Can A Person Be Disqualified From Personhood?

When I was nine,  I remember learning there were people who might hate me because of something I had no control over. I was in the grocery store with my dad, and it was a few days before Hanukkah. Even though my mom is Christian, my dad is Jewish, so in our house we got to celebrate the holidays of both religions. I said to my dad in an excited plea, “Can we get some latkes?” (Latkes are potato pancakes Jews eat at Hanukkah). My dad turned to me and with a serious look said, “Shh. We don’t need anyone to know we’re Jewish.”

This confused me. Why would it matter if someone knew I was of Jewish ethnicity any more than if they knew I liked potato pancakes? I was then given a lesson about anti-Semites. My grandfather was assaulted in the Navy because he was Jewish. After the war he changed his name from Hornstein to Horn so as not to arouse any suspicion regarding his heritage.
It crushed me to learn that some people would say that while I was certainly a biological human being, my ancestry lessened or even voided my human value. I couldn’t believe there were people who thought I wasn’t a person.

What is a person?

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When faced with the stubborn facts of science, honest skeptics will admit that the unborn are at least individual members of the human species. What these skeptics will not admit is that each individual member of our species deserves the same basic rights. In order to bear that burden of proof, skeptics become disqualifiers who claim that unborn children do not have a right to life. They claim that because the unborn are different from born humans, they are not persons.

Isn’t this kind of argument familiar? Every time in history a group of human beings has been disqualified from being considered people (e.g.., blacks, women, Jews, the mentally handicapped), the reason for the disqualification turned out to be bogus. Of course, the experiences of these groups differ dramatically from the experiences of aborted unborn children (who are usually not self-aware when they are aborted), so it isn’t wise to say abortion is “just like” slavery or the Holocaust. However, it should be noted that the process of stripping the unborn of their personhood because of morally irrelevant biological traits does parallel previous oppression of born people.

Since all human beings differ in size, intelligence, skin color, gender, and physical ability, we must ground human equality in the one thing that is truly equal about all of us: our human nature. Otherwise, if a person’s right to life is based on a property that comes in degrees, such as his level of intelligence, then the right to life itself would come in degrees. For example, smarter people would have more of a right to life than the less smart. Even pro-choice philosophers who are sympathetic to this view, like Jeff McMahan, recognize it “rest[s] on distressingly insecure foundations” and seems to conflict with society’s cherished belief that all human beings should have equal rights.

It makes more sense to associate our right to life, a property you either have or don’t, with something a human being either does or doesn’t have—in this case, being a member of a rational kind like the human species. The sixth-century philosopher Boethius said that a person was “an individual substance with a rational nature.” What this means is that a particular being is a person, or has basic rights, if it is a member of a rational kind. But this definition of personhood is not “human-centric,” because even intelligent aliens or other rational beings such as angels would be persons under such a view.

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Even if we can’t function rationally (such as when we were infants), we were still members of a valuable kind that deserves respect and protection under the law. Since we remain members of the human kind throughout our entire existence, it follows that through every stage of our existence we deserve the respect and protection humans normally receive.

Use your SLED

After you’ve presented your view that all human beings should be given equal rights (which is hopefully common ground), it is up to the disqualifier to show why unborn humans should be disqualified from having those rights. In order to disqualify the unborn from being considered persons, the critic has to know what a person is. After all, we disqualify squares from being considered triangles because we know the definition of a triangle is having three sides, and we know that a square has four.

If the disqualifier doesn’t know what a “person” is except that fetuses aren’t people, then his view is as bigoted as the racist’s view that the only thing he knows about black “persons” is that they don’t have the same basic rights he has. In order to justify their position, disqualifiers usually pick a difference between born and unborn humans and say that until the unborn grow enough to overcome this crucial difference, they are not persons with a right to life.

The philosopher Stephen Schwartz has argued that there are only four differences between born and unborn humans, and none of the differences justifies depriving unborn humans of the right to life.
Schwartz uses the acronym SLED to summarize these differences:

  • Size
  • Level of development
  • Environment
  • Degree of dependency

Just as we would ask a racist why skin color makes someone less valuable, we should ask disqualifiers why SLED differences make someone less valuable—or not a someone at all. We must make disqualifiers defend their view of personhood and show why it is superior to the pro-life view based on universal human equality.

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Abortion and subsequent mental health: Review of the literature