Who is “everybody”? Humanity, dignity & personhood

The most important and widely accepted human rights document in the world is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, promulgated by the UN in the wake of the human rights abuses seen during the Second World War.

Its preamble notes that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, while Article 3 says that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

This is a powerful statement, but it raises a rather difficult question in the light of the widespread acceptance of destructive embryo research and abortion in the modern world. And that question is this: who counts as “everyone”? When the declaration refers to “all members of the human family”, what does it mean? Since 1948, many lawyers have attempted to answer the question from a legal or political perspective, looking at what the people who wrote the UDHR meant, what they understood human rights to be and so on. But they have still to reach any firm consensus, more than sixty years on, and so the key questions remain, just as they have for philosophers and thinkers down the ages. What exactly does it mean to be a human being? Where does human value come from? Who gets to decide? And on what grounds?

These questions may seem academic, or irrelevant. However, they are not. They go to the very heart of the debate on abortion and embryo research.

The traditional sanctity of life ethic, shaped largely by Judeo-Christian tradition, held that all human beings, even embryos and young babies in the womb, were valuable in and of themselves from the very start of their lives and ought not to be killed. Although there was considerable debate about the ethics of war and the death penalty, there was almost unanimous agreement that innocent human life should be protected against intentional killing from the very beginning. Modern science, of course, confirms the view that a genetically unique and irreplaceable human being is present from the moment of conception, even though many people don’t accept that simply being human doesn’t give the right to life.

In the twentieth century, the sanctity of life ethic began to be challenged by ethicists more influenced by utilitarian ideas. They argued that in order to be thought of as a full member of the human community – and thus be granted the full protection of the law – it was not enough simply to be a unique human individual. Drawing on the thought of men like John Locke, they redefined “personhood”, traditionally assumed to be synonymous with humanity, to exclude the unborn (and other groups such as the seriously disabled). This view is, implicitly or explicitly, the majority opinion among modern thinkers.

One such thinker is Peter Singer, a pioneer of the animal rights movement and a committed enemy of pro-life philosophy. Singer has been a key proponent of a particularly extreme form of utilitarianism, and is at the head of an increasingly strong trend in bioethics that seeks to undermine the dignity of the human individual, by excluding “defective” individuals – the disabled, the very young, the very old – from full personhood while simultaneously including certain highly intelligent animals. Indeed, Singer’s main philosophical mission is to radically alter our understanding of human value. Taking this kind of utilitarian thinking to its logical conclusion, he argues both that not all humans are persons – since sentience and the ability to feel pain are the key to personhood – and that not all persons are humans, i.e. that animals with a high degree of sentience or the ability to feel pain should be thought of as persons.

This may seem reasonable. But on reflection we soon come back to the question raised earlier: who gets to decide what makes a person “really” human, and by what authority do they separate “real” humans from the rest of the human race? The idea that some humans get to define other humans as somehow inferior and less than human has a dark history.

The interesting thing about the idea that to be fully human means having some special quality is that its adherents are generally reluctant to carry it to its logical conclusion, which is this: if we decide that being a real human person depends on some quality or qualities X, then anyone not in position of the X factor can be killed, or treated unjustly. So, if we want to say that abortion is OK because real human persons must be able to reason for themselves, then we must also say that all humans who cannot think for themselves can be killed.

Peter Singer is not reticent about the implications of the idea that some human beings can be killed because they lack a particular characteristic. He is at least honest and straightforward about what he is arguing for. Other pro-abortionists are less honest, despite the fact that there are very few arguments for abortion which don’t work equally well as arguments for infanticide. When they make a pro-abortion argument that focuses on the unborn child’s lack of “human characteristics”, and pro-lifers note that other human beings also lack such qualities, yet pro-abortionists do not advocate their killing, the pro-abortionist retreats into blather at this point, or tries to change the subject. Not Professor Singer. He is willing to admit that, yes, under his definition of personhood, very young children are not persons just as unborn children are not, and yes, they do not have the right to life in the same way.

The British academic, John Harris, has echoed this view, challenging his fellow pro-abortionists who say that life begins at birth to explain what precisely it is that changes at birth . A convincing answer to that question has yet to emerge, and yet many people persist in arguing that there is something important about birth.

Quite recently, at a conference at Princeton University, Prof Singer said that “I think that [moral status] does develop gradually…you get perhaps to full moral status, really, only after two years…The position that allows abortion also allows infanticide under some circumstances…If we accept abortion, we do need to rethink some of those more fundamental attitudes about human life” . Elsewhere he has said that “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living“.

These are clearly monstrous statements, which we at Life entirely reject. But they do expose the grim and inhuman logic behind certain kinds of pro-abortion argument, which depend on dehumanising our fellow human beings.

As the US ethicist Gilbert Meileander has written:

“Personhood arguments, exclusive rather than inclusive in their understanding of human community, seem in many ways to have turned against the long and arduous history in which we have slowly learned to value and protect those who are least among us.”

Professor David Jones of the University of Oxford puts it this way, in his book ‘The Soul of the Embryo’:

“If being human is restricted to those who can use their reason, then it will exclude many whom we are accustomed to view as human beings. On the other hand, if being human involves having a rational nature…then it seems that this is already possessed by the human embryo.”

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