Abortion Foundations: A Personhood Perspective

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Jordan Hughes stands for lifeWhile abortion has been hotly debated for the past 100 years, the past six months have brought the issue to the forefront of American politics. Amidst rhetoric and agendas flying from both sides, we’ve seen reproductive rights become an issue that may determine the next president of the United States. Unfortunately, the arguments of legality and rights have clouded whether or not the act of abortion is actually ethical or moral in itself. While an act or policy may be accepted and legal in a society, it does not mean that act or policy is ethical. It is the purpose of this paper to examine not the legality of abortion, but to determine whether or not abortion is or can be ethical.

We must first determine whether or not a fetus is a person. If an action is wrought against an inanimate piece of tissue, it has vastly different implications for morality than if the same action is wrought against a human person. We must then determine is whether or not the act of abortion violates any ethical theories based on the conclusion of personhood.

Humanity vs. Personhood

As we consider the laws of nature, we know that each creature creates after its own kind. Giraffes give birth to giraffes, dogs to dogs, humans to humans, and so on. From this law, it is easy to conclude that a fetus is in fact a human. Our humanity is determined by the means of our conception. When a human sperm and a human egg come together, it creates a human. The trouble, however, is that humanity is merely a state of chemistry. Many arguments contend that a human person is no more human than any organ in the human body. This reasoning argues that all persons are human, but not all humans are persons. The contention arises around the concept of personhood. Personhood is the distinguishing characteristic of humanity that makes one eligible to have rights, to be respected, to be protected, etc. It’s by personhood that we are deemed worthy of life. This same belief is the foundation of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States.

Problems with Current Theories of Personhood

Many have argued that there are certain criteria that establish personhood. One of the most popular arguments is that human persons should exhibit advanced reasoning and other higher cognitions. Under this argument, it follows that individuals with Alzheimer’s, who are in vegetative states, and even newborn babies are not in fact persons. At the same time, this theory allows for chimpanzees, dolphins, and other kinds of cognitive animals to be classified as persons. This is problematic because we know that newborns and the mentally handicapped are clearly persons, while animals are not. Another popular argument for criteria of personhood is viability, which means that a person should be able to live independently from another human being. This reasoning is problematic because it follows to exclude individuals of any physical handicap or injury that requires care, such as surgical patients or those with severe illness, and even the elderly, from personhood. It even is pliable to argue under this reasoning that if a newborn baby is dependent on the care of its parents to receive food, clothing, and thus survival, that they are not persons either.

If these arguments are true, then what responsibility do we owe to newborns, the disabled, or the elderly? Should we fear incapacitation because we may lose our personhood while we are unconscious? Why don’t apes have voting rights? These widely accepted arguments for the determinants of personhood allow for any individual to slip in and out of personhood based on situational factors out of their control. If these arguments are true, then our care for newborns and others who are excluded from personhood are biased for whom we prefer to care for. These theories are too problematic to effectively put into practice. It follows that we ought not base personhood on those criteria, but that there still must be a determinant of personhood in order to protect and entitle rights to those persons.

A Multidimensional Model of Personhood

Personhood is not a definable point in human development, but a collection of characteristics in human beings that distinguish them from other creatures. The first factor to determine personhood is an origin of humanity. All persons must be humans, and thus a human sperm and a human egg must be the biological origin of a person. The second factor is potentiality. A human person must undergo developmental processes and actions of human persons and thus must have the potential to grow and develop through the defined stages of gestation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, etc, to death; the potential to have a will of actions; and the potential Person or cells?to be a recipient of the rights of personhood. While viability and cognitive function cannot stand alone as determinants of personhood, it must follow that human persons will exhibit them. If, after the first two criteria are met, viability and cognitive function follow as logical ends, then those four factors combined stand as determinants of personhood. It should not be assumed that cognitive function and viability must be present to determine personhood, but that they would logically follow. Once personhood is achieved, it should not be revoked, either willfully or forcibly, until the agent that assumed said personhood ceases to exhibit three of the four determining factors. This model of personhood excludes all of the accidental inclusions that arise from factors standing alone such as advanced animals and human tissue, and it includes all of the accidental exclusions such as persons in the womb and the physically or mentally handicapped. Personhood begins from the moment of conception and lasts to the complete cessation of human functions – death. With personhood determined as beginning at conception, the morality of abortion can then be evaluated with the understanding that the act of abortion is being wrought against a human person.

Morality of Abortion under Personhood Model

What we must understand is that, if we consider the personhood model, the act of abortion is killing a human person. To justify abortion as moral, we will be attempting to justify the morality of killing a human person.

Consulting principles, any medical practitioner has a responsibility to defend patient autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice when dealing with human persons. When dedicating oneself to being a medical practitioner, one must vow to uphold these principles as a bond of sanctity and trust between practitioner and patient. These principles act as a rubric for what actions ought to be wrought towards patients.

Patient autonomy dictates that patients have self-rule over their own body, designating them as the prime decision maker in regard to themselves. This principle has been the most important in cases of ethical uncertainty. In the case of abortion, we see a clash between two autonomous persons: the mother and the child. A medical practitioner cannot violate the autonomy of the mother by making a medical decision for her to not abort the child, but he also cannot violate the autonomy of the child be making a medical decision to end its life. This conflict can be examined critically if we consider the decision as if the child were not in the womb. If a mother came to a doctor with a medical wish to kill her child, the doctor would not because it would undermine the rights of the child, which would also violate nonmaleficence principles. In the act of abortion, patient autonomy is violated against the child, which is considered more highly because the consequences of violating the child’s autonomy results in death – much more harm than if the mother’s were violated.

Beneficence, the principle of doing only good for your patients, is violated as it related to the child due to the lack of good consequences an abortion would result in. In terms of good consequences, no comparable lack of good can be found to befall the mother that would undermine the lack of good wrought against child if the child were to not be aborted. Examining the issue if the child were not in the womb, it would also be easy to see that the beneficence to the child would be greatly violated by an abortion.

Nonmaleficence is often confused with beneficence. Nonmaleficence is the principle that medical practitioners must do no harm to their patients. The violations of this principle are perhaps the worst of the four principles. The harm wrought against the child would greatly violate nonmaleficence in the act of abortion. In terms of harmful consequences, no comparable harm can be found to befall the mother if the child were to not be aborted that would undermine the harm done to the child if they were to be aborted.

Justice, I contend, is the most important of the four principles. Justice is the sum total of the actions regarding the three previous principles. If you fall in one aspect, you may still be able to do justice on an overall scale. But to violate justice is to suggest a total disregard for any principles towards a patient. Seeing a lack of the three previous principles coupled with the presence of only negative consequences for the child, abortion fails to provide any justice to a child. No violation of justice can be found to befall the mother if the child were to not be aborted that would undermine the violation of justice done to the child if they were to be aborted.

These ethical principles are imperative for a medical practitioner to exhibit towards his patients. More applicable to every kind of person are two major ethical theories that can help to guide decisions to be made ethically and morally. Where some may find principles too technical in nature, ethical theories are more practical to every day life. For the sake of this argument, we will allow principles to pertain to medical requirements for ethics, and ethical theories to pertain to humanity’s requirements for ethics.

The first ethical theory for consideration is consequentialism. For the sake of this argument, we will consider a widely known theory of consequentialism called Utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism holds to the belief of social hedonism, that the best, most ethical action is the one with which the most possible good and pleasure results for the most possible beings regardless of the intentions or motives of the action. In abortion, we see a difficult case for whether or not Utilitarianism applies in favor or in opposition. We see that good results for the mother who is seeking the abortion and for the doctor who is being paid for the abortion, but we also see great harm done to the child who will die as a result of the abortion. When we apply certain scenarios such as financial hardship to the mother, we see a possibility for good to result for others who may be indirectly affected such as a landlord who will not be seeking payments from the mother who cannot afford rent due to the child, or of an individual that the child may have done wrong to if they had been allowed to live. Under those guises of potentiality, we will argue that the good that would have been done by the presence of the child being in the world due to the other individuals who would have benefitted from their presence, for the services they would have rendered to employees in their life, to recipients of altruism from that child in life, that more harm would be done by their nonexistence than for their existence. We will also contend that if restricted to the three individuals directly involved (the mother, the child, and the doctor), that the harm done by the death of the child outweighs the financial or social benefit that may result for the mother and the doctor. Under those criteria, abortion does not meet the demands of Utilitarianism.

The second ethical theory for consideration is non-consequentialism. For the sake of this argument, we will consider a widely known theory of non-consequentialism called Duty ethics. Duty ethics dictate that the most important thing to consider is rationality regardless of the consequences of an action, and that there is a categorical law that determines the rationality of actions. Immanuel Kant developed two criteria against which to test an action for its rationality and, thus, morality. An action is moral if it can be universalized to occur everywhere by everyone all the time, and if it considers all persons to be ends in themselves and not means only by which to achieve an end. A third criterion is the Natural Law Tradition, which states that the world is rational, so a rational person can and should act on what is right and natural to do while not doing that which is unnatural. If the act of abortion were universalized, then we would will that persons should be able to kill other persons that may inconvenience us financially or socially. This is problematic because we would have a logical contradiction between our will for some to live and the will for people to kill whoever we would like, not to mention that the universe would enter a state in which it would not and ought not to rationally operate. In the act of abortion, we see that a child is treated as a means only to an end that is more desirable for the mother, whether it is financial or social. If we apply the Natural Law Tradition, we can contend that it is unnatural to not only kill another person, but that it is doubly unnatural for a human mother to kill her own child. Under these considerations, we see the problematic picture in which abortion fails to meet the criteria for morality under Duty ethics.

A third ethical theory for consideration is Virtue ethics. Virtue ethics contends that the right action is the one that displays good character, and that good character is displayed through virtues. According to virtue ethicists, virtues are traits exhibited by those who live well and must be practiced and exercised in order to perfect. Virtues critical to this system are courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. In the act of abortion we see that courage is lacking when a mother is unwilling to face potential hardships in order to let her child live and when a practitioner is unwilling to refuse to take the life of the child. We also see that a lack of temperance is the cause of abortion when a mother is unwilling to abstain from sexual activity and is also exhibited when a mother exhibits excessive measures to resolve her financial or social problem by taking the life of her child. Justice, as mentioned previously under principles, is absent when the child’s life is taken without defense of their autonomy or safety. Lastly, wisdom is lacking when a practitioner and mother determine that abortion is the correct answer to whatever reasoning that brings the mother to the practitioner without seeing the preservation of the child through adoption or any other option as a viable choice. Under these criteria, the act of abortion fails to meet the requirements of Virtue ethics.

The last ethical theory for consideration is Feminist Ethics of Care. Feminist Ethics believe that social prejudices and emotion compromise other ethical theories and must be considered to determine morality of an action. In the act of abortion, the mother is likely to be under the influence of many emotions, and many view restriction of abortions to be prejudice against a woman’s rights. Emotions and prejudices are of an unseen nature, and their presence is subjective to the observer of the situation, and thus should not be able to lend weight to determining morality. If one were to observe a murder of a white slave owner by an African slave in the 1700s, the prejudices against the slave and their deep emotions from being poorly treated by the slave owner would lend to understanding of their act, but would not lend to morality of their action. Viewing abortion in the same manner, emotions and prejudices may lend to understanding of why a mother seeks an abortion, but it cannot justify the morality of her action.

Paradigm cases often allow for us to observe a controversial issue and determine an appropriate means by which to analyze it by following a method or model set by those before you. Looking at abortion as a moral act, there has been no medical case that has contested the morality of the abortion, but rather the right of the mother to have the abortion. In a manner of speaking, every case regarding the legality of abortion is examining the morality of abortion. But there have been no paradigm cases observing the morality of abortion alone, outside of the law and rights of a mother. This argument hopes to create a paradigm by which abortion will be observed in the future.

When we observe the act of abortion under the criteria of these principles and theories, we see that on all accounts, abortion fails to meet the requirements of morality. From this, it logically follows to conclude that abortion is not moral or ethical as an act in itself.

Duties and Obligations

            While we have found that abortion in itself is an immoral act, it is worth examining whether there stand duties and obligations that we ought to morally abide by when considering abortion.

Perfect duty is such that when an act creates a logical contradiction when universalized, which we found abortion to do, that we have a duty to not act in that manner. If we do not uphold a perfect duty, we are blameworthy for not doing so. An imperfect duty is such that an act may create a logical contradiction, but we are not blameworthy if we do not uphold the duty. For instance, it may be permissible to help someone with a flat tire, but it is not morally reprehensible to not stop and help. Imperfect duty is usually characterized by the inability to remain in a constant state of upholding that duty. For instance, you could not maintain a constant state of helping someone with a flat tire. Under the circumstance of the act of abortion, however, we can remain in a constant state of not killing another human person via abortion. By this standard, we have a perfect duty to not perform abortions.

Defeasible obligations are such that while we may have an obligation to uphold some act or duty, there are exceptions that may free us from obligation to uphold said action or duty. Indefeasible obligations are such that we have an obligation to uphold an action or a duty, and there are no exceptions to said obligation. After considering the ethical standing of abortion and the perfect duty to not perform an abortion, we can conclude that there are no defeasible aspects of our obligations toward abortion.


When we observe the personhood model and recognize that a fetus is in fact a human person, we cannot ethically justify the taking of that life or revoke our duty to maintaining the sanctity of that personhood by any major ethical theory or principle. While abortion stands as one of the most hotly debated social issues of our time, tied up in debates of legality and rights, the act itself stands as immoral and unethical in nature. In order for us to be logical, natural, and ethical, we must stop abortions.


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