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A dualist analysis of abortion: personhood and the concept of self qua experiential subject
  1. K E Himma
  1. Correspondence to:
 Kenneth Einar Himma
 Department of Philosophy, University of Washington, Box 353350, Seattle, WA 98195, USA;


There is no issue more central to the abortion debate than the controversial issue of whether the fetus is a moral person. Abortion-rights opponents almost universally claim that abortion is murder and should be legally prohibited because the fetus is a moral person at the moment of conception. Abortion-rights proponents almost universally deny the crucial assumption that the fetus is a person; on their view, whatever moral disvalue abortion involves does not rise to the level of murder and hence does not rise to the level of something that should be legally prohibited.

In this essay, I argue that, under dualist assumptions about the nature of mind, the fetus is not a person until brain activity has begun.i First, I argue it is a necessary condition for a thing to be a moral person that it is (or has) a self. Second, I argue it is a necessary condition for a fetus to be (or have) a self, under dualist assumptions, that there has been some electrical activity in the brain. I conclude that a dualist can take the position that abortion ought to be legally permitted at least until the beginning of brain activity in the fetus.

  • EEG, electroencephalogram
  • abortion
  • dualism
  • personhood
  • soul
  • standing

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  • i I make no attempt to determine what conditions are sufficient for moral personhood; for this reason, the relevant claim about personhood is purely negative.

  • ii Feinberg describes the “inner I” as the “subjective sense that we possess a single and unified point of view” and “the subject of experience”.1

  • iii For example, I frequently find myself lost in thought while walking down the street. Usually, I “wake” with a start after a block or two wondering how in the world I managed to negotiate my way safely. On these occasions, what I experience as my inner observer is so preoccupied with some thought that it fails to notice visual images that it would otherwise notice.2

  • iv Though physicalist philosophers of mind tend immediately to dismiss intuitive talk of theatres and inner observers as naïve and unhelpful, it is a useful device for picking out the relevant mental phenomenon. As empirical researchers Josef Parvizi and Antonio Damasio, for example, describe the problem of the self: “The problem of how the movie in the brain is generated and the problem of how the brain also generates the sense that there is an owner and observer for that movie are so interrelated that the latter problem is nested within the former”.3

  • v As Eric T Olson points out, people use “self” to refer to very different things.3

  • vi As I have described it, the concept of the self qua subject is comparatively narrow in a second important sense: the content of the concept does not contain any assumptions about the substantive character of the self. Though I wish to articulate a dualist theory of selfhood in this essay, the term “self”, as I have defined it here, does not presuppose that the self qua subject is a substantial entity of any kind. Indeed, it does not even assume that the self is unified over time—that is, it does not assume that, for any distinct moments t0 and t1, my self at t0 is the same as my self at t1.

  • vii One might take the position that human beings are moral persons even before developing a self in virtue of having an essential animal character—that is, of the species Homo sapiens. Even so, it is important to realise that such an animal character includes reference to the property of being sentient, which presupposes the existence of a self qua subject; as we saw above, non-human animals also have such selves. One way or another, it seems reasonable to conclude that the property of being a self qua subject plays some essential role in determining moral personhood. I am indebted to an anonymous referee for this point.

  • viii Of course, Judith Jarvis Thomson argues that even if we assume that the fetus is a moral person, it does not follow that it has a right to life that would entitle it to use the mother’s body.7

  • ix This tells us nothing about whether abortion is plausibly characterised as “murder” after the instantiation of a self because selfhood is not obviously a sufficient condition for personhood—and the concept of “murder” applies only to the killings of moral persons. It seems clear, for example, that conscious non-human animals have selves but are not moral persons; for this reason, even animal rights proponents who believe that it is wrong to intentionally kill animals to eat them are hesitant to characterise such killings as “murder”.

  • x Leibniz, for example, went so far as to claim that minds and bodies do not causally interact at all. The appearance of correlation between mental and physical states arises because of God’s intervention; God simply synchronised the relevant mental and physical states in a “pre-established harmony”.

  • xi Many theists have been led to reject substance dualism as a theory of mind by the mind/body problem,8 but this does not succeed in avoiding the problem because exactly the same problem arises with respect to the issue of how an immaterial God can causally interact with a physical world. The problem is that the immateriality of God is explained in terms of precisely the same properties that characterise the immateriality of souls. If it is the fact that an immaterial soul lacks extension and solidity that entails that it cannot causally interact with material bodies, then the fact that an immaterial God lacks those properties entails that God cannot causally interact with material bodies.

  • xii Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, for many traditions, a disembodied soul is not a person. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example: “The human soul belongs to the nature as a part of it, and is therefore not a person, even when existing separately”.15

  • xiii Augustine’s position is presumably an attempt to give philosophical expression to Exodus 21:22–24, which treated the crime of causing a miscarriage as a comparatively small offence; the penalty was to pay whatever fine the husband deemed appropriate. (Exodus 21:12 requires the death penalty for murder.)16

  • xiv Aristotle believed that abortion that is “procured before sense and life have begun” is morally permissible.17

  • xv Jason Eberl argues that a zygote does not constitute a unique human life until it is implanted in the uterine wall because, prior to this point, the zygote is capable of splitting into multiple human beings: “[P]rior to implantation, each cell or group of cells has the power to separate from the rest of the zygote, divide by cellular mitosis, and develop into a multicellular organism. It is due to this totipotency of preimplantation cells that identical twins, triplets, etc are able to occur. One or more cells break away from the cluster, divide (mitosis), and develop into a second (or third, fourth, etc) organism. Because each cell or group of cells is its own unique individual biological entity and has the capacity to separate and develop into a distinct multicellular biological organism, it cannot be said that there is already an individual human organism at this point. In potentiality, there are, practically speaking, one or a few individual human organisms present.”18 Eberl’s analysis, however, is problematic because twinning remains at least a theoretical possibility throughout the life of an adult human being. If, as some theorists believe, splitting a single human brain into two halves could result in two distinct subjects of experience, then Eberl’s reasoning falsely implies that, for example, I am not a unique person because twinning remains a causal possibility. I am indebted to an anonymous referee for this important point. For a comprehensive evaluation of so called divisibility or twinning arguments, see Christian Munthe’s paper.19

  • xvi The reader who disagrees should consider the following analysis conditional: if the assumption that ensoulment necessarily involves a causal connection between soul and body is true, then the analysis of this section is correct. Thus, someone who disagrees with this analysis could always view it as a reductio of the assumption that ensoulment is inherently causal.

  • xvii The same remarks, of course, apply to the notion of ensoulment since it is an extensionally equivalent notion: the locution “the body is ensouled” and the locution “the soul is embodied” pick out exactly the same states of affairs.20

  • xviii It follows that if souls are located in space and time (as is sometimes thought by philosophical lay persons), the mere co-occupation by a soul and body of successive positions in space is clearly not sufficient to give rise to the relevant relation between a soul and a material being; souls do not inhabit bodies the way people inhabit buildings—that is, by means of spatial occupation.

  • ixx Indeed, it is worth noting that Swinburne anticipates that this kind of analysis may have implications for abortion—though he does not resolve those issues: “So, given that the soul functions first about twenty weeks after conception, when does it come into existence? There exist normal bodily processes by which the fertilised egg develops into a fetus with a brain after twenty weeks which gives rise to a functioning soul. If the soul exists just because normal body processes will bring it one day to function, it surely therefore exists, once the egg is fertilised, at conception. On the other hand one might say that normal processes need to be fairly speedy ones if the soul is to exist during their operation; and so that the soul begins to exist, only shortly before it first begins to function” (Swinburne, p179). Swinburne remarks that “it seems an arbitrary matter when we say that the soul begins to exist” (Swinburne, p179), but none the less endorses the second view as more natural. Accordingly, he would presumably take the position that abortion is not murder until “shortly before” the soul begins to function, which he takes to be 20 weeks. Swinburne’s view of personhood is as follows: X is a composite of body and soul if and only if X’s soul can be made to function by X’s body through some process that is “normal” in the sense that “it will yield its outcome with a high degree of predictability given normal nutrition, respiration, etc, without sophisticated medical intervention; and by a technique being ‘available’, that it is available to doctors during that period of history within a region of the size of the average county” (Swinburne, p178). A fetus is a composite of body and soul and hence a moral person if and only if the relevant causal link exists between the functioning of its soul and the operation of its body. The reader sympathetic to Swinburne’s view can take my analysis as an analysis of what “normal processes” require as a necessary condition.

  • xx Much more would obviously be needed to make out this rough model—including, of course, providing some sort of account of how such interaction is possible—but something like this, I think, fairly characterises the predominant dualist view of agency.

  • xxi Eberl argues that implantation is also sufficient for personhood on the ground that the fetus becomes capable at implantation of performing certain functions only the soul can perform: “At the formation of the primitive streak, there is a living biological organism, capable of nutrition and growth, developing the earliest biological tools necessary for sensation, imagination, and rational thought (being that all of these powers are tied to the brain and spinal cord that develop from the primitive streak)…The specific powers of sensation and intellection are not themselves actualised until the required organs begin to function. However, the soul is active by informing the body to develop the required organs. Therefore, I conclude that the human person is instantiated as an individual complete biological organism with the powers of life, sensation, and rational thought (that is, a being with both a body and a human intellective soul) at the moment the primitive streak begins to form, division of the organism (that is, twinning) is no longer possible, and cells that form the embryo proper are determined to that end and no other” (Eberl, pp 149–150). This analysis is problematic because the fetus does not have a developed individuated brain structure at this point (much less a functioning brain). Only several days after implantation do even the precursors of the various organs begin to emerge—for example, the notochord, ectoderm, and mesoderm (which will at some point become the nervous system, ribs, and muscles) are formed in the week or so after implantation occurs. Clearly, there are empirical and conceptual problems with attributing even “unactualised” powers of rational thought and sensation to the fetus at implantation.

  • xxii A state of the brain that is completely inactive is, after all, a state of the brain.

  • xxiii Swinburne seems to take this view.21

  • xxiv See the paper by Robert Veatch in the Hastings Center Report.28 As the reader may notice when reading this paper, the issue of when personhood ends is not irrelevant with respect to the issue of when it begins; if one takes the view that personhood ends with the cessation of the higher functions of the brain, it would seem to follow that personhood begins with the beginning of those functions.

  • xxv Again, it is important to emphasise that this does not imply that abortion is morally permissible prior to this point; rather, it implies only that the impermissibility does not rise to the level of that associated with murder.

  • xxvi Because there is at least one study that reports such activity prior to 7 weeks of gestational age,22 it should be noted that only 13.8% of abortions are performed prior to the 7th week of pregnancy. In any event, occurrence of brainstem activity prior to 10 weeks is the exception and not the rule.

  • Please see 56 for a reply to this paper.

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