Does Brain Development Matter?

Response by Quinn R.


This blog post is a response to a question sent in to Life Source, a portion of which is reproduced here:


“Almost all abortions happen in the first trimester of pregnancy, when by every criterion I can determine fetus brains are less sophisticated than mouse brains. (At thirteen weeks of pregnancy, a fetus is about the size of a small house mouse.) This is true even at about twenty weeks, when the fetus is golden-hamster sized. There’s the argument that the brain is simply too underdeveloped and too simple.”


Before I dive into today’s post, I’d like to thank those who have submitted questions to our email at thelifesourceucla@gmail.com. Your responses were thoughtful and appreciated!


We must ask the question, “Does having a brain make someone a person?” To answer this question, however, we must answer a simpler question: “What does the brain do?”

Today, I will be responding to only the above portion of an anonymous submission, specifically concerning brain development, since I unfortunately do not have the space to respond to all of the arguments and considerations provided. (You can find my last article on size here.)


Generally speaking, the average adult has a developed brain, a fetus (an unborn human from the end of the 8th week until birth) has an undeveloped brain, and an embryo (an unborn human from fertilization until the end of the 8th week) doesn’t have a brain. These facts seem to raise several potential objections to the idea that embryos and fetuses are persons with a right to life.


For instance, one might object to the idea that embryos are persons by saying, “Most people agree that we lose our personhood at ‘brain death,’ so shouldn’t we say that humans become persons at ‘brain life,’ or when we develop a brain?”

In order to respond to this objection, Trent Horn in his book Persuasive Pro-Life (1) recommends the following:


We must ask the question, “Does having a brain make someone a person?” To answer this question, however, we must answer a simpler question: “What does the brain do?”


At fertilization a person begins to exist, because at that time the unborn child’s parts work together to keep the child growing and living.

When our brain isn’t performing complex tasks (such as when we sleep), or when it hasn’t developed the ability to do so (such as when we are infants), our brain simply keeps our bodies alive. At brain death, we lose our “organic unity,” and we become a corpse. Our body parts no longer function together to keep us alive (2). If a person stops existing, not when the brain dies, but when his body parts no longer function together to keep him alive (or when he no longer has organic unity), then it makes sense to say that a person beings to exist when his body achieves this organic unity (3).


When does this occur? At fertilization a person begins to exist, because at that time the unborn child’s parts work together to keep the child growing and living. When the child becomes so complex that he needs a brain to survive, he will simply grow one, because he is a person who can continue to develop new organs and new abilities over time. Someone who is brain-dead cannot do this, and that is why the brain-dead are no longer persons, while the unborn, even without a brain, are persons who are merely immature.


Analogously, we should not abort the unborn, because unlike the brain-dead, which are persons “no more,” the unborn are actual persons who are not yet fully developed.

To illustrate the difference, imagine your favorite fruit. When it is underripe, it is inedible, or at the very least, hard to eat. The same is true of the fruit when it is overripe. However, being underripe is different from being overripe; although in both cases the fruit is inedible, we do not throw out the underripe fruit: for soon, it will ripen and become sweet. Analogously, we should not abort the unborn, because unlike the brain-dead, which are persons “no more,” the unborn are actual persons who are not yet fully developed.


Now, one might say that instead of its ability to sustain life, the importance of the brain lies in its capacity to provide us with certain abilities that warrant personhood, which might include having concept of self, thinking rationally, etc. And since fetuses do not have these abilities, they are not persons.


However, Trent Horn argues, “the problem with this response is that an infant has none of these abilities. In fact, most child psychologists agree that human children do not outperform other animals cognitively until they are at least twelve to twenty-four months old” (4). In effect, claiming that some morally relevant, distinct level of brain development separates persons from non-persons justifies infanticide as much as it does abortion. In his attempt to find the distinction between persons and non-persons, pro-choice philosopher Michael Tooley admits this in his paper “Abortion and Infanticide”: “This is obviously a matter for detailed psychological investigation, but everyday observation makes it perfectly clear, I believe, that a newborn baby does not possess the concept of a continuing self, any more than a newborn kitten possesses such a concept. If so, infanticide during a time interval shortly after birth must be morally acceptable” (5).



Sources:


1. Horn, Trent. Persuasive pro-Life: How to Talk about Our Culture's Toughest Issue. Catholic Answers Press, 2014, pp. 140-141.

Note: The following three citations are from Trent Horn’s book.


2. There is controversy over whether brain death leads to the death of a human organism in light of Alan Shewmon’s research on the subject. For a more in depth discussion, refer to:

Patrick Lee; Total Brain Death and the Integration of the Body Required of a Human Being, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Volume 41, Issue 3, 1 June 2016, Pages 300–314, https://doi.org/10.1093/jmp/jhw005


3. See Maureen L. Condic, “When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective,” The Westchester Institute 1 no. 1, October 2008, https://s27589.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/On-Point-Scientific-View-of-When-Life-Begins-Condic-2014.pdf


4. See Amsterdam, B. (1972), Mirror self‐image reactions before age two. Dev. Psychobiol., 5: 297-305. doi:10.1002/dev.420050403

In Amsterdam’s study, only 65% of children were able to recognize themselves in a mirror by age 2. The “mirror test” is a typical assessment of self-awareness, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition of rational ability. There is no evidence of self awareness or rationality in newborns.


5. Tooley, Michael. Abortion and Infanticide. Oxford : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1983.

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