A Bird in the Bush, and the Meaning of Personhood

There was an interesting piece in today’s papers, just a very brief item. It was about a poor chap in northern Vietnam who had become very good at imitating a certain bird call. The 29-year-old hunter was out in the jungle, making his realistic imitation of a male forest chicken, hoping to attract female birds. Unfortunately another hunter nearby heard the call and mistook it for a live bird. He aimed his gun and fired into the bushes, killing not a bird but the bird-calling hunter. The shooter will be charged with murder.

A sad story, almost humorous if it weren’t for the tragic consequences. Of interest is what the hunter will say when he appears in court. He will of course plead ignorance: he did not know it was another hunter in the bushes, but thought it was a bird. How was he to know, after all?

But what will the judge say in reply? He will obviously say that if the hunter was not absolutely sure what he was gunning at, he should not have pulled the trigger. If the hunter was in any doubt that it was not a fellow human being he was shooting at, he should not have taken aim and fired in the first place. So the hunter will certainly be found guilty of something: perhaps manslaughter or negligent homicide. Murder due to gross negligence is also possible, as the report in the paper indicates.

So the hunter who did not exercise proper care and thought in determining what he was firing at will have to pay the penalty, whatever that may be.

It seems to me this story provides a very good analogy to another area where human life is taken. I refer to the area of abortion. Every week around the world about a million unborn babies are killed by means of abortion.

And of course the ethical debate continues to rage. Ultimately, it all boils down to whether the unborn baby is considered to be a person or not. That is the sticking point. The other areas are clear. Certainly a life is being taken by abortion, and certainly it is a human life. When a woman goes to have an abortion, it is not a dead dingo or a dead carrot that results, but a dead human being.

Thus the real debate centres on whether this dead unborn human being is a person or not, and therefore entitled to basic human rights, such as the right to life. Generally those who are pro-abortion, or are in favour of those activities that result in a dead unborn baby, such as embryonic stem cell research, will argue that the question of personhood is a question which cannot be answered, or at least cannot be answered scientifically. They will claim that it is a religious question, or a matter for the philosophers to decide, but it is not an issue that they need to consider.

Their usual fallback position is that the foetus probably is not a person, but we cannot really know either way. I have heard scientists defending embryo research arguing in this very manner. They insist that it cannot be fully known whether or not this is a person. So for them that settles the debate. They will just go ahead and take the lives of these young members of the human race, and let the philosophers and/or theologians worry about the ethical implications.

But pro-lifers take the opposite approach. If we are not sure that what we are killing is a person or not, then the benefit of the doubt should go to the unborn baby. If we are not sure if he or she is deserving of the same set of rights – including the right to life – that those who are born are entitled to, then maybe this whole abortion business needs to be suspended until we settle the question.

With nearly 50 million unborn babies killed each year because of abortion, it seems this question is too important not to be finally and fully resolved. And if it is believed that the question will never be properly answered, then I would suggest that we err on the side of caution.

After all, if the reckless hunter will be given little sympathy in a court of law, why should we, when so much doubt and uncertainty exists?

In conclusion, no analogy is perfect, and the hunting illustration used here does not provide a complete one-to-one correspondence with the abortion situation. But there are enough similarities present that we should at least be asking some hard questions before we allow more killing in the abortion mills to take place.

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4 Replies to “A Bird in the Bush, and the Meaning of Personhood”

  1. A good chance to revisit this very important point: life should be given the benefit of the doubt. President Reagan likewise said in Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, The Human Life Review, Spring 1983:

    I have also said that anyone who doesn’t feel sure whether we are talking about a second human life should clearly give life the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t know whether a body is alive or dead, you would never bury it. I think this consideration itself should be enough for all of us to insist on protecting the unborn.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  2. I came to your site from your reviewer page at Amazon. I had the privilege of hearing Robert Spitzer, S.J. President of Gonzaga University give a talk about the concept of the person. He draws on insights of Greek philosophy and the theological reflections of the early church to develop a comprehensive concept of the person that is much needed to be regained today. His book, “Healing the Culture” is an expanded presentation. Since you are an excellent book reviewer, would you consider reading this book and giving it a review?
    Jon Sellers

  3. We take the life of a human being and call it abortion – abortion of what – a possum? No! A person. When is a person not a person – when it’s a possum! Not a trick question but a profound one. People are pregnant with people, not possums. Is that so hard to understand?
    Ilona Sturla

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