If you leaf through the transcripts of the parliamentary debates over the Abortion Bill, much was made, both for and against abortion, of the unborn child as a “potential human life”. In the 1960s, those who insisted that human life began at conception were still often considered to be dogmatic, at best philosophically romantic, in their assertions. Human life began, so it was commonly held, at some indeterminate point between conception and birth which could be debated. The recognisable value of the woman’s life, and her rights under law, were only weighed against the “potential” life and rights of the unborn child.

Yet today, after more than eight million abortions in Britain, it is a medically established and accepted fact that a new, independent and identifiable genetic human life does, in fact, begin at conception. This raises an inescapable question for our whole society: when do human rights begin?

Our language of human rights, legal and philosophical, has been formed with the implicit understanding that human life and human rights are indivisible propositions. But our understanding of when human life begins has evolved.

If, as we now know, human life does begin at conception, the legal presumption would seem to be that such human life is, at the very least, invested with the human right to life. To argue against this requires that we split human “personhood” from human life, and posit that personhood (and therefore rights) are conferred or acquired through societal membership or participation. There are a number of serious repercussions to this train of thought.

If personhood is not simply tested against the presence of human life, what then is the test? If abortion is taken as a self-contained issue, perhaps there can be coherent argument for some sort of viability test, whether it be brain activity, an independent heartbeat, response to external stimuli, ability to breathe outside the womb, etc.

But personhood and human rights cannot be debated just within the womb. Once we accept that there is such a thing, philosophically or legally, as a human life which is not a person, this can and will be applied to human life outside the womb too. Here the different viability tests make for uncomfortable failing cases: people in comas may lack brain activity, people with pacemakers may not be able to sustain their own heartbeat independently, people on ventilators cannot breathe for themselves. Does someone lacking any or all of these criteria lose their personhood and human rights? As the debate about euthanasia develops across Europe, these are not idle questions.

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