Personhoood: Steve Van Horn Misrepresents Hsieh

Colorado just defeated Amendment 48 by 73 to 27 percent. The measure would have defined a fertilized egg as a person in Colorado’s constitution, with all the rights to life, liberty, property, equality of justice, and due process of law. I worked with Diana Hsieh to help defeat it.

I’ve been meaning to reply to an October 27 article by Steve Van Horn that attacks an earlier piece by Hsieh. Even though the election is over, the matter is still worth addressing, as it shows the sorts of weak arguments made by the supporters of Amendment 48.

Hsieh expressly counters the argument that “human life” is sufficient for personhood:

Opponents of abortion claim that embryos and fetuses have the same right to life as babies because they are distinct, living human beings. Undoubtedly, an embryo or fetus is alive, not inert matter. It’s also human–not canine or hippopotamus. Yet every distinct, living skin cell a person washes off in the shower also contains human DNA. A tumor is human tissue distinct from its host. The embryo or fetus is different: it might develop into a born baby. Yet the differences between an embryo or fetus and that born baby are vast.

Notice that Hsieh explicitly notes why an “embryo or fetus is different” from a skin cell or tumor. Yet, ignoring Hsieh’s statement, Van Horn claims that what Hsieh “fails to distinguish is the difference between a distinct living cell and a unique living being.”

Then Van Horn explains that an eagle’s egg, like a human egg, has the capacity to develop into an adult member of the species. But so what? Van Horn points out that current law provides criminal penalties for destroying an eagle’s egg. It also provides criminal penalties for gratuitously injuring an adult dog or cat, but none of those things is a person. More to the point, none of those things is contained wholly within the body of a woman, and the fact that a fertilized egg is in such a condition is why the woman (and not anyone else) has the right to get an abortion.

Next Van Horn argues that, as there are “vast” differences between a fertilized egg and a born infant, so there are “differences between an infant, a toddler, a teenager, a middle aged adult and a 98 year old.” Then Van Horn argues that, as a fertilized egg is dependent on the woman, so is an infant. But in these arguments Van Horn utterly ignores the relevant distinctions. His is an exercise in absurdist rationalism.

Hsieh briefly summarizes those distinctions:

In the early stages of pregnancy, the embryo has nothing in common with an infant except its DNA. Its form is similar to the embryos of other mammals; it cannot survive outside the womb; it lacks any kind of awareness. To call that clump of cells a “person” is sheer nonsense.

Even when more developed, the fetus is not a biologically separate entity capable of independent action, like a baby. It exists as part of the woman carrying it, wholly contained within and dependent on her. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as she lives, as an extension of her body. It is not yet an individual human life; it is not yet a person.

Van Horn simply refuses to confront the substance of Hsieh’s argument. Instead, he closes by equating a fertilized egg with a person and abortion with murder. The opponents of abortion go through the motions of debating the issue, but their arguments are hollow, obvious attempts to paper over the fact that their position derives not from reason but from religious faith.

3 thoughts on “Personhoood: Steve Van Horn Misrepresents Hsieh”

  1. Sorry Ari but you’ve gone over the top trying to “refute” Van Horn here.

    I am disappointed in you for using phrases such as “absurdist” and “not from reason” instead of rationally confronting the arguments.

    Van Horn *does* address and confront the points you say he doesn’t.

    Hsieh does say a fetus is different because it might develop into a baby, but she essentially ignores that statement in the rest of the column while using the preceding comparison to skin cells to support her argument. I believe this is why Van Horn ignores it as well, because she did.

    He does not “ignore[s] the relevant distinctions”. The only distinction Hsieh really brings up as relevant is being a “biologically separate entity capable of independent action.” That distinction is addressed by Van Horn when he brings up the amount of dependence a born infant has on its mother, which is hardly less than that of a fetus.

    Hsieh’s other distiction is simply an unsupported opinion statement that the differences between a fetus and born baby are “vast.” She does not define what the differences are or the “vastness” of them, so it is hard to refute.

    Claiming “so what” in reference to the statement that an eagle’s egg will develop into an eagle is wrong. This is in fact the very basis of ethical arguments about abortion.

    Allowing the eagle’s egg to hatch will create an eagle. Destroying the egg is equivalent to destroying that future eagle.

    The ethical principle here is that a person is responsible for actions taken that affect the future in reasonably predictable ways.

    There is certainly room to disagree on how predictable the future event is and how responsibility is spread between decision makers and between those who take action and those who avoid action. (The one who gives a habitual drunk driver a bottle of vodka and car keys vs. one who watches and does nothing, for example.)

    You also attempt to obscure Van Horn’s point about criminal penalties for eagle egg destruction with dogs and cats while ignoring the reason he brought it up. The reason the law provides those criminal penalties is *because* egg destruction destroys a future eagle, even though the egg is not *currently* an eagle. Very relevant to the discussion.

  2. I posted Jonathan’s comments because he seemed to put a bit of effort into them, but he doesn’t actually respond to any of my arguments, so I need make only a cursory reply here. To review, the measure in question would have defined a fertilized egg as a person. The fact that an eagle’s egg is (potentially) “a future eagle” doesn’t prove that an eagle’s egg is an eagle or that a fertilized egg is a person. But the major point is that, unlike an eagle’s egg, a fertilized egg is contained within a woman’s body, which is why she has the right to terminate it.

Comments are closed.