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The Descent of Man: Separating Personhood from Human-Being’ness

“For man is said to be from soul and body as a third thing constituted from two things neither of which he is, for a man is not soul nor is he body..”— St. Thomas Aquinas (1)


Personhood Theory

“There are two things in the world I can’t stand: people who are intolerant of other people’s cultures…. and the Dutch” – Nigel Powers.

In a rather silly, raunchy, double-entendre loaded, pop-culture spoofing, James Bond satire, the father of Austin Powers (played by Michael Caine) makes this ridiculous statement demonstrating a negation in communication.(2) Obviously, he couldn’t stand himself if both parts of the statement are true. The problem is that, although this absurd statement is stated for audience amusement, it represents the way language is adopted to separate biological life from human value, of human being-ness from personhood. Language has been used to assert a contradictory worldview.

What began with Descartes’ philosophy of distinct mind-body dualism found its secular fulfillment in the Enlightenment split of facts and values, and the reductionism of the human being.(3) Following Cartesian Dualism, the body began to be thought of as a vehicle for the real person, dubbed, “the ghost in the machine.”(4) Later secular philosophers would expand upon this idea, separating the body out as an amoral part of nature in which the will of the true person inside could use it to whatever end desired; the body became nothing more than a vehicle to be used and exploited for the real inner person’s private needs.(5) This dualistic language is used ever-the-more-so in the abortion debate to differentiate between biological humans and persons. Unfortunately, this philosophical commitment and abuse of language provides no satirical amusement, but real life-ending consequences in the form of legalized abortion.

Personhood theory is the dominate view of pro-choice advocates and ethicists. Because the scientific consensus has concluded that a fetus is human from conception, the only way for abortion advocates to maintain that abortion is morally neutral (or even a moral good) is to adopt the aforementioned dualistic view of separating the human body from the person inside.(6) On this theory, “persons” have freedom and moral dignity, but “humans” are disposable machines.(7)

With this understanding the critical moral criteria for abortion comes from defining when the fetus becomes a “person.”


Problems with Personhood Theory

One problem for personhood theory is that different ethicists disagree on the factors and on when a fetus becomes a person. Some abortion advocates suggest that personhood begins at birth, or at the first signs of movement; others suggest that it occurs with brain development, when the fetus is viable, or even when the ability to perceive or have desires emerges (extending personhood acquisition to after birth).(8)

Every one of these positions draw the line of distinction between human being and person at different places. They are based upon private, arbitrary values and personal choices. In a related controversy, it is these same criteria that are used to promote euthanasia, and the horror becomes real with involuntary euthanasia which occurs under the assumption that, because an individual is unable to consent, they are no longer persons.(9)

It is because of the arbitrary criteria that the contradictory nature of personhood theory is exposed. This arbitrariness exposes an inconsistency in naturalist thinking: the pro-life position appeals to an objective criterion found in biology but the pro-choice position rests on the subjective view of individuals who disagree with each other.(10)

Personhood theory also requires indiscriminate deadlines; it requires a random cut-off time in which it is assumed that a fetus has transitioned to personhood or an older person has transitioned out of personhood.(11) The contradictory nature of this theory compounds because “a vision of personhood that rests on the arbitrary decisions of the powerful against the weak cannot be in conformity with the demands of justice or equality.”(12) Why that is contradictory is because the idea itself extends from an ideology that also believes that it is universally immoral for the powerful to dominate the weak. Personhood theory is as radical as the indiscriminate criterion that were invented by the despots of the 20th century who oppressed and killed those whom they deemed less than human. Personhood theory opens this door again, and the right to dignity and life are denied once criteria are set to establish some human beings as “non-persons.”(13)


The Inclusive Nature of the Pro-Life Position

In contrast to Personhood theory, the pro-life position is the more inclusive and provides the more holistic position that one could have in this debate. Again, the contradictory view of Personhood theory exposes itself because it extends from those who hold to a high moral value on inclusion. Yet, Personhood theory excludes some and extends personhood to others. But the pro-life position is different. If you are a member of the human race, then you are considered a person; you do not get more inclusive than that when it comes to determining which humans are persons.(14)

Furthermore, the Biblical worldview asserts that human beings are a unified whole and that the body has intrinsic worth. Thus, there is no room for the false dichotomy raised in the post-Cartesian project to separate human being’ness from personhood.

Finally, it is wrong to challenge personhood based on arbitrary criteria. Even on the assumption that the human/person dichotomy exists, we have no real way of determining the cutoff line and, therefore, it is immoral for us to adopt Personhood theory.

However, it is morally appropriate to assume that human beings are always persons. In the end, equating human beings as persons also matches the reality we live in and our lived-out existence. Outside of personhood theory’s dehumanizing markers, in reality you, as a human, are a person no matter what your location is, what size you are, what desires you have, what your mental abilities are, what level of feeling or thinking you have, or even how mature you are.(15)

Beyond the zealous defense of labeling abortion as a woman’s reproductive rights shouted by the most vocal of abortion advocates, the most common defense for abortion is real-life difficulties faced by the mother.

Christopher Kaczor states that these can include, among other things, “broken families, drug abuse, crushing poverty, abusive relationships, incomplete education, fear of public humiliation, antagonistic partners, and failed love.”(16) Not only would these issues provide difficulty for a woman to carry a baby during pregnancy, but the difficulty multiplies once the child is born under these circumstances.

However, the issue here still comes down to the main question about personhood- is it moral to distinguish some humans as less than persons? As I’ve argued, it is not.

But we can always apply a bit of logic to the scenario as well. If we apply the difficult circumstances above to a woman who has a six-year-old, no one would suggest killing the child to ease the burden; instead, they would suggest any and all means to help the woman successfully live through the difficulty.(17) They would do all that they can to ease the burden by providing support and help. Help on this definition includes help for the mother and the child but does not include resorting to killing the child.

Thus, an answer now arises to the dilemma of a pregnant woman who has extreme difficulties and an unexpected pregnancy:

We do all that we can to give aide to help her with these life difficulties (which exist with or without a child) and all that we can to help her with raising her child, or we find an alternative place for the child to be raised. Difficulties do not provide justification for terminating a life, but they do provide justification for exercising compassion and loving your neighbor.



  1. Thomas Aquinas, “On Being and Essence,” Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, Trans. Ralph McInerny, (London: Penguin, 1998), 35- 36
  2. Jay Roach, Austin Powers in Goldmember, 2002. Note: I no way am I endorsing this movie, but I have viewed it in the past and remember this silly quote. The movie itself is full of sexual innuendo and blatant immoral behavior that was part of a series of raunchy comedies released in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. The interesting thing about these movies is that they assume the very issue being discussed here- a reduction of the human being into a meat machine, with a very low view of human sexuality.

  3. Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Books, 2017), 51-52.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid, 53.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid, 57.

  10. Ibid, 55.

  11. Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, 1st edition (New York: Routledge, 2010), 38.

  12. Ibid, 39.

  13. Pearcey, 54.

  14. Ibid, 62.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Kaczor, 190.

  17. Ibid.

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