In State legislatures, courtrooms, college dorms and dive bars across the country people are debating whether a human fetus should be considered a person, and therefore respected as possessing an unalienable right to life. Proponents of the idea want to push this identity of a person as far back in time as possible, through embryonic stages and even to the moment of conception.
You might wonder what such a recognition of personhood in a human fetus is intended to accomplish.
We’ll look deeper into the definition of “person” and “personhood” in a bit, but at least for now we should assume that the reason has to do with the philosophical conception of a person as someone who is protected under the Law from murder, injury, abuse, bondage, theft, or discrimination.
From a purely biological point of view, this claim could be made on behalf of a human fetus simply because it is a human fetus and not some other animal species. It is “on the way,” as it were, to becoming a fully formed human, not a fish or a horse.
This has in fact been a foundational argument against abortion for many decades, situated in a value context of religious beliefs that has even motivated a defense against contraception, since it too interferes with god’s design for the reproduction and flourishing of life.
So, given this historical background, why would anyone believe it necessary to award personhood to an already dignified and presumably sacred human being? Perhaps it has to do with the statistically evident fact that children, the poor, minority groups, and women throughout our nation’s history have been abused, exploited, and oppressed – even though they too are presumably human beings and made in god’s image.
If being human isn’t sufficient to warrant protection under the Law, then perhaps adding this designation of person and personhood will do the trick.
The hypocrisy of defending a fetus’ right to life, but then doing nothing to provide children the protection, healthcare, education and empowerment they need to thrive in society, explodes its defense as utterly lacking integrity and ethical vision. Calling a fetus a “person” does nothing to address how we treat persons on the postpartum side of the line. Indeed, given our record on this side, assigning personhood to a fetus might very well have an opposite effect from what these apologists and legislators are pushing for.
But there’s something else. The anti-abortion movement, consisting mainly of conservative evangelicals but supported by some liberal humanists as well, is exposing its lack of understanding when it comes to what makes someone a person and in possession of personhood.
If they persist in their efforts, their cause will only amplify the confusion and eventually fall apart into noisy nonsense.
By definition – and this is always a good place to begin – “person” (along with its cognates personal, personality, and personhood) refers to a fictional character played, or personified, by a stage actor back in Greek and Roman times. The actor would dress the part, take his or her place on the stage, and speak their lines through a mask equipped with a fluted opening at the mouth, from which our term per- (through) sona (speak) derives.
During the theatrical performance, this fictional character would come alive by the animating talent of the actor, engaging with other personae in various settings and delivering to the audience a convincing dramatic rendition.
A person, then, is a narrative convention, not a natural (or even supernatural) entity. Additionally, a person, this mask of identity, has no life apart from the actor, or ego, who puts it on and animates the character. The mask, as it were, is a mediating symbol between the actor who plays the part and the character who comes to life on stage. The psychologist Carl Jung regarded the persona and its personality as a transactional complex of psychosocial identity that is constructed in the crucible of our family and tribal systems.
We can think of it as the costume that culture puts over nature, in order to channel its energies into the great and small stories that give us purpose and make our lives meaningful.
And then there’s the ego itself, which is the actor who puts on, pretends to be, and plays out the identity of a character. Society is its theater, the wide variety of social settings are its performance stage, and social interactions themselves are the role plays where identity is defined and developed.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that ego only wakes up to its own existence inside these character roles and masks of identity. Apart from them – and certainly prior to their introduction in the process of socialization – there is no ego, no “I” without a persona, no actor before there is someone to act as and act out to others.
It is only in the second year of life (postpartum) that a child has acquired enough language to appreciate the fictional characters in story, and sufficient imagination to begin pretending and inhabiting those and other roles of identity. Developmentally speaking, before this ignition of linguistic intelligence, they are neither a person, in possession of personhood, nor yet have the capacity to engage the world from a self-conscious center of personal identity.
It is simply a category mistake of the first order to assign personhood to a fetus. To do so is confused and confusing. Chasing such an argument to its logical conclusion will effectively abort the conviction that its proponents are trying so desperately to deliver.