Abortion and the Problem of Personhood

May 12, 2016

Hillary Clinton: “The unborn person does not have constitutional rights.”

“It’s wrong to kill a person, but permissible to exterminate a rat.” By this logic the average Nazi could convince himself killing Jews was okay since Jews were “rats”—dangerous and disease-carrying rats. So observes David Livingstone Smith in his book Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

Dehumanize First, Kill Second 

The basic observation of Smith’s book is that people will dehumanize their enemies before enslaving, torturing, or killing them. The Hutus of Rwanda regarded the Tutsi as “cockroaches” and clubbed them to death by the hundreds of thousands. White Americans called Native Americans “savages,” and African Americans “property,” in order to justify rape, man stealing, and the piles of corpses. On and on the historical record reads, all the way back to ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian literature.

It’s hard to kill or enslave your own kind, Livingston says. Easier to kill something subhuman, especially if it is systematic and legally-sanctioned killing. A murderous regime doesn’t only need power, it needs legitimizing, a moral argument, a sense of its…rights.

Jumping to our own day, is it any wonder, then, that pro-choicers call the entity inside of a woman’s womb—well, what shall one call it? A fetus? Organic tissue? Uterine contents? A clump of cells? A part of the woman’s own body, like an appendix?

Furthermore, we should not be surprised that pro-choice forces employ our most sacred American values to maintain their regime: “choice” or “freedom” or the “rights of a woman.” There are no greater arguments than these in the American moral universe. Except, perhaps, life. So that thing must not really be a human life, right?

You see how the argument works. It follows the same script as nearly every other slave-holding or genocidal regime in history.

Employing Science and Philosophy

Yesterday, the oppressors used the language of science—called race science—to downgrade the humanity of their victims or slaves. African Americans did not have “white blood.” The Nazis claimed to have developed a test for revealing non-Aryan blood.

Today, pro-choice feminists and philosophers will grant that the unborn entity possesses human DNA. It doesn’t have a dog or a cockroach’s DNA, after all. We know better than the Nazis. But these writers employ the philosophical category of a person, in order to maintain the distinction between the unborn entity and a rights-possessing human. Being a person requires “viability” or “sentience,” or something like that.

One way or another, whether in the language of science (what is a human?) or philosophy (what is a person?), we find some way to demote “it.” The zygote, the embryo, the fetus—words that belong in an alien movie—are not fully us. Ironically, the pro-choice lobby postures as a movement for equality, progress, and protecting the oppressed. Meanwhile, abortion clinics offer drop-down website menus of fetus parts for purchase: tongue, eyes, limbs, head, ovaries, scalp (see exhibit C3 on page 9 here).

Secretary Clinton’s Slip

How careless, then, for Hillary Clinton to stumble off script a few weeks back. “The unborn person does not have constitutional rights,” she said in an MSNBC interview. Didn’t she get the International Planned Parenthood memo instructing pro-choicers not to use the “p” word?

Secretary Clinton dug herself in deeper by then using the “c” word: The fact that these unborn people don’t have constitutional rights, she continued, “doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we possibly can in the vast majority of instances to, you know, help a mother who is carrying a child and wants to make sure that child will be healthy, to have appropriate medical support.” Wait, it’s a child?

Well, not a full child, apparently. You can have some level of moral obligation to a subhuman child. You’ll feed your slave’s children, for instance. So, fine, fine, “fulfill your obligations,” Clinton concedes, but, remember, that “does not include sacrificing the woman’s right to make decisions.” Ah, there we go, safely back on script.

What Is a Person?

Let’s assume for a hypothetical moment that killing a “person” is in fact wrong. What should we say makes a person a person?

A still popular definition dates back to Greek antiquity: man is a rational animal. Unlike other beasts humans can think (sometimes). A simple theory, but it does not morally suffice. Personhood transcends endowment of some intellectual faculty. If personhood is dependent upon rationality, what are we to make of the mentally impaired, or of those who suffer severe dementia, the comatose, or, in this case, the not-yet-born?

Let’s make personhood much more basic. All that’s required to be a person is to be a member of the species. A human quite simply is a person, irrevocably and unqualifiedly. And thus it matters not at all whether someone is impaired, unconscious, or “viable.”

Consider the flip side. If membership in the species is not the standard, then it falls to whoever has the most power to establish criteria for which people “are people” and which “are not people.” If you possess all the guns, or all the clubs, or all the land, or a majority on the Supreme Court, you get to set the standards for who is and who is not a person. Sound frightening?

In fact, if you are a mother, you now have exactly that power.

In Roe vs. Wade, seven judges determined that a woman has a “right to privacy” based on her possession of her own body and its reproductive organs. She must be treated as autonomous and as possessing the right to terminate a child who is not yet “viable” (could not survive) outside of her womb. In other words, an unborn child’s dependence upon its mother is twisted to mean that the mother possesses the complete authority to determine whether or not the child is a viable person. A mother can dehumanize it if she wants. Prefers. Wills.

Since then, other philosophers have reasonably extended this will-to-power logic a step further, granting parents the same authority over their infants. And why not if membership in the species is not the standard?

Peel off all the Fourth of July, freedom-and-rights-talk niceties, and here we have the core of the pro-choice argument:

You are not a human person if I don’t want you to be. And I have the power to make it so.

The pro-choice regime has nothing deeper, nothing more rational, nothing more humane. That is the whole argument. I don’t want you to be a person.

We Would Be Gods

Which brings us to a darker interpretation of Clinton’s verbal slip. Maybe it wasn’t a slip at all. Maybe she meant to say person, meant to say child, meant to accustom our ears to hearing those words applied to abortion. She knows the arguments for the child’s humanity and personhood are inevitable. So let’s just get used to it.

“I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life.” says one salon.com staff writer. “And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.” After all: “All life is not equal.”

Is this where Clinton and the pro-choice movement are heading? Freely granting that we’re killing humans?

Dehumanizing your enemies isn’t the only way to justify a killing. You can also harden your conscience. Yes, that is a human person I am killing. So be it.

“What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters,” says David Livingstone Smith, “It’s that they were ordinary human beings.”

In between murderous military campaigns, Smith quotes Mark Twain as saying, humankind “washes the blood off his hands, and works for ‘the universal brotherhood of man’ with his mouth.”

C.S. Lewis, likewise, observed, “The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’…[or] even in concentration camps and labour camps…it is conceived and ordered…in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.” Maybe, like, on the Senate floor? Or in the doctor’s office?

No, not us, surely we are not that bad, are we?

Finally, in fact, Smith’s explanation does not go far enough. It’s not just that we dehumanize others, we divinize ourselves. We would be gods. We would judge who is and who is not human. We would grant ourselves power to assign life and death.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC. He has written for a number of publications and is the author or editor of a number books. He is also an occasional lecturer at Southeastern Baptist Theological … Read More

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24