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The Intellectual Activist - An Objectivist Review
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If an infant has a right to life because it is potentially a rational animal, shouldn't an embryo or a fetus have such a right too?

The answer to this question is "No." The essential explanation is contained in two paragraphs from Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. [1]

Just as there are no rights of collections of individuals, so there are no rights of parts of individuals no rights of arms or of tumors or of any piece of tissue growing within a woman, even if it has the capacity to become in time a human being. A potentiality is not an actuality, and a fertilized ovum, an embryo, or a fetus is not a human being. Rights belong only to man and men are entities, organisms that are biologically formed and physically separate from one another. That which lives within the body of another can claim no prerogatives against its host. [2]

Responsible parenthood involves decades devoted to the child's proper nurture. To sentence a woman to bear a child against her will is an unspeakable violation of her rights: her right to liberty (to the functions of her body), her right to the pursuit of happiness, and, sometimes, her right to life itself, even as a serf. Such a sentence represents the sacrifice of the actual to the potential, of a real human being to a piece of protoplasm, which has no life in the human sense of the term. [3]

This questioner, however, seems to be confused by the fact that an infant has not yet developed the adult capacities that lead to man's having rights: an infant has not yet learned how to think, let alone to survive by his thinking. An infant is "in this sense" only a potential rational animal, but still the infant has a right to life. How then can the fact that a fetus is only a potential rational animal explain why a fetus has no right to life?

Such a question involves a blatant equivocation on the phrase "potential rational animal." An infant is an actual living entity a separate human being that can be seen, lifted, and burped with his own individual life. A fetus is not an actual living entity; it is only a part of a woman, its vital functions remain an aspect of her body. In the context of rights, this metaphysical difference between an infant and a fetus is utterly essential. The concept of rights was not formed to tell man how to deal with rocks, plants, or beasts, nor how to deal with parts. The concept of rights identifies the actions an individual must be free to take if he is to survive in a social context. Fetal "rights" would enslave an individual to a part. Even if that part, when removed, would be an individual, the forcible removal of it from the woman's body cannot be classified as anything less than a monstrous violation of her rights.

It is true that an infant is not yet capable of the adult form of survival. Because the actions possible to an infant are limited, rights apply differently to him than to an adult. For example, it is right that those who chose to bring an infant into existence not be allowed to starve him. It is also right to recognize that an infant cannot enter into contracts. But both infants and adults have the same fundamental right to life because they are the same type of entity: an individual human being.

Another, related source of confusion is that a woman who needlessly postpones an abortion until late in her pregnancy is acting immorally. Not only is she irrationally endangering her life, but also she has been evading her knowledge that what was developing inside of her was a potential human life. Nevertheless, despite the immorality of such an action, human survival requires that an individual be left free to act morally or immorally according to his own judgment so long as he does not initiate force against another individual. Just as a moral society cannot, for the "right" of some collective, prohibit an artist from destroying his own creation, so also it cannot, for the "right" of some part, prohibit a woman from having an abortion. In neither case is physical force being used against another person.

Anti-abortionists exhibit fetal remains such as little fingers and toes to the effect that every abortion is equivalent to leaving a newborn in a dumpster. Failing, so far, to recriminalize abortion, they sanction the harassment, intimidation, and even murder of its practitioners. They attempt to blank out the metaphysical difference between a part and an entity and to blur the distinction between morality and rights. We who do believe in the right to life must not lose sight of these facts. Rights apply not to embryos and fetuses, but to individual human beings.


1 Leonard Peikoff (New York: Dutton, 1991), pp. 357-358.

2 See Ayn Rand, "Of Living Death," The Voice of Reason (New York: NAL Books, 1988), pp. 58 ff.

3 See Ayn Rand, "A Last Survey," The Ayn Rand Letter, IV (2), November/December 1975, p. 383. As Dr. Peikoff notes, MissRand is speaking here of an embryo.

The above originally appeared in the print version of TIA, January 1994.


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