What is a person? This is the question which is being posed by such groups as Personhood USA. Though to hear them tell it there really is no question at all, and so the reason for their existence is to enact legislation that is consistent with their understanding of what a person is. If you are curious as to what a person is then I suppose I could direct you to a dictionary, or to the about page at personhoodusa.com. However there is a simple problem here, that the idea of what makes someone a person automatically means that they are entitled to moral and legal rights.

Obviously the basic issue with the personhood movement is that if laws could be passed defining certain beings as persons then those persons would now be privy to the protection and exercise of certain rights. Troublingly enough, of course, the constitution and the declaration of independence do not specify that a “person” has access to rights and privileges. No they tend to specify either citizen, man, freedman, or some other variation. So the issue that says if we passed certain laws then unborn fetuses could never be aborted actually has little to do with the idea of a “person”. Personhood is simply the political avenue for certain special interest groups to pass laws which they believe will be to their benefit. Again I say that there is no essential link between the legal processes in the United States and the status of being a person, unless such a link were created by personhood laws.

Then why even bother with all this? Because a human embryo, and or fetus, is barely recognizable as the kind of being which we ordinarily think deserves rights and privileges. The personhood movement needs to pass their laws precisely because they suspect, with very good reason, that a fetus might in fact not be a person. Yet if certain laws were passed then a fetus would gain the recognized status of being co-important with other human beings and thus should have access to all (well not all, but maybe the most important) rights and privileges which human beings enjoy under the law in the United States. You want to at least get the fetus the status of human being, since our current definitions of citizenship all set birth as the starting point for that designation so there is no way that a fetus is going to get the full set of American rights in any case.

So now that we understand the politics at stake let’s consider the philosophy. I want to delve into this issue, and I want to do it in no less than four different discussions.

Part 1: What are the basic criteria for a person?

Part 2: The possible candidates for Personhood

Part 3: Is a human being automatically a person?

Part 4: Are all persons of equal value?

Advertisements