I see this subject pop up a lot, so I figure I’ll give my take on it.
Ponder, for a moment, the two beings:
One is a leftist, peacefully slumbering in his bed, the other is a month-old fetus in their mother’s tummy. A month-old fetus is not in possession of the faculty of consciousness. Neither is the slumbering leftist.
Is it morally reprehensible if we kill them both?
“Of course!” you say. The slumbering leftist will soon regain the gift of consciousness, so it is wrong to kill it.
“It certainly is not.” you say. The month-old fetus will… Gain consciousness, too? But surely in a much longer period, this alone makes it justifiable to kill it.
Setting aside the weakness of this argument, which alone should prove that these two scenarios should not be approached differently, let’s consider some data.
After birth, a baby will differentiate between sounds it heard while it was still in the womb. That means the baby has a variety of responses and modifies it’s behavior based on whatever the input information is. Do leftists, slumbering or awake?
According to some pro-choice individuals, it is the loss of the conscious self that makes killing wrong, because we are essentially just self conscious minds. Thus, if a being is killed prior to the development of its conscious self — such as in abortion — no harm occurs. Likewise if the conscious self is lost at any point later in life — such as someone falling into an irreversible coma — then that person has died, even if his body is biologically alive.
However, imagine a case in which a four-year old boy is dying from a rare disease. We have a drug that can save his life, but it will cause him to lose all of his memories and return him to the psychological state of an infant. Should we erase the boy’s memories, or let him die? I think most people would agree that we should save his life.
Under the pro-choice view, the acts of letting the boy die and erasing his memories while saving his life, are equivalent. Both acts destroy the conscious self, so there should be no difference and hence no difficulty in choosing the “correct” course of action. Since people see death as being worse than the child losing his memories, I believe this provides evidence that a person is not just a mind but a union of body and mind. This implies that a person begins to exist prior to the development of a conscious mind after birth.