Thursday, October 30, 2008

On the Personhood of the Unborn

I have been interested in a concept recently, namely the personhood of the unborn. The thought occurred to me while listening to a talk by Wesley J. Smith on those in a persistent vegitative state. He asked, passionately, that they not be referrred to as "vegetables". His rationale was that the term de-humanized persons with impaired brain function. It made them into non-persons, or at least into sub-persons.
I am by no means the originator of this thought, but it occured to me that the concept was applicable to pre-born humans, as well. They should be constantly referred to as "people".

What is it, exactly, that gives a person rights? What gives them dignity?

If a fetus is not a person at conception, at what point is it a person? When does it begin to be entitled to "rights"? Is it viability? Is it the will of the parent(s)? Is it self-awareness?

These have all been proposed, more or less intentionally, as the beginning of personhood. A thoughtful comparison of what we think of when we think of the word "person" and these concepts will show a disconnect.

What we mean by "person" is often indistinct, but no less powerful for being so. There is a danger in reducing the value of this concept by tying it to things like the ability to survive alone, self-awareness, or the will of another. Because, if you think about it, each one of us will be identified with one of these characteristics before we die. We will be at the mercy of others, depending upon their respect and assistance. We will lean upon their respect for us as a person.

When we de-humanize the unborn, we weaken the walls that protect the weakest in society. Someday we may be the weak one.

So when you are speaking about unborn life, call it what it is. The rights of the unborn are "human rights". Their dignity is human dignity.


Jocelyn said...

I came across this article, and then you posted this today so I thought you'd be interested.

This Liberal said...


Thanks for the link. You are my longest and most reliable reader.

I found the difficulties of recognizing the unborn as human that the author pointed out kind of humorous, although unfortunate. The rights of a fertilized egg, indeed. So much for nuance. Either an unborn child is a miniature person living in a womb, or else it is subject to indiscriminate slaughter until it emerges from the womb.

The analysis had all of the depth that I expect from NPR.