By / Dec 8

Peter Singer, Princeton’s Ira W. Decamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values, is (in)famous for his arguments about personhood. For Singer, only beings that have sentience can appropriately be describe as persons. Sentience is the ability to experience conscious pleasure and pain. Conscious pain is that interior state of mind that elicits a pain response such that we say to ourselves or others, “Ouch!” “That hurts!” “Stop it!” “Leave me alone!” etc. So, Singer argues, causing any kind of pain to animals is a moral harm and ought to be avoided. The morally good form of life is a vegan lifestyle. 

Because Singer believes that animals are sentient persons and sentient person have rights, including a right to life, Singer has been an advocate for a granting a “right to life” to Great Apes, dolphins, dogs, and other species.  

Furthermore, for Singer, since “a chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility . . . we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans” (Singer, Animal Liberation, p. 19).  Following his own logic has led Singer to defend bestiality and even the rape of disabled people

Singer’s extremism sometimes makes him easy to dismiss and vilify. But, if sentience is what defines personhood, then he may be right. So it’s crucial to understand what personhood is and to recognize who is a person.

Understanding personhood

Personalism is a school of thought that prioritizes the person. According to the personalist account of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, a person is “the particular kind of being that under proper conditions is capable of developing into (or has developed into) a conscious, reflective, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who—as the efficient cause of his or her responsible actions and interactions exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.” This is a very useful starting point, and every clause is important.

“Person” has a long history in theological discourse, especially in the Christological debates of the early church. Orthodox Christians affirm that each member of the Trinity is a person. Those three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are one God. As the hymnwriter put it, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” The Bible also speaks of other persons, including angelic persons and human persons. The early church spent a great deal of time trying to understand who is and who isn’t a person. 

According to the biblical witness, to be human is to be a person.

According to biblical theology, human persons, as distinct from divine and angelic persons, are embodied from conception onward. At conception, at least one genetically unique human person is formed (twinning may occur during the first two weeks of pregnancy). So the psalmist offers a glorious hymn to God in Psalm 139:

“You created my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because of I fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depth of the earth, Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (13-16 NIV). 

Human persons are, however, the only persons who are made in the imago Dei (image of God). Thus, Jesus—fully God and fully human—is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). Likewise, according to Genesis, “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).

Singer defines persons on the basis of their functional capacities (e.g., the ability to experience conscious pleasure and pain). But the Bible nowhere defines personhood that way. In fact, according to the biblical witness, to be human is to be a person. To be made in the image of God is to be a human person. All members of the species Homo sapiens are persons quite apart from their location (in or out of the womb), age (unborn or born), or functional capacities (cognitively disabled or cognitively healthy).

Note again Christian Smith’s definition of a person as “the particular kind of being that under proper conditions is capable of developing into . . . . a conscious, reflective,” etc., being. Unborn human beings are not, therefore, potential persons. They are persons with potential. Under proper conditions (e.g., not being aborted), they will develop those markers of personhood. But those markers of personhood are not personhood itself, but the signs we typically observe to one degree or another in persons.

In my own view, personhood is not a set of functional capacities, but an ontological status. Every entity who is made in the image of God is a person. All Homo sapiens are made in the image of God. Therefore, all Homo sapiens are persons, regardless of other conditions.

By / Dec 1

I had the dubious distinction of graduating from high school in 1973, the year Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton where handed down by the Supreme Court, giving the U.S. the most permissive abortion policy in the Western world. I remember well the question everyone was asking at that time: “When does human life begin?” 

Justice Harry Blackmun famously wrote in the court’s majority opinion, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer” (p 159). For decades, the abortion debated hinged on the answer to that question. 

Today, no matter what their view on the legality of abortion, every informed and honest person agrees that an individual human life begins at conception. The science is settled. When half the chromosomes from a woman’s egg line fuse with the other half from a man’s sperm, a new, genetically unique human being comes into existence. To be exact, at least one genetically unique human being comes into existence, because twinning is still possible at that point.  So, human life begins at conception.

We’ve known the science for a long time, but the implications have become clearer over time. For instance, the debates in the early 2000s over human embryonic stem cells actually helped to clarify the debate about abortion. For a long time, the debate about abortion was ostensibly as much about a woman’s body as about the destruction of an embryo or fetus. Abortion was justified, and still is by many, on the basis of a woman’s right to control what happens in her body. The fetus is in her body, so the woman has a right to have it removed, even if doing so results in the death of the fetus—or so the argument goes. 

With the human embryonic stem cell debate, the woman’s body was removed from the equation. The light was shown like a laser on the living human embryo. Human eggs and sperm were retrieved from donors, fertilized in a petri dish, and coaxed to develop in vitro (literally, in glass). The debate about human embryonic stem cell research was never about “when human life begins.” Everyone knew that the eggs were from a human female, the sperm from a human male, and the result was living human embryos. Dead embryos would not work for research purposes. And the scientist doing the research did not want dog embryos, cat embryos, or even mouse embryos. They wanted human embryos, and that’s what they got. Living. Human. Embryos.

The question of personhood

How, then, can someone who believes that human life begins at conception justify abortion or even human embryonic stem cell research? Because the question has been reframed. Of course the embryos are clearly human, and of course these tiny humans are clearly alive, but they are not persons. The argument shifts then. Yes, persons have a right to life—a right not to be unnecessarily harmed—but, the argument goes, human embryos are not yet persons. Only persons have a right to life. 

When does personhood begin?  That is the question now. Or to put it another way, are embryos persons? Are fetuses persons? For that matter, are newborns persons?  

In a seminal essay on abortion, reprinted in nearly every introductory anthology on ethics, philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson posed a hypothetical. Suppose, she said, you awakened one morning to find that someone had surgically connected your kidneys to a world-class concert violinist in order to preserve the ailing violinist’s life. This will mean that you might be confined to a bed for nine days, nine months, or nine years, depending on how long he lives. Thomson asked, “Are you morally obligated to maintain the connection?” 

She then embarks on a very interesting, if convoluted, journey to try to demonstrate that you only have a very minimal obligation to sustain the life of the violinist if doing so does not cause great inconvenience to you. Even though she is willing to grant for the sake of the argument that a fetus is a person, at the end of the essay she reveals her own view of the moral status of the unborn human being. “At this place, however, it should be remembered that we have only been pretending throughout that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person, and so is not dealt with by anything I have said here.” Case closed. Fetuses are not persons, according to Thomson. So, is no harm done in killing “it”? No, to be accurate, the fetus is a him or her. Even our language signals that fetuses are gendered persons. 

What is personhood? Or, better, who is a human person? Human persons (in contrast to divine and angelic persons) are individual members of the species Homo sapiens. Rocks are not persons, plants are not persons, and animals are not persons, despite efforts to grant great apes, dolphins, and other animals personhood status. In theological terms, a human is someone made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:27). 

In Genesis 9:1-7, God makes a distinction between animals and humans, giving Noah and his family permission to kill the animals for food, but prohibiting the unjust killing of another human being because humans alone are made in God’s own image. The image of God, the imago Dei, is the basis of human exceptionalism. Although there are various theories about just what constitutes the image of God in humanity, it’s clear from Scripture that human beings alone are made in God’s image.

Human beings—imagers of God—are persons from conception. This is clear in passages like Psalm 139:13-16 (HCSB):

For it was You who created my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You
because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made.
Your works are wonderful,
and I know this very well.
My bones were not hidden from You
when I was made in secret,
when I was formed in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me when I was formless;
all my days were written in Your book and planned
before a single one of them began.

David, the psalmist, acknowledges God’s intricate handiwork in the womb. He also realizes that God knew him as a person before he was born. The real questions today, then, are who counts as persons, and what are our obligations to persons? If every member of the species Homo sapiens is a person, then we have certain obligations not to unnecessarily harm other human beings. The unjust taking of the life of an unborn human being is a harm. Therefore, abortion is wrong because it is the destruction of a human person.