Mercer's Obsolete Bioethics Plea: "A Fetus is not a Person"

Dianne N. Irving
May 4, 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Frankly, as I forced my way through Canadian bioethicist Mark Mercer's attempts to justify abortion and a woman's "right to choose" (a philosopher from "St. Mary's", no less), I felt rather uncomfortable for him (Mark Mercer, "A Fetus is not a Person", The Ottawa Citizen, May 3, 2010). It's interesting how such bioethics "theories" seem to keep popping up, regardless of their fatal faults. Having written my 400-page doctoral dissertation precisely on this issue starting way back in the early 1980's,1 Mercer's desperate efforts were like déjà vu.2

The following is what I - and most others - learned back then from extensively analyzing over 28 representative bioethics arguments for "delayed personhood". In literally every such "popular" bioethics argument, the "science" used as the starting point was grossly objectively erroneous. The "science" was simply made up out of whole cloth (and still is!). But who would know the difference, since most of the Readers had little or no background in science (especially, in human embryology). Likewise, in literally every such bioethics argument, the "philosophical" concept of "delayed personhood" is not only drawn from and dependent on that very same false science (and thus automatically invalid), it is also deceptively achieved by means of using academically indefensible "philosophy" (i.e., "philosophy" that any serious philosopher with even cursory course work in the History of Philosophy could demolish in one wink).3 In this current better-late-than-never attempt to "make more widely known" to his Readers what "we who are pro-choice" should know, Mercer's arguments encompass both errors. Readers beware.

Indeed, Mercer simply tries to regurgitate "preference utilitarianism's" bioethics arguments (pace international bioethics founder Peter Singer). These "delayed personhood" arguments, designed to force a false distinction between a human being and a human person, are old, have been thoroughly dissembled for a long time now, and are out of date - or out of touch with reality. It defies rationality that philosopher-bioethicist Mercer would even want to dredge up such nonsense after all these years - or that The Ottawa Citizen would want to publish it. An even cursory look at Mercer's efforts will indicate why this is so - and in the process what should really be "made more widely known" to his Readers will follow.

Mercer has a two-fold task: (1) scientifically, to prove beyond a doubt that even if a human BEING begins to exist at "conception" (his term), that fact simply doesn't matter; and (2) philosophically, to prove beyond a doubt that a fetus is not a PERSON, and therefore can be aborted. If he can accomplish this, then - for whatever his reasons - he can champion a woman's right to abortion. Let's see if Mercer can successfully make his point.

First , the scientific question: "Is a living human fetus a human BEING"? (Or, one might ask, is it a frog, or a turtle, or maybe a teeny elephant?) Well, Mercer's "scientific" answer is nothing short of strange, although he ultimately admits that abortion does entail the killing of a living human being. But one wonders why he even bothers with this question:

The question when human life begins gains no purchase because nowhere in the process of reproduction does anything non-living come to life. The egg is alive, the sperm is alive, and, should the sperm fertilize the egg, the zygote is alive. At conception comes a new human being.4


Say what? With one sweeping claim, Mercer has blended and equated the scientific (and thus moral) significance of sperm, "eggs", zygotes and human beings! This is downright pantheistic. One has to really wonder what Mercer's scientific point is here. Given that the sperm is alive, and that the "egg" is alive, being "alive" is not even the scientific issue. The scientific issue is that sperm and "eggs" are just human cells. They are not self-organizing, self-regulating, self-directing human organisms. There is a huge difference between cells and organisms, even if both are "alive".

One thus also has to wonder if Mercer is not really prepared to even take on this first question. Is he really aware of the scientific facts of human embryology that have been internationally known, documented and acknowledged for over 100 years? Is he not aware that in human sexual reproduction a new innocent living single-cell human being, a single-cell human organism, begins to exist when the sperm cell makes first contact with and penetrates the "egg"? Surely, for Mercer to even dare to preach on this scientific question, any cautious Reader should be able to assume that he is familiar with the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development. If so, then it is crystal clear that Mercer's "scientific" point is wrong. But if not, then he and his Readers might want to look up Stage 1(a), at: This long-honored "gold standard" of human embryology thoroughly distinguishes scientifically among sperm cells, "egg" cells and human beings. It also thoroughly distinguishes scientifically between when a new human being begins to exist and the zygote. That is, the "zygote" is found only later, at Stage 1(c). The new living human being really begins to exist as a human organism before the "zygote" is formed.5 And is Mercer unaware that not all human beings begin to exist by means of sexual reproduction (fertilization/conception)? Many human beings begin to exist by asexual means (e.g., naturally occurring human monozygotic twins in the woman's body, human beings reproduced asexually by "twinning", cloning, genetic engineering, etc., in vitro).6

Regardless, it would seem that Mercer didn't really have to even give any "scientific" argument if, as he finally admits, abortion intentionally kills a living human being:

Abortion, then, involves the killing of a human being. But that abortion involves the deliberate killing of a human being is no reason for abortion to be illegal. Nor should one be morally troubled by it.7

Yes, abortion does indeed involve the killing of an innocent living human being - whether performed during the embryonic or the fetal period. If this is not morally troubling to Mercer, then I wonder why? Abortion does not involve the "killing" of mere human cells. Scientifically, even the killing of the living single-cell human embryo involves the killing of an innocent living human being (like the human beings killed by the use of abortifacients, or those used in all manner of destructive experimental research, drug production, etc.). But killing innocent living human beings doesn't seem to worry Mercer, and he proceeds to try to explain to his Readers precisely why.

Having "satisfied" the sticky scientific part of the issue, Mercer is now free to indulge himself in the philosophical "personhood" question, for which he is presumably duly academically prepared. That is, is the human fetus a person? Perhaps it is legitimate (somehow, we're still not sure why) to kill innocent living human beings, but the really burning question is, is it legitimate to kill innocent living human persons? It would seem that being a living innocent human being is not enough. What is really important is whether or not that human being is a "person". Let's see if Mercer can successfully make his point.

Unfortunately, Mercer's answer to this burning question is loaded with old, rusty, passé, and grossly erroneous "philosophical" concepts (of a certain breed) typical of those force-fed the Readers many years ago, when "bioethics" was first formally created by U.S. Congressional mandate back in 1978 (the Belmont Report).8 Even more specifically, Mercer apparently particularly enjoys the brand of bioethics conjured up by bioethicist Peter Singer (Australian, author of Practical Ethics9). (Is this why Mercer suggests to his Readers that abortion is not a moral issue, but just a "practical" issue?) Singer argued that a "person" is defined only in terms of the active exercising of "rational attributes" and/or "sentience". By "rational attributes" Singer meant the actual exercising of the capacity to think, will, CHOOSE, relate to the world around one, etc. By "sentience" Singer meant the actual exercising of the capacity to feel pain and/or pleasure.10 Note the "actively exercising" part of these Singerean personhood criteria as we try to follow Mercer's philosophically profound "logic".

The reason why it matters not if a human fetus is a human being, says Mercer, is that a fetus is not a human person:

To kill a reader of this newspaper would be to kill a creature richly aware of its environment and full of beliefs and desires, including the desire to continue living. To kill him or her would be to kill a self-conscious creature. Thus, to kill a reader of this paper would be to destroy a self-aware locus of experience, one, moreover, that prefers not to die. ... A human fetus, on the other hand, though human, has only a rudimentary awareness of its environment and lacks self consciousness entirely. It has no interest in living, for it can have no interests at all. ... Because a fetus is not a person, killing a fetus is not killing a person.11 (emphases added)

And so Mercer's debt to Singer and his "preference utilitarianism" is perfectly obvious. The human fetus is not a person because it cannot here and now actively exercise "rational attributes" (interestingly, Mercer prefers not to address whether or not a human fetus can here and now actively feel pain! But why bother being consistent?).

Yet, if Mercer-Singer is correct, then the Reader must necessarily agree that the following list of even living adult human beings are also not persons (and, in fact, Peter Singer would agree): the comatose, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and depressed, drug addicts, alcoholics, a lot of teenagers, etc. - even Mercer, or the Readers when they are sleeping! Can't have it both ways. If a "person" is defined as Singer and now Mercer define "person", then all those adult human beings are in big trouble!

This "personhood" argument is, in fact, an old argument that pre-dates even Singer. It was most notoriously proclaimed by Descartes centuries ago, immediately refuted by scholars across Europe's universities, and causing Descartes' profound embarrassment and frantic flight from the universities - dredged up anew by most proponents of the "new" bioethics (who happen to be proponents of abortion and human embryo/fetal research) since 1978.

Pushing the logic a bit more, are Mercer and his Readers prepared, as Singer is, to argue seriously that all these same living adult human beings could be intentionally killed, used in destructive medical research, dismembered and then pitched into mass graves, etc., since they are just human beings but not "persons" who actively exercise "rational attributes"? It is especially here that Mercer's delayed personhood argument collapses. We should demand no less than an immediate response from Mr. Mercer. Come on, Mr. Mercer - if Peter Singer has the gall to so conclude, why not you? By the way, for those not in the know, Singer also concludes that many non-human animals do actively exercise "rational attributes" and "sentience", and therefore are "persons" with all the rights of persons (e.g., pigs, dogs, chickens, apes, frogs, etc.). At least Singer is logically consistent, if not barbarously wrong.12

And true to this debauched bioethics form, Mercer adds, as if he had to, that a fetus might be a "potential", "possible", or "future" person - later on in life, once he or she is finally capable of actively exercising "rational attributes". I guess the gloss here is that if and when they reach adulthood and they can't, then they too are no longer "persons" with all the rights of persons.

Nevertheless, Mercer can finally announce his "conclusion" - practical, perhaps; moral, not:

The overall point is that abortion is not in any degree a morally fraught option. A woman considering whether to have an abortion or, instead, to raise a child is making a practical decision, not a moral one. This is what we who are pro-choice have to make more widely known.13 (emphases added)

Given Mercer's dreadful "scientific" and "philosophical" arguments, my guess would be that "practical" women and those others "who are pro-choice" should run the other way.

But before running away, Readers should at least take a peek at what should really be "made more widely known" to them - if they dare.

Is a human fetus a human being? Unquestionably, yes. We know that scientifically. Is a human fetus simultaneously a human person? Unquestionably, yes. We know that philosophically (or at least can, if the appropriate kind of philosophy is used).

Scientifically, there is no confusion or question as to when real living sexually reproduced human beings begin to really exist in the real world. As noted above, this has been uncontrovertibly known objectively for over a hundred years, and instituted world-wide since 1942 in the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development - updated every 4-5 years since then to the present. Every textbook in human embryology is professionally required to use those Carnegie Stages and superscripts in their textbooks (although some fail to do so).14 Thus abortion really does intentionally kill innocent living human beings.

Philosophically, before bioethics was "born" in 1978, most solid philosophical scholars agreed that a "person" is defined as "an individual of a rational NATURE". That is, a human "person" was defined in terms of the kind of human nature it possessed - not in terms of the actual exercising of human rational capacities which flow directly from that human nature. No human nature, no human capacities, no human functioning, no human "rational attributes" or "sentience". As we've seen, to attempt to philosophically define a "person" only in terms of actively expressed functionalities is philosophically absurd, leading to absurd practical conclusions that even Mr. Mercer would probably disagree with (or at least hopefully his Readers would).

Thus, in the real world, there is no real distinction between a human being and a human person. If there's a human being there, then there's a human person there. A human being, simply by virtue of being a human kind of being, with a specifically human nature, is a human person precisely because he/she is an individual of a rational nature. If allowed to grow, develop and flourish, these human persons hopefully will be able to eventually actively express "rational attributes" and "sentience" if possible. If not, these are still innocent living human persons who possess a rational nature. And that human person thus possesses the same inherent rights as all other human persons - socially, ethically, legally, etc. That is why the intentional killing of a living innocent human embryo or human fetus is the intentional killing of a living innocent human person, is morally fraught, and should be socially and legally fraught. Yes, an adult woman is a human person, but so is her unborn child. They are both individuals of a rational nature, and both equally persons.

What has happened, as I learned so long ago while analyzing these bioethics arguments for "delayed personhood", is that the abortion issue became so politicized that it led inexorably to bioethics' gross politicization science (as Dr. Kischer's recent article so articulately documents).15 This strange "science" offered here to Mr. Mercer's Readers follows, albeit belatedly, in that same tradition. Just to give some examples of the kinds of scientific and philosophical linguistic twists that bioethics perpetrated even before the 1980's, here's a partial list from my doctoral dissertation:

As extensively noted, violations of the dignity of these early human beings are usually accompanied by the use of erroneous science and deceptive linguistic jargon in the attempt to justify these immoral actions. This use of contrived rhetoric to refer to the newly created human embryo or fetus is now amazingly extensive; for example: a pre-embryo vs. an embryo; a being on the way vs. an already existing one; a seed vs. an organism; a phase sortal vs. a substance sortal; information content there vs. information capacity there; a biological individual vs. an ontological individual; a transient nature vs. a stable human nature; a biologically integrated whole vs. a psychologically integrated whole; a biological life only vs. a personal life; an unconscious biological life vs. a conscious personal life; a lower-brain life vs. a cortical-brain life"; no one home vs. some one home; a zoe vs. a bios; a possible or potential human being vs. an actual human being; a possible or potential person vs. an actual human person; an object vs. a subject; an evolving member of the human species vs. an actual member of the human species; no rational attributes or sentience there vs. rational attributes or sentience there; no human cognition vs. human cognition, a ball of cells vs. an organism. Politicized terms such as spare or left-over embryos or products of conception are often used. Further rhetoric includes the false distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning, the deconstruction of therapeutic cloning to mean stem cell research, and the deconstruction of totipotent to mean pluripotent (Biggers 1990, pp. 1-6; Denker 2008, pp. 1656-1657; Irving 1991, pp. 1-400; Irving 1993a, pp. 18-46; Irving 1994a, pp. 42-62; Irving 2003a, pp. 1-42; Irving 2004a pp. 1-31; Irving 2005 1-36; Kischer and Irving 995, pp. 4-13, 129-184, 224-247, 248-257, 267-282). As noted above, even the centuries-old honored term "conception" itself has now been erroneously redefined as beginning at implantation rather than at fertilization, even in the law.16

What is most troubling of all is that, given all this fake "science" and indefensible "philosophy" involving the early human embryo and human fetus, good people are no longer cable of even thinking straight. Their concepts no longer match the real world. These efforts to confuse are hardly new, but it is time that they be noticed and corrected. Another philosopher several decades ago captured this crisis best, and it is worth ending on his note (also taken from several of my articles):

Yet new, clever and ever erroneous scientific claims and linguistic rhetoric continue to confuse and darken the human conscience. Josef Pieper, a contemporary Catholic philosopher and theologian, recently wrote an amazing small book concerning the advertising and communications industries, The Abuse of Language - Abuse of Power, that is astonishingly applicable to the rhetoric found in these related debates about the human embryo today. Such rhetoric, he notes, is not new. Plato attributed it to the Sophists whom he described as, "highly paid and popularly applauded experts in the art of twisting words; able to sweet-talk something bad into something good and to turn white into black." The truth itself cannot in all honesty be the decisive concern of those who aim at verbal artistry, he notes. Rather, as Plato forces Gorgias to admit, "such sophisticated language, disconnected from the roots of truth, in fact pursues some ulterior motives." Language is thus invariably turned into an instrument of power. "The place of authentic reality is taken over by a fictitious reality; my perception is indeed still directed toward an object, but now it is a pseudo-reality, deceptively appearing as being real, so much so that it becomes almost impossible any more to discern the truth." This is precisely what bothered Plato with his own contemporary Sophists. What makes the sophists so dangerous, said Plato, is that they "fabricate a fictitious reality." That the real world in which we all live can be taken over by pseudo-realities whose fictitious nature threatens to become unnoticed is truly a depressing thought. And yet this Platonic nightmare possesses an alarming contemporary relevance, for the general public is being reduced to a state where people not only are unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for it. (Pieper 1992, pp. 7, 18-20, 34-35).17

This is what Readers really need to know.


1 See, Dianne Nutwell Irving, M.A., Ph.D., Philosophical and Scientific Analysis of the Nature of the Early Human Embryo (Washington, D.C.: doctoral dissertation, Georgetown University, 1991). [Back]

2 In addition to the bioethics articles by Singer and Kuhse listed below, for similar typical bioethics arguments that have attempted for decades to make a false distinction between human beings and human persons (the tip of the iceberg), please see: Thomas J. Bole, "Zygotes, Souls, Substances, and Persons," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 15 (1990): 637-652; Robert C. Cefalo, "Book Review: Embryo Experimentation, Peter Singer et al., eds., 'Eggs, Embryos and Ethics'," Hastings Center Report 21, no. 5 (September-October 1991): 41; Charles E. Curran, "Abortion: Contemporary Debate in Philosophical and Religious Ethics," in Encyclopedia of Bioethics 1, edited by W.T. Reich (London 1978), 17-26; Joseph F. Donceel, "A Liberal Catholic's View," in Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate, edited by Patricia Beattie Jung and Thomas Shannon (New York 1988), 48-53; H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., "The Ontology of Abortion," Ethics 84, no. 3 (April 1974): 217-234; H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Bioethics (New York 1986); Norman M. Ford, When Did I Begin?: Conception of the Human Individual in History, Philosophy, and Science (New York 1988); Richard M. Hare, "When Does Potentiality Count? A Comment on Lockwood," Bioethics 2, no. 3 (1988): 214-225; Andre E. Hellegers, "Fetal Development," Theological Studies 31, no. 1 (March 1970): 3-9; Howard W. Jones and Charlotte Schroder, "The Process of Human Fertilization: Implications for Moral Status," Fertility and Sterility 48, no. 2 (August 1987): 192; Michael Kinsley, "Reason, Faith and Stem Cells," Washington Post Aug. 29, 2000 p. A 17; also available from; Michael Lockwood, "When Does Life Begin?" in Moral Dilemmas in Modern Medicine, edited by Michael Lockwood (New York 1985), 9-31; Michael Lockwood, "Warnock Versus Powell (and Harradine): When Does Potentiality Count?" Bioethics 2, no. 3 (1988): 187-213; Richard A. McCormick, S.J., Testimony, in National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research; Report and Recommendations; Research on the Fetus; U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (Washington, D.C. 1975), 5; Richard A. McCormick, S.J., "Who or What Is the Preembryo?" Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1 (1991): 1-15.; Mario Moussa and Thomas A. Shannon, "The Search for the New Pineal Gland: Brain Life and Personhood," Hastings Center Report 22, no. 3 (1992): 30-37; John Robertson, "Extracorporeal Embryos and the Abortion Debate," Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy 2, no. 53 (1986) 53-70; John Robertson, "What We May Do with Preembryos: A Response to Richard A. McCormick," Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1, no. 4 (December 1991): 295-302; Carol Tauer, "The Tradition of Probabilism and the Moral Status of the Early Embryo," in Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate, edited by Patricia B. Jung and Thomas A. Shannon (New York 1988), 54-84; Michael Tooley, "Abortion and Infanticide," in The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion, edited by Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel, and Thomas Scanlon (Princeton, N.J. 1974); William A. Wallace, "Nature and Human Nature as the Norm in Medical Ethics," in, Catholic Perspectives on Medical Morals, edited by Edmund D. Pellegrino, John P. Langan, and John Collins Harvey (Boston 1989), 25-53; Kevin Wildes, "Book Review: Human Life: Its Beginning and Development," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 26, no. 1, - v26Supplement 1 (February 2001): 3-33. [Back]

3 See, D. Irving, "Scientific and philosophical expertise: An evaluation of the arguments on 'personhood'", Linacre Quarterly (February 1993), 60:1:18-46, at: [Back]

4 Mark Mercer, "A Fetus is not a Person", The Ottawa Citizen, May 3, 2010, at: [Back]

5 For the entire 23-week chart of the Carnegie Stages, see:; for in-depth details of each Stage, go to the bottom of the web page and click into the "text book" at the bottom-left. For an historical explanation of the Carnegie Stages, especially Stages 106, see D. Irving, "The Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development: Chart of all 23 Stages, and Detailed Descriptions of Carnegie Stages 1 – 6" (April 22, 2006), at: See also work of Wilhelm His, Anatomie Menschlicher Embryonen: I. Embroyonen des Ersten Monats (Leipzig, Germany 1880). [Back]

6 See D. Irving, "Problems with the phrase, 'from conception/fertilization to natural death'" (Aug. 8, 2007), at: [Back]

7 Mark Mercer, "A Fetus is not a Person", The Ottawa Citizen, May 3, 2010, at: [Back]

8 For historical accounts, analyses and evaluations of the "new" bioethics, see: Albert R. Jonsen, The Birth of Bioethics (New York 1998), 90-122; David J. Rothman, Strangers at the Bedside: A History of How Law and Bioethics Transformed Medical Decision Making (New York 1991), 168-189; D. Irving, "What Is 'Bioethics'?," available from; extensive analysis and evaluation of the new "birth" of bioethics, with scientific, historical and bioethics references; note, Irving was a member of the first formal graduate class of this new bioethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. [Back]

9 See, e.g., Peter Singer, "Taking Life: Abortion," in Practical Ethics, edited by Peter Singer (London 1981), 106-126. Note, the "practical" implications for Mercer's Readers. [Back]

10 See, e.g., Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants (Oxford 1985); Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, "For Sometimes Letting-and Helping-Die," Law, Medicine, and Health Care 3, no. 4 (1986): 149-153; Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse, "The Ethics of Embryo Research," Law, Medicine and Health Care 14 (1987): 13-14; Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse, Stephen Buckle, et al., eds., Embryo Experimentation (Cambridge, U.K. 1990), 3-4, 6-10, 14-24, 43-50, 59-60, 66-72, 96-106, esp. 252. [Back]

11 Mark Mercer, "A Fetus is not a Person", The Ottawa Citizen, May 3, 2010, at: [Back]

12 See, D. Irving, "Reading the Singer on 'bestiality'", (Feb. 8, 2004), at:; also, D. Irving, "On Singer's, 'The Sanctity of Life: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow'" (Sept. 27, 2005), at: [Back]

13 Mark Mercer, "A Fetus is not a Person", The Ottawa Citizen, May 3, 2010, at: [Back]

14 See, e.g., D. Irving's analysis of Canadian human developmental biologist Keith Moore's 5th edition of his textbook on human embryology: "'New age' embryology text books: 'Pre-embryo', 'pregnancy' and abortion counseling: Implications for fetal research", Linacre Quarterly May 1994, 61(2):42-62, at: Dr. Moore has also written an "Islamic Additions" version, and fully participated in Islamic conferences designed to substitute the Carnegie Stages with the Qur'an: see, YouTube presentation of Dr. Moore: (1) "Embryology Prof. Keith L.Moore part 1", at:; and (2) "Embryology Prof. Keith L.Moore part 2", at: [Back]

15 Dr. C. Ward Kischer, Human Embryologist, "The New tower of Babel" (Spring 2010), at:; also, Kischer, "The Final Corruption of Human Embryology" (February 15, 2007), at:; also Kischer and Irving, C. Ward Kischer and Dianne N. Irving, The Human Development Hoax: Time To Tell The Truth!, 2nd ed. (Clinton Township, Mich. 1997). [Back]

16 "Human Embryology" (September 15, 2008), at:; also published in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Supplement 2009, (Detroit: Gayle), pp. 287-312, as "Embryology, Human"; see [Back]

17 As quoted in D. Irving, "Human Embryology" (September 15, 2008), at:; also published in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Supplement 2009, (Detroit: Gayle), pp. 287-312, as "Embryology, Human"; see [Back]