Abortion and Personhood Part 2: Narrowing the Search

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.

Concluding Remarks

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.


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.
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5 Responses to Abortion and Personhood Part 2: Narrowing the Search

  1. braudcj says:

    I’m pleased that you distinguished the value of potential personhood as an independent question we still need to answer. I’m worried that it gets overlooked. Given, as you say, this question is incredibly difficult or even unsolvable, I wonder if we should not take a Pascal’s wager sort of look at it when it comes to acting practically with what we know. It seems to me that we ought to act on the matter as though the potentiality of personhood is important (which I’m inclined to think anyway), given the greater risk of acting otherwise.

    • That’s certainly an option worth considering, and I will likely include it in my next post. In all honesty, I don’t know what I believe on this topic. I am figuring it out as I hammer through it.

  2. Pingback: Forward Thinking: Personhood

  3. Marta Layton says:

    Fascinating blog topic. I’m teaching an ethics class and we’re in the middle of wading through Kant’s answer to this question and its implications. I can assure you they go beyond abortion!

    One question I’d like to see addressed in more detail: do we need to distinguish between questions of the fetus’s right to life and the mother’s obligation to support that life. For instance, I may encounter a beggar who has a right to life, but that doesn’t obligate me to buy him food, at least not to the extent that I’d be guilty of murder if I didn’t do that. I’d expect this to follow even if I was the only person who could help him. It seems to me you’d need to show I have a special obligation to support this person. (This is where the best pro-choice arguments go, I think: not to the right to kill, but to the mother’s right to deny use of her body if she chooses not to do so.)

    Btw, you have a new reader. I’m glad to have met you through the Forward Thinking prompt.

    • Welcome! Glad you enjoyed the post. A lot of my posts end up covering primarily issues in Christian culture, but I almost always approach them philosophically rather than theologically (“theology” playing more the role of “cultural understanding” in most cases). Anyhow, I don’t remember Kant ever covering this question. Which book is this?

      To give an off-the-cuff sort of answer to your question, as long as the fetus’s right to life is dependent on the mother’s support, we have a de facto obligation on the mother. This may decrease with technology. There may be further reasons to suppose that the mother has obligations to the child, but I think this is a sufficient condition. What good is a right if no one has an obligation to actualize it for you? Rights make demands of others.

      Of course, conflicting rights must resolve their priority, so you would have to decide whether the mother’s right to control the functions of her body is greater than the fetus’s right to life. This prioritization process may not have a fixed answer. This merits another blog post…

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