Archives For Personhood

Baby In UteroScience can do many things. Since the scientific revolution, we increasingly get the feeling that science can do anything it sets its mind—or calibrates its microscopes—to do. But, of course, that’s not true. There are things that science simply cannot do. One of those things is settle the abortion debate.

The abortion debate hinges on one’s definition of personhood. Contrary to the rhetoric employed, not a single person on either side of the debate believes in murdering innocent persons.

On the pro-choice side, advocates believe that a woman has a right to make her own decisions about her body. And that phrase is key: her body. They believe that the fetus is an extension of the woman’s body. It’s her egg, and it’s growing and developing, but it’s still a part of her body. At some point, that egg will become a person, but prior to that point, it remains a part of the woman’s body and she can choose to have it removed if she wants to. The moment at which a fetus becomes a person is disputed even within the pro-choice camp, but the idea is the same regardless of the timing of personhood.

On the pro-life side, advocates believe that a fetus is a person. Sure, a woman can do with her body what she wants,[1] but the fetus is not her body. It’s a human being. The person is small and inside of her body, to be sure, but that doesn’t entitle the woman to take a human life.

All of this comes down to when exactly a fetus becomes a person. It seems clear that an egg by itself is not a person. It also seems clear that a solitary sperm is not a person. But as soon as these two meet, the debate begins. Many pro-lifers (myself included) believe that personhood begins with fertilization. Other people believe that personhood begins when the fetus is implanted. Or when the heart begins to beat or the brain waves become detectable. Or during a certain trimester. Or at birth. Or even at some point after birth. There are even those who would deny personhood to full grown adults if they have some type of handicap.

The point is, science can tell us exactly what is going on with the growth of the fetus. It can tell us what is going on when fertilization or implantation happen. It can detect and describe the heartbeat and the brain waves.

But science cannot tell us when that fetus becomes a person. Why? Because that is a matter of definition. It is a philosophical question. It is a religious question. We can and should appeal to science in informing our definition of personhood, but we need to understand that this question will not be answered through the scientific method.

And this means that the abortion debate can only be settled at the level of worldview, personal philosophy, and religious beliefs. Christians appeal to the Bible to show that personhood goes all the way back to the womb—even before that, actually. But without divine revelation to guide them, it seems likely that our society will debate the moment of personhood forever.

This does not make the abortion issue futile. Every just cause is worth fighting for. But it does mean that our efforts must be aimed at worldview. Science is a good thing, and it may be useful in illustrating the humanity of even the smallest persons. But we need to recognize that the battle is for the definition of personhood and focus our energies there.


[1] We need to be careful about this terminology, however, because none of us is completely entitled to “do with our bodies what we want.” We are forbidden by law from putting certain types of drugs into them, for example. We’re also not allowed to sell them for sex. No matter which side of the debate we are on, we have to be clear that a person’s “right to choose” always has limitations.

Yesterday I posted about the Journal of Medical Ethics‘ article about “post-birth abortions.” In this post I’d like to focus on one important aspect of that article: their definition of personhood.

Few questions could be more important than this: what makes a person? The way we answer this question reveals much about our worldview and will do much to shape the destiny of our society.

In their controversial article, Giubilini and Minerva argue that killing a newborn baby is morally different than killing an adult because the newborn has not yet formed “aims” for his or her future. It’s okay, they argue, to kill a severely handicapped child on the grounds that the child is incapable of forming aims for his or her life, and therefore, on the same grounds, there is nothing wrong with killing a healthy child who has “not formed any aim yet.”

The operative definition of personhood here is the ability to make goals, to develop plans. If you can’t make plans for your future, you’re not a real person. In killing a young child (an age cap of 1 year has been thrown out there, but this is as arbitrary an age as any), no real harm is done because we are not keeping the child from fulfilling any of her (nonexistent) aims for herself. In addition to being a completely arbitrary grounds for declaring someone a person and for constituting a “harm,” this definition is very convenient for the argument of the pro-post-abortionist.

Later in the article, the authors more clearly define personhood:

“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. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”

Let’s let that suggestion that some animals are persons but some humans aren’t persons speak for itself. It is both bizarre and upsetting, but it’s not the part of the quotation that most concerns me. That last sentence causes my stomach to churn: “Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” Really? Are you sure? The authors’ worldview is on full display here. All remnants of the Christian worldview in which mankind carries inherent value as the image-bearers of God have been stripped away. All that is left is the Darwinian assumption that man is merely the accidental victor in the “race” to be the most-evolved specimen on earth. There is no dignity to man’s position atop the food chain. He has attained his self-awareness without intending to, and his seemingly dignified position is no reason to think that merely belonging to the human race should carry with it any special privileges—like the right to not be murdered.

Though the suggestion that merely being human does not warrant one the right to life has been hugely controversial, Giubilini and Minerva deserve credit for riding their worldview all the way to its logical conclusion.

They offer a case in point for what determines personhood. Let’s say a woman is pregnant with identical twins, both of whom are affected by a genetic disorder. The woman can choose to kill one of the fetuses and to use it to develop a cure for the other fetus. In this case, the woman decides that one fetus should be considered a person, and the other fetus should be considered a means to developing a cure. The value of each fetus is not determined by anything inherent to the fetus (both are identical)—the value is projected onto the fetus by the mother.

Who gets to decide what makes a person? Should our Creator be allowed to speak to that issue? Apparently not. Man has made himself the center of the universe, and he reserves the right to decide his own worth and the worth (or lack of worth) of the human beings around him.

What do we lose when we abandon the Christian worldview? Everything. We lose all steady footing for our society, for our progeny, even for ourselves. (I will speak to this a bit more in tomorrow’s post.) Now more than ever Christians must hold to that which we know to be true. The world needs the answers and the firm foundation that God has revealed to us.