Why Is Personhood Such an Important Concept in the Abortion Debate?
Physicist John Polkinghorne claims that a grand, unified “Theory of Everything” must include and reconcile quantum mechanics, general relativity theory, and amazingly, the personhood of human beings.
This, however, is not the case, and so the debate must enter the political arena. Should humans be recognized as persons under the law? Yes, because humans are persons. Something is a person if it has a personal nature. In other words, something is a person if, by nature, it has the capacity to develop the ability to think rationally, express emotion, make decisions, etc. This capacity is something that a person has as soon as he or she begins to exist, since it is part of his or her nature. Because humans have a personal nature, humans are persons. As for the fetus, since it is a human (something with a personal nature), it is a person. Just as a cat qualifies as a feline simply by being a cat, a fetus qualifies as a person simply by being a human.3 It is impossible for a fetus to not be a person. This fact should be enough. The intrinsic humanity of unborn children qualifies them as persons and should guarantee their protection under the law. Since 1973, however, this has not been the case in America. The situation we are left with is this. There is a huge and singular group of living human beings who have no protection under the law and are being killed en masse every day. Is that not astounding?! It is astounding, but not wholly unprecedented. There have been at least two other instances in American history in which specific groups of human beings were stripped of their rights of personhood as a means of justifying horrific mistreatment. African-Americans and Native-Americans both felt the brunt of a system which tried to create the artificial classification: human, non-person. This distinction wasn't based on an honest evaluation of the evidence. It was made with an eye towards justifying a specific action. In the case of Native-Americans, they had land. In the case of African-Americans, they had labor. Classifying them as non-persons (even property) provided a moral framework for those in power to forcefully take what they wanted without compensation. Today, "unwanted," unborn children don't hold anything as tangible as land or labor, but their claims on those who would eliminate them are no less significant. They stand in the way of an unencumbered life. Once again, this notion that human beings can be classified as "non-persons" is not built on an objective assessment of the facts. It is built on the utilitarian attempt to justify abortion. At this point, some people define the term "person" according to function. Call this view the functional view of persons. They argue that something qualifies as a person only if it can do certain things, like think rationally. But this definition of personhood fails. First, there are clear cases in which something qualifies as a person but cannot do the things required of the functional view of persons.
“O keep my soul and deliver me” and “Gather not my soul with sinners are just a couple of examples from the Psalms. Similarly, the Book of the Cow in the Koran assumes that human beings either are or have souls: “Evil is that for which they have sold their souls—that they should deny what Allah has revealed, out of envy that Allah should send down of His grace on whomsoever of His servants He pleases; so they have made themselves deserving of wrath upon wrath, and there is a disgraceful punishment for the unbelievers”. Further, on such translations, the scriptures traditionally conceive of the soul as the seat of moral agency. Leviticus 5:1, for example, states that “if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and [is] a witness, whether he hath seen or known [of it]; if he do not utter [it], then he shall bear his iniquity” (Warren MA., 1973).
Here persons are held in highest regard without relation to their condition or status. Here all persons hold equality in rights to care and dignity, forming a beneficent foundation for determination of best interests. And here a society finds that by respecting personhood as an existential manifestation of the imago Dei, the cause of justice is established and furthered. In this result the inviolability of personhood is further support for the conclusion that the good rests in the existential construct of personhood.
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