On the ‘Fetus is Not a Person’ Fallacy
On Tuesday, The Daily Beast ran an column by University of Chicago Professor Marshall Sahlins entitled “The Founding Fathers Knew a Fetus is Not an American Person.” The article’s purpose is therefore obvious: if conservatives are the originalists they claim to be, then they must recognize that, in Sahlins’ words, “ the presumption that a fetus is a human person is unconstitutional.”
Sahlins offers some truly strange arguments to back up his thesis. One example he uses is the age requirement provisions for various federal offices. He argues that if the founders thought that life begins at conception, then they would have made the voting age 17 years and 3 months. This is the closest Sahlins comes to citing the Founding Fathers.
Putting aside the fact that the 26th Amendment would not be ratified until 1971, long after the Founders had passed, Sahlins’ argument is a serious one. Nobody celebrates a “Conception Day.” For one thing, celebrating such a day with the parents and grandparents would be straight up awkward. Secondly, it does nothing to disprove the argument that life begins at conception.
Pro-choicers do not like terms such as “unborn baby” because they feel they are dishonest and hence prefer to use “fetus,” claiming it is more scientifically accurate. But, what exactly do pro-choicers think a fetus is? Sahlins gives us the answer: the fetus is “not an American person.”
Sahlins must have been absent for a couple of days during biology class, because according to biology-online.org the definition of a fetus is, “ The yet-to-be born mammalian offspring following the embryonic stage, and is still going through further development prior to birth.” In other words: a stage of biological (bio meaning life) development.
Sahlins was not making truly silly arguments. He then waded into potential birther debates. This, according to Sahlins, is his strongest argument. He writes:
More telling is what one might call “the problem of the foreign fetus.” If a fetus is already a person, then a foreign individual could legitimately be elected president of the United States
No, this could not happen. The Constitution forbids it. Sahlins then goes on to mock people who claim that life begins at conception, “ Would the people who believe that human life begins at conception really want a Kenyan person to become president of the United States?”
The obvious reference to former President Barack Obama is a meaningless one. One of the stupidest aspects to the controversy laced with stupidity over Obama’s birth certificate was that even if you could prove that Obama was born in Kenya, he would still be eligible to be President because his mother was an American citizen.
Still, none of this would be good enough for Sahlins. He writes:
What is to guarantee that biological father, and therefore the fetus, was an American citizen? Most modern societies resolve such issues by adopting the principle of the Napoleonic Code that defines the father of the child as the husband of the mother. On the premise that the fetus is a person, however, we would have to get into genetic investigations. A DNA test might indeed identify a father who was citizen; but then again, it could be anyone — nor could you tell whether he was a citizen from the DNA.
No, we would not have to do genetic tests. A U.S. citizen is defined by U.S. law. If one of his parents is a U.S. citizen, then he is as well. If he is a naturalized citizen, his children are citizens too. This is not complicated, but Sahlins makes it so. If the U.S. government recognizes you a citizen, then you are a citizen and talk of a DNA test just serve to muddy the waters.
Sahlins then finishes off his piece with the ascientific and ominously sounding assertion that, “ One is a person by culture, not by nature.” If Sahlins truly believes that, then he must have missed some history classes as well.