Appearance and human persons

William E. May’s Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life is a great book for understanding the basis for pro-life advocacy and the vision so many have for a life-affirming culture rather than one which grants liberties procured at the expense of the rights of others.

Concerning human rights and the appearance of human persons:

[A] common set of claims … deny the humanity and a fortiori the personhood of the human zygote and early embryo [and] appeal[s] to the fact that these organisms do not “appear” to be human or persons. Pictures and drawings of human beings at these stages of development seem to support claims of this kind. “How,” they ask, “can you say that an organism with no face or hands or feet or organs can possibly be a human being, much less a person?” Or, “How can an organism no larger than the period at the end of a sentence possibly be regarded as a human being, a person?”

Germain Grisez points out that arguments of this kind are plausible, “because they use imagery and directly affect feelings. Usually, in judging whether or not to apply a predicate [such as human being or person] to an experienced entity, one does not examine it to see whether it meets a set of intelligible criteria; instead, one judges by appearances, using as guide past experience of individuals of that kind.” However, he continues, such claims can be falsified by pointing out that, “while the particular difference [between a human zygote or early embryo and embryos and fetuses at a later stage of development] is striking because of the normal limits of human experience, (nevertheless) entities that are different in that way certainly are living human beings.”

Stephen Schwarz, whom Grisez commends, has identified the element common to these denials of humanity and/or personhood to the zygote and early embryo and has responded to it decisively. He points out that all these objections are “based on the expectation that what is a person must be like us. It must be the right size (a size like ours); it must have a level of development comparable to ours; it must look like us; it must, like us, be conscious.”

But, he continues, “these are not true criteria for being a person [nor for being a human being].” They are rather “simply expressions of our expectations, of what we are used to, of what appears familiar to us. It is not that the zygote fails to be a person [or human being] because it fails these tests; rather, it is we who fail by using these criteria to measure what a person [or human being] is.”

It is unreasonable to expect that a human being in the first stages of his or her development will look like a familiar human being, or like a newborn baby or a four-year-old or a teenager, or a mature adult or a wheelchair-bound elderly man or woman. The way these persons “appear” during the early stages of their development says nothing of the status of their nature or being. Each of us develops and unfolds his or her inner essence and personality every day of our lives, and we were developing and unfolding them before we were born just as we do afterwards. This ought not to cause anyone surprise. “Horton,” one of Dr. Seuss’s lovable characters, hits the nail on the head in Horton Hears a Who when he says, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

And concerning the problem of “personhood;” of the idea that persons acquire their personhood from their recognition by their peers:

Another claim denying personhood to the unborn, or at least to many unborn human beings is widely held today, but it too is readily falsifiable. It is the claim that personhood is a status conferred on entities by others, and it is, surprisingly, held by many in our society. Proponents of this view contend that personhood is a social status conferred on an entity by others and that an entity is a person only when recognized by others as a person. They believe that this view is supported by the truth that persons exist only with other persons—personhood is relational in character.

One advocate of this view, Marjorie Reiley Maguire, proposes that the personhood of the unborn “begins when the bearer of life, the mother, makes a covenant of love with the developing life within her to birth … The moment which begins personhood … is the moment when the mother accepts the pregnancy.” And, if she does not accept it and decides to abort the “developing life within her,” that life must be regarded as not a person, for personhood has not been bestowed on it.

This position, of course, leads to the absurdity that the same being can be simultaneously both a person and not a person; it is a “person,” for instance, if at least one person, say its father, recognizes and esteems it as a person; but it is not a “person” if another person, say its mother, refuses to consider it a person. This claim presupposes that human meaning-giving constitutes persons; the truth is that human meaning-giving and human societies presuppose human persons.

We need a broader spectrum of choice as a way to heal a culture that presently and capriciously denies the basic humanity of all its people, often for material reasons that a society as fortunate as ours should be strong enough to resolve.

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