Every Human Being Is a Person

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 03/13/2012

A blog by Robert J. Elisberg at the Huffington Post titled “Unborn in the USA” is instructive: there is a profound lack of understanding of basic aspects of the abortion debate among those who oppose pro-lifers. In a way, I find that encouraging. It’s not that they’ve heard our arguments and rejected them, it’s that they haven’t heard our arguments at all. They don’t understand the issue, therefore understanding could change their minds.

Elisberg’s post is about the “Personhood Act” currently under consideration in Oklahoma:

The bill will give personhood status to gametes from the moment of fertilization. Or conception. Or whatever mental image or description you would prefer, like “from the moment a woman's ovum is impregnated by the ejaculated sperm of a male.” That would be a person.

Here’s where I begin to question his knowledge of basic human biology—or at the very least, his understanding of why pro-lifers oppose abortion. First, pro-lifers are interested in saving the lives of very young human beings—members of the Homo sapiens species who are growing and changing, just as we all grow and change from birth to death. Perhaps his sentence was just badly worded for rhetorical effect, but after fertilization, the gametes no longer exist as gametes; the combination is a completely different kind of entity. No one, I repeat: no one wants to give personhood status to gametes. A gamete is not a human being—not a whole organism on a path of development to maturity with his or her own unique DNA.

Second, his mocking description, “from the moment a woman's ovum is impregnated by the ejaculated sperm of a male,” is exactly the definition of how a human being is created. This is basic biology, and trying to make it sound silly doesn’t change that fact. When an egg and sperm come together, the result is a brand new combination of DNA that will be the same from that human being’s conception to his or her death. This is why pro-lifers support human rights for these very young people—because they’re human beings.

Elisberg wants to arbitrarily separate the term “person” from “human being” and then attach rights to “persons” rather than to human beings. But doesn’t that make a mockery of universal human rights and open wide the door for whomever is in power to define whole groups of “inconvenient” human beings out of their rights?

But here’s where his argument really loses its way:

[T]here is a huge flaw in these personhood bills, which proponents have tried to hide. A flaw that, by its very nature, eliminates any possible defense in the cause.

That flaw is as core a flaw as any cause can have -- because it’s the very name of the cause itself.


The name “personhood” hides that proponents of the bills cannot actually tell you if the “person” is a male or a female.

Ask them. “Okay, this unborn ‘person’ you want to give human rights to at the moment of fertilization? Is that a male? Is it a female?” The answer can’t be determined. Indeed, “he or she” isn’t ever used in the discussion. Instead it’s always “the unborn child.” The unborn person. It’s always spoken of in the general -- because it can’t be spoken of in the specific. But that impregnated egg is very specific. And one thing that can’t yet be determined is if it’s a male or female....

For all the convoluted debate, it’s really very simple, in the end: if something can’t be determined to be a male or female, it can’t possibly be a person. After all, being a male or female is pretty much the core requirement to be a person. Everything else is gravy. So, without being able to determine if something is male or a female, then it’s impossible to call that a person.

I wish I could sit down and talk with Elisberg because he simply doesn’t have the facts. The sex of embryonic humans is very much determined from conception. Once again I point out that the DNA of a human being in the zygote stage of life is exactly the DNA that will direct his or her growth through every stage of life. It is a “he” or “she” "from the moment a woman's ovum is impregnated by the ejaculated sperm of a male." That’s simple biology.

Or perhaps he’s saying that despite its DNA-determined sex, an embryonic human being is a non-person because we can't know what that sex is. That would be an odd claim for two reasons: 1) It certainly is possible for us to know the sex of an embryonic human if the right tests are done. This is precisely what makes possible the controversial IVF practice of choosing which embryonic children to implant or destroy based on their sex. But regardless, 2) Why should it matter whether or not we know the sex of an embryonic human? Would our knowledge change the fact that it is objectively male or female? Can our mere knowledge about another human being’s sex determine his or her moral status? Where would this leave babies like Sasha and Storm, whose sex was kept secret from society?

Either way, if Elisberg thinks that “being a male or female is pretty much the core requirement” for acknowledging a human being’s rights, then he has picked the wrong side.

So if the purpose of these pro-lifers’ use of the term “personhood” isn’t to hide the fact that unborn children are neither male nor female, why are they using that word in these bills? Because that’s the word currently being used as shorthand for “worthy of rights.” The writers of the bills are trying to close the gap that’s been artificially created between “human beings” and “persons” and make clear the fact that all human beings are persons. Every member of the human race. We’re all persons because a human being is the kind of being that has personal properties, whether those properties are currently being expressed or not. Peter Kreeft explains:

Surely the correct answer [to how "person" is to be defined] is that a person is one with a natural, inherent capacity for performing personal acts. Why is one able to perform personal acts under proper conditions? Only because one is a person. One grows into the ability to perform personal acts only because one already is the kind of thing that grows into the ability to perform personal acts, i.e., a person (emphasis mine).

This is why human beings are persons, no matter what their age or current ability.