Those who play the personhood card argue that there is a difference between being a human and being a person. There are, they say, human beings that don’t qualify as persons, and therefore should have no legal protection as persons. The unborn is an example of a human who is not a person.
When asked “What’s the difference between a mere human and a human person,” which is a fair question to ask, there are three possible answers. First, an unborn child doesn’t look like other bonafide human persons who are at different stages of development. “After all,” they say, “an acorn isn’t an oak.” Second, an unborn child doesn’t do like other bona fide human persons who are at different stages of development.
You recall the unfortunate case of baby Theresa in Florida who was born without a cerebral cortex. What was the argument there? She’s not a person because she can’t think like other babies think (this was used as an argument for infanticide in Florida). She can’t do what other real persons do. The law implicitly offers a third distinction. The unborn child isn’t located at the right place as are other human persons who are at the same stage of development.
In summary, some human beings aren’t worthy of human rights because they don’t look like the rest of us, they can’t do what the rest of us can do, or they’re in the wrong location. My question simply is this: Are any of these factors truly relevant to the issue of human rights? I am presuming here that all unborn children are in fact humans. It cannot possibly be otherwise because they are separate beings in themselves produced by two other human beings, a mother and a father human being; and according to the law of biogenesis, which has been around for a long time in science, all beings reproduce after their own kind. Two human beings can only reproduce another human being. Since an unborn child is the conceptus of two human beings, then it must be a human being. That’s a foundational point here.
The question is, though it is a human being, is it really a person? The answer with regards to unborn children is no, it isn’t. When I ask why people either say that it doesn’t look like a person, it doesn’t do the things a person does, or it’s in the wrong location.
Let’s take the last one first. You will understand immediately what I mean. According to our law if an otherwise bona fide human person is not located at the right place, then the mother has the liberty to take its life for any reason.
I’m thinking of a little girl right now. Her name is Rachel. She’s the daughter of close friends of mine. Rachel is two months old, but she is still six weeks away from being a full-term baby. Rachel was born prematurely at 22 weeks, in the middle of her mother’s second trimester. In other words, Rachel is still mid third-term even though she’s almost two months old. When she was born she weighed one pound, eleven ounces, but dropped to just over a pound soon after. She was so small that she could rest in the palm of your hand and you’d hardly know she was there.
Here is the relevant point. It would be murder to take the life of little Rachel if she was lying nursing at her mother’s breast today. But if the same Rachel, at the same stage of development, was six inches away resting inside of her mother’s womb she could be killed, and in many cases the state would pay for it.
If it’s wrong to kill an innocent human child at one location, then it’s wrong to kill that same innocent human child six inches away. I take this as obvious and axiomatic. If you take this as obvious and axiomatic—and I don’t see how you can refute it, frankly, regardless of your view of abortion—if it would be murder to take the life of little Rachel outside of her mother, it is murder to take the same life of the same person at exactly the same point of development inside of her mother. If this is true, then all mid- to late-term abortions are deeply immoral, because the liberty to kill the child is based merely on location.
But does even development make a difference? What about a person who is disqualified because it doesn’t look like or doesn’t do like? You could argue that Rachel at 22 weeks did survive and so she was a bona fide human person now and doing things little human beings do and little human persons do. But what about prior to that? Many have said clearly a zygote or a child in its earliest stages of development doesn’t look like a human being and it doesn’t act like a human being. It is not capable of doing those kinds of things that other human beings do. One could point out that this is circular reasoning. In other words, I could say it certainly looks exactly like a human person does at that stage of development. Let me take it from a different direction.
Regarding the other two issues, I have a very important question here. Do I forfeit my rights as a human person—my rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—because my body is shaped differently than yours? Do I forfeit my rights as a human person—my rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—because my body can’t do what your body can do?
What if I were smaller than you? Am I any less myself? If I weighed only one pound, or even a few ounces, as long as I was alive wouldn’t I still be me? If I had no arms or legs, or my body was terribly misshapen (remember the movie Elephant Man?), as long as I’m alive, wouldn’t I still be me? And if body size and shape is the criterion, then do larger people with more attractive bodies have more rights?
That’s what this argument asserts regarding the unborn. If a human being is smaller, if it looks different, if it isn’t just like me, then it has no rights.
But what if it wasn’t what I looked like, but rather what I could do that makes the difference. What if I weren’t as smart as you? Am I any less myself? What if I had a lower IQ—an IQ of 70 or 50, or even 10, or 1? What if I could hardly think at all? Wouldn’t I still be me? What if I couldn’t play basketball, or couldn’t write, or couldn’t even feed myself? Wouldn’t I still be who I am, a human person with rights and value? Do I as a human being become disposable simply because I can’t do all that you can do, because I may be helpless and defenseless and dependent? And if this is the case, then do stronger and more capable and more intelligent people have more rights than others? That’s what this argument asserts regarding the unborn. If a human being is not as intelligent, if it can’t do what others can do, then it has no rights. That’s the argument. The unborn doesn’t look like other real persons and it doesn’t act like other real persons, therefore it is not a real person. My point is, being a real person is not a look like or an act like kind of thing. It is a be like kind of thing. Human beings are persons by their nature.
This was an argument that Lincoln made regarding the Lincoln-Douglas debates against slavery.
Do you begin to see how devastating this argument is to human rights—all human rights, even yours? If personhood is gradual and admits to degrees, then human rights based on personhood are gradual and admit to degrees. If any human being can be disposed of simply because he or she doesn’t look just right or can’t do what others can do, then the world is only safe for the perfect.
That’s what this argument says. Is this the kind of argument you want to stand behind? That is precisely what the personhood argument entails. If so, be very careful, because sooner or later someone is going to discover your imperfection. Then what?