When are human beings considered human persons?

My previous post addressed concerns over the definition of “person” in New York’s Reproductive Health Act. Since then, Virginia Delegate, Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax County), proposed legislation that would allow abortions to be performed during the labor and delivery process itself. A Washington Post article reported Tran “acknowledging that her bill, like current law, would allow abortions up to the point of delivery in cases when the mother’s life or health was at serious risk.” [1] The Daily Mail reports “Delegate Todd Gilbert, asked Tran whether her legislation would let a pregnant woman who is dilating request an abortion if a doctor certified that the woman’s mental health was impaired. ‘My bill would allow that, yes,’ Tran said.”[2]

The following day, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, was asked about the issue in a radio interview. The procedures, Northam said in the WTOP interview, are “done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable. So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”[3]

Reactions were swift. To be fair, however, several reactions from Conservatives mischaracterized and misrepresented Delegate Tran and Governor Northam actual words. If one is to critique an idea, one must deal with the idea in its most complete and accurate form. Misrepresentation only weakens one’s critique. For more on this principle, see my post from 2016. [4]

That being said, reactions to both the New York law and the proposed Virginia Bill center around two concerns. First, while threats to the life of the mother are often accompanied by clarifying medical indicators, dangers to the health of the mother are not being defined. Concerns over defining threats to the “health” of the mother over against threats to the “life” of the mother will be addressed in my next post.

Second, whether or not the developing human fetus is considered a person and on what principles people reach such different conclusions.  This post summarizes three perspectives on the issue of personhood.

Note: At the time I published this post, I was at home. The notes containing citations for the quotes below were sitting on my desk at the office (and my cat ate my homework …). I’ll update this post with footnote citations asap.

Personhood Perspectives

1. Essentialism, The Full Personhood Principle, or The Species Principle

  • “Abortion at any stage is a form of murder because it kills a member of the of the human species, one of that class of creatures called human persons, endowed by its Creator with immeasurable worth regardless of the developmental status of his particular functions or capacities.”
  • This view attributes the maximum moral status to developing human life
  • Prevents any gap between the concepts of a human being and a human person.

2. Potentiality Principle

  • A potential person is an entity that “will naturally and in due course develop into a person but is not yet a person.”
  • “If respect is owed to beings because they are in a certain state, it is owed to whatever, by its nature, develops into that state.”
  • Both potential and actual person have a right to life.
  • This view seeks to integrate Scriptural, scientific and experiential evidence together.
  • This stance opposes abortion but does not embrace full-personhood for the developing fetus.

3. Actuality Principle

  • Human being and human person are not the same.
  • Human Personhood consists of some unique human functions, which can be summarized as a “developed capacity for conscious self-reflective intelligence.”
  • “Embryos and fetuses are among several types of human beings that lack such personhood capacities; others include those in a persistent vegetative state, newborns, the irreversibly comatose and the grossly retarded.”
  • It is argued that while the lives of all human beings deserve a measure of respect, they do not have the same status as fully human persons and thus should be treated as having fewer rights and protections.

My hope in this post is to provide information and understanding on how members of the same country, same family, same company, same community, and the same church come to hold the perspectives they do. I believe it is in understanding others that we can best make our own views understandable in hopes of making our discussions, disagreements, and debates on this issue more reasonable and productive.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/failed-abortion-bill-draws-gop-outrage-against-va-gov-northam-democratic-lawmakers/2019/01/30/4a18f022-24b2-11e9-ad53-824486280311_story.html?utm_term=.138c6ad417cd

[2] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6650299/Sarah-Palin-leads-outrage-Virginia-abortion-bill-sponsor-proposed-termination-BIRTH.html

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/failed-abortion-bill-draws-gop-outrage-against-va-gov-northam-democratic-lawmakers/2019/01/30/4a18f022-24b2-11e9-ad53-824486280311_story.html?utm_term=.468a33874373

[4] https://kevinglenn.net/2015/09/25/why-precision-must-accompany-passion/


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