When Did I Get a Right to Life?

When Does a Human Become Valuable?

In his book A Defense of Abortion, David Boonin—a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado—writes that “a human fetus, after all, is simply a human being at a very early stage in his or her development.”1 Yet he argues for abortion anyway, even while conceding that you’re identical to the embryo/fetus you once were.

Boonin concedes a major premise of the substance view: I am identical to the embryo I once was. I am the same being now as I was then. I didn’t evolve from an embryo. I once was that embryo.

However, in Boonin’s view, just because I’m identical to my former embryonic self, it doesn’t follow that I had the same right to life then as I do now. To think otherwise would beg the question as to what makes humans valuable in the first place.

For example, the fact that I now have the right to own property or to watch anything I want on TV doesn’t mean that I had those same rights when I was a small child. Likewise (Boonin says), just because we exist as human beings at the embryonic/fetal stage doesn’t mean we have the same rights, including a right to life, at every stage of life.

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Scott Klusendorf

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Boonin says that being human isn’t enough to ground a right to life. To quote him directly: “The fact that a human fetus is a member of the same species as you and I cannot ground an argument conferring upon it the same right to life as you and I.”2 Intrinsic value, as Boonin defines it, is an accidental property that a fetus acquires later in pregnancy, after there’s organized cortical brain activity capable of supporting a present desire for something—which Boonin says happens between twenty-five weeks and thirty-two weeks after conception. Only present desires, not future ones, are value-giving and ground the right to life. And since an early fetus doesn’t have present desires, it has no right to life.

In short, human beings come to be at one point, but they become intrinsically valuable (as subjects of rights) only at a later stage. Until then, abortion may be morally criticizable, but it’s not morally impermissible.

Lest we miss the point, Boonin bites the bullet and personalizes his argument:

On my desk in my office where most of this book was written and revised, there are several pictures of my son, Eli. In one, he is gleefully dancing on the sand along the Gulf of Mexico, the cool ocean breeze wreaking havoc with his wispy hair. In a second, he is tentatively seated in the grass in his grandparents’ backyard, still working to master the feat of sitting up on his own. In a third, he is only a few weeks old, clinging firmly to the arms that are holding him and still wearing the tiny hat for preserving body heat that he wore home from the hospital. Through all of the remarkable changes that these pictures preserve, he remains unmistakably the same little boy. In the top drawer of my desk, I keep another picture of Eli. This picture was taken . . . 24 weeks before he was born. The sonogram image is murky, but it reveals clearly enough a small head tilted back slightly, and an arm raised up and bent, with the hand pointing back toward the face and the thumb extended out toward the mouth. There is no doubt in my mind that this picture, too, shows the same little boy at a very early stage in his physical development. And there is no question that the position I defend in this book entails that it would have been morally permissible to end his life at this point.3

We must not miss the significance of what’s just been said. Boonin concedes a major premise of the pro-life argument—that Eli the fetus is the same being as Eli the toddler. This is in direct opposition to the mental continuity views of Tooley, Singer, Giubilini, and Minerva, who would deny that Eli is identical to his former embryonic and fetal self.

Boonin’s view unsettles many abortion advocates who insist that you didn’t exist in the embryonic and fetal stages. True, a physical body existed, but you did not. Boonin clearly says that won’t work. I’m the same being now as I was then. But Boonin goes on to argue that my right to life wasn’t the same then as it is now, because my intrinsic value wasn’t the same then as it is now. Minus present desires, I have no intrinsic value and no right to life.

Response to Boonin’s Personhood Argument

Here’s my response to such a view.

First, why is having immediately exercisable “desires” value-giving rather than having a human nature that gives rise to desires? Stephanie Gray underscores the importance of this question by contrasting human embryos with amoebas. Neither has organized cortical brain activity. The embryos don’t have it (and hence are not yet rational) because of their age and development. Amoebas also don’t have it (and hence are not rational) because of their constitution—it’s not in their nature to be rational. Will the amoeba ever be rational? No. Will the embryo ever be rational if not blocked by disease or injury? Yes.

Gray solidifies her point by asking these questions:

So would it be correct to say an amoeba isn’t rational because of what it is? Namely, that it’s not within its nature to be a rational creature? . . . And doesn’t this tell us why amoebas aren’t people but human embryos are? . . . An amoeba isn’t rational because of what it is. But as we’ve already discussed, a human embryo isn’t rational because of how old she is. One can’t ever think. The other can’t think yet—because of her age.4

Likewise, embryos and fetuses lack desires due to their age. Amoebas lack desires due to the kind of thing they are. As Gray points out, “human rights are grounded in being human, not behaving human.”

Second, Boonin’s argument proves more than he wants it to. It disqualifies newborns. Having “desires” presupposes belief and judgment, which newborns lack until several weeks (if not months) after birth.

Third, Boonin undermines human equality. Present and immediately exercisable desires vary from person to person. But if intrinsic value (and thus, the right to life) is based on a trait that none of us share equally, those with more of that trait have a greater right to life than those with less. Fundamental human equality is fictional.

Fourth, Boonin’s argument is subject to troubling counterexamples. Consider again an indoctrinated slave. If he’s brainwashed to never desire freedom, can we justify enslaving him? If Boonin says no we can’t, because the slave has an “ideal” desire for freedom, given the sort of being that he is—then Boonin borrows from the substance view espoused by pro-lifers. It’s neither present desires nor any other immediately exercisable trait that grounds the right to life. Rather, it’s having a particular nature from which those traits spring, whether we desire them or not.5

Consider a similar example from Francis J. Beckwith. Suppose a scientist surgically alters the brain of a developing fetus so it can never desire anything. The surgery is completed before the fetus has organized cortical brain activity, so no desires are present. Five years later, the child is killed, so his organs can be harvested to treat disease in others. Since he didn’t desire anything when he was killed, was he harmed?

As Beckwith explains, “If rights presuppose desires and desires presuppose organized cortical brain activity, then Boonin’s criterion cannot account for the wrong done to the fetus.” However, if the fetus was harmed, what’s doing the moral work is his nature, not his immediately exercisable desire for anything. He’s the sort of being who should not be deprived of goods that contribute to his flourishing.6 Likewise, Buddhists and Stoics may not presently desire anything. Do they forfeit their right to life? Or, suppose that I accidentally shoot myself in the head with a nail gun while building a deck. I live, but I damage the part of my brain that controls desire. As a result, I no longer desire anything. Have I forfeited my right to life?7 Accounts of human value based on desire are in conflict with the concept of inalienable rights. If your right to life is inalienable, you can’t dislodge it simply because you no longer desire to live. Inalienable rights can’t be negotiated away.


  1. David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 20.
  2. Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, 3.
  3. Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, xii-xiv.
  4. Stephanie Gray, Love Unleashes Life: Abortion and the Art of Communicating Truth (Toronto: Life Cycle Books, 2015), 47–48.
  5. Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2015), 23; Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 147–49.
  6. Francis Beckwith, Defending Life, 148–49.
  7. Kaczor, Ethics of Abortion, 22–23.

This article is adapted from The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture by Scott Klusendorf.

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