The Question of Personhood

Posted: March 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

My wife and I are very passionate about defending the sanctity of life. From serving at a pregnancy crisis centre to adopting our daughter Emma, it has been an issue of great concern. Yet the goal is not simply to win the argument but to have people see the truth and to save lives. The question is, what will this take? As John Piper once said…

I used to think that if we could persuade abortionists that the fetus was a human child, and that they were killing children, they would stop. If we could show them… that there is no morally significant difference between a one-month-old baby and a preborn baby (Not size, not level of development, not environment, not dependence), they would stop doing abortions. But I talked to two abortionists that said they knew they were killing children and that they would not stop. It was the lesser of two evils. The worse evil was denying the “want” of the mother (call it “freedom”; call it “reproductive rights”).

So in these words—“I do not want a child at this time”—we are near the heart of the issue. That is one of the most powerful sentences a person can speak: “I do not want a child at this time.” It’s powerful, because in a world without God, and without submission to his will, the will—the “want”—of a mother has become the will of a god. I say it carefully and calmly and sadly: Our modern, secular, God-dethroning culture has endowed the will (the “want”) of a mother not just with sovereignty over her child, but with something vastly greater. We have endowed her will with the right and the power to create human personhood. When God is no longer the Creator of human personhood, endowing it with dignity and rights in his own image, we must take that role for him, and we have vested it in the will of the mother. She creates personhood.

Yesterday, this kind of thinking was expressed on an entirely different level. Alberto Giubilini, of Monash University in Melbourne, and Francesca Minerva, of the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, published an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” in which they argue that a newborn baby is no more a real “person” than unborn fetuses.

Giubilini and Minerva argue that if the baby has a serious condition, such as Down Syndrome, which would make the child a burden to the government and the family, then parents should be given a choice to dispose of it – much like their choice to abort a baby still in the womb.

“To bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible,” the ethicists state.

In their article, Giubilini and Minerva argue that even babies with no birth defects should still not be entitled protection under the law, and be subject to the possibility of after-birth abortion.

The pair writes, “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.

“Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’ We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her,” the article continues. In then puts infants, fetuses, severely mentally retarded persons and animals in the same category, since no members of these categories can recognize the value of their own existence.


Now as a parent of a child with Down syndrome, or simply as a parent, or should I say as a person, I find this kind of reasoning deeply troubling and dangerous. But again, how do we address this? Other than sending off angry emails and marching in protest, both of which are needed and warranted at times, how do we fight fire with fire as it were. The answer is that we engage them at their level of reasoning. Take for example the following article from The Centre for Bioethics and Human Dignity.

From a strictly scientific point of view, there is no doubt that individual human life begins at conception and does not end until natural death. At the moment of conception, when sperm and ovum cease to exist as individual entities, a new being with its own genetic code comes into existence. All that is need for its development is food, water, air, and an environment conducive to its survival.

These facts typically are not denied by those who believe that abortion should be justified at some point during pregnancy. What is denied, however, is that the unborn is a human person. And what is affirmed by these advocates is that the unborn does not become a human person until some decisive moment after conception.

Some argue that personhood does not arrive until brain waves are detected (40 to 43 days). Others, such as Mary Anne Warren, define a person as a being who can engage in cognitive acts such as sophisticated communication, consciousness, solving complex problems, self-motivated activity and having a self-concept. This would put the arrival of personhood at some time after birth. Still others, such as L. W. Sumner,  hold a more moderate position and argue that human personhood does not arrive until the fetus is sentient, the ability to feel and sense as a conscious being. This, according to Sumner, occurs possibly as early as the middle weeks of the second trimester of pregnancy and definitely by the end of that trimester.

Although these criteria differ from each other in important ways, they all have one thing in common: each maintains that if and only if an entity functions in a certain way are we warranted in calling that entity a person. Defenders of these criteria argue that once a human being, whether born or unborn, acquires a certain function or functions–whether it is brain waves, rationality, sentience, etc.– it is then and only then that a person actually exists. Those who defend these personhood criteria typically make a distinction between “being a human” and “being a person.” They argue that although fetuses are members of the species homo sapiens, and in that sense are human, they are not truly persons until they fulfill a particular set of personhood criteria.

Although functional definitions of personhood may tell us some conditions that are sufficient to say that a being is a person, they are not adequate in revealing to us all the conditions that are sufficient for a particular being to be called a person. For example, when a human being is asleep, unconscious, and temporarily comatose, she is not functioning as a person as defined by some personhood criteria. Nevertheless, most people would reject the notion that a human being is not a person while in any of these states. In other words, while personhood criteria, such as the ones presented by Warren can tell us that a being is a person, these criteria are not adequate to declare a being a non-person: The exercise of rational thought tells us that a being is a person; when that person is sleeping, and thus is not exercising rational thought, that lack of exercise of the thought function does not make her a non-person at that time. Consequently, it seems more consistent with our moral intuitions to say that personhood is not something that arises when certain functions are in place, but rather is something that grounds these functions, whether or not they are ever actualized in the life of a human being. Thus, defining personhood strictly in terms of function is inadequate.

Let me encourage you to read the rest of this article here:

“You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” – Psalm 139:13-16 ESV


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