William Eggington, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, last week in the New York Times focused on the upswing in abortion opponents who are dropping the potentiality argument to posit that embryos and fetuses deserve personhood status, based on neuroscience. Eggington’s take is that those who want to make such an argument must first grapple with some weighty philosophical issues: 

Consciousness, in other words, presents a much higher, and much harder-to-establish, standard than mere potentiality of life. Therefore, implicit recourse to the concept fails as a basis for replacing viability as the line dividing the permissibility of abortion from its prohibition. For a fetus to be conscious in a sense that would establish it as a fully actualized human life, according both to current neuroscientific standards and to the philosophical tradition from which the concept stems, it would have to be capable of self-perception as well as simple perception of stimuli. And as philosophers of many stripes since Descartes have argued, self-perception is a reflexive state involving a concept of self in contrast with that of others — concepts it would be hard to imagine being meaningful for a fetus, even if fetuses could be shown to have access to concepts in the first place. By turning to consciousness in an attempt to push Roe’s line-in-the-sand back toward conception, in other words, abortion opponents would in effect be pushing it forward, toward the sort of self-differentiation that only occurs well after birth and the emergence of what the phenomenological tradition has called “world.”

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