The Battle For Personhood

Slavery was allowed for so long because slaves were not regarded as persons. Thus a major part of the anti-slavery campaign was to refute this lie, and educate the public as to the full equality of black people. So too today the battle over abortion must also be fought along similar lines. We need to affirm the personhood of the unborn.

A new book by Catholic philosopher Robert Spitzer seeks to do that by utilising only secular reasoning. His Ten Universal Principles (Ignatius, 2011) seeks to make the case for personhood by appealing to philosophical argument, not biblical texts. In a secular culture such an approach is very important indeed.

His third principle is the Principle of Objective Existence. He states that publically verifiable evidence is needed concerning the status of the fetus. He refers to the important work of Dr. Jerome Lejeune who demonstrated that “a single-celled human zygote (even if it is not implanted) has a full human genome.”

He continues, “the presence of a full human genome in a zygote (the initial cell produced when a new organism is formed by sexual reproduction) will ordinarily result in a fully actualized unique human being in the absence of natural or artificial impediments. For this reason, Dr. Lejeune considered a human zygote (implanted or not implanted) to be a human being…. Given this, we can say that if persons are defined as actualisable human beings, then a single-celled zygote would have to be considered a person.”

He then shows that full actualization is quite an arbitrary concept, and not a necessary component of how we define human personhood. Therefore, “we are left with only one nonarbitrary criterion for ‘person’, namely, the presence of a human being; that is, the presence of a full human genome in a human organism, which, in the vast majority of cases, can be expected to become fully actualized.”

Daniel Becker’s new book Personhood (TKS, 2011) also develops this idea of the importance of highlighting personhood. Unlike Spitzer’s book, Becker does not offer us philosophy or ideology, but simply political and educational strategy. He discusses how personhood initiatives have been gaining ground in various US states, and how this can be a key means of ending abortion.

Of course the pro-aborts hate all such talk. They make it as their starting point that the unborn are not persons, but just clumps of cells. They oppose any measure to bring to our attention the fact that a living human being is what we find in the mother’s womb.

Thus they of course detest the ultrasound laws which have been passed in some US states, most recently Texas. The Guttmacher Institute for example has this to say about such laws: “the requirements appear to be a veiled attempt to personify the fetus and dissuade a woman from obtaining an abortion”.

Hey, they got that right. It is all about personhood. Just as the various means used to convince a hardened public several centuries ago that blacks were in fact persons were fiercely resisted and attacked, so too today. Indeed, the secular left cartoonist Garry Trudeau even used one of his ‘Doonesbury’ comics recently to savagely attack the Texas ultrasound law, referring to the procedure as “rape”.

Actually there are eleven US states now that have had some type of ultrasound legislation enacted. Texas is the only one which requires abortion providers to display that image. All the other states have much weaker laws, which basically just allow women that option if they so desire.

Similar sorts of bills are also being brought forward, for example, to allow women to hear their baby’s heartbeat. Consider what Oklahoma is now looking at in this regard: “The Oklahoma state Senate has approved a bill that allows women to know they can hear the heartbeat of their unborn baby before having an abortion — something abortion centers don’t normally let women hear beforehand.

“The Heartbeat Informed Consent Act received a 34-8 vote and now heads to the Oklahoma state House for consideration. The bill originally required the abortion practitioner to play the sonogram of the baby’s heartbeat before the abortion but was amended to have the abortion practitioner tell women they have the option to hear it if they wish before the abortion is done.”

Of course the pro-aborts hate this as well – anything which reminds a mother or the general public that this is indeed a living person deserving of the right to life is something they simply detest. So this really is a war of worldviews. At stake is the very notion of personhood, and the rights of entire groups of people to not have to justify their very existence.

So as we continue to fight for life, we must keep hitting the other camp with the very truths they want so desperately to deny or cover up. We must use every means available to help not just pregnant women but the public at large realise just what it is that is being killed in an abortion. We must expose the dirty little trade secrets of the abortionists.

As President Ronald Reagan said back in 1984: “The real question today is not when human life begins, but, What is the value of human life? The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all of its parts have been torn from its mother’s body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being. The real question for him and for all of us is whether that tiny human life has a God-given right to be protected by the law – the same right we have.”

Or as Mona Charen wrote in 1992, “The history of morality is the story of broadening, not limiting, our conception of who is a person. Is a slave a person? Our ancestors thought not. Is a woman a person? Not quite the way a man is, people used to think. Is a child a person? Under Roman law, the paterfamilias could kill his offspring with impunity. It is part of the Judeo-Christian, as well as the humanist, tradition to insist that every human being – old or young, sick or well, and yes, wanted or unwanted, is a person.”

We must redouble our efforts to show the humanity and personhood of the unborn and others, despite a culture bent on limiting even further our conception of personhood.

Click to access spib_RFU.pdf

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15 Replies to “The Battle For Personhood”

  1. I just love the irony of the whole situation. So often they claim that we are anti-science and yet in this argument we are the ones using science and medicine to argue the point that the unborn child is human and they are using philosophy to argue away the humanness of the baby. The things we can do to an unborn baby to help them should they have problems are absolutely amazing and even just a decade ago they would not be even possible.
    Ian Nairn

  2. The cold-blooded murderer usually, probably always, convinces himself that his victim is less than human. That’s how he justifies it even to himself. Nazi murderers had convinced themselves and their peers that jews were “vermin”: killing them was unpleasant but necessary.
    The serial killer likewise has de-personalised his several victims such that he first brutalises them, and then kills them because somehow they don”t deserve to live.
    The abortionist in similar vein considers the unborn child a mere blob of tissue. How and why? Because evolution has taught him/her that the child in the womb is recapitulating the evolutionary stages, and to kill it is really killing only an a frog or a fish or even an animal of some sort. Don’t believe me? Then tell me why Haeckel’s deceptive embryo diagrams are still in modern textbooks of biology, even though they have long since been shown to be fraudulent.
    Murray R Adamthwaite

  3. Fr Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy was tremendous so I would bet his work on abortion would be great.

    Damien Spillane

  4. “Thus they of course detest the ultrasound laws which have been passed in some US states, most recently Texas. The Guttmacher Institute for example has this to say about such laws: ‘the requirements appear to be a veiled attempt to personify the fetus and dissuade a woman from obtaining an abortion’.

    “Hey, they got that right…”

    Actually, it’s hardly a veiled attempt, is it? Of course we want to do everything to make sure women asking for an abortion realise that they’re asking to kill a living human being! The pro-abortion lobby have done so much to confuse people on this straightforward scientific fact; it’s the least we can do.

    Felix Alexander, Melbourne.

  5. I am not sure why there is so much emphasis on personhood in this article. The whole concept of personhood has been defined in a way that excludes the physical workings of the human organism. As if personhood is just the Cartesian/Kantian autonomous conscious self floating on top of an otherwise irrelevant human organism.

    Persons are centres of political and legal rights and as such they can exercise the right responsibilities that correspond with those rights. They have the capacities to do those things.

    The right to life is more basic and fundamental than either the political or legal rights and has nothing to do with one’s immediate ability to exercise personhood capacities. Life is defined scientifically according to the genetic basis of all human life.

    What comes out of this is a need of emphasis on the metaphysical basis of life which is inherent in all human organisms which display the potentiality for personhood.

    The philosophical literature is rife with talk of personhood but that personhood is more in line with a Cartesian/Kantian view of the human constitution as opposed to an Aristotelian/Thomistic one. This being the case the whole concept of personhood has been defined in a way that excludes the metaphysical groundwork needed to justify the pro-life position. Too much emphasis on personhood is playing into the wrong hands.

    Damien Spillane

  6. Thanks Damien

    But you misunderstand my article, and you misunderstand me, Spitzer and Becker. Neither I nor the two others hold to a view of personhood which you are describing. Needless to say, all three of us ground our understanding of personhood in Judeo-Christian metaphysics, not Enlightenment philosophy. Why in the world would you assume otherwise?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. A sign of life is a heart beat, which a fetus has at around 3 to 5 weeks into the pregnancy (according to the Huggies website).
    This would probably be around the time a mother realises she may be pregnant – very early on. I would guess not many mothers would realise that (or maybe just fathers like me that didn’t) 🙂 .

    But a heart beat should be sufficient to determine if the fetus is a person or not.

    Steven Harrison

  8. Thanks Steven

    Yes quite right – but of course we can – and should – go even further than that. We know that at the moment of conception a wholly unique individual is formed, complete with his or her own genetic makeup. It is not just one more cell of the mother, but a distinct and different life.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Bill

    My comment wasn’t sufficiently clear. I, of course, wasn’t imputing any of that to you or Spitzer. It would be absurd to impute those ideas to someone on the pro-life side.

    My point was that it is difficult to try and reform the ‘personhood’ term which has been so falsely diagnosed in a metaphysical sense and may indeed only imply certain overt characteristics of human beings that fetuses don’t possess. It does have legitimate albeit circumscribed applications in legal and political contexts.

    But in philosophy the very concept of personhood seems to have metaphysical underpinnings that would exclude the fetus from the get go. I have seen it time and time again in the philosophical literature. All I’m saying is that it is a difficult concept to reform and using it may be to concede part of the argument – as the case for abortion stands or falls on what exactly is the human fetus.

    Damien Spillane

  10. Abe Lincoln said about slavery that it was the only “good” thing that no one wanted the good of – for himself. It’s hard to imagine people saying it would be fine with them to be cut up and dumped into a bucket. And how would they exist if their mothers had arranged for that?

    John Donovan, Connecticut, US

  11. Damien, I am not so sure it would be as difficult as you posit.

    There are quite a number of legal precedents for unborn children to claim redress for actions which occurred against them before they were born – mainly in terms of car accidents and medical procedure failures or negligence.

    So some of the concept of personhood is already embedded within our legal system. See for example this:

    WA is copying Qld in a good way this time.

    It’s a case of bringing it out into the open and reclaiming the territory grabbed by those “ethicists” like Peter Singer and the two recent ones who want to move the boundary line of personhood and rights further and further away from conception.

    John Angelico

  12. Look at Ray Comfort’s Youtube video entitled “180 movie”.

    Fran Collard

  13. Yes, it is conception that is the significant event in a human beings life, as he/she is already alive before birth. I have heard a very good and simple explanation of the difference between the Christian and the existential view of human life “biographical verses biological”. Neither would argue that the life under discussion is not human. However, biological life has the seed for biographical life within it. The reverse is not possible. Therefore it is the broader concept of biological life retaining “the right to live” that needs to be defended.
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

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