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My Question for P.Z. Myers: What Endows a Human Being With the Right to Life?

P.Z. Myers has responded to my post about his views on abortion and personhood. In reply, Myers posted pictures of a zygote, an embryo, and a group of young women. He asserted that differences in appearance between these human beings was an ethical basis for denial of the right to life to humans in utero.

I take it for granted that Myers, being a competent biologist, agrees with me on this point: a living human embryo/fetus is a member of the species Homo sapiens (it is no other species). That is, a distinct human life begins at conception and ends at natural death. That is not to to say that Myers and I agree on rights, personhood, etc., but merely to say that a human life is a continuum that begins at conception. That is a fact of biology.

Myers makes the bizarre assertion that devaluing some human beings adds value to the life of others:

Huh. I don’t know about you, but to me, that [recognizing that humans in utero have a right to life] doesn’t exalt human life at all — it seems to do the opposite, and devalue the life of women.[my ellipsis]

Every stage of human life is…human life. Each young woman in Myer’s picture looked like a “blob of cells” when she was an embryo. An embryo is what a human being looks like 20 days after conception. A young adult is what a human being looks like 20 years after conception. An elderly adult is what a human being looks like 80 years after conception. All are human beings of different ages. Of course, abilities, appearance, etc. differ radically, but a human being is a human being. And all human beings have a right to life. To respect and value one human being despite his/her immaturity is not to denigrate a mature human being. Respect for life protects and respects all human beings.

As I noted in my earlier post, contra Myers, women are the people most harmed by a culture of abortion and infanticide.

Maybe when Egnor graduates to something beyond the 101 level, he’ll learn that human cells are not equivalent to a full human life.

Human cells — skin cells, gametes, hair follicles, etc — are not human beings. A human being is a discrete organism. A human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens from conception to natural death.

An “unborn child” (what a silly euphemism!) is not suddenly a person at conception: development is a gradual process of epigenesis, in which information and complexity expand over time, and the person does not form in an instant.

Personhood is an ethical status in which rights and privileges are conferred to a human being. Obviously some rights and privileges differ according to age, etc. Yet there is a minimal right that establishes personhood — the right to life. If there is no right to life, then there can be no real rights at all. Personhood presupposes the right to life. My assertion is that all human beings, by virtue of being human, are persons, and thus have a right to life. That right is not dependent on age, condition of dependence, rationality, etc. The right to life depends only on being human.


There is no black-and-white boundary between non-personhood and personhood — it’s an arbitrary line drawn in a continuum.

From Myers’ perspective, sure there’s a boundary. Myers believes that it is ethical to kill some human beings (embryos), but not others (adults). The ethical transition from choice to murder is a boundary of some sort.

Myers asserts that personhood is a continuum, and that some human beings on that continuum are not persons with the right to life, and some are. What is the inflection point? What minimal characteristic(s) of a human being entitle that human being to a right to life? Please note that I am not asking about age (28 weeks of gestation, full term infant, etc), but rather about the characteristics of a human being at a particular age that represent the threshold for the right to life.

To reiterate, here’s my view:

The right to life depends only on being human.

Myers disagrees.

So here’s my question for Myers:

What characteristic(s) must a human being have (awareness, rationality, independent existence, etc) for that human being to have a right to life?

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and is an award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.