What does it mean to be a person?
The irresolvable 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.
Abortion is legal because a fetus, while recognized as human in nature and living, 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 reexamine 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. Likewise, experimental research or, dare I suggest, commercial product development involving genetically modified embryos, or embryonic stem cell therapies, create highly controversial ethical dilemmas.
In like manner, any point in fetal development selected to define personhood is difficult to justify because there are so many unknown variables. Some hold that personhood begins at conception and others at implantation, while the law holds it is established at birth, whatever that means. With the advent of the modern c-section, our notions of what constitutes "birth" had to be revised. Note that in so called "partial birth" abortions, most of the fetus is actually outside the mother at the time the fetal brain is destroyed, although at 5 or 6 months, the fetus is not viable. But what if modern medicine learns how to keep such a preemie alive until it is viable, what then?
Someone once asked "if killing a fetus by accident is manslaughter, e.g. under the terms of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, what is killing it on purpose?" This Act is predicated on the notion that the mother alone has the right to determine the fate of the fetus, not on any rights the fetus may have under the law. To underscore the rights of the mother, specific provisions of the Act prevent prosecution of the mother in any case, even if the mother survives a suicide attempt, but the fetus does not.
Abortion is controversial because notions of personhood are either absolute or relative, 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 most innocent, and therefore moral imperatives.
On the other hand, history repeatedly shows that relativism regarding personhood leads to dehumanization, which by definition, distinguishes an “us” from a “them”. This distinction has always preceded killing on grand scales, which explains the absolutist argument that abortion is genocide. Ironically, it is the perpetrators of genocide who are dehumanized, not their victims, by the self-induced alienation from humanity needed to perpetuate the psychological distinction between themselves and their victims. In the case of abortion, the fetus, person or not, has been distinguished from humanity to the extent that each year there are 1.25 million abortions in the US and 50 million worldwide.The question here is not what a fetus is or is not, but rather, what "we" have become in order to kill so many of "them".
My goal here is not to suggest that one perspective or the other is correct, but rather to ask what it means to be who and what we are, because our understanding of personhood determines not only who we are, but also who we will become. Before we can resolve the debate over abortion, we must literally come to terms with what it means to be a person.
Given a choice about what it means to be a person, I hope we who currently qualify will choose wisely.
David Wright is president of the Aslan Society at ASU.