Thursday, 28 March 2013

Is the right to life right?

Guest post by Terry Verhoeven


Just a fortnight after making an historic fourteen hour filibuster-for-liberty speech, Jekyll-and-Hyde Senator and 2016 Presidential Contender Randal Paul last week showed his other side when he introduced to the US Senate his Life At Conception Act (hereafter the 'Life Con Act''), an abominable rights-infringing piece of legislation that aims to "define life at conception in law, as a scientific statement" (according to Paul's website).

If passed, the Life Con Act would have the effect of transforming, by decree, hundreds of thousands of innocent individuals into murderers. It would also cause untold suffering for thousands more who would be forced to raise children they didn’t plan, never wanted and can't afford.

Some "scientific statement."

The vicious idea that an actual human being is the moral equivalent to a piece of protoplasm is made possible by conflating the abstraction of “the right to life” with a specific human being's right's to life. In fact and in law it gets even worse, because Senator Paul’s law deems a pregnant woman morally inferior to a piece of protoplasm—since under his legislation biological cells would be granted a legal mortgage over the lives of their unsuspecting host.

How de-humanising.

A piece of protoplasm is not a human being.  Only by ascertaining and defining by a rational standard what a human being is does it become possible to identify when a specific right to life applies.


The function of rights was capsulised by Miss Rand in her essay 'Man's Rights':

“Rights” are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.

In other words, rights serve the purpose of enabling individual morality to exist in a social context.

Rights are not a gift from God, nor are they granted by governments or society at large; they are, like all morals, objectively identifiable principles which human beings need to discover for themselves using their reason. 

Rights exist in the first instance in the form of a recognition of the facts of reality, i.e. as mental existents. It is only when a group of individuals who, after having identified their rights, enter into a legal pact with one other to uphold each other's rights that those rights come into existence in the form of a relationship among men. It is only in the form of a 'relationship among men' that rights enable human beings to live as human beings in a social context, i.e. as free individuals able to act in accordance with their own rational judgment, restrained only by the physical laws of nature and the obligation to respect other individuals' rights to freely to do the same.

For all his filibustering for liberty, such is the nature of rights that Senator Paul is yet to grasp.

Only human beings can possess rights because only human beings can identify, understand, agree to and adhere to rights.  Compare this to so-called “animal rights,” for example, where as PJ O’Rourke famously observes, you can tell the lion all you like that it’s wrong, but he’ll still rip the guts right out of Bambi.

The 'right to life' is said to be the most fundamental right. This is but an abbreviation; it is a human being's right to her life that is the most fundamental right, i.e. one's right to humanhood.

Humanhood is defined as "the state or condition of being human."

The right to humanhood is, I submit, the right from which all other rights are derived, including the right to life, which is merely its corollary.

Humanhood presupposes that one has a conscious existence, which presupposes that one is alive, i.e. that one is an actual living human being and not just a human body.

Identifying what it is that qualifies one for humanhood, and ipso facto for possessing rights, is, I submit, the logical starting point to objectively identifying what rights entail.


As far as we know, all life forms on Earth (at present) supervene on other life forms. Gametes that precede a zygote have 'life' in exactly the same sense that a zygote has 'life,’ it is just that a zygote's 'life' exists in a different form to that of gametes. In other words, new life no more comes into being at time of conception than new matter comes into existence at time of conception. Life exists as part of a continuum of life going back to each individual life form's oldest biological ancestor. What "comes into being" at time of conception is not new life, but a new form of life.

The state of being a human being is not defined by the characteristic of life any more than it is defined by water molecules or hydrogen atoms or anything else that is equally 'necessary' for a human being to exist. If one needed only to focus on a necessary characteristic and not on the essential and culminating characteristics of being a human being in arriving at what the most fundamental right is, one could argue that the most fundamental right is to Higgs boson particles, without which matter itself would not (supposedly) exist.

Clearly, this would be absurd.


According to the Life Con Act, to qualify for humanhood requires possessing two characteristics: life and the human genome. Here is the Act's wording:

_Quote_IdiotThe terms ‘‘human person’’ and ‘‘human being’’ include each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including, but not limited to, the moment of fertilization, cloning, and other moment at which an individual member of the human species comes into being.

This set of qualifiers excludes the two essential characteristics of humanhood or "the state or condition of being human": i.e, that humans each possess consciousness, and each enjoys at least the capacity to reason. Senator Paul's Act re-defines an actual human being out of existence by excluding what actually gives a human being their humanness.

By way of analogy, if it were 'Loaf-of-Breadness' that we were aiming to identify, and we were to adopt Senator Paul's logic, we would conclude that a single edible seed of grain has "loaf-of-breadness."   Or if we were defining “beerness,” we would accept a single hop as our accompaniment to our “loaf.”  Try lunching on that.

To exist as an actual loaf of bread though, or as a pint of beer, certain other essential characteristics must be present. The presence of hops in beer or a grain seed in a loaf of bread is, like the presence of the human genome in a human being, a necessary but not essential one. Having the quality of being edible is also necessary but not essential, just like the quality of being alive is necessary but not essential for a human to have humanness  (without life what exists is the remains of a human being - a corpse, but not an actual human being). The two essential qualities of a loaf of bread is the raised bread (of which grain is a necessary component) and that the bread has the capacity to be sliced before being eaten. Whether the loaf is in fact ever sliced or not does not alter the fact that it is still a loaf, but that capacity of being able to be sliced must exist or else the loaf would cease to be a loaf.

So what is a human being's essential qualities? i.e. what essentials give rise to 'humanhood'?

Ayn Rand wrote that man is

an indivisible entity of matter and consciousness. [Emphasis mine]

This is most profoundly true, but what form of matter and what type of consciousness?

The form of matter is trivially easy: that which possesses the human genome. As mentioned, the material component of humanhood is necessary but it is not essential. This is because consciousness emerges from the material existence that gives rise to it and the type of consciousness humans have his ultimately what defines humans as being human. When it comes to consciousness, the difference between man and every other form of sentient life is that human beings as a species possess the capacity to reason, which means to think conceptually, a characteristic which may or may not be realized during a man's life (just as being sliced may or may not be realized during the life of a loaf). 'Humanness' as a class may therefore be defined as "possessing the indivisible attributes of human form, sentience and the capacity to reason." Or in Aristotle’s abridged formulation: man is the rational animal.

The inception of humanness and one's qualifying for humanhood can therefore be said to take place at the precise moment when sentience is first attained by any member of the homo sapien species where that member also possesses the capacity to reason.

One may ask why sentience is one of the qualifiers for humanness and not the capacity for sentience, like with the capacity for reason? The answer is that there is no guarantee that reason will ever be employed in one's life as a human being, just like there is no requirement that a loaf of bread be cut during its life in order for it to be a loaf. Without consciousness however there can be no state of 'being' a human, just like without raised bread there can be no state of being a loaf of bread. To 'be' in the human sense is to be conscious. A human body that never attains consciousness is like a bread dough that never rises. What one has is that case is dough, or unleavened bread, but not bread fit for a loaf of bread.

It is important to note the the right-to-humanhood applies from the moment that humanness is first present right up until the moment that humanness is permanently lost. The points in between these two times is called a human's life.


So what should the litmus tests be for the three characteristics that culminate in and qualify one for 'humanhood'?

I propose the following, and stress again that these three characteristics are indivisible:

  1. Form or presence of the humane genome
    If it looks human and acts human, unless there is good reason to doubt it, then it is safe to say that it is human. If there is doubt , let scientific investigation confirm the taxonomy.
  2. Capacity to Reason
    The existence of a functional neo-cortex. A functional neo-cortex is essential to reasoning. As science and technology progresses, this may be able to be made more specific.
  3. First sentience
    First sentience first occurs at birth, upon commencement of breathing.

Ayn Rand was correct that a human being's life begins at birth, but not for the reason she thought she was. Pre-Christianity, the prevalent view was that awareness or sentience begins with one's first breath. Testament to this fact is the etymology of the word 'spirit' which is derived from the Latin word spiritus, meaning "breath".

The ancients, as it turns out, were right. And the latest scientific evidence confirms it.

Professor David Mellor from Massey University's Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre published an influential scientific review in 2005 which observed that biochemicals produced by the placenta and fetus together with the low oxygen environment in-utero have a sedating and anesthetizing effect on the fetus. The fetal cocktail includes adenosine, which suppresses brain activity; pregnanolone, which relieves pain; and prostaglandin D2, which induces sleep. Combined with the low oxygen environment and the warmth and buoyancy of the womb, this brew lulls the fetus into a near-continuous slumber, rendering it effectively unconscious no matter what the state of its anatomy. It is only upon the traumatic event of birth—entering a shocking and wholly new environment—that  breathing commences, flushing oxygen through the blood stream, whereupon the cocktail of sedating and anesthetizing hormones from the placenta ceases, and the newborn is jolted into consciousness and thus (existential) life for the first time.

(Here is a link to a subsequent publication from Professor Mellor which does not require subscription or payment to read but which covers his findings:

Due to legal restraints involved with testing and researching human fetuses, and the stark difference between studying premature babies in an ex-utero environment compared to a fetus in-utero, Professor Mellor's work is the most advanced available on the subject.

What of the fervent claims that the animated existence and reactiveness of fetuses in-utero is clear evidence of consciousness while in the womb? Such claims are, I submit, nothing but psychological projection without scientific basis. Proof in point…

Let us now investigate a medical list of symptoms and signs:

  • No evidence of awareness of self or environment and cannot interact with other people.
  • Purposeful responses to external stimuli are absent, as are language comprehension and expression.
  • Signs of an intact reticular formation (eg, eye opening) and an intact brain stem (eg, reactive pupils, oculocephalic reflex) are present.
  • Sleep-wake cycles occur but do not necessarily reflect a specific circadian rhythm and are not associated with the environment.
  • More complex brain stem reflexes, including yawning, chewing, swallowing, and, uncommonly, guttural vocalizations, are also present.
  • Arousal and startle reflexes; eg, loud sounds or blinking with bright lights may elicit eye opening.
  • Eyes may water and produce tears.
  • May appear to smile or frown.
  • Spontaneous roving eye movements—usually slow, of constant velocity, and without saccadic jerks—may be misinterpreted as volitional tracking and can be misinterpreted by family members as evidence of awareness.
  • Cannot react to visual threat and cannot follow commands.
  • The limbs may move, but the only purposeful motor responses that occur are primitive (eg, grasping an object that contacts the hand).
  • Pain usually elicits a motor response (typically decorticate or decerebrate posturing) but no purposeful avoidance.
  • Fecal and urinary incontinence.

The above is a medical description, but not of a fetus—it describes someone in a Persistent Vegetative State ('PVS'). PVS involves a complete absence of awareness, but there are signs of non-conscious wakefulness. (see

A fetus displays no more signs of awareness than someone in a Persistent Vegetative State, and therefore there is no evidence to suggest fetuses are aware (i.e. conscious/sentient) any more than the poor person in this state.

Patients in a PVS are also reported as responding to familiar music and sounds as fetuses do, whereby small changes in heart rates recorded. This is known as an 'auditory evoked response' and is not evidence of a conscious state. Auditory evoked responses are an entirely physiologic response that results in a change in autonomic function, involving brain stem function and not higher brain function required for consciousness  (see

For another example to demonstrate that fetal movement and responsiveness to stimuli is not indicative of consciousness one need only look at babies born who are born without a brain. The rare condition called Anencephaly, is where the cerebrum is missing and all that exists in its place is a brain stem. Nickolas Coke is just one such recorded case. Nickolas lived until he was 4 years old without any artificial support. He would feed, make noises, respond to various stimuli, even smile. Yet he had no (higher) brain.

When one looks at the evidence rationally, one needs to dismiss the mystical idea of ensoulment (which assumes the existence of a God to do the 'ensouling') and focus solely on when sentience is achieved. In focusing solely on when sentience is achieved, physiologic responses must be dismissed as evidence of sentience. The only other scientific evidence provided for fetal sentience other than evidence of physiologic responses involves evidence from studies done on pre-term babies. This too must be dismissed. All that is left is the extremely compelling evidence of Professor Mellor et al which shows that fetuses remain unconscious until they are born and take their first breath.


When one replaces the non-essential characteristic 'life' with the two essential and indivisible qualities of 'humanness' being prior consciousness and the capacity to reason, the right to life is not lost, nor are any corollary or consequential rights of the right to life lost. All that results is a (more) clear demarcation point as to when rights apply.

I submit that Ayn Rand hinted at humanhood being the foundational right in the following quote but she never took the step of expanding on it:

The source of man’s rights [is] the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.

I have merely expanded on this by introducing the concept of human life beginning at humanhood, with the fundamental right being the right to humanhood.

Miss Rand also spoke of the fundamental principles from which one must approach the issue of abortion:

The basic principles here are: never sacrifice the living to the non-living, and never confuse an actuality with a potentiality. [Ayn Rand, FHF Q&A following "Egalitarianism and Inflation", 1974, Ayn Rand Answers p.17]

I submit that there I have followed these basic principles in arriving at the fundamental right being that of humanhood, and concluding from their application that humanhood begins at birth upon taking one's first breath. Furthermore, this conclusion is consistent with Miss Rand's conclusion that life begins at birth, only I have arrived at the same conclusion via a slightly different route of reasoning.

Instead of focusing on the 'entity-ness' of a born versus unborn baby so as to discern when it is 'alive' as a human being, I have focused on the identity of what makes a human being a human being (a baby's separateness from its mother is, like with the characteristic 'life', a necessary by not essential quality).

I submit that the route of reasoning I have taken in grounding the right to life in the right to humanness avoids the potential objection to Miss Rand's position that an unborn child is a "part" of it's mother as opposed to being an entity in it's own right and is merely attached to her, and that a baby is only alive in the human sense as a result of it being separated from it's mother.

In conclusion, I submit that the approach I have taken has expanded on, is complimentary to and is reinforcing of Miss Rand's theory of rights and supports her personal conclusions on the subject of abortion rights while additionally and at the same time identifying the demarcation point for when a human being's right to life ends.

* * * * *

* I shall attempt here to expand on Ayn Rand's theory of rights by introducing what I consider to be a key foundational principle which I submit Miss Rand either omitted, or did not sufficiently highlight in her work. I shall then apply this expanded theory to the subject of abortion rights to arrive at a perfected answer from an Objectivist viewpoint.


  1. Personally I relate to Bill Hicks standard; You're not a person until you're in my phone book.

  2. Is this protoplasm ?

  3. @ Anonymous,

    My reference to 'protoplasm' relates to the idea of life at conception. Clearly a fully formed fetus is not a piece of protoplasm. But neither is it "alive" in the human sense until and unless it has attained consciousness (possessing a functioning higher brain). Even the article you linked to intimates as much.

    What the abortionist did was either manslaughter or murder because the baby had been born and was breathing, which means it had attained consciousness and so was alive by a human standard (as opposed to biological one); it possessed the three essential traits of 'humanness' listed in my post and so possessed the right to humanhood, which also means the right to life.

    In addition to his criminal action, the inhumane and unprofessional attitude and conduct of the abortionist deserves condemnation.

  4. I confess that I follow in Dr Walter Blocks path, Evictionism.

    I do have to say though that I have no real say in this debate unless it is my child that might be aborted.


  5. Excellent post Terry

  6. The first half of this argument is pathetic, and let's get the the nub of it: You can kill anything before it is born, and you need to define a human moments before being born is not human or having "humanhood". Pathetic.

    Note though you have to KILL it, and you have to actively go to trouble to KILL it, because left to natural process, a fetus will grow and develop and be born.

    As for "LIFE - NECESSARY BUT NOT ESSENTIAL" and the logical twists to suggest an individual life is not a new life...I haven't seen so many contortions since the yogi ate a packet of rubber bands.

    You then proceed to expand that stupid argument and then sum up the stupidity of your argument with "clearly that would be absurd" and the answer is obviously YES. But all that means is if you point out your own argument is stupid, doesn't actually add any weight to your argument for being stupid. You don't get points for honesty, just for the strength of your argument, which, in this case is absurd.

    Being human needn't be based on being rational, so the next part of your argument becomes pointless. Although, for rational humanists, this argument must have appeal as it also allows you to kill people in a coma, or perhaps a deep sleep after a few too many drinks (irrational activity that deserves death perhaps?).

    And humans in the womb would die out of the womb, but they die if dropped into the Antarctic wearing summer shorts.

    If you want the "right" to kill people 5 minutes before they are born, don't try to dress it up as all fine because they haven't drawn a breath, therefore they are not snetient, therefore they can't reason, therefore you can go to some effort to kill the little buggers...especially after giving the game away by saying : " is a human being's right to her life that is the most fundamental right, i.e. one's right to humanhood. "

    Because you need to use a knife, or forceps or poison to take that right away.

  7. Excellent post. I like the way you deal with related issues of abortion and end of life issues.

    Note that even if you grant that life begins at conception, it does not prove the point that abortion is murder. You do not have the right to support from someone else.

  8. @ Zen Tiger.

    You are making the error of conflating a potential with an actual. An unborn fetus that has never attained an awareness of anything is not (yet) a human 'being'. As I point out in my post, a human 'being' is an indivisible sum of consciousness and matter (and the capacity to reason). Human life is not entirely 'material' in nature - that is what your position amounts to, in effect. You have provided no evidence to demonstrate that consciousness is attained in the womb nor evidence that would call into question Dr. Mellor's findings that fetuses are kept in a non-conscious state prior to birth as a result of hormonal and environmental conditions.

    >>"If you want the "right" to kill people 5 minutes before they are born, don't try to dress it up as all fine because they haven't drawn a breath"

    I am not "dressing up" anything. You are conflating morality with criminality. Nowhere do I imply that "it is all fine" to abort late term pregnancies. Given the risks involved to the mother and the value of potential human life lost in aborting her fetus there are very few instances where a late term abortion would be a rational and thus a moral decision. Immoral decisions deserve condemnation! They do not deserve a criminal record and jail time though, that is, unless there is a victim who qualifies as an actual human being. Or do you hold that people should be convicted for victimless crimes?

    What I have done is evince that a fetus does not possess rights because it does not exist as an actual human being. Ending a baby's life after birth is of course an entirely different story. Abortion is the ending of potential human life, not actual human life , i.e. it is to terminate a 'human-about-to-be' - and 'human-about-to–bes' don't have rights. Only actual human beings have rights. Or do you hold that rights pertain to potentials? If you do, then (using Leonard Peikoff's analogy) we can start arguing that we are all potentially dead, and since we are all potential corpses none of us have rights.

    >>" the logical twists to suggest an individual life is not a new life"

    You do not mention any specific errors in my logic or facts, so I can only conclude that you do not have an argument here.

    >>"it also allows you to kill people in a coma, or perhaps a deep sleep after a few too many drinks (irrational activity that deserves death perhaps?)"

    There is nothing in my post that intimates self-harm due to irrational activity results in one's loss of humanhood (and thus a loss of the right to life). You are just making this up. I make it clear in the post that the right to humanhood, and thus the right to life, starts at first sentience and ends upon the permanent loss of consciousness. If a coma is medically diagnosed as being permanent, due to severe brain injury for example, then it is up to the family and doctor to decide what is the right (i.e. moral) thing to do with the body, but ending a biological life in that circumstance where consciousness is assessed to be permanently lost is not be murder (i.e. criminal), it is involuntary euthanasia, which is perfectly legal.

  9. Thank you, Dale.

    >>"You do not have the right to support from someone else. "

    An non-human being certainly doesn't. But a newborn has 'humanhood', I submit that it does have the right to receive support from it's parents until it reaches the age of reason. The parent-child relationship is a unique one in that the parent chose to bring the child into the world and give it existential life. We are all responsible for our actions, and so parents have a moral and legal obligation to care for their children, since they are the result of the parents' actions.

  10. Dale, I should correct my last statement. It's not that children have the right to receive support from their parents, rather, it's that the parent's who don't have the right not to support their children.

  11. Correction: Randal Paul's filibuster was thirteen, not fourteen hours

  12. I think Rand said a foetus has rights when it is viable, ie in the third trimester.

    Peikoff and Binswanger have written excellent essays on this subject. As they have said (in so many words),many 'pro-lifers' seem to think aborting is something a woman just puts on her to-do list for the day.Not so in 99% of cases.

    I take issue with so many conservatives not caring about a child after it is out of the womb.

    To quote George Carlin:

    Boy, these conservatives are really something, aren't they? They're all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you're born, you're on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don't want to know about you. They don't want to hear from you. No nothing. No neonatal care, no day care, no head start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you're preborn, you're fine; if you're preschool, you're f**ked."

    BTW I don't count Zen Tiger in that group, and hopefully the humanity in this new Pope will rub off others.

  13. @ Ruth -

    >>""I think Rand said a foetus has rights when it is viable, ie in the third trimester."

    Ayn Rand's position is best encapsulated with the following 2 quotes:

    "The fact of birth is an absolute -- that is, up to that moment, the child is not an independent, living organism. It's part of the body of it's mother. But at birth, a child is an individual, and has the rights inherent in the nature of a human individual." [Ayn Rand, FHF Q&A following "The Wreckage of the Consensus", 1967, Ayn Rand Answers pp.126-127]


    "An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not yet living (or the unborn).
    Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered." [Ayn Rand, "Of Living Death", 1968, The Virtue of Selfishness pp.58-59]

    I disagree with Miss Rand that an unborn child is a part of the mother; I hold that it is a separate living entity that is attached to the mother. I agree with Miss Rand that an unborn child is not 'living' in the human sense of the term and that 'humanhood' is only attained post-birth.

    Miss Rand did display some ambivalence about her position in respect to late term abortions, when the fetus is fully formed. I am of the opinion that if the scientific findings of Professor Mellor were available when Miss Rand was alive then his compelling evidence would have removed any ambivalence on when life as a human being starts. It starts at birth (upon first breath).


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