Abortion: Where does personhood begin?


This question is distinct from asking at what point ‘life’ begins. A foetus is clearly a living entity. We do not, in general, ascribe the same set of moral obligations to a foetus that we do to a person. For example, we find it quite unacceptable to terminate a person because they were the product of a rape, because they were deformed or abnormal, because they faced hardship in life or because they posed a threat to the safety of their mothers.

However, everyone accepts that a foetus has at least potential personhood. The dispute is about the point at which the foetus should be treated as a moral agent in and of themselves. This is a very tricky question to answer and opens up a set of philosophical questions to do with exactly what being a person involves. Let’s begin by considering some of the different stages of pregnancy.

Conception: On the grounds that all human life is sacred, many religions oppose the use of contraception on the basis that it interferes with the natural development of a person.

Zygotic: At this stage, the foetus is little more than a collection of cells and can still split into twins. It therefore seems that we cannot describe it as having any sort of personhood.

Anatomical: By now (8 weeks old), the foetus has developed into a recognisably human form with limbs. Some anti-abortionists argue that it is simply psychological conditioning (and rational failure) on our part to see this as significant, that the foetus is equally a human person before this takes place. There may be some truth to this. But is being anatomically human enough for us to consider the foetus a person? Notably, this is still 16 weeks before the legal time limit for abortion in the UK. The brain develops as a distinct part of the foetus between 9 and 16 weeks of gestation.

Viable: It might be argued that a foetus gains personhood once it is able to survive outside the womb. However, some babies have been started in test tubes, and there’s no reason to think that medical science might not one day be able to produe children from artificial wombs.  In fact, human beings couldn’t be said to be capable of surviving on their own until they are much older.  We require the co-operation of others to survive.

Birth: At birth, a foetus becomes part of the shared social world and we think of it as a baby rather than a bump. However, as a being it is not significantly different to what it was a few days earlier, or will be a few days later. Setting this as the boundary of personhood might seem rather arbitrary in this light, and suggests a very sharp boundary between killing a new-born (impermissable) and killing the same being a few weeks earlier (permissable).

Post-natal: Does a unique personality or identity develop only some time after birth through language, socialisation or the development of a sense of conscious identity? If so, it seems to lead to the unpallatable conclusion that infanticide is as permissible as abortion.

These ruminations raise a number of deep philosophical questions about identity and personhood.

Mary Ann Warren claims, for the sake of argument, that if the foetus is a person, then indeed there is a wide range of cases in which abortion is not permitted. But all depends on what a person is. So she wants to build a consensus by proposing a set of criteria for being a person with full moral status that she thinks both pro-abortionists and anti-abortionists could accept:

  • consciousness of objects and events external and internal to the being, and in particular the capacity to feel pain
  • reasoning — the capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems
  • self-motivated activity
  • a capacity to communicate
  • the presence of self-concept and self-awareness

Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status
of Abortion,” The Monist, Vol. 57, no.4, 1973

Using these criteria Warren now contends that foetuses, even with their potentiality to become a person, do not sufficiently resemble a person to have a right to life. Thus she holds that, at least until birth, the fetus has no moral status and lacks a serious right to life. But she herself realizes that her argument, if logically followed, would justify infanticide. Although, according to her criteria the newborn infant would not have a significant right to life, she would not permit infanticide so long as, according to her, there are people who are willing to care and provide for the child’s well being. But then why permit abortion if there are people who want to adopt and take care of the new born?


3 Responses to “Abortion: Where does personhood begin?”

  1. This question, what is that unborn child? What is it anyway? Is it just a nothing? What is it? Is it a part person, part human? Is it a potential human? Is it sui generus, as some argue, that it is in a class all by itself? That’s the question that needs to be dealt with.

    You know what? It’s a question you will never ever hear pro-abortionists address because they can’t defend their argument. This is the simplest thing to answer. That unborn child is a living, separate being and it’s only one kind of being. It is a human being because when it comes out it doesn’t have fur. It doesn’t pant or lap or bark. It doesn’t swim through the water. It doesn’t crawl into a chrysalis and fly away when it grows up. It is none of those other types of creatures. It is a human being.

    And for those of you who want to hide behind the personhood argument, you say it’s a human but not a person, my question is simply this, what is the difference? That question has been raised so many times by people who are trying to get away from what is obvious. They get away with it because no one asks the simple question, what is the difference? That’s a fair question because these people are trying to disqualify the life of an unborn child because it may be human, but it is not a person, so you can kill it. Now if you can kill a human being that’s not a person, but you can’t kill a human being that is a person, you better darn well know for sure what the difference is. If you don’t know the difference, then quit sacrificing these kids, pretending like you do.

    The fact of the matter is, this is just another rhetorical ploy to get away from the obvious fact that human beings are personal type beings. It is what they are, it isn’t a quality they develop. That’s what it means, by the way, when it is written in our Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal because there is nothing physically equal about any human being. The thing that is equal about all human beings is something that is non-physical, it is immaterial, their personhood. It is inherent to being a human being. You can’t be a human being without being a person. That’s why we say all human beings are created equal. That, by the way, is the foundation for all human rights in general, and equal rights in particular. We are all equal in that we are personal human beings because human beings are personal beings. If personhood is something you develop willy-nilly as time goes on, then those who develop those things identified as personal better than others, are more personal than those others and ought to have more rights because they are more of what makes them valuable. That sounds ludicrous because personhood isn’t one of those kinds of things. It is what you are from the beginning.

    I think the pro-abortion side has forced the pro-life side to shoulder the burden of proof far too long. The irony is, the pro-life side has taken the burden and has proved the case and still no one listens. You know what this proves? It proves that abortionists can only sustain their argument with empty, inflammatory rhetoric, the very thing they vacuously accuse the pro-life movement of using.

    *all this is a quote from greg koukl. consider searching his website, it’s very helpful and full of great arguments.

  2. Thank you for your contribution, Lisa. I have a question for you; I hope you will take it as open-minded and not rhetorical.

    You seem to want to equate personhood with being a human (rather than any other kind of) being. As you put it, it’s ‘who you are from the beginning’ and not something that develops. However, some of the features that philosophers have typically taken as indicative of personhood – such as reasoning, language, consistent personal identity, sensory awareness of the world – are simply not displayed by foetuses. But we don’t have to say that these things develop ‘willy-nilly’ as you put it: merely that they develop after birth.

    Just because a foetus has the potential to become a fully-grown human person rather than, say, a duck, why should we attribute personhood (rather than potential personhood) to it when it does not exhibit these features? If language, self-consciousness, personal identity, morality, etc. are in fact constitutive of personhood, don’t we have good reasons for denying that a foetus deserves to be treated in the same way as a child or adult?

    It seems to me that you need an account of personhood/non-personhood. By your definition, isn’t every sperm or egg a human being? Like a foetus, given the right conditions they will develop into a person. But this seems evidently fallacious; we surely cannot accept that a sperm should be treated as a person.

  3. 3 Emily Murray

    Lisa, ethicists never avoid the question of ‘what is the difference’ between a human and a person. The difference between a homo sapien and a person does indeed differ widely. However, all ethicists seem to agree that self-awareness is key.
    Anti-abortionists however do avoid the question – ‘Why do persons have a right to life?’ because they generally rely on a religious argument – God created us in His image etc. If people are not religious and do not believe in God, this response seems ridiculous – especially if it is used to gain control over their life decisions.
    One could say that the reason that persons have a right to life (and not be killed) is because they value their life. The taking away of something that they value is therefore wrong. Kittens do not have the self-awareness to value their own lives, therefore, you do not wrong them by taking away their life (of course, one could not, for example, torture a kitten, because a kitten would suffer from it – it would not suffer if it’s life was taken away because it is not capable of valuing its life as something worth keeping).
    Foetuses are unable to value their life. As are people in permanent vegetative states. They are not persons under this account.
    Merely saying ‘Homo sapiens have a right to life’ is simply not enough – you HAVE to answer why this is the case. What is it about that life that requires that protection which other lives (ants etc) cannot claim. In answering that question it is likely that you will discover that certain homo sapiens have no right to life, but perhaps that some animals do (apes etc).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: