Viability

Why is viability a poor marker for the start of personhood?

Viability is the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb. There are two types of viability: natural viability and tech-assisted viability. Natural viability is the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb without medical intervention—about 35 weeks of gestation. Tech-assisted viability is the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb with the help of medical technology—about 24 weeks of gestation. Natural viability is a profound milestone, when a new person is capable of living among us. At the point of natural viability, a fetus becomes a physiologically independent organism—no longer needing to directly siphon the life force of another person to exist. One struggle we have with using viability as a marker of personhood is that we can only see viability as a statistic of how many babies survive an early birth. For example, only 40-70% of babies born at 24 weeks survive. Is it okay to have 24 weeks gestation be a threshold for personhood when 30-60% of babies are not viable? It's a hard call. Here are viability statistics from 21-34 weeks of gestation from the US Department of Health and Human Services

  • 21 weeks or less: 0%

  • 22 weeks: 0-10%

  • 23 weeks: 10-35%

  • 24 weeks: 40-70%

  • 25 weeks: 50-80%

  • 26 weeks: 80-90%

  • 27 weeks: more than 90%

  • 28 weeks: 92% or more

  • 29 weeks: 95% or more

  • 30 weeks: more than 95%

  • 31 weeks: more than 95%

  • 32 weeks: 98%

  • 33 week: 98%

  • 34 weeks: 98% or more

A second struggle we have with viability as a marker for personhood is that, as medical treatments have become more advanced, the timeline for tech-assisted viability is moving earlier and earlier. This is problematic because tech-assisted viability is incredibly expensive. An extreme preemie baby born at 24 weeks will have to spend at least two months in a NICU, which on average costs more than $3,500 per day. The average American simply cannot afford that, especially given how, in the United States, access to affordable healthcare is not a protected right. Furthermore, healthcare in the United States costs on average twice as much as it does in other wealthy countries. Having tech-assisted viability be the threshold for the start of personhood elevates the saying "born into debt" to a whole new level. A third struggle—with tech-assisted viability—is that the earlier a baby is born, the higher the chance they have of developing disabilities or life-long health problems, such as cognitive and neurological impairment, paralysis, lung disease, blindness, or deafness. Serious ethical questions are being raised in regard to the number of extreme preemies who were saved at great expense with dazzling technology and now suffer a perpetually low quality-of-life in adulthood. Because of these issues, tech-assisted viability is a very problematic standard for personhood.