Is a Fetus Really a Person?

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Editor’s Note: Jonathan Darville recently published an article titled, “Set the Little Ones Free.” He argues the unborn should be extended what Martin Luther King Jr. called one’s “God-given and constitutional rights.” In a series of follow-up articles, Darville answers three frequently asked questions about abortion. (Read the first FAQ and second FAQ) Here is the third in that series:

Q: When does a human become a person? Couldn’t it be that a fetus is not a person until they can perform certain functions? And that until that point, it is ok to terminate their life? 

A: We should note that this logic sounds eerily similar to the logic of the Three Fifths Compromise, which deemed African Americans as 3/5ths human because of their skin color (i.e. they weren’t considered civilized “people” who could be fully counted as members of a State’s population).[1]

Humans are valuable by nature, not by incidental features or function.

I recently heard that a fetus is not a person with moral value until they can feel pain. Did you know that there are a number of people in the general population who have a rare condition called CIP, who cannot and never will feel pain? Would we say that 25- or 65-year-olds with CIP are humans but not people? Is it ok to terminate them? What about humans in a coma or who have a pacemaker—are they not people because their self-consciousness lies dormant or because their cardiovascular system is not functioning independently? Could we terminate them without consequence?

Hopefully, we can see that these criteria for personhood are entirely arbitrary and lead to logical as well as sociological absurdities. In other words, if our criteria for personhood cannot be applied to everyone, then our view is faulty. 

To adapt a line by Scott Klusendorf: humans are valuable by nature, not by incidental features (e.g. skin color, height) or function (e.g. cognitive capacity). Arbitrarily and artificially separating personhood from humanness puts us in a situation where any of us can draw the line of moral value wherever we want (e.g. at race, gender, age, nationality, political party, IQ, EQ, religion, physical strength, beauty, economic status, favorite sports team, etc.). 

And in an age of identity politics, this type of reasoning can and does lead to violence (verbal as well as physical). As a society, we should all be worried if we accept this type of subjective criteria for determining personhood and the right to life. Imagine. We would have to hire 24-hour bodyguards in the event that our neighbors decided we forfeited our right to life by who we voted for, the color of our house, the condition of our yard or because we fell ill and lost the ability to move without the aid of a cane or a wheelchair. 

In short, no, it is not ok to terminate an innocent life because of incidental, functional or preferential considerations. On the universe as masterpiece view of the world, humans are conceived as individual body/soul unities that bear the image of God (Gen. 1:27), not souls trapped in bodies or malleable bodies without souls (cf. Ps. 139:13-16). That is to say, humanness and personhood have a synchronized beginning, at conception. Humans are persons by nature. And in a moral universe, it is never justified to intentionally and unnecessarily take the life of an innocent unborn moral being. [2]

[1] Note, there are clearly differences between abortion and slavery with regard to the kind and duration of temporal suffering endured. The point here is just that the logic that leads to these horrendous evils is the same.

[2] The one qualification is that there are rare occasions, when before a fetus is viable (i.e. able to live outside the womb), it may be medically necessary to perform a therapeutic abortion to save the bodily life of the mother (e.g. ectopic pregnancies). Outside of those rare instances, induced abortions are never justified.

In “Ethics for A Brave New World,” the Feinbergs helpfully distinguish therapeutic abortions (performed to save the life of the mother) from eugenic abortions (performed on a fetus “who has or is at risk for some physical and/or mental handicap such as Down syndrome”) or elective abortions (performed for convenience). The latter two types of induced abortions are never justified.

The Feinbergs also helpfully explain ectopic pregnancy: “[An ectopic pregnancy is when] the fertilized egg does not implant in the uterus but in the fallopian tube. Only two options are open to the doctor. Either he [or she] intervenes to take the baby’s life in order to save the mother’s life, or both baby and mother will die.”

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Jonathan Darville

Jono Darville is a former Global Master Trainer with The Center for Leadership Studies and Co-Leader of the New York branch of Models for Christ (an international non-profit bringing the gospel to the fashion industry). Due to a decade-plus long battle with chronic illness, Jono almost lost his life in 2017. After spending a number of years bed-bound, God graciously intervened in 2020, using UNC Hospital to restore Jono’s health. Jono is now finishing an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion at SEBTS, while serving as a Ruling Elder and Youth Director at Peace Church in Cary, NC. He and his wife, Jillian, have one son, Jono Jr.

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