Is there a way to effectively attack the idea of fetal personhood?

One thing that’s struck me (though it’s not surprising) in reading and listening to debates (online in particular) is how often one side doesn’t seem to get how irrelevant or useless some of their major arguments are when they’re addressed to the other side.

In this particular case, in abortion, the big wall is fetal personhood. No amount of “it’s my body” is relevant to someone who thinks that even birth control is the absolute moral equivalent of shooting a two month old in the head with a .357 Magnum. If there’s any hope whatsoever if moving a pro-lifer, or proving him/her wrong in the public arena, it seems to me that there MUST be a LOT of attention paid to the idea of fetal personhood. (In fact, this post was inspired by an online mini-debate in which a pro-choicer seemed to fail to fully grasp what a pro-choicer thought in regards to what a “person” is, and the pro-lifer utterly ignored particular points the pro-choicer made that had nothing to do with fetuses being people that he should have been able to address.)

But the problem is, how can it be done? The only real way to do so that I can think of is to attack the very concept of a soul itself, which will not only turn off most of the intended audience, but also very difficult to do in a meaningful way. Is there a way to do so I’m not thinking of?

I believe in fetal personhood (I.e. That ensoulment begins at conception). I believe that as revealed truth, so I can’t think of anything that could convince me otherwise).

That said, I also support birth control and emergency contraception, because as far as I’ve been able to tell, they don’t suppress implantation, at least not to any serious degree. their primary and intended mode of action is to suppress ovulation. there is some speculation that they might additionally suppress implantation, but the studies that I’ve been able to find, thus far, find no evidence of suppressed inplantation. So, you can believe in fetal personhood and support birth control and the morning after pill.

Abortion is different, and there I am solidly against abortion rights, except when there are serious health threats to the mother. As you note, the ‘it’s my body’ arguments are going to seem exceedingly unconvincing and trivial to the pro-life side (and I should note that I personally find they make me viscerally ill and disgusted as well).

That’s the thing.

Wad of goo somewere becomes happy baby.

It would be so much easier if we made babies without those damn women getting in the way.

Since a soul is a supernatural concept, if you want to keep the concept of a soul, then it seems to me that you’d have to argue that the soul attaches at some point during the pregnancy rather than at conception. And to make that argument, you’d have to go to the religious text that person is using and try to find support for it.

I personally don’t bother with these debates anymore. We routinely kill people, innocent or otherwise, in our society, and many of the people who claim that killing a fetus is killing an innocent person happily support policies that do kill innocent people. There are people who I think genuinely are opposed to killing innocent life. I mean, I don’t know much about the current Pope, but I think if I were talking to him, he would really have an overarching and coherent view about the “sanctity of human life.” But there are tons of people in the so-called “pro-life” movement in the US who cheered on the Iraq War like it was a football game, who won’t let us fix global warming, who’ve screamed about our attempts to provide pre-natal care to poor people, and who support the death penalty as it is currently practiced in the US. These are not people who care about the preservation of innocent life.

At the end of the day, this is an issue of bodily autonomy. If someone has a kid who needs a liver transplant, and their liver is the only viable option, we’re still not going to force them to give up part of their liver. Similarly, we shouldn’t force someone to give up their uterus and endure a number of potential health complications if they don’t want to.

We have a compromise system in place when it comes to abortion. Very few restrictions at the beginning of the pregnancy, and increasing restrictions as the pregnancy progresses. I’m okay with that, because I have no idea when the soul attaches. or when life begins. What I do know is that I’m not going to listen to someone claim to be “pro-life” if he or she is then going to turn around and move heaven and earth to stop us from providing pre-natal care to pregnant women.

No, because the critical item here is the definition of person - which is not a scientific concept. All the brain wave analysis in the world is not going to help if someone things their God says a couple of cells is a person.

So, since it is undecidable the only reasonable answer is to let people decide for themselves, and by people I mean women. If someone tells me that God is against it, they had better bring God down to tell me in person.
It is a perfect example of how people who can’t demonstrate the existence of a deity in any way, and want us to accept their faith, switch over to using that undemonstrated deity to rob women of the right to control their own bodies,

When you say 'leave it up to women ', do you mean take a referendum of women, or let each individual woman decide?

I strongly disagree with each one, but having a women only referendum wouldn’t really change anything. Women are generally as likely to be pro life as men.

Even assuming that was true, how does that make it a person? Why would a cell with a soul be a person any more than a cell without a soul? Souls simply aren’t relevant to personhood, even if they existed. A mindless cell with a soul, is still just a mindless cell.

And what about identical twins, who split after conception? Do they get half souls?

It sounds like you’re looking for the Violinist Analogy which argues that yes, your bodily autonomy makes it morally permissible to sever the connection between your body and a fundamentally dependent person. This doesn’t change even if the person you are supporting is extremely valuable. One of the nice things about the Violinist Analogy is that it coincides with our intuitions (assuming we’re pro-choice here) that while abortion may be morally permissible, all things being equal it is ethically worse to have an abortion than it is to carry the pregnancy to term, although all things rarely are equal and abortion frequently is the best option. Another feature of the analogy is that by following its logic, if you’ve kept the violinist alive for 6 months and you decide you’re sick of him and want to disconnect from him, that’s substantially worse than disconnecting immediately. This isn’t a conclusion you would get by supposing a lack of fetal personhood, but it matches American law fairly well.

A less productive line of reasoning is the reducto ad absurdum that a zygote isn’t a person, and that an estimated 50% of fertilized eggs fail to implant in the uterus, but that’s not terribly useful considering the existence of the “snowflake baby” meme, where abortion opponents become surrogate mothers for unused IVF embryos. I think this is where you’re getting the idea that the concept of a soul is an impassable stumbling block, but there’s no particular reason to assume that ensoulment occurs at conception rather than at some later time. I think in Judaism, ensoulment traditionally occurs at the quickening, the moment the fetus begins to move. And again, the Violinist Analogy works without assuming that violinists necessarily lack souls.

There is no way to reason someone out of a position they hold that is not arrived at by reason. If someone believes that a soul is imparted at conception, then that is a belief they hold. Since there is no scientific concept of a soul, there is not scientific reasoning to counter that idea. There simply is no way to convince someone that a soul isn’t imparted into a fetus… it’s a matter of faith. Faith is impervious to reason.

This is very true. Going into an argument to attack your opponent’s axioms is a very good way to get a shouting match where nothing is accomplished besides each side convincing themselves that the other is unreasonable. You need to work within your opponent’s axions. At most show how two of their axioms lead to contradictory conclusions, and even then you’re not likely to make much headway, because you’re attacking someone’s foundational beliefs. The best you can hope for there is that they walk away and examine their principles.

You could cite Biblical authority. The Bible has several passages which equate living with breathing. So something which hasn’t drawn its first breath is not yet alive.

Genesis 2:7 - And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 7:22 - Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.

Ezekiel 37:5-10 - God, the Master, told the dry bones, “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am God! I prophesied just as I’d been commanded. As I prophesied, there was a sound and, oh, rustling! The bones moved and came together, bone to bone. I kept watching. Sinews formed, then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them. But they had no breath in them. He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, ‘God, the Master, says, Come from the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!’” So I prophesied, just as he commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army.”

Job 33:4 - The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life.

Isaiah 42:5 - Thus says God the Lord, “Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it”

Revelation 11:11 - But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God came into them, and they stood on their feet; and great fear fell upon those who were watching them.

1 Kings 17:17 - Now it came about after these things that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.

Acts 17:25 - Nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things

There are also a number of OT passages which seem to indicate that the value of a fetus is less than the value of a person. See this thread:

But, either an anti-choicer knows about these and has already discarded them as irrelevant, or they don’t know about them, in which case they are relying on something else (a NT passage or extra-Biblical teaching, perhaps) in which case you won’t make much headway with the OT passages.

Why bother?

I have no idea at all about when a fetus becomes a person, however I have actively participated in killing a few, because it suited the needs of me and my partner at the time.

However, the questions of a woman’s right to make decisions about her body and the moral question of whether an abortion kills a living being are entirely different things.

I know, from my personal perspective, that I have no doubt that what my partners and I did was perfectly legal. As to whether it was morally responsible I have no idea.

So I find it baffling that people argue about two entirely different things as though they they are the opposite sides of the same argument.

Obviously you aren’t going to change someone’s mind about this, but I’ve never found an anti-abortionist who was able to explain why, if the foetus is a person, they aren’t campaigning for it to be treated as such in all other contexts and not just abortion. Eg, why aren’t they counted as people in the census; why aren’t miscarriages treated the same as the deaths of born children (including figuring into the general mortality rate), etc.

OK, snips from a piece of speculative fiction by a bunch of goat herders that barely knew sperm plus egg equals baby … and why should we base medical judgement on information from a people that still considered that illness could come from demon possession?

I wouldn’t go as far as to state a fetus is not a living thing, but it is so dependent on its mother that one cannot regarded it as independent/separate/self-sustainable life.

And the reason is that forms of life that cannot live independently are difficult to be referred to as individual members of a population.

The problem is the sort of binary, all-or-nothing thinking, that treats personhood (and, come to that, notions such as being alive, having rights, “ownership” of one’s body, etc.) as an all-or-nothing thing. Unfortunately, both sides in the abortion debate (and similar high profile, public ethical debates, such as that over how animals should be treated) indulge heavily in this sort of binary thinking. It lends itself nicely to slogans, but it very much gets in the way in facing up to the real complexities of the moral issues, and the rational discussion of the moral compromises that inevitably have to be made in practice.

The “pro-life” position has very little to do with the Bible.

This is not a both sides do it thing in the US. In the US, the Democratic Party position is to keep abortion safe, legal and rare. There may be an occasional pro-choice person who has an extreme view of abortion, but most pro-choice people (if I read the polling data correctly) are okay with the Roe v. Wade position, which is similar to the compromise position I outlined earlier (few restrictions at the beginning of pregnancy with increasing restrictions as the pregnancy progresses). Is it really that different where you are?

A scriptural argument isn’t going to convince anyone who isn’t a believer. But a lot of pro-life people are believers so it can be an effective argument when made to them.