Im-Personal Human Beings?

“A person’s a person no matter how small.” – Horton Hears a Who!

For most of human history, moralists have sought to convince people that it was a good and necessary thing to protect the lives of their fellow human beings. For much of that time, other voices have suggested that there was a fundamental difference between “us” and “them,” between those deserving full respect and those who, for some reason, did not.

Sometimes the division was done on the basis of “our tribe” vs. “other tribes.” At one point in history, the division was between “Greeks” and “barbarians.” Later it was between Romans and Germans, then Jews and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and Christians, civilized Europeans and uncivilized Africans, Aryans and Jews, whites and blacks.

As is well known, the current regime favoring abortion argues that there are human beings who are not persons, defined as having x, y, or z characteristics: things like consciousness, ability to feel pain, ability to formulate plans for the future, ability to learn a foreign language, ability to hold a convivial discussion about the most recent edition of the New Yorker magazine – the list keeps evolving. Human beings lacking the necessary characteristics, it is said, though “human,” are not “persons,” and thus not deserving of the same respect offered to human beings who are persons.

From a certain perspective, this makes sense. If something is a wooden decoy and not a duck, don’t treat it like a duck. If a student hasn’t passed the bar exam or the medical boards, he or she doesn’t have the same privileges granted to lawyers or doctors.

And yet, here is the problem. Granted there are currently in vogue all sorts of ingenious ways of distinguishing persons from mere human beings, if we look back at history, not only has distinguishing a class of human beings as non-persons always been a mistake, it has in fact always been among the worst mistakes we make.

People said, yes, slaves are “human beings,” but not “persons” in the sense of beings who can own property, run their own affairs, and vote. That was a mistake.

People said, yes, Jews are clearly “human beings,” but not “persons” in the sense of real Germans who should be allowed to live or marry with actual Germans. Better to think of them as a sort of cancer. Big mistake.

Certainly, American Indians were “human beings,” but not with a sufficient rationality and ability to produce art, science, and civilization to merit not keeping them as “natural slaves.” Another big mistake.

We look back on these past mistakes with horror. And yet, we still think that the current intellectual gyrations needed to distinguish “human beings” from “persons,” human-beings-first-class from human-beings-second-class, is entirely different – certainly not like the errors those people once made.

Why do we think that? Because unborn babies don’t look like us? Neither did whites think black slaves looked like them. You can read volumes of antebellum “scientific” research on African-Americans’ sloping brows, smaller skulls, bone structure, and posture like great apes. Somehow it never seemed to occur to them that malnourished and mistreated human beings might actually show the results of this abuse in their flesh and bones. Sad to say, this would not be the only time when oppressors interpreted the results of their oppression as a sign of the inferiority of those they oppressed.

Is it because unborn babies don’t think like us? White Europeans didn’t think American Indians thought like them. They had “savage,” “barbaric” behavior and customs. They had developed no science, no advanced technology, no writing or great literature, no monetary system, no method of taxation. Clearly, they weren’t “advanced” enough, and so their lands were better handled by whites.

Is it because unborn babies are a problem – a kind of cancer? That’s what many people thought about the Jews, the severely disabled, and mentally retarded children.

Is it because treating unborn babies differently would cause tremendous upheaval in the society? That’s what people said about the emancipation of the slaves. It uprooted an entire way of life. How can you change something that generations of people have grown up with and come to depend on?

I am not saying that the case of unborn children isn’t different or that women who have abortions are evil murderers. To be honest, I don’t make these nasty claims about the people who made mistakes in the past. It was easier to be unclear on these questions in the past than we often are willing to admit, and it is much easier to paint our forebears as completely evil when many were simply confused by the “elite” theorists of their day.

And yet, we can’t help but wish they had paid attention if someone had said: “Hey, I know what the “experts” have said, but just to be safe, let’s assume American Indians/or Africans and/or barbarians are every bit as human and every bit as civilized and just as deserving of rights and protections as any of us, because maybe there are not human-beings-first-class and human-beings-second-class, just human beings, full stop. Like us. And we should treat them the way we would want to be treated.

Because if we’re wrong, and we’re just creating elaborate rationalizations to do things to other humans that ought never to be done, then God help us. Generations in the future there may be people asking themselves (as my students do about slaveholders and Germans): “Could they really have been that foolish? Could they really have thought those people weren’t really, fully human? Or was it simply that they didn’t want to stop doing what they wanted to do?”

To my students, living now, looking back, it’s just too obvious. No one, they think, could have seriously concluded these people weren’t fully human. I don’t think they appreciate sufficiently the degree to which people can get confused.

But then again, as we’re about to hold the 45th March for Life on Friday, maybe they’re right.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.