John's Logic: Personhood
Updated: May 24, 2022
Whenever the topic of abortion is brought up, arguments from the pro-choice and
those who oppose abortion often revolve around the following question: What is a
person? Whether or not you think abortion is justified, morally licit etc. you must
consider this question. Even if, for the sake of argument, you concede that an
abortion kills a person but are still pro-choice, the weight of deciding that a person in
their mother’s womb can (and in some cases ought to) be killed is not something to
be taken lightly.
The question of “what is a person?” is clearly one of utmost importance on both
counts. For if what develops in the womb for nine months is a person, then we as a
society have legalised the killing of not only persons but innocent persons.
What follows is a brief summary and generalisation of two accounts of “personhood”: one pro-choice, the other anti-abortion. The aim, however, is not to delve into the various nuances and distinctions between the two accounts. It is to summarise the accounts of personhood as given by the anti-abortion and pro-choice sides, and briefly explain the anti-abortion view by contrasting it to the pro-choice view.
The pro-abortion view
Let us first take a brief look at two of the more famous definitions proposed by pro-
choice philosophers Mary Anne Warren and Peter Singer. For Singer, a person is a
being that possesses two things, the capacity to:
anticipate the future; and
have wants and desires for the future (as he states on his blog's FAQ page).
While for Warren, one must have the following criteria in order to qualify as a
the capacity to communicate; and
At first glance we see a few similarities between these definitions of “persons”,
though Warren’s view seems to be more common among those who advocate for a
woman’s “right” to choose abortion. The point, however, is that when opponents of
anti-abortionists claim that “a fetus is not a person” (or some variation of this) they
mean that a fetus does not possess the functioning qualities listed by both Warren
and Singer. This is true (to a certain extent), for a fetus cannot anticipate the future, they cannot reason to the same extent as readers of this sentence, they cannot “communicate”
But, as we shall see below, here lies the difference between the Pro-Choice and
Anti-Abortionist view (generally speaking): the latter denies that the qualities
mentioned above must be functioning in order for the thing, or being, to be a person.
The anti-abortion view
For those who are anti-abortion, a fetus is a person. But why? Generally speaking, the
reason lies in the following conception of “person”; a being that is naturally gifted with
the capacity or potentiality to know, love, desire, and relate to self and others in a
Now at first glance this may look no different to the ideas proposed by Singer and
Warren. Indeed, both the pro-choice and anti-abortion side seem to define “person”
in terms of “capacities”. However, "person" and "capacities" are very different for two reasons:
1) In defining “person” as a being that has the afore mentioned capacities “naturally”,
we are saying that these capacities are already present in said being. In other words, a person does not have to exercise their capacity to know, love, desire etc. in other
to keep his or her status as a person. On the other hand, those who are pro-choice
would generally say the opposite. For them, the capacity to love is not present until one
is able to exercise it. .
2) Given these natural capacities, they do not “develop” or “evolve” once an egg is
fertilized. For those who are anti-abortion, once a human being is formed the
capacity to know, love etc. is already present. Such capacities may be refined
and perfected as a human being grows older, but they do not simply pop into
existence after said human is formed.
In other words, there is no sense in which a human being can be “human”
without also being a “person” For, as stated in reason 2), the afore mentioned capacities
are already present in a human from conception till death. We therefore cannot deny that a fetus is a person. In other words, by the time science is able to detect a growing human inside the womb of a mother, that human is a person and has been a person for quite some time.
A benefit of the anti-abortion view
Now that we have acknowledged two opposing ways of defining a person, a question
still remains: Why choose either? Why prefer the one proposed by anti-abortionists
as opposed to those proposed by the pro-choice philosophers?
There are many reasons for this preference, too many to go into here. But perhaps
one reason to prefer “personhood” as defined by anti-abortionists is that it seems to
better address the question of why we have the capacities to know, love etc. even
after losing the ability to exercise them. For us, these capacities are present once an
egg is fertilized, continue to be present as we grow, and are no longer present once
we die. In other words, the existence of our capacities are tied to the life and death of
a human being. They do not, as most pro-choice advocates would have us believe,
come in and out of existence at various (arbitrarily chosen) stages of development. If
this were not the case, where do such capacities “go”? How would a human being,
still being a human, be able to exercise their capacity to know or love without it
always being present, despite it being “gone” for some considerable period of time?
Thus, the anti-abortion view gives simplest account of why we have the capacities to
know, love etc. even after losing the ability to exercise them. While this is not
necessarily a conclusive argument against the pro-choice conception, it nonetheless provides support for the anti-abortion view of “person”.
As we have seen above, the anti-abortion view offers no room for distinction
between a “human being” and a “person”. They are essentially one in the same thing.
But this raises the question: how does this impact the abortion debate?
It was noted that the question of personhood is very much important when it comes
to deciding if it is morally licit to abort the fetus. Given the anti-abortion view, it is
clear that to kill a human being is to kill a person, and to kill a person is to kill a
human being. There is no distinction. Abortion ends the life of those with the capacity
to love, to learn, and form relationships. And while there is debate among pro-lifers
whether or not it is helpful to say this about abortion, we do know that the killing of
innocent persons is murder.
The weight of the decision to kill a developing child in the womb is heavy if the anti-
abortion view is correct.
All the more reason to fight for the protection of unborn children, as well as support
mothers who see abortion as their only option.