In 2012 two ethicists wrote an article for the Journal of Medical Ethics arguing that doctors should be allowed to abort newborn babies because they’re “not persons.” They wrote that when “circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.” The authors admitted that “both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons,” but argued that “neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’”[l]
Most people are naturally horrified at the idea of killing newborn babies, and the article in the Journal of Medical Ethics provoked a fierce public backlash. But what many people failed to realize is that the authors’ argument is precisely the same argument used by abortion advocates to justify aborting babies before they are born. It is also the same argument that was used historically to justify terrible evils like slavery and the Holocaust.
The argument goes like this: while the unborn child (or slave, or Jew) is indeed a living human being (science clearly shows that to be the case), he or she isn’t a “person,” and therefore doesn’t have the right to life.
But what if personhood isn’t something to be bestowed on human beings by Ivy League professors and ethicists intent on ridding society of “undesirables”? What if personhood has an inherent value that comes simply from being a member of the human race? This is what pro-lifers—and most ethicists up until very recently—have always believed.
What Makes Someone a Person
The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that the state shall not deprive any person of life without due process of law. When that was written, the word human meant the same thing as person and could just as easily have been used.
But in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States, the Court was faced with a conundrum. “If the suggestion of personhood [of the unborn] is established,” they admitted, “the appellant’s [pro-abortion] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’s right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [fourteenth] amendment.”[ii]
To solve this problem, the justices chose to abandon the historic meaning of personhood, and instead suggested that “personhood” is something different from being human. “Personhood” became something that a human being develops at some point, based upon some set of criteria. In the Supreme Court’s case, they argued that a human fetus develops personhood at the point of “viability”—i.e. the point when a baby can live outside a woman.
In the years that have followed, pro-choice advocates have made a long series of subjective and artificial distinctions based upon a wide variety of criteria to differentiate between humans and persons. The reason they’ve been forced to do this is because the scientific fact that life begins at conception paints the pro-choice movement into a corner. The development of ultrasound and modern embryology has made it very difficult for pro-choicers to deny that the fetus is human without looking anti-scientific. Therefore, the newer strategy is to say, “Okay, this is human life, but it isn’t really a person.”
But changing the meaning of words doesn’t change reality. The concept of “personhood” is now virtually worthless as an ethical guide in the matter of abortion. The only objective questions we can ask are:
“Is it human; that is, did it come from human beings?”
“Is it a genetically unique individual?”
“Is it alive and growing?”
If the answers are yes, then “it” is in fact a “he” or “she,” a living person, possessing rights and deserving of legal protection.
Dictionaries still define person as a “human being,” “human individual,” or “member of the human race.” What makes a dog a dog is that he came from dogs. His father was a dog and his mother was a dog, and therefore he is a dog. What makes a human a human is that he came from humans. His father was a human person and his mother was a human person, so he can be nothing other than a human person.
Viability: An Arbitrary Measure of Personhood
In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court defined viability—and therefore personhood—as the point when the unborn is “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.”[iii] The critical issue as to when this point is reached is the development of the child’s lungs.
But why make personhood dependent upon viability? Why not say he becomes human in the fourth week because that’s when his heart beats? Or the sixth week because that’s when she has brain waves? (Both are also arbitrary, yet both would eliminate all abortions currently performed.)
Couldn’t someone also argue that personhood begins when the unborn child first sucks his thumb or responds to light and noise? Or why not say that personhood begins when the child takes his first step or is potty trained or fully capable of taking care of himself so he’s no longer a burden to his parents?
Once we decide that some human beings don’t possess the right to life because of a set of subjective criteria, there’s no stopping what injustices we can rationalize against those in most need of our protection.
Furthermore, viability depends not only on the child but on the ability of our technology to save his life. What will happen when we are able to save lives at fifteen weeks or less? Will those children suddenly become human and worthy to live? Can we honestly believe that two decades ago children at twenty-one weeks were not people, but are people now simply because of improved technology?
Humanity, Not Ability, Imparts Personhood
Pro-choice advocates often point out that a child aborted in the first trimester may be less than an inch or two in size, or less than an ounce or two in weight. But is size really a good measure of personhood? Is a professional basketball player more of a person than someone half his size? If a two-hundred-pound man loses fifty pounds, does he lose one fourth of his personhood? Scales and rulers are no measurement of human nature or worth. Intuitively, we all understand the truth put so simply by Dr. Seuss in Horton Hears a Who: “Because, after all, a person is a person, no matter how small.”[iv]
Joseph Fletcher, then-professor at the University of Virginia, argued that an “individual” is not a “person” unless he has an IQ of at least 40, is self-aware, has self-control, with a sense of time (past, present, and future) and an ability to relate to others.[v]
But if personhood is determined by one’s current capacities, then a child or adult with a mental handicap isn’t a person. By the same standard, someone who is unconscious or sick or even asleep could be killed because he’s not demonstrating superior intellect and skills. “But give the man time and he’ll be able to function as a person.” Give the baby time and so will she.
Dr. Maureen L. Condic writes:
Unless we are willing to assign “personhood” proportionate to ability (young children, for example, might be only 20 percent human, while people with myopia 95 percent), the limited abilities of prenatal humans are irrelevant to their status as human beings.[vi]
Age, size, IQ, or stage of development are simply differences in degree, not in kind. Our kind is humanity. We are people—human beings. We possess certain skills to differing degrees at different stages of development. When we reach maturation, there are many different degrees of skills and levels of IQ. But none of these make some people better or more human than others.
Jonathan Leeman and Matthew Arbo ask readers to consider the further implications of defining personhood by ability:
All that’s required to be a person is to be a member of the species. A human quite simply is a person, irrevocably and unqualifiedly. And thus it matters not at all whether someone is impaired, unconscious, or “viable.”
Consider the flip side. If membership in the species is not the standard, then it falls to whoever has the most power to establish criteria for which people “are people” and which “are not people.” If you possess all the guns, or all the clubs, or all the land, or a majority on the Supreme Court, you get to set the standards for who is and who is not a person. Sound frightening?[vii]
Conception: The Only Objective Point of Personhood
There is only one objective point of origin for any human being, only one point at which there was not a person a moment ago, and there is now. That point is conception—the point that science clearly shows is the moment when a new, utterly unique human being (a person) comes into existence.
[i] Cited in Liz Klimas, “Ethicists Argue in Favor of ‘After-birth Abortions,’ as Newborns Are ‘Not Persons,’ The Blaze, February 27, 2012, http://www.theblaze.com/stories/ethicists-argue-in-favor-of-after-birth-abortions-as-newborns-are-not-persons/ .
[ii] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. (1973).
[iii] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), 38.
[iv] Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who (New York: Random House, 1954).
[v] Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality, cited by Mark O’Keefe,
“Personhood: When Does It Begin...or End?” Oregonian, 12 February 1995, B1.
[vi] Maureen L. Condic, “Life: Defining the Beginning by the End,” First Things, May 2003, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/05/life-defining-the-beginning-by-the-end.
[vii] Jonathan Leeman and Matthew Arbo, “Why Abortion Makes Sense,” The Gospel Coalition, June 1, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-abortion-makes-sense.