Persons vs. Human Beings

A common defense of abortion is that the developing fetus within a mother’s womb, although clearly a “human being” – not a fish or a reptile, as the DNA and chromosomes clearly indicate – is not yet a “person.”  Used this way, the term person identifies a certain class of human being we have judged as deserving of our moral concern and protection, distinguishing these from others we have decided do not.

Used this way, the term “person” delimits a crucial boundary – the boundary between “us” (those with the dignity and status the term implies and bestows) and “them” (those from whom that status is to be denied).

If post-modern thought should have taught us anything, it would be to view all such linguistic games with suspicion.  Isn’t the dichotomy between “person” and “human being” precisely the sort of dichotomy that post-modernism prides itself on de-constructing because these dichotomies, such as “black” and “white,” “male and female,” “citizen” and “foreigner,” are used to disempower weak and marginalized groups.

Didn’t post-modern theory show that all such dichotomies were expressions of the power of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, the higher classes over all those whom they wish to keep powerless and invisible?

Consider, for example, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer’s description of why parents who find that their unborn child has Down syndrome might wish to abort it:

To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal [sic] child. . . .We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.

What is this but a description of a rich, talented Ivy Leaguer?  Why doesn’t Singer just come out and say it?  You wouldn’t take this child into the country club! Perhaps not, but then it would have been equally embarrassing some years back to take a black man or a Jew into the country club.

Philosopher John O’Callaghan, the father of a Down syndrome child, comments on Singer’s claim:

As a matter of fact, Singer is wrong about the abilities of human beings with Down syndrome, as many can engage in these activities. Only those who are in general ignorant of the lives of people with Down syndrome would think they cannot. And we may ask why so many in our society are so ignorant of those lives that they can just hear these claims and simply knowingly nod? Why do the achievements of people with Down syndrome seem so newsworthy? Frankly, it is because we have already excluded them from the community of moral concern that we engage in our lives.

[Photo: Gustoimages/Science Source]

When people say of an aborted child, “Well, you know, he had Down syndrome,” isn’t this just exactly the way other people say of a murdered man, “Well, you know, he was an illegal”? What would you think of someone who replied to the question: “Did you hear? President Roosevelt turned away a ship full of people fleeing Nazi tyranny,” by saying: “Yes, but people need to understand; they were Jews”?

Is that really different from replying to the question: “Did you hear? Sally lost her baby,” by saying, “Yes, but it was only a fetus.”  Ask women who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage how little sympathy they get because of that malicious distinction between their unborn child and a “real” baby.

How is it that hordes of academic language police, sensitive to every linguistic “micro-aggression,” can’t see that claiming a child in the womb is “not a person,” or that an unwanted child is “not a person,” or that an elderly woman with dementia is “not the person I knew and loved” is like pointing at a Hispanic man and asking, “Is he legal?” Or asking about a prospective college professor, “Is this a woman? Is she going to get pregnant?”

Whom does the distinction between “person” and “human being” favor (let alone the distinction between a “normal” child vs. one who is – how to put this gently – not)?  The invisible and powerless child?  Or the capitalist powerbrokers who want women to put work first and foremost in their lives, who want women to get their primary value and meaning from work in the market economy, not parenthood (a transvaluation of values they accomplished decades ago with men, to the lamentable detriment of the family).

How is it that academics who pride themselves on their sensitivity to such matters cannot recognize in this new usage of the term “person” precisely the sort of linguistic assault they would oppose in any other area?  Is it perhaps because this term, unlike the others, serves the empowerment of their own class, people like themselves, people who value things like an appreciation of science fiction, learning a foreign language, chatting about Woody Allen movies, and staying fit playing sports?

Doesn’t everyone who is empowered by language deny that this is what they are doing?  “These are just common terms,” they say. It’s just that those “common terms” express the disempowerment already present in society.

So, I ask, “person” vs. “human being”: isn’t this exactly the kind of socially-constructed category of “us” (those who count) vs. “them” (those who don’t) that ought to be de-constructed and eliminated?  As long as there is any socially-constructed bar of this sort over which simple “human beings” must jump to be included in the community of “persons,” there will always be living human beings who cannot jump it.

Whenever in history we have distinguished what we might call “full human beings” (“persons”) from others who are supposedly not-quite-fully-human (e.g., Jews, black Africans, barbarians), this has not only been a mistake. It is among the worst mistakes we as supposedly sensible, reasonable, “civilized” people make.  Perhaps we should stop making it.


You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s The Growing Litany of Abortion Lies

John M. Grondelski’s Abortion and the Problem of the “Parental Project”

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.