Abortion and Personhood Part 1: Framing the Debate

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke over at Patheos have put together the Forward Thinking project in order to pose philosophical questions to a variety of bloggers to gain new perspectives on a diverse range of topics. This round, the question is “What Is Personhood?” This is a key point in the abortion debate, but Libby Anne has specifically stated that this is strictly a question of personhood and not about whether abortion should be legal. Still, they are too related not to mention together.

Framing the Debate

Pretty much this entire debate revolves around picking a critical qualitative difference between the human organism at one point and the human organism at another in order to say that the later one has some new quality which makes it a person. Because human beings don’t magically move through stages like a Pokémon, this is remarkably hard to do. Humans grow cell by cell, little by little, not in big sweeping motions. Measuring qualitative changes, then, is going to be a fairly coarse-grained process.

This topic is huge, so I want to do this in pieces. In this first installment, let’s just try to get a sense of where the debate stands by looking at a few key concepts to the debate as a whole. In part two, I will examine my own views in a further detail.

Generally Pro-Life Concepts

  • Conception

The first major point in the debate is, of course, the moment of conception, after which the sperm and egg cells have merged to become a zygote. Most pro-life proponents defend life from this point, as the new organism which has now emerged is, in a genetic sense, human, and human life is sacred. However, I am not certain whether even pro-life proponents would consider this new zygote a person. Nevertheless, it remains an important moment for us to consider, because it is really the only major qualitative change which we can observe from moment to moment. Theoretically, we could measure this to the second.

  • Trajectory

The primary philosophical force behind pro-life positions taken at the moment of conception is that a zygote, left to its normal trajectory, would at the very least develop into a person, assuming there is not a miscarriage. When we are considering personhood here, it is important to note that we are also considering potential personhood, not merely personhood itself.

  • Viability

The age of viability is ever shrinking. That is, we are able support new human life at earlier and earlier ages. Closely related to the trajectory argument is the argument that there is potential for technology to progress so far as to be able to support new human life all the way from the time of conception, all without the help of the mother. The freshly fertilized zygote may one day be viable human life. If so, then we may confer on it personhood.

Generally Pro-Choice Concepts

  • Autonomy/Dependence

While no one is ever wholly independent, a zygote/embryo/fetus displays a high degree of dependence on the mother. It is incapable of making decisions for itself. The argument here is that personhood is going to involve a particular degree of autonomy. It may be unclear exactly what level of autonomy confers personhood, and that may merit some investigation, but we could, for example, pick a safe point which is well on the other side of wherever the line is between personhood and non-personhood.

  • Mental Activity

Closely related to autonomy is mental activity. If we were to accept the argument of personhood being a degree of autonomy, then one way in which we could draw a safe line marking off personhood would be to draw the line at the presence of mental activity. In this case, we would call a person an embodied mind, though not necessarily in a Cartesian dualistic sense of the body and mind being separable things.

Closing Remarks

With all of these ideas on the table, it may seem quite daunting to have to pick a perspective and defend it to the exclusion of others. In the next post, I will offer my own views in effort to try to clarify or narrow down where exactly the idea of personhood really lies.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
This entry was posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics, Metaphysics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Abortion and Personhood Part 1: Framing the Debate

  1. Pingback: Abortion and Personhood Part 2: Narrowing the Search | The Discerning Christian

  2. Pingback: Forward Thinking: Personhood

  3. Pingback: A Question often Missed in the Abortion Debate |

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