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Why Is Personhood Such an Important Concept in the Abortion Debate?

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The concept of personhood remains the central and enduring focus of any intelligent discussion of bioethical norms. Whether the perspective is secular or religious, couched in theological discourse or philosophical verbiage, any theory that wishes to show how man should behave must begin with what man is. Indeed, personhood “pops up” in the most unexpected places

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.

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There are essentially two questions to ask in regard to embryos and fetuses. The first is, "Are they human beings?" The second is, "Should they be recognized as persons under the law?" We've already established that there is no debate on the first question. It is a matter of plain objective science. Embryos and fetuses are fully and individually human from fertilization on. If this were not true, there would be no need to even talk about rights of personhood. "Removing a fetus" would be the moral equivalent of pulling a tooth

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.

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In particular, immaterial minds are capable of causing effects in material bodies, and material bodies are capable of causing effects in immaterial minds. It is worth noting that, although one can be a dualist without subscribing to the interaction thesis,x most contemporary substance dualists are classical theists who owe their ontological views, at least in part, to religious doctrines that also commit them to the interaction thesis. Classical theists generally conceive of God as an immaterial being who created the physical universe from nothing. These doctrines immediately entail both the ontological thesis and the interaction thesis.,xi Because God is an immaterial being who created the physical universe, God is a substance capable of existing independently from any physical object; thus, if classical theism is true, then the ontological thesis must also be true. In so far as God brings the physical universe into existence and sustains it, God is capable of causing things to happen in material entities; in so far as God can have something resembling perceptual experience of the material world, the material world is capable of causing effects in God. At the very least, then, the theist is committed to the interaction thesis as it pertains to God. Strictly speaking, a classical theist could leave it at that, but this view is hard to reconcile with the scriptures of the various theistic traditions. On traditional translations, these scriptures conceive of human beings as being composites of body and soul (Taylor P., 1981). The Old Testament, scripture to both Christianity and Judaism, frequently speaks of human beings as having souls

“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).

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Obviously, common to these teachings and declarations is a direct and express application of existential personhood

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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Taylor P . The ethics of respect for nature. Environ Ethics1981;3:197–218.

Goodpaster KE. On being morally considerable. J Philos1978;75:308–25.

Warren MA. On the moral and legal status of abortion. Monist1973;57:43–61.

Jarvis Thomson J . A defense of abortion. Philos Public Aff1971;1:47–66.

Murphy N . Reconciling theology and science. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1989.

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