What does it mean to be a person?

David - Mesa, Arizona
Entered on April 1, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: birth, question

Recently, at the university where I work, I encountered large graphic exhibits on the malls depicting the medical realities of abortion.

As I watched the inevitable shouting matches erupt, escalate and rehash the same points over and over again, I realized the conflict between pro-life and pro-choice has not changed. It is time to think in new ways about abortion by thinking in new ways about who and what we are, about what it means to be a person.

This I believe:

Abortion is legal because a fetus, while recognized as human in nature and alive, is not legally recognized as a person and so does not possess rights that must be protected. This leads to questions of personhood, and, more importantly, of humanity.

Unprecedented advances in biotechnology demand that we re-examine not only what it means to be a person, in the legal sense, but also what it means to be human, in the biological sense. Blending two species to make a new one, a chimera, is a good example that may not be too far away. If human DNA and animal DNA are mixed to produce new life forms, how much human DNA must be present for the new creature to be considered “human”? If human, what measure will establish a chimera as a person? Ultimately, the answers will be determined by what we choose, as will the fate of many yet-to-be-created organisms, human or not, persons or not, as the case may be.

Abortion is controversial because notions of personhood are either relative or absolute, and these are mutually exclusive deeply held moral convictions. Each of these bring their own concerns.

If personhood begins at conception, according to an absolutist view, then extreme forms of vigilantism, such as killing abortion doctors or bombing abortion clinics, are justified as protection of the innocent, and therefore moral imperatives.

On the other hand, history repeatedly shows that relativism leads to dehumanization, which by definition, distinguishes an us from a them. This distinction has always preceded killing on grand scales. In the case of abortion, the question is not about what a fetus is or is not, but rather, what we have become in order to kill so many of them.

My goal is not to suggest one perspective or the other, but rather to ask what it means to be who and what we are, because our view of ourselves brings consequences for humanity. Our understanding of personhood establishes not only who we are, but also who we will become.

Given a choice about what it means to be a person, I hope we who currently qualify will choose wisely. Our future depends on it.

This I believe.