Enough already: Unborn babies are human persons, and that's it

States across the nation are changing their abortion laws.  In Colorado, a state board recently approved preliminary wording for a ballot initiative to ban abortions performed after 22 weeks.  Exceptions would be permitted if a pregnant woman's health is in danger.  Suzanne Staiert, attorney for the proponents of the bill, said she thinks "voters will agree that a fetus at 22 weeks is a person."

Staiert has put her finger on the question at the core of the abortion debate: is the fetus a person?  After all, when the Supreme Court made abortion the law of the land in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, its argument centered on its claim that the fetus is not a person under the 14th Amendment.

Essentially, the highest court in the land declared that even though the fetus is human, he is not a person entitled to protection under the law.  

How did the Court justify drawing a distinction between being human and being a person?  Is there a clear line that separates a human non-person from a person?  How can a mere physical being, which is said to have so little value that he can be killed for any reason, be transformed into a person with such high value that to kill him would be murder?

Bioethicists have been wrestling with this question since before Roe v. Wade.  In 1972, bioethicist Joseph Fletcher published 15 characteristics that, in his opinion, distinguish a person from a non-person.  Fletcher's criteria included various cognitive functions, such as self-control, a degree of self-awareness, an understanding of cause and effect, and the ability to communicate.  According to Fletcher, anyone who lacks these functions should be demoted to the level of non-person.

But once personhood has been detached from the objective fact of being biologically human, any criteria proposed are completely subjective.  Every bioethicist draws the line at a different place, based on his own personal views and values.  Some draw the line before birth; some draw it after birth; Peter Singer, a bioethicist and professor at Princeton University, says even "a three-year old is a gray case."

As Nancy Pearcey writes in her book, Love Thy Body, "To be biologically human is a scientific fact.  But to be a person is an ethical concept, defined by what we value."

What's more, Pearcey states, the traits used to define personhood are on a continuum — all our cognitive functions develop by degrees as we mature from embryo to adult.  To what extent must these functions be present for an individual to qualify as a person?  If conscious cognitive function is the measure of personhood, who gets to decide what measure is sufficient?  Should smarter people have more rights?  Should less intelligent people lose their personhood status?

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court claimed that the line dividing human life from personhood is viability, the point when the fetus can survive outside his mother's womb.  That is when the fetus becomes what the Court called "potential life" and is thus worthy of legal protection.  However, this dividing line is just as subjective as all the other proposed criteria, because again we are talking about a seamless continuum from fertilized egg to adult human being.  There is no definitive break.  Before viability, the fetus is just as much "potential life" as after viability, in the sense that he is equally on his way to becoming an adult.  

The reason it is so important to get the definition of personhood right is that it applies to a host of other profound moral issues.  For example, personhood theory is also the driving force behind euthanasia — only applied in the reverse.  According to the theory, if a person loses a certain level of cognitive functioning, if he is mentally disabled, then he is no longer a person — even though he is obviously still human.

Peter Singer writes, "The concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens [i.e., human beings], and it is personhood, not species membership that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life."  In parts of Europe, Canada, Colombia, and even the United States, personhood theory is already being applied through the enactment of laws permitting assisted suicide and euthanasia of the elderly and the disabled.

Logically, however, the application of personhood theory is not going to stop at abortion and euthanasia.  Personhood has become the standard for the right to life of all human beings in America.  Because the criteria for personhood are arbitrary, anyone could be demoted to a non-person and lose the right to property, liberty, and even life.  Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith reveals that people who are considered "killable" now include "the terminally ill and chronically ill, such as a person with serious tinnitus [ringing in the ears], to people with disabilities ... alcoholics, dementia patients ... the elderly ... and mentally ill" — basically anyone the medical community deems no longer useful.

So if you thought you don't need to pay attention to the arguments in the abortion law changes sweeping the nation, think again.  Ultimately, all of us could be at risk.

Tina Simmons is a retired attorney living in Houston, Texas.

States across the nation are changing their abortion laws.  In Colorado, a state board recently approved preliminary wording for a ballot initiative to ban abortions performed after 22 weeks.  Exceptions would be permitted if a pregnant woman's health is in danger.  Suzanne Staiert, attorney for the proponents of the bill, said she thinks "voters will agree that a fetus at 22 weeks is a person."

Staiert has put her finger on the question at the core of the abortion debate: is the fetus a person?  After all, when the Supreme Court made abortion the law of the land in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, its argument centered on its claim that the fetus is not a person under the 14th Amendment.

Essentially, the highest court in the land declared that even though the fetus is human, he is not a person entitled to protection under the law.  

How did the Court justify drawing a distinction between being human and being a person?  Is there a clear line that separates a human non-person from a person?  How can a mere physical being, which is said to have so little value that he can be killed for any reason, be transformed into a person with such high value that to kill him would be murder?

Bioethicists have been wrestling with this question since before Roe v. Wade.  In 1972, bioethicist Joseph Fletcher published 15 characteristics that, in his opinion, distinguish a person from a non-person.  Fletcher's criteria included various cognitive functions, such as self-control, a degree of self-awareness, an understanding of cause and effect, and the ability to communicate.  According to Fletcher, anyone who lacks these functions should be demoted to the level of non-person.

But once personhood has been detached from the objective fact of being biologically human, any criteria proposed are completely subjective.  Every bioethicist draws the line at a different place, based on his own personal views and values.  Some draw the line before birth; some draw it after birth; Peter Singer, a bioethicist and professor at Princeton University, says even "a three-year old is a gray case."

As Nancy Pearcey writes in her book, Love Thy Body, "To be biologically human is a scientific fact.  But to be a person is an ethical concept, defined by what we value."

What's more, Pearcey states, the traits used to define personhood are on a continuum — all our cognitive functions develop by degrees as we mature from embryo to adult.  To what extent must these functions be present for an individual to qualify as a person?  If conscious cognitive function is the measure of personhood, who gets to decide what measure is sufficient?  Should smarter people have more rights?  Should less intelligent people lose their personhood status?

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court claimed that the line dividing human life from personhood is viability, the point when the fetus can survive outside his mother's womb.  That is when the fetus becomes what the Court called "potential life" and is thus worthy of legal protection.  However, this dividing line is just as subjective as all the other proposed criteria, because again we are talking about a seamless continuum from fertilized egg to adult human being.  There is no definitive break.  Before viability, the fetus is just as much "potential life" as after viability, in the sense that he is equally on his way to becoming an adult.  

The reason it is so important to get the definition of personhood right is that it applies to a host of other profound moral issues.  For example, personhood theory is also the driving force behind euthanasia — only applied in the reverse.  According to the theory, if a person loses a certain level of cognitive functioning, if he is mentally disabled, then he is no longer a person — even though he is obviously still human.

Peter Singer writes, "The concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens [i.e., human beings], and it is personhood, not species membership that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life."  In parts of Europe, Canada, Colombia, and even the United States, personhood theory is already being applied through the enactment of laws permitting assisted suicide and euthanasia of the elderly and the disabled.

Logically, however, the application of personhood theory is not going to stop at abortion and euthanasia.  Personhood has become the standard for the right to life of all human beings in America.  Because the criteria for personhood are arbitrary, anyone could be demoted to a non-person and lose the right to property, liberty, and even life.  Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith reveals that people who are considered "killable" now include "the terminally ill and chronically ill, such as a person with serious tinnitus [ringing in the ears], to people with disabilities ... alcoholics, dementia patients ... the elderly ... and mentally ill" — basically anyone the medical community deems no longer useful.

So if you thought you don't need to pay attention to the arguments in the abortion law changes sweeping the nation, think again.  Ultimately, all of us could be at risk.

Tina Simmons is a retired attorney living in Houston, Texas.