A person’s a person no matter…

Since abortion-rights advocates cannot in all seriousness deny that the unborn entity is human, the more perceptive among them deny instead that it is a person. Yes, they will agree, that which is growing inside the human mother is human as well, but it is personhood that matters. And though every person is human, not every human is a person.

If that’s true, then there must be specific criteria for personhood. But though humanity is a biological, empirically determined fact, by what means can we determine which humans are persons as well? Is there any kind of objective standard by which to judge personhood?

In Chapter 6 of his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1), Frank Beckwith examines the arguments for personhood and concludes that they all share an “underlying philosophical assumption…that only an entity that functions in a certain way…is a person with a full right to life.” As one ethicist who takes this view asserts, “human personhood has a great deal to do with feelings, awareness, and interactive experience.”

But why should we accept such an assertion? Is this not merely a subjective opinion? Personhood is a nebulous concept open to various definitions, and as such is unreliable as determinative of a human being’s right to life. It is, in my opinion (which you are not bound to accept), merely a more sophisticated bad argument for killing the innocent unborn.

The idea that the unborn must meet certain functional criteria to have protected status is to “confuse function with being (or essence).” They are, after all, human “beings,” not human “functioners.” There are classes of born individuals who are not functionally human…i.e. consciously interactive with their environment and others, self-aware, able to reason and engage in self-motivated activity…but does that mean that the comatose, the sleeping, and newborns are therefore not persons? As Beckwith says, “it seems more consistent with our moral intuitions to say that a person functions as a person because she is a person, not that she is a person because she functions as a person.”

This does make more sense. Birds are creatures with an inherent capacity to fly. But does this mean that hatchlings are not yet birds, and neither are the living entities still in the egg? The author writes, “it does not make sense to say that a person comes into existence when human function arises, but it does make sense to say that a fully human person is an entity who has the natural inherent capacity to give rise to human functions.” And quoting another ethicist, “Our ability to have conscious experiences and recollections arises out of our personhood; the basic metaphysical reality of personhood precedes the unfolding of the conscious abilities inherent in it.”

Personhood arguments for abortion rights require more philosophical reflection, but they fail to justify killing the unborn as all the others do. We’ll conclude Chapter 6 of Beckwith’s book next time with a few more objections to personhood from conception, and the SLED test.

(1)Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)