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Sunday, November 13, 2011

No matter how small.

Because of Initiative 26, I’ve seen a lot of debate recently about the definition of “personhood.”  Our society finds it abhorrent to deny people rights.  The personhood debate implies that the fetus belongs to a subset of humans that aren’t people, making the denial of rights more palatable. 

Truth be told, I have a difficult time feeling emotional about abortion at the earliest stages.  It’s hard to identify with an eight-celled embryo.  It’s easier to empathize with an eight-week-old fetus.  And so it goes.  I think many people are horrified by abortion at 8 months, but less people get emotional about abortion of a microscopic “seed.”

The thing is, I don’t think rights should be based on our emotions. Rights shouldn’t be so arbitrary.

I try to consider what makes a “person” distinct from a “human being” in a non-arbitrary way—as consistently and objectively as I can.  I cannot see a consistent definition that would exclude the fetus but include all other people.

If personhood requires self-awareness, the fetus is not a person.  Neither are newborn infants or coma patients.

If personhood requires viability, the premature fetus born in a technologically advanced society is a person.  The equivalent premature fetus born in a more primitive region is not a person.

If personhood requires physiological independence, the fetus is not a person.  Neither are patients on respirators or dialysis. Neither is the theoretical Violinist.

To my knowledge, every definition of “person” that excludes the fetus also excludes other subsets of humans that society already considers people. Therefore, it seems the options are:

1)      Pick a consistent definition of “person” that excludes both the fetus and patients in critical care, the Violinist, newborn infants, etc.
2)      Create an inconsistent definition of “person” crafted to exclude the fetus and only the fetus.
3)      Pick a consistent definition of “person” that includes everyone.  

I can’t bring myself to be willfully inconsistent, nor can I bring myself to embrace a consistent definition that would consider it morally permissible to “terminate” newborns or hospitalized patients.  

The only option I can accept both rationally and morally is that human beings are people. The end.

15 comments:

Are we there yet? said...

How wonderful is the person who values life, and is willing to give the gift of life.

Kelsey said...

Whenever society has chosen to exclude a class of human beings from "personhood," it has never ended well. Excellent post.

Julie Wolk said...

Concise indeed! And well written. I really enjoyed "The end." portion.

Simon said...

Yes but try even talking to professors of Philosophy and you will find bags full of inconsistencies and blind spots. Unfortunately from my perspective -having spent some time researching personal identity - not only has the whole topic has been socialised along cultural lines but as far as the ontology goes –what we fundamentally are- IMO both sides have it hopelessly wrong and we aren’t even persons either, if you are thinking of what types of entities we are that hold a spatial/temporal identity through time. So you have two sides who are both wrong –and with one being more inconsistent but with the other side also holding inconsistencies- on the fundamentals so there is no hope for this historical juncture for deeper understanding of the issue.

Anonymous said...

"I can’t bring myself to be willfully inconsistent..."

But those who take the position that life begins at fertilization are rarely consistent. The only change that occurs at fertilization is the creation of a set of DNA that is distinct from the parents. But if having DNA distinct from one's parents is the only criterion that determines whether someone is alive, then why would dead bodies not be considered alive? They have distinct DNA.

M said...

We aren't trying to determine what it means to be "alive". Sperm and eggs are alive, and dead bodies aren't. We're trying to determine what it means to be a human person.

Simon said...

Incorrect a distinct organism exists not just a bag of unique DNA. Granted he ontology is complex but that's a complex argument and need plenty of research.

Anonymous said...

I think my point remains.

Clinton Wilcox said...

The problem is you're attacking a strawman. We don't claim that the unborn child have unique DNA makes her alive. We go by the scientific definition of life (and embryologists consistently agree that human beings exist from fertilization). We know the unborn are alive because they grow, their cells divide, they metabolize energy for food, respond to stimuli, etc. It's basic science.

Fugazi said...

Person - an independent sentient being, Independent as in having the ability to process air through lungs in order to oxygenate blood, the ability to ingest food to fuel the bodily system.
There is no singular item to define a person, it is a combination of many factors, none of which a fetus meets.

Fugazi said...

Do you consider the submissive twin in a chimera set of twins as having the same right to life as the dominant twin. It does meet all your criteria.

Clinton said...

Can you be more specific? What do you mean by a chimera set of twins?

Vinícius said...

Well, newborns don't have the ability to ingest "food" as we have it. The thing they ingest, we can't ingest and live a healthy life.

So a sick newborn, like those who can hardly breathe on their own, and that are hardly sentient on the same level of, say, a toddler, or a dog, isn't a person?



The point of the post is to say that our notions of what a "person" is should be thought carefully.

BKennedy said...

There has only ever been one reason in all of history to make a distinction between basic humanity and legal personhood.


That reason is to legitimize the murder or enslavement of humans that aren't "people." That is, the distinction exists solely to create a unique class to DENY human rights, never to ENHANCE them.

TheEndsDon'tJustifyTheMeans said...

Fugazi and all others wo are pro-choice--when do you consider the unborn child a "life"? What exactly is that distinction for you?