Posted on March 13, 2012
When "person" is a subjective term
On February 23rd, the Virginia state legislature put off any action on its proposed "personhood bill" until next year, much to the relief of Republican strategists who want to steer clear of so-called "social issues." These critics may have a point when they complain that the bill needlessly throws a wild card into an electoral deck that appears to be stacked against the Democrats, but perhaps its proponents aren't concerned with political expediency. Maybe they simply believe that the law ought to tell the truth.
Supporters of the initiative want the law to recognize that, at the instant of fertilization, a new member of the human species is created, and that this being is, by definition, a person. That might sound like an open-and-shut case as far as the facts are concerned, but when liberals find the facts disagreeable, they assume the ability to just theorize them away.
An article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, cited in a February 29th London Telegraph article, condones infanticide, although authors Alberto Giubilini and Frencesca Minerva prefer the darkly comical euphemism "after-birth abortion." That term reflects their contention that, "Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a 'person' in the sense of 'subject of a moral right to life'."
If this argument sounds familiar, that may be because Peter Singer reached a similar conclusion in his 1985 essay, "Should the baby live?" -- a title echoed by that of Giubilini and Minerva's piece, "After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?" Considered a pioneer in the studiously amoral field of bioethics, Singer has served for 12 years as head of Princeton University's flippantly named "Center for Human Values."
As if to boastfully disdain convention, the authors anti-grammatically use feminine-neuter pronouns to make their case that, "We take 'person' to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her." In other words, this definition of "person" is characterized by self-awareness, an attribute whose presence or absence cannot be objectively determined. Instead, it calls for a "we take it that" assumption to be made by whomever is empowered to decide.
The biological meaning of "person" as a synonym for "human being" is objectively determinable. If the word is to mean anything in a legal context, this is the definition that has got to apply. The philosophical definition, however, requires one to make a subjective determination. Might a newborn really not be a person? If so, then how about somebody in a coma? Or someone who's severely mentally handicapped? Without any factual guidance, people are free to arrive at whatever conclusions they want. The familiar utilitarian theme is that one's value is dependent upon being wanted.
Even if someone appears to be self-aware, there's no way that it can be absolutely proven. Imagine you've been called before a panel of "ethicists" and ordered to demonstrate that you attribute value to your existence. What could you possibly do or say, for which they couldn't provide an alternative explanation? Perhaps a robot could even be programmed to react in the same ways that you do. You might be no more a person than Deep Blue.
The proposal of a law declaring every human being to be a person should have been totally unremarkable and unnecessary. It's the opponents of the Virginia measure who should have been the focus of controversy, for it is they who deny objective personhood, and therefore deny the existence of natural rights.
To say, as our Consitution does, that no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law, while reserving the power, as liberals do, to deprive actual people of legal personhood, is simply to say that our right to life is owed to the benevolence of our rulers. Therefore, the supposedly mainstream position of the Virginia Democrats is that we have not been endowed with rights by our Creator, but that the whole premise of the Declaration of Independence is a lie.
In our demented political lexicon, this is called a "social issue," as if its ramifications were no more significant than those of wearing white after Labor Day. All that's at stake are the moral underpinnings of our nation, along with the lives of countless innocent human beings. It's not as if it's a really serious issue, that all the officially serious people take terribly seriously -- like earmarks, or something.
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