May 12th 2012

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Articles from this issue:


CANBERRA OBSERVED: Julia Gillard's fatally flawed judgement

DEFENCE OF MARRIAGE: More than 500 attend Perth rally to preserve marriage

EDITORIAL: French election may decide future of the EU


CONSERVATION: Liberals blueprint to speed up environmental approvals

BANKS: Microfinance: money for the people that banks ignore

SOCIETY: Impact of internet abuse on the young

POLITICAL IDEAS: How individualism can beget totalitarianism

PHILOSOPHY: Abortion and personhood in one easy lesson

OPINION: The demise of Aboriginal self-determination


CINEMA: A pleasant but forgettable taste

BOOK REVIEW Scientific rejoinder to green hysteria

BOOK REVIEW More historical myths dispelled

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Abortion and personhood in one easy lesson

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, May 12, 2012

I wish to discuss the issue of abortion and personhood, but I want to do it in a somewhat roundabout fashion. I want to first look at a long-standing line of thought in philosophy which can help throw some light on what we mean by a person, and how that impacts on the issue of abortion.

Philosophers going as far back as Aristotle have spoken of predication, properties and the like. Predication very simply refers to the attributing of characteristics to a subject or a thing. What a thing is may have different properties or ways of being characterised.

For our purposes here I will deal with two basic predications, or predicates, which have been distinguished in intellectual history for nearly three millennia now. These two main predicates are the essential and the accidental. It is important to be clear about how these differ, since discussions about personhood and the like depend upon these distinctions.

In very simple fashion, let us define our terms this way:

An essential predicate, attribute or property is one that belongs to the very nature or essence of a thing. It is a necessary and permanent property of a thing.

An accidental predicate, attribute or property is a quality which is not an essential part of a thing’s essence. It is a contingent and temporary property of a thing.

Thus something which is essential is that which must be true of a thing. If that quality or characteristic is missing, then that thing or object no longer is or can be. As John and Paul Feinberg explain: “An essential characteristic is a quality that is part of the very essence of a thing. If that quality is lost, the thing ceases to exist. On the other hand, an accidental quality is one that is not part of a thing’s essence. It can be lost or gained without the thing ceasing to exist.”

So let’s flesh this out and start applying it to people. It is not hard to show how the two predicates are quite different:

• If we say that Socrates is a human being, we are saying something basic or fundamental about what kind of a thing Socrates is: this is an essential predication.

• If we say that Socrates is tall, we are saying something which is not fundamental or essential, but something that merely happens to be the case: it is an accidental predication.

There are plenty of accidental properties. The colour of your hair is one. A human being can have red hair or brown hair or black hair or blonde hair or no hair. It does not matter what the hair is like — that does not determine what a human being is.

A person can be left-handed or right-handed, or have no hands at all. But a human being still exists, regardless of the accidental predicates of one’s hands. Being male or female, thin or fat, short or tall, are also accidental predicates. These things can change or differ, but they do not make a human being any less human.

So let’s apply all this to abortion. Often three things are said about the unborn baby by pro-abortionists:

1) it is not alive;

2) it is not human;

3) it is not a person.

The first two objections are quite silly and can be quickly dismissed. Any foetus or embryo is of course alive. If it is growing, developing, has a metabolism, and so on, then, yes, of course it is alive. And a human embryo is of course a human. It can be no other. It is not a carrot, a dingo or a porcupine.

So it is the last point that is the real and only serious objection. The pro-abortionists will claim the foetus or embryo is not a person. Thus here we get into a question of definition. Most pro-aborts take a functional or utilitarian view of personhood.

One must have certain functions before one can be a person, they claim. These often include self-awareness, consciousness, sentience and related functions. They say that these functions are missing from the unborn, at least at earlier stages; so they are not persons. This has been argued by thinkers such as Peter Singer, Mary Anne Warren, David Boonin and Michael Tooley.

The other view may be termed the structuralist view of personhood. Basically, this says that when human life is present, there is a human person with rights. Thus personhood is an essential predicate, not an accidental attribute. That is, to be a human is to be a person. Any attempt to arbitrarily start personhood on the human continuum is bound to fail.

Personhood begins at the moment of conception, and continues until the final death of a person. There is no gradualism here, where a human at some stage becomes a person. A human being always is a person, and is always therefore worthy of dignity and respect — and the right to life.

Francis Beckwith further explains this understanding of personhood: “According to the substance view, a human being is intrinsically valuable because of the sort of thing it is and the human being remains that sort of thing as long as it exists. What sort of thing is it? The human being is a particular type of substance — a rational moral agent — that remains identical to itself as long as it exists, even if it is not precisely exhibiting the functions, behaving in ways, or currently able to immediately exercise these activities that we typically attribute to active and mature rational moral agents.”

The gradualist or functionalist view of personhood of course denies these innate or inherent essential features of personhood. Therefore they offer many possible starting points for when personhood begins, such as animation, viability, birth, and so on. But all seem to be quite arbitrary. Why, for example, should we say a baby is a person one minute after birth but not one minute before birth?

As William Hurlbut has written: “Zygote, morula, embryo, foetus, child and adult: these are conceptual constructions for convenience of description, not distinct ontological categories. With respect to fundamental moral status therefore, the human being is an embodied being whose intrinsic dignity is inseparable from its full procession of life and always present in its varied stages of emergence.”

Another way to describe this major difference is to speak of personhood either in terms of endowment or performance. Christopher Kaczor explains: “The endowment account holds that each human being has inherent, moral worth simply by virtue of the kind of being it is…. The performance account … denies this and holds that a human being is to be accorded respect, if and only if, the being functions in a given way.

“With respect to human beings, the endowment view is inclusive; the performance view is exclusive. According to the inclusive view, all human beings regardless of any consideration whatsoever have fundamental dignity and are therefore owed respect. According to the exclusive view, not all human beings deserve respect and share fundamental dignity, but rather only those human beings possessing particular characteristics.”

Thus a performance or functionalist advocate, such as Peter Singer, fully supports abortion, euthanasia and infanticide, since, according to his view of personhood, these three groups lack these functions needed to be considered a person. As such, these theories of personhood have very real practical implications.

In all this we can compare the issue of personhood to the issue of an acorn and an oak tree. The gradualist position would argue that an acorn is not an oak tree, but it at some point becomes one. The substance view would say an acorn is already an oak tree potentially, and there is no arbitrary line that we can draw when that transition takes place.

As Kaczor puts it, “The transition from acorn to oak tree involves no substantial change, but merely growth and development of the very same thing. If by ‘person’ is meant ‘mature members of the human species’, then of course, no human embryo is a person in this idiosyncratic sense of the term, but then again neither is any toddler. The proper analogy is therefore: Acorn is to oak tree as embryo is to adult.”

So just as an acorn at no point crosses some arbitrary line to become an oak tree, but always is an oak tree, just in embryonic form, so too there is no arbitrary line at which point a foetus or an embryo becomes a person.

The foetus is already a person just at an early age of development. So it is incorrect to speak of an embryo as a potential person. It is more accurate to speak of an embryo as a person with great potential.

Norman Geisler puts it this way: “Neither an acorn nor an embryo is a potential life. It is a misunderstanding of botany to say an acorn is a potential oak tree.

“An acorn is a tiny living oak tree inside a shell. Its dormant life does not grow until properly nourished by planting and watering, but it is a tiny living oak tree in a shell nonetheless. All the genetic information that comprises an oak tree is in the acorn. And all the genetic information that comprises an adult human being is in the fertilised ovum.”

Science in general and embryology in particular are quite clear about this. At the moment of conception, when the 23 chromosomes of the male sperm unite with the 23 chromosomes of the female egg, a wholly new, unique and distinct 46-chromosome being comes into existence.

It has its own unique DNA, and is entirely separate from both mother and father. While it requires the nourishment and shelter of the mother, it is nonetheless a fully unique and completely new individual human, with even its own sex established at the moment of fertilisation.

Everything needed for this new entity to grow, develop and become a fully complete adult member of the human race is already fully contained within its DNA. It simply needs time, and eventually a change of location, to keep reaching its full potential.

The sperm and egg cease to be, and a wholly new and distinct organism begins to develop. It is a self-directing course of development, with all the instructions and information for this development already fully contained in the DNA. Thus we have at fertilisation a new human individual which has come into existence as “a single, unified, and self-integrated biological system”, as Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen put it.

In sum, the substance view of personhood is preferable to the gradualist view of personhood. As Geisler notes, we need to “make the distinction between essential and accidental characteristics”. He says: “Essentially the foetus does not change from conception until death. The only changes that take place are accidental, such as location, size and shape. And accidental changes do not affect the nature of a being, but only its secondary qualities.”

If the foetus is a person, it is subject to all the rights of a person, including the most fundamental right — the right to life.

Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at:

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