charge of its care— mainly pregnant women. The problem is that whatever those claims may be, they frequently come into conflict with the rights and needs of women and others with whom they are connected who are (in the opinion of feminists and humanists) full human persons. But the "right-to-life" position either denies such conflict or dissolves it into a definition of "motherhood" that makes the fetus’ life determinant of the woman’s.