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Humanity Versus Person-Hood



(An examination of the concepts as they relate to the abortion debate)

By Kenneth J Doyle

Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee - Jeremiah 1:5


Historically there are a number of areas we could look at with regard to the nature and definition of humanity and person-hood and the roles these ideas played in the justification of the treatment of particular groups. Two of the more obvious occurrences would likely be the issue of slavery or the treatment of certain groups under tyrannical regimes such as the National Socialist movement in Nazi Germany or similar events in the Soviet Union.

For the purposes of this brief essay however I would like to focus in on the on-going abortion debate as this issue is currently hotly contested in the United States and elsewhere. As of writing, the matter faces a significant legal change in my home country of Ireland where elective abortion is illegal.

So why all the fuss surrounding abortion? First, let us define the term and then we shall look at some of the arguments and definitions used on both sides of this issue to justify the various positions taken.

Abortion is the untimely termination of the developmental process of a human pregnancy before full gestation and birth can occur. This essay will address only voluntary, surgical abortion for non-medical reasons as this is the major battle-ground of debate in terms of justifying the actions of the various concerned groups on both sides of the divide. I think it is fair to say that this is a dichotomous issue as one is generally in favor of elective abortion or not although exceptions can exist. I see no point in including the ignorant or the apathetic as neither of these groups have much to say on the issue.

Abortion, as a matter of conscience and privacy, has been legal in the US for forty years following the Supreme Court decision in the Roe vs Wade case. And yet a fierce war of words rages to this day regarding the ethical, moral, philosophical and social implications for a nation that allows such a practice. Recently the organized March for Life in Washington D.C. brought over half a million protesters calling for a repeal of the Roe vs Wade decision. Historically abortion has always been a controversial issue. The Old Testament Jewish law of compensation in Exodus 21:22 makes a distinction between the penalty for striking a pregnant woman that ends in the loss of the fetus or the death of the mother. Early Christian writings, like the Didache and the Epistle to Barnabas, preach against abortion, widely practiced in the Roman Empire during the period. Several early council records of bishops condemned abortion which they linked to the practice of adultery. This latter example has partial echoes in today’s debate where abortion (chemical or surgical) is often utilized to correct the unwanted outcomes of behavior that might otherwise be avoided if the recourse to abortion were not so readily available.

The point we are trying to illustrate here is that despite the practice of abortion throughout history and despite it's legal status, there is something about the act that bothers the conscience of many people on a level that goes beyond the mere practical and material. The very nature of Man's being and purpose plays a large part in justifying the positions held. One side argues that man is more than the sum of his material parts and is therefore deserving of protection at all stages of life, be he born or unborn, young or old, and the other side tends to a more utilitarian and material view of Man and his place in the Universe, at least at certain points in physical development at either end of the scale of life. It is this clash of worldviews that makes abortion, even to this day, a highly contested issue on several planes of discourse that encompasses both the material and the philosophical.

The full scope of this controversy is enormous and daunting. We will endeavor to contain this essay
within the parameters of the definitions of humanity and person-hood and how they are used and defined. We will ignore for example, the debate surrounding the issue of life as in the question, “Is a fetus truly alive?” And of course even if we accept that a fetus is a living entity, this reality has no bearing on the notion of its humanity or lack thereof. We will also avoid any debate surrounding whether a fetus feels pain or not. There is evidence that they do but it seems like a pretty base idea upon which to justify the ending of life. And the irony is that on the other end of the end-of-life debate we are willing to accept that people should be allowed to die precisely because they do feel pain.

It is unlikely we will settle this issue as the terms in question have been debated for centuries by philosophers and ethicists and yet the debate continues to this day. With that said it seems that how one chooses to view the issues in question ultimately comes down to an act of will with regards to where one decides to plant one's moral or ethical flag. Certainly logic and reason can play a huge part in helping one decide but we cannot discount the fact that the ego is also a powerful determining factor for many people. What I mean by this is that many people will ally themselves with one side or another based on ideas which they feel better suit themselves and their current situation rather than accepting more profound and reasoned objections that might require deep self examination. Agenda also seems to play a role in the definition and use of terms in the abortion debate arena. This last fact is evidenced in the shifting acceptance of terms that has occurred but with no change in the over-all position held.

So, what does it mean to be human or be a human? Materially speaking it can seem quite difficult to put forward a solid and non-objectionable definition of humanity in terms of listing qualities that are both sufficient and necessary. More often than not some objection can be raised based on the effects of illness or injury or any other factor that can damage or distort the qualities offered as part of such a definition. And yet despite these objections, despite the fact that we can all become ill , damaged or broken in some way, most of us still accept the reality of our individual humanity without question. We never look at someone and think they might be a horse or a goat or a boat despite any physical or mental damage that might be evident. The implication then is that perhaps mankind is indeed more than the sum of his physical or mental integrity. There are some who might look at people who are mentally defective and view them as perhaps less human than themselves and of course we have seen this fact played out with terrible consequences in history yet when we talk about simple biological reality even with this latter example there is still a recognition of material humanity as being something evident and obvious. Here again, we would seem to have some manifested form of the idea that man is more than the sum of his parts despite any objections we might have to the resulting consequences of this view.



While the average man in the street might accept the biological reality of humanness (is there a certain word-less wisdom here?) if you jump into the world of philosophy and surround yourself with deep thinkers and wordsmiths the whole matter can become pretty confusing and divisive quite rapidly. A quick perusal of some philosophy websites where the idea of humanity is debated quickly sends one off on all manner of tangents but even here there appears to be a general consensus that material definitions are insufficient and even the more abstract terms addressing our ability to reason etc could be found objectionable on some level or other.

In relation to abortion it was often argued, and still is, that the fetus was/is not human or less than human to some degree or other or from a more metaphysical perspective, that the soul, that agent of personification, had not yet been infused into the material form. This area of conceptual thought and debate is one of the chief concerns in the modern controversy surrounding abortion.


Joyce Arthur, writing for the Pro-Choice Network, in one of her articles, states that it is a “deeply flawed” assumption to ascribe humanity to the fetus. She goes on to explain that:

“...Biology, medicine, law, philosophy, and theology have no consensus on the issue, and neither does society as a whole. There will never be a consensus because of the subjective and unscientific nature of the claim, so we must give the benefit of the doubt to women, who are indisputable human beings with rights...” .

Despite some real objections to some of her stated claims it seems to me that her own assumption that born women are indisputable humans, by her own logic regarding the lack of philosophical consensus on the whole matter of humanity, is certainly open to question. Yes, she is making a distinction in terms of the born versus the unborn but her conclusions appear to be based on certainties that she herself acknowledge may not exist with regards a definitive definition of humanity that extends to all of humanity, not just to the unborn. And of course just because no precise definition may fully satisfy the status of the unborn, it should not follow that we can then ascribe our own terminal definition. In the case of Ms. Arthur she chooses to ascribe a lack of humanity to the fetus, again, despite her own conclusions regarding the confusion and lack of solid definition in the various spheres she mentions. Of course, theologically and scientifically there are indeed some pretty determined and precise notions of what constitutes humanity that we will look at shortly. Ms Arthur further clarifies her position when she states the following:

...At the outset, let me say that from a pro-choice point of view, the status of the fetus is a peripheral issue. Regardless of whether a fetus is a human being or has rights, women will have abortions anyway, even if it means breaking the law or risking their lives. Even women who believe that abortion is murder have chosen to get abortions, and will continue to do so. That's why we should leave the decision up to women’s moral conscience, and make sure that they are provided with safe, legal, accessible abortions...”

In this instance it seems Miss Arthur doesn't seem overly concerned with the philosophical nature of the unborn although she does acknowledge later that:


...Anti-choicers must claim that fetuses are human beings, of course, or they really have no case against abortion. Since this claim is the cornerstone of their position, it should be critiqued in detail, from philosophical, legal, social, and biological perspectives. Even though it has little relevance for the actual practice of abortion, the assertion that fetuses are human beings has a potentially great impact on the rights of women...”


Ms Arthur is likely correct when she asserts that should the fetus ever achieve a legal and universal acknowledgment of their humanity it would likely have a large impact on the Pro-Choice movement. It is an interesting admission.


The legal aspect is curious. The law has never defined humanity per se but in legal matters we do have a definition for the person. This definition is not very helpful in relation to the matter of abortion although some US states have gone so far as to define the unborn as persons under law.
Under the law however other entities such as corporations, labor organizations and associations also fall under this definition so the legal notion of person is quite distinct from the biological or philosophical concept of a human being. This raises the whole question as to whether one can be a person separate from being a human? Under the legal system the answer is an obvious “yes” and much satire has been written about this fact but the question is still very much at the forefront of the abortion debate.

Returning to Joyce Arthur and her article, she addresses some of the apparent insufficiencies with regards to the biological definition of humanity:

anti-choicers often confuse the adjective "human" and the noun "human being," giving them the same meaning. I am struck by the question they often put to pro-choicers: "But isn't it human?" —as if we secretly think a fetus is really a creature from outer space. If you point out that a fetus consists of human tissue and DNA, anti-choicers triumphantly claim you just conceded it's a human being. Now, a flake of dandruff from my head is human, but it is not a human being, and in this sense, neither is a zygote. Anti-choicers will respond that a fertilized egg is not like dandruff, because the fertilized egg consists of a unique set of chromosomes that makes it a separate human being. But with cloning, a cell from my dandruff is enough to create a new human being. Although it would have my identical genetic make-up, it would still be a unique individual, because human beings are much more than our genes (I'll expand on this point later). Also, both a fertilized egg and a cloned cell represent a potential, not an actual human being. It’s a worn cliché, but it bears repeating—an acorn isn’t an oak tree and the egg you had for breakfast isn’t a chicken.


At first glance this might seem a reasonable argument however the initial claim that “anti-choicers” confuse the terms human and human being would appear to be somewhat fallacious. These terms can indeed be informally used interchangeably to describe the same thing, in this case the terms are both used to refer to the fetus and the meaning is clear. This is simply a fact of the fluid expediency of modern language usage. The claim of confusion in this instance would appear to be pedantic. Joyce also attempts to equate a dead dandruff cell with a living human zygote as being a part of her justification of the non-human status of the fetus. The logic is that both contain DNA but of course both do not have the biological potential for full human development. The dandruff cell requires a complex, unnatural and quite modern process to achieve such potential and even then the result is neither guaranteed or certain. As of writing I am not sure that human cloning has been successful with regards bringing such a creation to full term to test viability and potential and cloned animals have shown themselves sickly and prone to serious illness so it could be argued that the degree of potential is quite dissimilar when comparing natural conception and development to the man-made variety, not withstanding the fact that sex cells are completely different to dandruff cells in terms of genetic purpose and coding.Arthur addresses the defense of human potential by claiming that mere potentiality is not enough to ascribe humanity. This would be a matter of opinion. Her example of the acorn vs the mature Oak tree also contains some worrying aspects. When does an Oak tree become an Oak tree? Is a new born baby any less human because it has many years of growth and development ahead of it before it realizes the biological imperative of attaining adult, sexual maturity?

Not all Pro-Choicers deny the humanity of the fetus. The natural and biological claims on the Pro-Choice side of the argument have undergone the most shifts in understanding and acceptance,often a s result of growing medical knowledge and technological innovation. More on this in a moment.

The Pro-Life side has been somewhat more consistent in it's assertions of humanity and person-hood although within this group the two terms are generally perceived as being synonymous. The pro-choice side tends to break the concepts of humanity and person-hood apart to expand its idea base for the justification of its position.  

It's an interesting question. Can a person not be a human and can a human not be a person?
It is the second question that would appear to have more scope for ambiguity but they are essentially one and the same in my estimation.



The more sophisticated Christian philosophical systems state that the person-hood of the individual actually preceded the material reality of it's incarnation. The teaching held is that all men were conceived in the mind of God in eternity before the creation of time, space and the material universe.

Despite any unresolved arguments regarding the moment of soul-infusion ( hominization) in the developing fetus, it is this concept of pre-existence in the mind of God that sustains much of the claims for dignity and humanity of the unborn fetus in today's debate. There is an inherent acceptance that man is more than the sum of his parts. This idea of the “bigger picture” with regard to the metaphysical and ontological reality of man's place in the universe supersedes any material and biological arguments.

The Christian attitude toward fetal abnormalities and other problems that can occur during pregnancy is illustrative of the belief that the humanity, person-hood and spiritual nature of man are of a higher order of creation and therefore all natural problems must be accepted as unfortunate effects of a fallen and disordered material world and as such cannot be considered justification for the abortive act or any other act that deliberately takes the life of an innocent, born or unborn. The concept of delayed hominization in Christian thought, that is the point at which soul-infusion occurs, is not dissimilar to the concept of person-hood in the modern sense with regards the point in time when we can legitimately ascribe that concept to a living human. The difference of course, is that acceptance or dismissal of delayed hominization has no bearing on the Christian ideal of human dignity from womb-to-tomb. There is a belief in the reality of the human life that is to unfold and no concerns regarding the quality of that life has any bearing on the divine plane for the individual and as such the process of fetal development is not to be interrupted.

On the opposite side of the argument the concept of person-hood is often separated from the idea of biological humanity and is used as further justification for abortion as modern embryologists make no bones about the fact the a new human is created at fertilization:

"[The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being."
Keith L. Moore in The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003. pp. 16, 2.

We appear to have reached a point where the argument has shifted. Many pro choice advocates now admit to the humanity of the fetus .The introduction of 4D ultrasound imaging has been something of a game changer in this regard. In a country where abortion can occur right up to the moment preceding a natural birth, these detailed imaging techniques have put paid to the argument that a fetus is just a blob of a cells. That anyone can argue that they are more than a mere composition of cells themselves from a Materialist perspective is a question that some like to raise when presented with this argument.

Mary Elizabeth Williams,writing for Salon Magazine, had this to say in an article titled, “ So what if abortion ends life? “

...All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always. When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.” I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same? Fetuses aren’t selective like that. They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born.
When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb?...”

The quoted article would appear to indicate that the pro choice argument is entering into a new phase. Some now recognize the humanity of the fetus but Choice appears to trump Humanity in this instance. This would appear to support the idea that arguments on a given side of a debate can change and be in flux but the underlying agenda continues apace. Such an attitude,in terms of how we value one class of life over another would appear to be heading backward in terms of how these views have manifested historically in the past. Scientific arguments have often been used to create support for accepting one class of person as better than another. The obvious example would be the eugenics movement, made infamous by the Nazis but actually exported to Germany from the US and Great Britain. Darwin and his followers used science to dehumanize women in claiming that their smaller brains made them biologically and intellectually inferior .
In The Descent of Man in Relation to Sex, Darwin wrote:
Man attains a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, history, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive of both composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages… that the average mental power in man must be above that of women


The small brain hypotheses reminds me of the “fetus as blobs” argument used for similar dehumanizing effect today.

There is no question that the concept of the person is key to the abortion debate, regardless of one's leanings. If however the concept of person-hood became a universally recognized reality in the case of pre-born humans, it would likely cause a seismic shift in the weight of support for the practice of abortion. Regardless of the difficulties in forming sufficient definitions some ethicists claim that the born or pre-born status of an individual has no bearing on such a definition. Michael Tooley is one such ethicist. In his book, Abortion and Infanticide Tooley accords fetuses and certain infants no status as persons. Tooley argues that not only abortion but also infanticide should be seen to be morally permissible on the grounds that both involve the killing of non-persons. Tooley asserts that one must be self conscious before one can have the right to a full life. His belief that a fetus or new-born is not self conscious has yet to be proven as far I can determine. Peter Singer, another ethicist boldly defended infanticide in 1993 when he stated that new-borns should not receive person-hood status until 30 days after birth and he argued that disabled babies should be dispatched by the attending physician on the spot.

Neither Singer nor Tooley or others who hold to such views can explain why self awareness is a prerequisite for person-hood apart from their desire for it to be so. If we decide that being a human or a person is determined by ability to do certain things it seems we are opening a can of worms that could be applied to all manner of people. Such ideas are not new historically but it seems chilling that they started to manifest again in living memory for people who suffered under various regimes as result of their own determined humanity or lack thereof. Tooley and Singer also seem to be arguing for a position that is based on a form of crude age discrimination.Regardless of one's religious leanings or not as the case might be, it seems some propositions are just plain abhorrent.

C.S. Lewis argued “ conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world “. He went on to describe certain actions that have at no time or place, ever been considered a moral or material good. He was arguing for the innate sense of right and wrong that seems to be part of the human condition. John Henry Newman argued that the conscience supports the claim that objective moral truths exist because it drives people to act morally even when it is not in their own interest. These ideas would seem to be important in terms of the debate surrounding humanity and person-hood.

Many people who identify as pro-choice would likely not support extreme positions on infanticide and yet we inhabit a country where partial birth abortion is legal up to nine months gestation. This practice involves the partial birthing of the fetus, feet first, followed by a an incision at the base of the skull, which remains inside the uterus, and the brains are scrambled with an instrument to induce death before the fetus is fully delivered. It seems to me this process is a mere hop and a skip away from the practices that Tooley and Singer advocate.

The concepts of humanity and person-hood (or the desire to avoid a definition of these ideas) underpins the legality of the practices such as described above. And yet we also seem to be entering a social phase where acceptance of the humanity of certain classes of people may prove,once again, no defense in terms of the loss of certain liberties and even life.

In researching this essay I came across a recorded exchange between the presiding Justice and the Chief Prosecutor, Sarah Weddington during the Roe vs Wade hearings. During this exchange the point of person-hood was raised. Both the Prosecutor and Judge agreed that should the concept of person-hood as described under the 14th amendment enter the proceedings and should it be determined that a fetus is a person under the Law, the case for the prosecution would become a near impossible one. Weddington admitted that should the fetus receive constitutional protection the issues would no longer be about a woman’s right to privacy of conscience but rather a debate over the value of one life over another in which case there would be no case to hear. Suffice to say the Court decided against making any pronouncements on either the constitutional rights of the unborn or indeed the concept of when life begins.

To this day the idea of the unborn as a person, more so than a human ( I make no distinction myself,) has been a highly contested concept but it seems to me this whole issue was never about some high-minded quest for truth regarding man's nature but rather a battle to perpetuate a particular agenda with regards keeping abortion legal and making it legal in the first instance.

Personally I think that any claim to person-hood has to be based on a spiritual or metaphysical argument. Material definitions will never suffice despite people like Kay Coles James of the National Right to Life Committee who claims that fetal person-hood is a biological fact rather than a theological perception. To conclude true person-hood will be a feature of metaphysical reasoning from a highly organized, introspective and self aware mind (in short, an average human mind) a mind that senses there is more out there beyond the crude material experience. Person-hood will never be found under a microscope or at the end of a telescope.

What do we say about ourselves when the most defenseless members of a society have no protections under law or, as a general precept of our identity, are considered non human or non-persons? Can society survive when we engage in the dehumanization of that which was once cherished?

It seems we have fostered a savage inequality that we may not survive as a civilization. We appear to suffer from a crisis of understanding with regards when life begins. Consider also that if we can arbitrarily determine when someone receives human status or person-hood what then is to stop the removal of such status if it becomes socially expedient? There are some commentators who say that the cause of the unborn is the ultimate human rights issue. I would tend to agree. If one is not born or allowed to be born one can never enjoy any of the rights that we deem so important. As a concept, if one has no fundamental right to live can we legitimately argue in defense of any of the other so called rights?

If one is a pure Materialist, who believes that the world and everything in it is merely the result of a cosmic accident, then one really can't take a classically moral stance on the issue in terms of objective standards of good vs evil, irrespective of any claims to the needs of a cohesive society as they have evolved over the centuries for our continued perpetuation as a species. Does it really matter if mankind continues on into the future? If there is no higher power, no eternal lawgiver then all is subjective and open to change, interpretation and the brute force of the stronger imposing his will on the weaker. There is nothing else beyond immediate experience and ultimately we are all just star dust waiting for the Sun to expire at some future distant date. So really we shouldn't care, we shouldn't get too caught up in this or similar issues....And yet we do care, we do get embroiled in all manner of ideological battles that seem important beyond measure to us.

Is there more to our story? Is there really an ontological reality pertaining to our place in the cosmos that we have decided to abandon as a society? If so, where and how will it end for us...?

In summary then it would appear that the use of the concepts of humanity and person-hood in the abortion debate constitutes one big, confused mess. Terms are deemed undefinable or accepted or rejected depending on what is expedient or useful and claims of ambiguity or failings in understanding are offered to describe why one side or another are right or wrong. Is this confusion deliberate or are we witnessing a form of defense against the fact that we have taken a concept that at face value seems plain and obvious and distorted it beyond all recognition to support private opinion or a larger agenda?

I feel one thing is certain. By alienating and dehumanizing one class of “potential” persons we may yet find ourselves heading down another dark path historically as a society. History has shown to us on more than one occasion what we are capable of in terms of how we treat one another when one group claims superiority over another. I doubt it will end well for our own culture if we persist in ignoring what was once considered obvious.





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