Abortion and the Definition of Personhood

Abortion and the Definition of Personhood

In this second article, we will consider the definition of personhood and how it relates to the issue of abortion. Anti-life advocates argue that a fetus is not a person, but merely a potential person. Therefore, they need not be afforded the rights and protections due to a person. Anti-life advocates argue for personhood either when the fetus is considered viable (able to survive outside the womb) or when it acquires some characteristic (sentience, self-consciousness, relationality, etc.), but both of these positions have massive problems.

The argument from viability essentially claims that a fetus should only be considered a person and therefore morally significant once it is viable, that is, able to survive outside the womb of the mother. This definition of personhood is problematic on two accounts. First, it is no real test of personhood, only a test of the progress of technology. This is because date of viability is determined by the technology available to keep an infant alive. Since the development of modern neonatal technology, the age of viability has gone down to around 24 weeks. Before the development of this technology the age of viability would have been much later. I say this to make the point that viability is not a static standard and really says nothing about the personhood of the infant, 24 week old babies were no different 100 years ago than they are today, yet today they are viable and then they were not. So, how does progress in technology change the definition of personhood? Was it not murder to abort a 24-year-old baby 100 years ago but it is murder today? Will it be murder in the coming decades to abort an 18-week-old fetus because of the advances of technology, but it is not murder today?

The second problem using viability as the standard for personhood is that it claims too much. Until the infant can survive independently of the mother, it is not considered viable. But why is dependence on the mother the only thing that counts? A premature baby is still dependent on a host of medical staff to survive, why can it be a person while it is dependent on them? In fact, most of us are dependent on others for our survival. I would wager that not 1 in 100 people could survive if dropped off in the wilderness and forced to live completely independently of all other human beings – does that mean most humans are not persons? Of course not. Then ground is there to single out independence from the mother as the only thing that matters with respect to personhood? Philosopher Peter Kreeft sums it up well, “What I am in the womb (a person or a non-person) cannot be determined by what machines exist outside the womb! But viability is determined by such things. Therefore, personhood cannot be determined by viability.”[1]

The second standard anti-life advocates use as definitive of personhood is some acquired characteristic, be it rationality, self-consciousness, brain-waves, heart-beat, relationality, or birth. These need not be addressed individually because they all make the same flaw: assuming a functional definition of personhood. Functionalism says that a being is a person if said being has qualities X, Y, and Z. This, however, is to put the card before the horse and confuse substance with accidence, that is to confuse functioning as a person with being a person.[2] It is because one is a person that he is rational, self-conscious, and relational, not the other way around. Philosopher Francis Beckwith says,

In other words, while personhood criteria…can tell us that a being is a person, these criteria are not adequate to declare a being a non-person: The exercise of rational thought tells us that a being is a person; when that person is sleeping, and thus is not exercising rational thought, that lack of exercise of the thought function does not make her a non-person at that time.[3]

To Beckwith’s example of a sleeping person not utilizing his rational capacity, an anti-life advocate might object that he is still a person because he had a previous history of functioning as a person. Yet Beckwith insightfully points out that this very argument undermines functionalism, for,

To claim that a person can be functional, become nonfuctional, and then return to a state of function is to assume that there is some underlying personal unity to this individual that makes it intelligible for us to say that the person who has returned to functional capacity is the same person who was functional prior to being in a nonfunctional state. But this would mean that human function is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for personhood. Consequently it does not make sense to say that a person comes into existence when human functions arises. Rather it does make sense to say that a fully human entity is a person who has the natural inherent capacity to give rise to human functions. And since an unborn entity typically has this natural inherent capacity, she is a person.[4]

Furthermore, if we accept functionalism as a system we run in to a whole host of problems. What characteristics are necessary for personhood? Who gets to decide? Why do they get to decide? How much of each characteristic is needed? How are the characteristics measured? Who gets to decide how much of each characteristic and how it is measured? What gives them that right?[5] History has taught us how dangerous it is to let a set of characteristics define personhood, all too easily those in power can simply define their enemies (whether blacks in the case of slavery or Jews in the case of Nazism) as non-persons and therefore legitimize mass murder. It is unfortunately easy to imagine arguments being made in the not so distant future that those beneath a certain IQ, with a different political view, holding to a different view of sexuality, etc. are not persons; this is the result of a functional view of personhood, those in power define what functions are necessary for personhood and relegate those who disagree with them to the status of non-person. In our case those in power are the mothers and abortion doctors and those depersonalized are the unborn.


[1] Kreeft, Peter. “Personhood Begins at Conception.” PeterKreeft.com. n.d. http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/personhood.htm (accessed January 23, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Beckwith, Francis J. “Abortion, Bioethics, and Personhood: A Philosophical Reflection.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 200, p. 18.

[4] Beckwith, Francis J. “Brave New Bible: A Reply to the Moderate Evangelical Position on Abortion.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 1990, p. 503.

[5] Kreeft, “Personhood.”

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6 thoughts on “Abortion and the Definition of Personhood

  1. As technology advances, I think the pro-life position will be proven as the correct one, especially if we continue to use viability to define personhood. Medical science will gradually advance to the point where babies can live independently from their mothers after shorter and shorter periods of gestation.

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  2. Using buzzwords like “anti-life” to covertly vilify pro-choice advocates discredits your position because it is dishonest and passive aggressive.

    You are obviously smarter than believing that pro-choice people are evil and literally anti-human life;
    If an honest debate is what you want, perhaps don’t insult the opponent (at least not with easy, cheap, unoriginal words like “anti-life”).

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    1. I chose to use that language because it gets to the heart of the issue. I don’t believe those who support abortion are pro-choice in any meaningful sense because they deny the aborted baby the choice to live (and all other choices). Considering that the abortion industry has killed over 60 million babies in the United States alone since Roe vs. Wade, I think it is a fair enough characterization of them as “anti-life”. I am choosing to define the group by what they are against rather than what they are for. You can always characterize groups by what they are for, but that often obscures the issue (for example. you could call the National Socialist Party of Germany – the Nazi’s – the “pro-public education” or “pro-old age welfare” party according to their 25 point plan from 1920).

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      1. Referring to people who support abortion rights as “anti life” does not get to the heart of the issue whatsoever. It is another emotional appeal.

        This kindergarten notion that a two week fertilized egg deserves the same rights as a six month gestated fetus is absolutely barbaric and toxic to society. And it’s extremely ironic coming from a man, who will never have to worry about preventing pregnancy.

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