When anti-choice people say that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception, their concern is that the zygote has a unique combination of DNA from a man and woman that would create a unique person, who would be deprived of a chance at life if aborted. This logic is flawed, because although there is a continuum from conception to death, there is a difference between an actual person and a potential or possible person. A “potential life” does not yet exist as a person or human being – it only has a potential to become one if the pregnancy goes well and is carried to term and the baby is born alive. Similarly, we can say that a 12-year old is a “potential driver” because she might get a driver’s licenses in a few years – but she is definitely not a driver right now and may never become one.
Potential life cannot have more value than a pregnant woman’s actual life, which would be compromised or even sacrificed if she was forced to give birth. Simply put, women are far more important than embryos and fetuses. Women are existing persons with rights and an established life, fetuses are not.
Legally and socially, it’s recognized that a person’s life officially begins at birth, because that’s when they gain a separate existence and legal rights. If fetuses were legal persons, pregnant women would lose their personhood and become mandatory incubators for the state, even at the expense of their health and lives. International law and global human rights agreements recognize that fetuses cannot have rights because this would seriously compromise the rights of women. In countries with strict bans on abortion, or high numbers of “conscientious objectors”, such as Ireland, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Poland, and Italy, doctors have refused to treat pregnant women with complications or who needed life-saving abortions, and even let them die.
In the U.S., “fetal homicide” laws meant to protect pregnant women from assaults, but which give personhood to fetuses, have mostly led to hundreds of pregnant women being prosecuted for alleged harm to their fetuses. When fetuses are persons, women can become criminally liable for a miscarriage or stillbirth, as well as any behaviour that could possibly harm a fetus, such as drinking, taking drugs, or driving without a seatbelt. Indeed, attempts to confer legal personhood on fetuses have expanded into civil and medical areas: there have been cases involving forced caesareans; forced blood transfusions against the pregnant woman’s religious convictions; and some states have even gone so far as to disallow the use of “living wills” for pregnant women. In all of these cases, the “rights” of the fetus, whether before or after the point of viability, have been held paramount to the rights of the pregnant woman. But this turns pregnant women into second-class citizens with limited rights, subordinate to their fetuses.
Center for Reproductive Rights, Who’s Right to Life?
The prohibition on abortion constitutes violence against women (International Federation for Human Rights)
Ireland Abortion: the Law is Failing Women (Guardian)