The dismaying moral logic Prof. Laura Hermer advances in "Pregnant people have rights. Products of conception don't" (Opinion Exchange, May 5) would, if applied to other areas of our common life, undercut protection for all vulnerable and voiceless people.
Hermer chides the Supreme Court for assuming in its leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade "that a product of conception, at any stage of development, deserves legal protection against destruction, no matter the wishes of the person gestating it."
All of us are "products of conception" at one stage of development or another. There is no sound scientific argument for the proposition that products of conception at six months gestation, 2 years of age, or 80 years of age are biologically different enough to merit vastly different levels of legal protection against destruction.
The DNA of each of us products of conception — at all our various stages of development — is the same. Our cellular structure and physical abilities follow a natural course of change from before birth through old age.
Perhaps knowing this, Hermer offers no biological basis for her argument. So how then can she argue that some products of conception deserve no legal protection?
The professor's answer is that a pre-birth product of conception is dependent on the person caring for it in utero. She states: "Fetuses are not deserving of any independent legal protection, any more than they are able to survive independently. Infants come into the world dependent on the care and love of others, usually the person who gave birth to them. Accordingly, any legal rights they might have should be wholly contingent on each pregnant person's intentions concerning them."
Hermer states explicitly that if a product of conception is dependent on the care and love of others, and that care is burdensome, then its legal rights depend on whether the caregiver wants them to exist.
As Hermer notes, infants' lives depend on the care of others. But so do the lives of people with severe disabilities. So do the lives of ventilated COVID patients. And so do the lives of refugees waiting at the borders of unfamiliar and unwelcoming countries.
Insofar as a woman carrying the fetus was willingly involved in the act leading to conception, the situation differs greatly from that of a person forced to donate body parts to a recipient whose crisis was unrelated to the donor's actions (a type of case Hermer references). Having ignored this difference, Hermer's logic seems to apply to any product of conception that depends on others' care.
Another almost inescapable conclusion of this argument is that "fetuses are not deserving of any independent legal protection" because they are incapable of speaking in their own defense (a part of being dependent). Apparently, being dependent on the care of others and unable to effectively mount a defense of your own life makes one's legal rights wholly contingent on the burdened caregiver's intentions. In that case, the severely disabled, the ventilated COVID patient, and the refugee seeking a new home are at risk of their right to live being contingent on the choice of those positioned to care or not care for them.
We must not accept this supremely individualistic, egoistic avoidance of moral responsibility. We all ought to share responsibility for the vulnerable and voiceless in our community. During the pandemic, we have seen shocking displays of egoistic avoidance of moral responsibility for our most vulnerable. The social justice movement of recent years has likewise awakened us to the ways in which we have avoided collective responsibility for our voiceless.
We see how we have provided some "products of conception" with unacceptably low levels of "legal protection against destruction." We have made their right to live contingent on the intentions of those whose wealth, power and convenience might be burdened by responsibility for them. Hermer's moral logic further breaks down any sense of communal responsibility for the protection of those whose health, well-being and very existence depend on the rest of us.
We must think differently.
I do credit Prof. Hermer with one accomplishment: Her argument has reignited my commitment (which often cools) to volunteering for, donating to and advocating on behalf of the organizations in our community that protect the poor, the homeless, the refugee and the addicted. Please join me in taking on the burden of responsibility for protecting every life.
Nathan Johnson teaches social studies at Minnehaha Academy. He lives in Minneapolis.