Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is Personhood?

What is humanity? What is personhood? What makes a human being so uniquely a human being? Are all human beings equal? These are questions we must answer.

Not answering these questions – as individuals and as a society – means we have no way to apply the law equally to all human beings. If we don’t know who is a human, how do we know who has human rights? If we don’t know what a person is, how can we tell if we are mistreating one? There has to be a conclusive answer and we have to find it. It’s not good enough to say that no one knows and leave it at that. If it’s really true that no one knows, then we are guilty of criminal ignorance because we have not answered this extremely important question. How can we even pretend to have a just law or any measure of equality if we can’t even determine who it is that is supposed to be equal?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy question to answer. Defining personhood is difficult. But not because it’s too complicated or esoteric or unanswerable. It’s difficult because we don’t like the obvious answer. We want to make it more complicated so we can avoid the question or relegate it to the realm of unanswerable mysteries. The implications of the obvious answer are as profound as they are unsettling.

The simple truth is that all living biological organisms with human DNA are human persons, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, stage of development, location, gender, disability, or any other characteristic. Those things are only ways of describing a person. They don’t define one.

The problem is that we humans are really good at ignoring or denying this simple fact. We have a really bad track record when it comes to how we treat other humans. We’re very good at rationalizing our prejudices and bad behavior. One way we rationalize this mistreatment of each other is to deny that the other person IS a person. We tend to explain away the humanity and worth of our fellow humans so as to justify treating them differently. We say we want equality, but we really mean “equality” for people like ourselves.

History is full of examples. Trying to separate humanity and personhood, as if they were different things, has been done throughout the ages by those who wish to trample on the rights of others. In Nazi Germany, it was the Jews, the physically and mentally disabled, and the gypsies (among others) who weren’t “persons.” In US pre-Civil War times, it was the African Americans who weren’t “persons.” Even women were once considered less of a person than men. And those are just a few of the more recent examples. But every time we have tried to separate humanity and personhood, we have been wrong. And it has led to horrific crimes against other people.

On this side of history, we see the mistakes of the past and we wonder how anyone could think it was okay to murder, rape, and enslave other human beings. Couldn’t they see how wrong it was? And yet we still haven’t learned our lesson. We still try to define personhood as some esoteric property that some humans do not possess.

I’m referring, of course, to abortion. The murder of the unborn.

We aren’t as enlightened as we think we are. We’re still trying to pretend that some humans aren’t people so we can justify mistreating them. We just changed the criteria. Rather than looking down our noses at people of another skin color, we are ignoring the rights of the youngest and weakest among us. Why? Well, they look different. Same argument, different wrapping paper.

Not only do we ignore the rights of the unborn, but we pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness in defining personhood in the process. We’re so proud that we’ve given up defining personhood by superficial characteristics like skin color or gender. We have better criteria now.  Personhood has to do with self-consciousness. Or maybe it’s about being able to survive outside a womb. Or maybe it’s a heart beat. Or brain waves. Or eating chocolate. Ok, maybe we aren’t sure. But we are sure that those unborn children aren’t the same as us. The details aren’t important. They don’t have whatever it is that makes us a person, so it’s not like it’s murder to kill one. Until they develop that property – whatever it is – it’s okay to end their lives.

The problem with this argument is that “human-ness” or personhood – this elusive quality that makes us uniquely valuable and gives us human rights – is an either-or proposition. You either have it or you don’t. You either are a person or you aren’t. There are no gradations of humanity. We can’t be partially human or almost human. We don’t have some people that are more of a person than others. We have people that are bigger or older or more developed. We have people that are richer or poorer, taller or shorter, more or less capable. But we’re all equally human and equally valuable. We don’t gain our humanity by gaining any physical or mental abilities; nor do we lose it if we lose those abilities. We have this personhood attribute when we begin to exist and we have it for as long as we exist. There is no in-between.

Since development is a gradual process, taking tiny steps of growing ability, it cannot bestow humanity. Personhood must be gained all at once – going from “not a person” to “person” in one giant leap. It cannot be achieved gradually because there are no gradations of humanity or personhood. You can’t gradually develop personhood as you gradually develop consciousness or body functions.

In the end, we see that all attempts to separate humanity and personhood fail. Race doesn’t provide a logical basis for denying personhood. But neither does development. We have to face the facts, no matter how uncomfortable we find them.

The ONLY event that objectively and categorically produces a new human being where there wasn’t one before…

The radical event that we can all point to as the beginning of life…

The time when development starts and a new and unique individual is formed…

…is fertilization.

Only fertilization meets the criteria for an event that creates a new human life. All humans must be persons. Fertilization creates a human. So at fertilization we achieve our humanity and our personhood. The two cannot be separated.

Nothing else makes sense.


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