In Part 1, I looked at some of the major philosophical ideas behind the debate about personhood. Again, at least from a philosophical standpoint and to say nothing of the rhetoric which frames this issue on political stages, the debate is essentially concerned with nailing down a key qualitative difference between the human at one moment and the human at the next. Because we don’t grow in definite stages like Charmander or even a caterpillar, our search is coarse-grained. We are not trying to discern personhood in a fetus from second to second but between days or weeks.
The Primary Contenders
There are three main points of significant, discernible qualitative difference in my previous post: conception, the point of viability, and the presence of mental activity. However, because the point of viability is ever-creeping toward the time of conception, I will eliminate it as a contender for personhood. Personhood is something fundamental about the fetus, whereas viability is a product of technology.
If we accept conception as the point at which personhood begins, then we are implicitly accepting the trajectory argument that the importance of a fetus (or any other prenatal human) comes from its status as a human on the path to maturity. This has a particular force in that even after birth, a baby is not really an autonomous individual, which is the thrust of the mental activity argument, yet we most certainly consider it a person. The principle of trajectory still applies after birth.
Autonomy really isn’t the whole picture of the mental activity argument, though. The real force of the mental activity argument for personhood is that there is some intrinsic quality to the individual at a given time which constitutes its identity. Whereas the trajectory argument talks about potential, the mental activity argument talks about what is actual.
A Common Language Critique
A common philosophical technique is to examine the way we use words in conversation, i.e. in common language. The advantage here is that we can take a good look at our natural intuitions about a subject without having to concoct an entire theoretical framework to support our conclusions. So the question is to ask how we use the word “person” in the most natural sense.
Suppose your friend unknowingly walks up to a very realistic mannequin and tries to strike up a conversation. You would say to him, “That’s not a person.” He wouldn’t recoil and ask for the definition of a person; he would have an intuition about what you mean, and then he would likely express embarrassment for having made such a mistake. Which of these two options — trajectory or mental activity — seems to coincide best with our understanding of a person in this context?
The answer is pretty clearly the mental activity argument. We consider the non-personhood of a mannequin by its inability to process and interact with what we are saying. For anyone who has been keeping up with my blog for some time, this may ring a bell: we judge personhood by its ability to be with us. When we strip away all the argumentation and rhetoric of the abortion debate, we see that the capacity for interaction between subjects already defines what we mean by personhood; we just didn’t know it yet.
What This Doesn’t Mean
Logically speaking, there are lots of things that this doesn’t mean, but there are a few things that are relevant. First off, this doesn’t solve the abortion debate. The trajectory argument is still a potential contender in that debate, but as stated in part 1, the trajectory argument is about potential personhood, and as shown here, it is has nothing to do with defining personhood itself.
Though Forward Thinking is discussing strictly the topic of personhood, I want to tease out slightly what the conclusions here mean for the abortion debate more broadly. As Libby Anne points out in the original post, conferring personhood does not mean you are opposed to abortion, but the opposite is also true: lack of personhood does not mean support for abortion.
Participants in the abortion debate have three questions remaining, by my count (perhaps four — the last one could be two): the value of potential personhood, the value of actual personhood, and how we respond to those values. For me as a Christian, the answer to the second and its correlating question in the third is that we must cherish and protect all people, no matter how insignificant or disadvantaged, but some of the implications of that are much more complicated than the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy will usually grant. Furthermore, the first question seems at first glance to be incredibly hard if not unsolvable.
Stay tuned for further posts on the subject which depart from the prompt and explore the topic of abortion more broadly.
Be sure to weigh in below if you have critiques of what it really means to be a person.