Reframing the Question of Personhood
The question of personhood rightly lies at the centre of debates over the issue of abortion. However, the way that this question is posed is seldom either helpful or illuminating. The concept of personhood that is operative within the question is one that is generally heavily freighted with problematic assumptions, on both sides of the debate. Within this post I want to suggest the possibility that we could press the question in a very different and more enlightening direction.
The question of personhood is habitually framed purely in the form of the question ‘is the fetus a person?’ By examining the characteristics of the unborn infant we are expected to reach some determination of whether it matches up to our standard of personhood.
A crucial underlying assumption here seems to be that personhood is an intrinsic property of a being. Yet such an assumption is by no means necessary and, as I believe we can recognize upon closer reflection upon the actual ways and contexts in which we ascribe personhood, by no means the most natural way of regarding matters.
An alternative starting point, one with far more to commend it, could begin with the recognition that personhood cannot truly be understood apart from relationship (the following thoughts owe much to John Zizioulas). While personhood can often be treated as if it were just another generic property of the human being, personhood is that which renders me unique and irreplaceable. It runs deeper than all of our individual properties as distinct human beings, and even deeper than our ‘personalities’. At its heart, personhood concerns itself with the who question, over the what questions. My personhood is not merely some property of my biological constitution, but a unique place that I occupy in relationship with others, that which exalts me above generic and interchangeable properties, and makes me irreducible to bare qualities or types. Abstract me from all relationship and reduce me to mere properties, and I am depersonalized.
If this is the case, then we are all partially constitutive of each other’s personhood. This truth can be demonstrated in innumerable ways. It is through relationship that we attain to identity, language, freedom, self-awareness, self-expression, and self-transcendence. Were it not for relationship, we would be little more than naked, feeble, and inarticulate beasts, prisoners of appetite and instinct. Our personhood cannot truly be conceived apart from relationship and to the extent that we deny relationship, we lose the ability to perceive personhood and dehumanize ourselves. Once this has been recognized, we should appreciate that any starting point that seeks to assess the personhood of the unborn infant in abstraction from relationship is fundamentally flawed.
Taking the relational character of personhood seriously from the outset, different ways of framing the personhood question present themselves. For instance, instead of analysing the unborn infant and seeing whether it has the intrinsic character of a person, perhaps it would be more worthwhile to ask questions such as ‘under which conditions if any can we make it possible for ourselves to cease to regard, or begin to regard, unborn infants as persons?’
People can and do view the unborn as persons all of the time. This ascription of personhood is not some conclusion arrived at only at the end of an involved philosophical argument, but is a natural and instinctive relationship to the child. What is more, this ascription of personhood is habitually performed under general conditions, not merely by pro-life campaigners, but by people across the spectrum, even many of those who would characterize themselves as firmly pro-choice, or have had or performed abortions. The same doctor who disposes of one woman’s child as a thing of little value can treat another woman’s child as a being of inestimable worth. The same woman who can feel and practice a profound and personalizing attachment to an unborn infant in one case, can seek to abort her unborn infant in another.
What accounts for the stark difference here? We could look in vain for some intrinsic difference between the unborn infants. The difference lies in the relationships with the infant. More particularly, the difference concerns the manner in which the persons relating to the infant view it, not the infant itself.
This form of ascription of personhood is not dependent upon holding that the unborn child has a certain level of mental, affective, or sensory capacities, and can happily acknowledge that the unborn infant exists in a penumbral state of being, where lots of things remain unclear, and the status of the post-natal individual is not yet enjoyed. The crispness of the conventional binary divisions between personhood and non-personhood as they touch upon the status of the unborn infant need not be as clearly defined under this approach, as our ascription of personhood is not contingent upon the intrinsic properties of the unborn infant to the same degree.
The Breakdown of our Perception of Personhood
Where this perception of personhood within the bonds of relationship exists, abortion is virtually unthinkable (although some might countenance it under the most extreme of situations, such as when the life of the mother is in jeopardy, when it will be regarded as an unspeakable tragedy). For abortion to occur, the sense of personhood needs to be numbed. The anaesthetizing of our sense of the unborn infant’s personhood is achieved through such means as linguistic sleight of hand: for instance, speaking of ‘the fetus’ rather than ‘your baby’ is a primary surgical incision of the abortion procedure. By such moves the bond between the infant and the mother, a bond far more important than any umbilical cord, is cut.
While such an ascription of personhood is generally strong, under certain conditions, such as rape pregnancy, it begins to lose hold. One does not have to look far to find people who, although asserting that the unborn infant is a person, are prepared to make an exception for abortion in the case of rape pregnancy. In such contexts, people find it quite possible to view the unborn in completely depersonalized and dehumanized ways.
My suggestion is that we need to focus the abortion debate more explicitly on those factors that make the difference, and upon which our ascription of personhood depends. As we have already observed, the factors that make the difference often tell us virtually nothing about the unborn infant itself, but they do tell us a lot about the person who holds the perceptions. The issue here is not whether the unborn infant is a person, but how our perceptions of personhood are formed, how we are able to see the unborn as persons, and what needs to be the case for us to lose our capacity to see them as such. Abortion is a symptom of a society’s person-blindness, and taking such an approach permits us to address it as such.
Phenomenologizing the question of the personhood of the unborn in such a manner makes it a question about ourselves, far more than it is a question about the unborn. It becomes a question about such things as the factors that shape our perception of personhood, about the practices, institutions, and realities that frame our experience and ascription of personhood, about our duties to welcome the gift of the other’s existence, and our duties to be co-creators of each other’s being.
I believe that the reframing of this question can point us in the direction of fertile areas of exploration. In particular, it draws our attention to the various factors that are shaping and altering our phenomenology of the child and the unborn. In the process it reveals the degree to which the question of abortion relates to a raft of other issues, issues that are usually considered quite distinct from it.
The phenomenology of the child and the unborn in today’s society is experiencing change from a number of different quarters. New understandings of the family are changing our perception of the child. The family has been sentimentalized, and its relationships are gradually being whittled down to mere close emotional attachments. As this occurs, children and our bonds to them are sentimentalized also. Where such sentiment is absent, the family and its relationships lose their rationale. The child who doesn’t have parents who feel sentimental about it has hardly any reason to exist and to be expected to bear a child that one does not love is wrong (much as being expecting to remain married to someone that one doesn’t love is completely unreasonable).
The relationships of the family are also being given a voluntaristic cast: marriage is now a lifestyle choice with the romantic choices of adults at its centre, rather than a vocation naturally ordered towards the procreation and raising of children. Hence the question of the ‘unwanted child’ often impacts upon the question of abortion.
Where marriage is regarded as a child-oriented vocation, marriage becomes a matter of creating a hospitable space where children can be welcomed into the world, with a place in society and its loving relationships secured for them. Where marriage is in decline, and illegitimacy is seen as having little significance, children increasingly enter the world as strangers, with no place prepared for them, and without the same clear claim upon our loyalties. When sexual relationships in general and even the institution of marriage are no longer ordered at their heart to the needs and interests of children, no openness to relationship with the unborn infant can be presumed upon and the unexpected child can come to be perceived as an intruder. Without this foundational openness to relationship, the unborn child is easily abstracted and depersonalized.
Our understanding of the child is radically impacted by other relationships. Whatever we may believe about the capacities of the unborn child, for Christians the fact that we know that God views it with love and concern shapes the way that we relate to it. We can’t depersonalize something that is loved by God in this manner.
Abortion is also far harder to countenance in the context of a loving and committed married relationship and a large immediate and extended family. Within such a context, the child is seen as a physical expression of the love between two persons, and as one who belongs in relationship with many others beyond the couple. The unborn child is a grandson, a sister, a nephew, a cousin. All of these relationships give the unborn child value as a person, and make it difficult for us to depersonalize the unborn child in our perception. They also make it harder for us to think that we can unilaterally determine the unborn infant’s fate.
Our present cultural understanding of the family is narrowly fixated on the sentimental snapshot of the small nuclear family, with two smiling parents and one or two kids. However, the family is a project that stretches across multiple generations, in which identity and culture are preserved, enriched, and passed on. Divorce and illegitimacy are extremely serious in this conception. Illegitimacy deprives a child of his patrimony. Divorce represents a loss and dissolution of the family’s social, relational, and financial capital, and the unravelling of the threads of our origins. When the life of the family is regarded as something that transcends us and places constraints, expectations, and duties upon us we begin to perceive both ourselves and our offspring very differently. We are no longer autonomous, but must recognize that the interest that many other parties have in us. Abortion in such a framework is far harder to countenance.
When sex is depersonalized, the conceived child is depersonalized too. A culture accustomed to casual sex will sleep far more easily with abortion. If sex is not naturally connected with procreation, with the expectation that before initiating a sexual relationship one must take responsibility for and make provision for its potential procreative consequences, conception does not have the same aspect. If you haven’t engaged in sex as a responsible act that might entail procreative consequences for which you must prepare ourselves, you will be far more likely to reject your unborn child as an unwanted and dispensable by-product. If you have meaningless sex with a person who means nothing to you, you will view the child conceived from such intercourse very differently from the manner in which the married couple who have pledged their bodies and entire lives to each other in a lifelong and exclusive personal one flesh union will view a child conceived from theirs.
Procreation has also been depersonalized. No longer limited to the context of the loving communication of pledged bodies sealing a comprehensive gift of selves in a one flesh lifelong exclusive union, the use of reproductive technology has become mainstream. More significantly, reproductive technology has shaped our perception of children and the unborn in general. Reproductive technology abstracts procreation from the personal gift of bodies in the marital act, operating in terms of the autonomy of bodies (a position advanced ideologically by the feminist movement, for instance).
The belief in the autonomy of bodies denies and resists the ways in which our bodies are naturally connected and ordered to those of others. In the autonomy of bodies the ordering of male and female bodies to each other is no longer treated as a natural aspect of their phenomenology. The same is the case with the relationship between the unborn infant and its mother. The natural connection can be presented as if it were one of violent alien invasion, or parasitic attachment. The surrogate mother probably has no lasting attachment to the child that she bears. Her body is merely a host for a being that, although attached, bears no real relationship. Bonds of flesh and blood and shared bodies are denied their natural meaning.
Not only can bodies be detached from other bodies, they can also be depersonalized and detached from persons. Bodies are atomized: one person provides sperm, another a womb, another an egg. Procreation is no longer limited to the realm of aneconomic bodily gift in marriage, but is mediated by technology and the marketplace, the atomized body and its parts and materials being bought and sold. If you are dealing only with an anonymous sperm donor and concerned solely with the quality of his genetic material, your attitude to the conceived child will be rather different to someone who conceived the child with her husband and a father-to-be. No prizes for guessing which child is more likely to be regarded in a depersonalized manner.
As bodily ties are denied with the rise of the atomized, depersonalized, and autonomous body, the meaning of the unborn child’s existence is no longer assured by the personal ties created by shared bodies, but becomes contingent upon some parent choosing in their favour. Parenthood ceases to have any real meaning. Where the bonds between bodies and between bodies and persons are recognized, a given-ness of the relationship between the parents and their unborn child is ensured. Where this no longer exists, relationship can only be a voluntaristic choice that the parents may or may not make in the child’s favour. While the choice remains unmade, the child exists in a sort of ontological limbo, its status as a person hanging in the balance.
All of this is mixed up with a liberal view of the person as the autonomous and rational right-bearing agent, and the reconfiguration of the unruly reality of the family around this. For liberal thought, with the autonomous and undifferentiated right-bearing individual as the primary unit of explanation, the realities represented by the family and children in particular pose immense problems and cannot easily be processed. A ‘one flesh’ union that expresses sexual difference, the ordering of male and female bodies to each other, and has the natural capacity to produce a new public reality, imposing an identity onto persons born into a ground level aneconomic order of gift that both precedes and transcends the political, just breaks too many of liberalism’s rules.
Why Resistance to Same-Sex Marriage is a Pro-Life Position
Not a few Christians believe that the Church should take a stand on the ‘pro-life’ issue of abortion, but are embarrassed when the Church takes an equally principled stand against same-sex marriage. Thinking about the subject of same-sex marriage a while back, I was struck by just how much our struggle for a Christian phenomenology of the child presses us to fight against same-sex marriage. The argument above demonstrates that taking a stand against same-sex marriage is essentially a pro-life matter.
One could in fact argue that the paradigmatic family of liberal ideology is the same-sex couple with adopted children or children born through reproductive technology, a family of purely volitional attachments (every child is chosen) between undifferentiated individual sexual agents for whom gender need not be stipulated, creating a privatized realm of sentimental bonds, where bodies are clearly autonomous and all relationships boil down to romantic or emotional attachment adumbrated by contract.
The same-sex marriage debate isn’t a debate about whether certain individuals can get married, so much as it is a debate about the meaning of marriage itself. As such, the same-sex marriage debate has bearing upon the way that our entire society conceives of and practices marriage.
Same-sex marriage leads us to deny or undermine the ordering of the institution of marriage towards children. Children become a secondary storey that may or may not be added to the relationship. It presents sex as a univocal reality, no longer ordered towards procreation. It denies or undermines the privileged and unique character of the sexual relationship between men and women as it relates to procreation and parenthood. It treats the parental roles of mother and father as interchangeable or dispensable. It downplays the significance of the marital ideal of children being conceived out of the loving intercourse of the pledged bodies of their parents. It relativizes the importance of the bonds of blood that connect us to our offspring and to or wider families. It hastens the voluntarization of the concept of parenthood. And, let’s not fool ourselves: it is in connection with the same-sex family that the widespread use of reproductive technology to circumvent any need to procreate naturally will become normalized, and come to be regarded as the right of the individual sexual agent.
Same-sex marriage is the epitome of the new liberal conception of marriage in general. While our battle against this conception is far broader than one against same-sex marriage – these notions are widely held by people within conventional marriages – it is at this point that the antitheses come to their clearest expression.
This new doctrine of marriage has massive implications for our phenomenology of the child. One by one, it snips the personalizing bonds of relationship that shape our perception of children in general, and the unborn in particular. Once normalized, these concepts will be free to infect our entire society’s perception of such matters.
Avenues for Theological Reflection on the Unborn
The Scriptures present us with a set of beliefs and practices that enable us to perceive the unborn as persons, and to welcome them into the world. The state of pre-birth is seen as one of loving preparation and anticipation of what is yet to be, and is illustrative of our pre-eschatological existence. Because God is a hospitable God, he has opened his future to us, and on account of this future, our present unformed state gains considerable value and significance. Our current existence is not regarded according to some dubious intrinsic worth, but according to the promise of what we will become in Christ.
God’s regarding us in our unformed state, not assessing our being according to its intrinsic merits, but in accordance with his loving imputation of righteousness, and in light of what he will one day form us to be in Christ is essentially the truth of justification. We are loved as the Father relates to us in terms of his relationship with his Son in the communion of the Spirit. We are loved as God has prepared a future for us, and consequently can view us in terms of what we can one day become, rather than just what we presently are. We are loved as our creation is regarded as a personal act, in which God is lovingly invested. We are loved as we are bound up in the Spiritual communion of the saints through our relationships with faithful parents and relations.
In these analogies, we are the unborn, still awaiting what we will one day be. Our unborn children are prophetic gifts to us, in which God allows us to participate in something of the reality of the relationship that he bears to us in the present. God’s hospitality, tenderness, compassion, love, regard for, and personalizing dealings with us in our present unformed state afford us a pattern for our own relationships with the unborn.