The importance of being a person

I recently read an interesting argument against abortion. It starts by observing that, at least as far as the right not to be killed is concerned, we extend full human rights to babies despite the fact that they are not fully developed human beings. They lack many of the characteristics which we typically use to differentiate human beings from other animals such as language and a sense of self; yet we don’t regard them as we would non-human animals.

The writer argues that we do this because although a baby is not yet a “person”, it is a “potential person”, meaning that given enough time, the baby could develop the full range of human characteristics. Personhood is an inherent potential of babies, whether or not they live long enough to attain it. Since this is also true of a foetus or even an embryo or zygote, then we should also extend to them the same full human right not to be killed.

Although i’m uncomfortable with the idea of abortion, I disagree with this analysis. I think that our attitude to babies has little to do with their potential to become persons and a lot to do with our desire to ensure that we don’t inadvertently deny this most fundamental human right not to be killed to actual persons. Or to put it another way: it has a lot to do with our fear of (committing or permitting) murder. The further we extend the category of person, the less chance there is that we will exclude someone who should belong in it. Of course, as we do so, we increase the likelihood that we may include some creature who does not belong in it. But this isn’t nearly as serious a problem – at least not in resource-rich societies.

Nor is this simply a matter of altruism: we are also protecting ourselves. The broader the category that is person, the more security we have as persons. Which of us hasn’t been terrified at some point by the image of ourselves afflicted with one of those degenerative conditions which leaves people trapped inside their bodies, unable to communicate – i.e. to demonstrate their personhood? Which of us doesn’t fear conditions like Alzheimer’s or the ordinary deterioration of old age? We all have a vested interest in a relaxed understanding of what is required to have the status of person. It could be argued that we’re protecting ourselves in another way too: it is very hard for us to come to terms with the fact that someone who appears to be a person may not – or may no longer – really possess personhood.

Yet, there are limits on how far the boundaries of the category of person can be extended. The most basic is this: unsure as we may be about what is going on in another creature’s brain – how much consciousness is there, how much complexity of thought – we do know that without a brain nothing is going on. There is no person because there is no-one home to be a person. The brainstem appears to begin to develop at around the age of 6 to 7 weeks after conception. It does not therefore seem in any way reasonable to insist on assigning the rights of a person to a zygote, regardless of what potential it may or may not have for developing into a person.

After that it gets more complicated: there simply isn’t a magic point at which the foetus is clearly and unequivocally a person and indeed the brainstem goes on developing for some months after a baby is born. It does seem likely, based on the available evidence, that even at full term there is only a very limited capacity for anything that could be genuinely be called thought. Yet, we can’t be sure and so our fear of transgressing the taboo of murder is roused.

In a way though, the potential versus actual personhood argument is superficial. Our reactions and attitudes to babies are not primarily intellectual. As a species we reproduce sexually. Our survival as a species (or a collection of genes) hinges on our success in raising our offspring to adulthood so that they too can reproduce sexually. A human baby is helpless and depends on adult human beings (primarily, but not only, the baby’s parents) feeling motivated to intervene on the baby’s behalf, despite the fact that the baby has no ability to reciprocate the gesture. Something so critical can’t be left to the mercy of the higher intellect. If it were, neither the individual baby nor the human species would last very long.

If we really want to understand why someone may accord a baby the human right not to be killed, but deny it to a foetus (especially in the early stages of a pregnancy), then we need to recognise that we are pre-programmed to respond to babies with feelings of protectiveness, even if these feelings may vary in strength and even if this programming is not always reliable. We are hard wired to over-interpret any evidence of personhood in a baby’s behaviour (“Look at her face! She’s wondering what i’m doing.”).

Until modern times no-one would have been able to view directly the behaviour of a living foetus in the womb.  Even now our interactions with it are limited. There has never been the same evolutionary pressure for us to develop such a strong response to it and so our thought processes are less affected by emotion. Indeed, the emotional response we do have to a foetus is an overflow of that prompted by a baby. The less-developed (and hence less baby-like) the foetus, the less strong our response to it). Rather than being illogical in denying the foetus an absolute right not to be killed, we are being all too logical.


2 thoughts on “The importance of being a person

  1. Just over three years ago I received a text message from my brother ‘Call me bro i’ve fucked up’. I knew immediately what had happened.

    Six weeks earlier he had met a wonderful girl and they had hit it off straight away. And now she was pregnant and he did not know what to do. Regardless of his wishes the girl wanted to keep the child and my brother made the decision to stand by her.

    Yesterday I spent several hours rolling around in a tiny bouncy castle, wrestling two maelstroms of energy, one nearly three and the other nearly two years of age. And my brother and the girl? Married and full of a happiness I can only envy.

    I wonder what have happened had they felt differently. I feel the grief she felt when she miscarried only a few months ago. To her the foetus was real, a son or daughter already here, just waiting to be discovered.

    One of my older half-brothers had a daughter, Alice, who was incredibly badly damaged when she was born. Yet she was loved no less for it, and she brought life and light to all in the few shorts months that she lived.

    I believe people should have the choice, but it shouldn’t be disguised by supposition and blithe generalisation. Life should never be disdained, trivialised or dismissed. Whatever the decision made, there is a weight and a cost to it, and that should always be understood and recognised.

    • I don’t think life should be trivialised but we need to be honest with ourselves and avoid projecting our own emotions, needs, thoughts and experiences onto the foetus or at least acknowledge we’re doing it. Those emotions etc are of course real and valid and our decision – either way as you say – when it comes to the question of abortion v. continuing a pregnancy will usually have important emotional consequences for us. For me, abortion wasn’t something I could do. But that was about me as an actual person, not the foetus as a potential person. The fact that that foetus went on to develop into my (much loved) son doesn’t change that.

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