The case for life - Part 2

by Juan Guajardo

North Texas Catholic


Words have power. They can lift us up. They can express deep emotions like love, gratefulness, and joy. But they can also hurt and be misused. As Niccolo Machiavelli makes clear, language can be twisted in order to achieve an end. It can be used as illusion and there’s agenda behind illusion. George Orwell’s book 1984 also reminds us of this.

In fact, the origins of the term “doublespeak” — deliberately ambiguous speech — is traced back to that book. Although the term isn’t used in the novel per se, it’s closely related to the language of the book’s totalitarian regime, Newspeak, which was used to push their political agenda.

More than ever we can find traces of intentionally deceptive language in our society’s vocabulary. Consider the euphemism “downsizing” for “layoffs” and the now well-accepted use of manipulative language by the advertising industry and in politics. Consider too, the well-publicized term “alternative facts” used by Kellyanne Conway to defend the Trump Administration in 2017. As of Dec. 2018, the Global Language Monitor (GLM), based in Austin, pegged the number of words in the English language at more than 1 million, stating that about 15 new words are created per day. Combine that with the multiple definitions some words have and it can get messy.

Having been introduced to Machiavellian philosophy in my political science classes, for the next phase of the Case for Life, I considered it critical to ask: Is a certain phrase, term, or label being used manipulatively, or honestly and objectively? Is it a euphemism covering up an ugly reality? In particular, I honed in on the meaning of one word: Personhood. Scientifically, I had come to the unequivocal conclusion that human life begins at conception. But before I could grant the verdict that the unborn human is morally equivalent to the newborn (and therefore it should be protected from conception onward), I would need to face the claim that abounded amongst my peers: “The fetus isn’t a person.”

For this, I relied on the rebuttal evidence — any evidence that’s offered to explain, counteract, or disprove a witness account or testimony. If that evidence countered the above claim, I would be one step closer to a verdict.

The Rebuttal Evidence

Critical to the “fetus isn’t a person” claim is the concept of personhood. Of course to understand why a fetus is or isn’t a person, we must first define person and find out who sets the definition. A good rebuttal gets to the bottom of that.

While pro-choice at that time, I admit I hadn’t thought that “person” meant anything other than human. Boy was I wrong. Poring over dozens of essays on “personhood” from a variety of disciplines, I found that it’s a tough definition to pin down.

As a sociological term, its definition varies across time, cultural context, and space. In theology, it got its start in Christological debates in order to describe the three persons of the Holy Trinity. In philosophy, it replaced the term “rational soul” back in the Enlightenment era. It meant different things to different ancient societies, such as the Greeks and Romans. Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, Tertullian, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas all had different understandings of it. (Augustine and Aquinas both agreed that personhood involved ensoulment, but they disagreed on when ensoulment occurred.) In common law and ecclesiastical courts, personhood extended to the child in utero and abortion was generally prosecuted in Western society.

The issue did not clear up with the passage of time, unfortunately. The current personhood movement muddied the waters even more, to the point where even pro-abortion advocates can’t agree on why the fetus isn’t a person or even when personhood begins.1 Some activist groups go so far as to ascribe personhood to animals.2

As it relates to the unborn human and the legal perspective (and this is also where the definition impacts our society most profoundly), the 1973 Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, gives some insight. (To be clear, in this article I omit juridical personhood, i.e., sovereign states or corporations. We focus solely on natural personhood.)

The case got its start here, in North Texas, after Norma McCorvey (Roe) and a pair of attorneys who filed suit on her behalf sought to overturn Texas’ criminal abortion statutes. At the time, most states criminally prosecuted abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the mother’s life. Finding out she was pregnant, McCorvey was advised to lie that she was raped in order to procure a legal abortion. The schemes failed however, leading to the suit being filed in 1970. (McCorvey wound up giving birth and placing her child for adoption; in a twist of events, she later became a prominent pro-life advocate.)

The case revolves heavily around the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

Of course, when the passage was written (Reconstruction era, 1868), the term “person” was equivalent and interchangeable with “human.” The landmark Jan. 22, 1973 decision, however, created a paradigm shift in the legal definition of natural personhood, and this was a red flag.

In what the legal community at the time saw as an extreme judicial overreach,3 the court ruled that the right to privacy granted under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s right to have an abortion. 

As I read on, I noticed the court faced a dilemma. 

Justice Harry Blackmun wrote:

“The appellee [Wade] and certain amici [friends of the court] argue that the fetus is a “person” within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [14th] amendment.”

Not finding a definition for person in the Constitution, the justice willfully relied on old tort law, clumsy penumbra, and self-serving misinformation (“There has always been strong support for the view that life does not begin until live birth”) to contrive his own, concluding that personhood is not inherent; rather it’s something to be developed. Unfortunately for the fetus, that meant he or she wasn’t a “person” until the age of viability. No personhood, no right to life.4 

How did the justice determine the point at which personhood starts? In an internal memo to the other justices, Blackmun admitted that the trimester framework was “arbitrary.”5 

With that, the court struck down what Texas defended — that “life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception.” In the greater scheme, the court had crafted a new long-lasting definition of person — one which excluded the embryo (outright) and the fetus (until the third trimester or 28 weeks) Eventually, the court’s opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey reworked the trimester framework, moving the point of viability (around 22-23 weeks) in light of medical advances.

John T. Noonan, a former U.S. circuit court judge and university professor, criticized the court’s Roe decision.6 He saw it as narrowing the definition of humanity and thus our protections under the Constitution. Instead of the state protecting a human being for the sake of being human, it was now a compelling interest to the state only if the human being had the “capability of meaningful life.” 

“Human life is defined in terms of this capability,” Noonan explained. “Qualitative standards of the life worthy of protecting are to prevail…Our old way of looking on all human existence as sacred is to be replaced by a new ethic more discriminating in who shall live and who shall die. The concept of ‘meaningful life’ is at the core of these decisions.”

He added, somewhat prophetically, “Who shall make the judgment that life has meaning or the capability of meaning?”

Through the reading of Roe and related documents, the “fetus is not a person” claim was falling apart as the definition it depended on was steeped heavily in subjectivism rather than science and objectivity. The rebuttal evidence was, so far, winning out.


from Other Viewpoints

Within ethics, I again found no clear consensus for personhood. 

One extreme example I encountered was courtesy of a pair of ethicists writing for the Journal of Medical Ethics.7 In their now infamous 2012 essay, they arrived at the conclusion that “aborting newborns” should be allowed in all cases where abortion is because they’re not persons. The authors admitted both the fetus and newborn are “certainly human beings and potential persons” but neither is a person worthy of a right to life yet. Not until they’re able to develop aims and have an appreciation for their lives.

Then there were those who would take a scientific question and turn it into a theological one. Of course, we know that once it’s relegated there, it’s oftentimes dismissed as irrelevant to the discussion.

Surprisingly, I found that trying to twist personhood into a theological debate was unnecessary to determining sanctity of life. The Church states the human embryo and fetus must be unconditionally protected as sacred, yes. But this “yes” is more nuanced. It stipulates that the embryo (or fetus) must be treated as if it were a person, as if it were ensouled, despite not knowing for sure when that happens.8 

Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, provided a clue as to why the question of the “precise timing of ensoulment/personhood” is irrelevant to our defense of life. First, because sacred tradition has never given the Church a unanimous answer as to when ensoulment (and therefore personhood) begins. Secondly and most importantly, a fundamental truth we already know trumps what we don’t know:

“We do not need an answer to this fascinating and speculative question… Rather, we only need to grasp the key insight that every person on the planet is, so to speak, an ‘overgrown embryo.’ Hence, it is not necessary to know exactly when God ensouls the embryo, because, as I sometimes point out in half-jest, even if it were true that an embryo did not receive her soul until she graduated from law school, that would not make it OK to kill her by forcibly extracting tissues or organs prior to graduation.”

So while I had found the point of “personhood” is speculative for almost every discipline, Fr. Tad’s argument made a lot of sense — whether one was Roman Catholic or not. Even if we don’t know when the embryo or fetus becomes a person or “ensouled,” we do know this is a human being — from the moment of conception — and that should be enough for us to treat him or her with immense dignity and respect. Plus, if the definition of personhood begins there, at ground zero, it would be not only objective, but scientific. Even logically that starting point makes sense because it defines personhood through the lens of what or who one is — rather than falling into a functionalist mindset of “what one does.” 

So, I was ready to admit that the claim “a fetus isn’t a person” was wrong, and that changing that “isn’t” to an “is” would be in everyone’s best interest.

The alternative — severing humanity from personhood and defining it ourselves — should give us pause. We’re pretty bad at it as our historical record shows; we too easily dehumanize (i.e., the Rwandan Genocide or the Holocaust).

What’s more, if personhood is not inherent, we water down the Golden Rule, the tenets of our faith (and those of many other religions), and our beloved country’s “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Colleen Carroll Campbell puts this more bluntly, “If being human is not enough to entitle one to human rights, then the very concept of human rights loses meaning. And all of us — born and unborn, strong and weak, young and old — someday will find ourselves on the wrong end of that measuring stick.”

Better for us to say: All that’s required to be a person is to be a member of the genus and species homo sapiens. Best to take Machiavelli’s advice and test what’s behind the dialect of euphemism, for the manipulators and seducers “have a feeling and instinct for it, [and] try their best to keep it hidden.”9

Read Case for Life Part 1 Read Case for Life Part 3

1 Gilbert, Scott. “When Does Personhood Begin?” Swarthmore College, 2018.
2  Lumpkin, Lauren. “PETA put up a billboard urging Baltimore to stop eating crabs. It didn’t exactly go over well.” The Baltimore Sun, Aug. 24, 2018.
3  White, Byron R. Byron R. White Papers, 1961-1992. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
4  Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
5  Woodward, Bob. “The Abortion Papers.” The Washington Post, Jan. 22, 1989. 
6  Hensley, Jeff, et al. The Zero People. Servant Books, Michigan,1983.
7  Giubilini, Alberto, Minerva, Francesca. “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” Journal of Medical Ethics, 2012.
8  Pacholczyk, Rev. Tad. “Do Embryos Have Souls?” Making Sense of Bioethics, March 2008.
9  Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays.” Northwestern University Press, Chicago, 1963.

Words have power. They can lift us up. They can express deep emotions like love, gratefulness, and joy. But they can also hurt and be misused.