When Are We Human?

The “right to reproductive freedom,” as it is called, is an interesting “right.” One might have thought it would be a “right” that would prevent the Chinese government from sterilizing women or enforcing a “one-child” policy.  But, oddly, it’s not.  In practice, it’s the right to terminate the life of another human being.

Now, granted, there are those who argue that a baby, even just ten minutes before birth, is not a “human being.”  The baby only becomes “human” after birth – and perhaps not even then.  “Ethicists,” such as Princeton’s Peter Singer, argue that no newborn should be considered a person until thirty days after birth. So too, philosopher Michael Tooley argues that a human possesses a right to life “only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.”

How we would gauge “scientifically” the presence or absence of an adequate “concept of self,” especially in, say, marijuana-smoking teens or homeless people on the streets, is hard to say.  It’s a slippery slope, one would think.

These men, and other abortion supporters, often hold positions of influence at major universities.  Still, history often provides valuable lessons and insights in such matters. I suggest reading accounts of the arguments high-level philosophers and scientists in the nineteenth century used to “demonstrate scientifically” that black people were a “lesser” form of human being, thus not “persons” in the sense meant by the Declaration of Independence.

Several major philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Kant, Voltaire, and Hume were proponents of race inequality and expressed negative judgments about Africans as a “primitive” race. The Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus and the German physiologist Johann Blumenbach argued for distinct “species” of Homo sapiens.  Soon, scientists were ranking them, especially evolutionary biologists who argued for polygenism, the multiple geneses of different species, rather than the monogenism advocated in the Biblical creation account.  Many argued that blacks were less “evolved.”

In 1799 Charles White, a Manchester physician, published the earliest “scientific” study of human races. White had scrupulously measured the body parts of a group of blacks and whites, lending the semblance of hard science to his conclusions that the Negro, the American Indian, some Asiatic tribes, and Europeans were of different species and there was a gradation of the races.


Thomas Jefferson, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” recorded his “observation” of black people that “their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection,” justifying their enslavement. One wonders whether he would have judged them to possess a sufficient “concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states.”

In 1851, noted physician William Cartwright, professor of “diseases of the Negro” at Tulane University, reported to his fellow doctors in the Medical Association of Louisiana that Negroes had smaller brains and blood vessels, which explained their tendency toward indolence.  The true cause of their “debasement of mind,” he concluded from the results of his studies, was the “defective hematosis, or atmospherization of the blood, conjoined with a deficiency of cerebral matter in the cranium. . .[that] has rendered the people of Africa unable to take care of themselves.” Very scientific sounding, but pure bunk. However eminent these men were then, they are viewed with contempt now.

Such theories still persist. I read recently an article bemoaning the persistence of white racism, “despite the advent of modern DNA science, which has shown race to be fundamentally a social construct. Humans, as it turns out, share about 99.9 percent of their DNA with each other, and outward physical characteristics. . .occupy just a tiny portion of the human genome.” Absolutely. So let’s stipulate once and for all that any being with human DNA is fully human, not a second-class “human” whose rights can be denied.

But back in 1857, all the very sophisticated philosophy and science of the day resulted in the Supreme Court deciding for the entire nation in the Dred Scott case that black slaves were not and could not be citizens of the United States. It was widely thought, even among some who opposed slavery, that trying to reverse this “slavery right” would simply be too disruptive. Best to leave things as they were.

At a Southern Rights Association meeting in 1851 (and by “rights” here, they meant the right to own slaves, not the rights of slaves), Josiah C. Nott, a South Carolina physician, anthropologist, and a future medical director in the Confederate army, told the assembled defenders of “rights” that the institution of slavery must be protected because it “has grown up with us from our infancy, it has become part of our very being; our national prosperity and domestic happiness are inseparable from it.”

Why it’s almost as though he was arguing that the institution “could not be repudiated without serious inequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have. . .made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on” the institution of slavery. But no, that was Justice Kennedy writing in 1992 about abortion in Planned Parenthood v Casey.

Not only has denying the full humanity of all biological human beings always been a mistake, it has shown itself repeatedly to be one of the worst mistakes we ever make.  And yet it is one we continue to make and are loathe to abandon once we make it.


*Image: Portrait of a Young Woman by Jean-Etienne Liotard, late 18th century [St. Louis Museum of Arts, St. Louis, MO]

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s Two Visits to the House of Slaves

Hadley Arkes’ Abortion and Slavery

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.