Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Misguided Ethics of Personhood

Michael J. Gerson


March 2, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

A recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics has caused a storm of controversy.  In it, two ethicists contend that a newborn baby deserves no more respect or protection than a fetus does, since both are not “actual persons” but only “potential persons.”  So the authors argue in favor of what they call “after-birth abortion,” which they believe “should be permissible in all cases where abortion is, including causes where the newborn is not disabled.”

Their conclusion is blunt: “Both a fetus and a newborn,” the article says, “certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.”

This forthright argument for infanticide is horrifying but also clarifying. 

There are obvious physical differences between a conceptus and a fully-grown human being.  So many ethicists are engaged in the drawing of moral lines.  Some argue that the development of brain activity in a fetus matters greatly.  Others point to viability—the ability to live outside the womb—as the morally decisive moment.  American law generally sets birth as the time when our obligation to protect human life begins. 

But the authors of the controversial article are correct to recognize that birth is an arbitrary and artificial dividing line.  Are human lives really that different in attainment or value an hour before birth and an hour after birth?  If the ethical line is drawn at “personhood,” then, by some definitions, this is not achieved until well after birth.  A newborn does not possess self-conscious rationality.  It is still discovering that the mind controls the body.  Thought of in this way, personhood develops in steps over years.  If it is morally and legally permissible to end the life of a non-person, then the argument for unrestricted infanticide is consistent.    

The ethical failure comes in the whole enterprise of drawing lines.  The development of brain activity, viability, birth, “personhood”—these are all completely arbitrary standards.  They relate not to an objective reality, but to the whims and prejudices of ethicists themselves.  They are moral judgments hung on pegs in midair. 

A human being is a continuum , a series of stages.  A fetus is a human being at an early stage of development.  A newborn is a human being who is helpless and dependent.  A disabled person is a human being with limits on their capabilities.  An elderly person is a human being whose capabilities are in unavoidable decline.  An ethicist is a human being—who would be wise to act like one.

The whole business of declaring some human beings to be worthless and beneath our concern is disturbing and dangerous.  It always ends up increasing the power of the strong over the weak. 

Humans have many differences in development and ability over a lifetime. All of us were once two cells—genetically distinct, undeniably human—allowed to naturally develop.  All of us could lose our capabilities in moment, in a stroke or an accident.  But our Image-bearing nature as human beings does not change. 

Our laws imperfectly reflect this moral reality and may never fully reflect it.  But the right to life is an endowment, granted by the Creator.  It is not an achievement, conceded by the strong.  

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”