The Personhood Argument for Abortion

by John Ellis

With the advances in ultrasound technology, especially the development of 3D ultrasound, pro-abortion advocates have changed tactics. It’s become next to impossible to convince people that a fetus isn’t a human life. For many who are pro-abortion, the argument now centers on personhood. Building on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s landmark paper “A Defense of Abortion,” the argument states that whatever right to life a fetus may have is subservient to a woman’s right to choose.

In 1971 when Thomson published her paper, the notion that a fetus is a human person (different from personhood) was a line in the sand that pro-abortion advocates refused to cross. After all, it was assumed, the argument is over whether the fetus is a life or not. If a fetus is acknowledged as a human life (human person), the pro-abortion argument dissolves and the anti-abortion activists win.

So, writing her paper before the leaps and bounds made in ultrasound technology, Thomson was somewhat prescient when she wrote, “I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a [human life] from the moment of conception.”

From there, she went on to put forward a series of situational ethics’ intuition pumps, the most notable and difficult one being:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

Philosophical intuition pumps are notoriously tricky, and they’re intended to be. Usually, these types of scenarios are proposed to philosophy students to force them to think and to give professors built-in essay questions for exams – think the train switch question. Thomson, however, harnessed the power of a tricky intuition pump to push the anti-abortion argument back in on itself.

Most people recoil at the story because of its unseemly use of kidnapping and coercion, and that’s intentional. The ailing violinist is obviously a human life, but, as Thomson wants the reader to acknowledge, his right to life does not trump your choice to not be tethered to him. The point is to get people to view abortion as analogous with the scenario involving the violinist and his failing kidneys. Except the two are not analogous.

The easy answer is to punt and say that only a pregnancy brought about by rape is analogous. But for conservative Christians all abortion is a sin and, so, conceding that pregnancy brought about by rape is analogous with Thomson’s scenario is an unethical retreat. It’s akin to choosing to lose a battle in order to win the war. Except losing battles in this instance means that babies lose their life.

It’s best to take Thomson’s intuition pump head on. For starters, like most situational ethics intuition pumps, the story is so implausible as to render it ethically useless. It’s not inappropriate to simply roll your eyes at its absurdity (it sounds like the plot to a good sci/fi-horror movie) and dismiss it for its nonsensical structure. However, for those who feel compelled to engage Thomson’s arguments, the intuition pump suffers a mortal blow when the analogy is pressed.

For starters – and this won’t be an exhaustive rebuttal – being tethered back-to-back to a full-grown adult male for nine months is debilitating in ways that pregnancies are not. Even confined to the strictest bedrest would be less restrictive than Thomson’s scenario. Think about the nonsensical obstacles that would be created by such a scenario. Not to mention, it puts forward a situation that hopelessly succumbs to the fallacy of either/or. And pregnancies are not an either/or. Adoption is a third option that Thomson’s analogy doesn’t allow for.

Another way the intuition pump fails is in its equating of choosing to let things take their course with choosing to actively end a life. Abortion is the choice to take steps to end a life that would otherwise continue. By choosing to unhook himself from the violinist, the kidnapped person in the above scenario would be choosing to allow nature to take its course (once again, the absurdity of the either/or is apparent in the implausible scenario that the only way to preserve the man’s life is for you to be tethered to him).

Lastly, I want to point out that Thomson’s scenario assumes a flatness of ethical and moral responsibilities. If being tethered to a man dying of kidney failure means that my family’s well-being is jeopardized, I know immediately what I would choose. And that’s what makes the intuition pump’s genius its failure, too.

Thomson designed it to make the reader recoil at the notion. Yet, our collective recoiling demonstrates that we recognize a moral hierarchy. For example, my primary ethical responsibilities are to my family. We see this in I Kings 18:8-16 when the prophet Elijah asks the widow to make him some bread and she replies that she was going to use her last resources to feed herself and her son. Elijah doesn’t rebuke her. Instead, he encourages her not to fear, to have faith, and that in doing so she would be able to do just that, feed herself and her son.

Now, think about how the existence of ethical priorities actually serve to break down Thomson’s intention to draw analogous comparison between a dying stranger and a mother’s child. We recoil at the notion of being violently forced against our will to use our resources on a stranger because, in part, those resources are not our own. We have a responsibility before God to care for our family. If I’m tethered to a stranger, how can I provide for my family? How can I serve my spouse? How can I be there for my children? Who’s going to care for my mother or father? And a mother aborting her child is the exact opposite of using her resources to care for her family. Choosing abortion is based on the assumption that our resources (time, energy, love, etc.) are given to us to use on ourselves.

Interestingly, though, and upending Thomson’s point, utilitarians like Peter Singer claim that the person connected to the violinist has an ethical obligation to preserve the violinist’s life because the overall value added by the violinist is already proven and the person preserving his life doesn’t have the right to deny society that benefit (unless, of course, you’re a better violinist or you’re close to curing cancer, etc.). Personhood is defined by value added to the whole. And this is where the meat of Thomson’s argument lies – in the utilitarian personhood argument.

Remember, I wrote at the top that the favored argument for a growing number of pro-abortion advocates is that the fetus’ right to life is subservient to the woman’s right to choose. In that argument, autonomy is King and Queen and Prime Minister. Autonomy is god.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “self-determining,” it’s the belief that levels of self-awareness are required before a human is granted the rights of personhood. Granted, defining levels of self-awareness is a moving target depending on the speaker. On the extreme end are those like the aforementioned Peter Singer who champion infanticide for up to thirty days after the baby is born (you can find those who argue for allowing infanticide for as long as two years after the birth, if not longer). For Singer and his ilk, self-determining requires a level of self-awareness that results in physical and existential autonomy. A newborn infant is so existentially and physically connected to its mother as to be lacking autonomy. Hence, babies, whether in the womb or freshly out of the womb, do not qualify for the rights of personhood. Translation: the baby’s right to life does not trump the mother’s right to choose. The mother’s right to choose has more value for society than does the baby’s right to life.

Granted, Singer and others, like philosopher Jeffery Reiman, represent the extreme; a growing extreme, to be sure, but an extreme, nonetheless. However, mainstream pro-abortion advocates trumpet the personhood argument, too. They just stop at birth. As distasteful as this is to write, at least Singer, Reiman, and their disciples are being consistent. They recognize that birth does not change the situation between mother and child enough to warrant extending their definition of personhood to a newborn infant. It’s logically inconsistent to use personhood arguments to defend abortion and not extend that argument to human life after birth.

Their logical inconstancy aside, pro-abortion advocates that utilize the personhood argument to defend abortion claim that since the fetus is so completely dependent on the mother, the mother has the right to choose to not sustain the life. Autonomy is more important than life. Autonomy is god.

We see this throughout the sexual revolution. In her book Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, gay rights activist Linda Hirshman wrote about the clash in the early 80s between gay communities and those attempting to educate them on the danger of the new disease ravaging the gay community called AIDS. In chapter 6 titled “Dying for the Movement,” Hirshman explains that as the nature of the disease began to become apparent, the gay community recoiled at the notion of things like using condoms and limiting their sexual partners. “From a movement standpoint, the demand to curtail sexual activity was profoundly offensive,” Hirshman recounts. “Second, what would the gay revolution have achieved if gay men had to give up their unrestricted sex practices?”[1]

Hirshman then goes on to detail a survey in combination with a few editorials revealing that the gay community, “is ‘knit together by the ‘promiscuous fabric’ … [and] that ultimately, it may be more important to let people die in pursuit of their own happiness than to limit personal freedom.”[2]

Make no mistake, autonomy is the ultimate idol and goal of the sexual revolution, and pro-abortion advocates are no different. Serving ourselves reigns supreme.

This shouldn’t surprise us since the first rebellious domino tipped over by Satan-Serpent in the Garden of Eden was the appeal to Adam and Eve’s autonomy from God. Abortion is a sin, but so is the worldview that undergirds it. In brief, it’s outright rebellion against the Creator of all things.

What’s really maddening (and sad) is that professing Christians defend abortion through their silence. And through their silence they aid and abet the enemy, helping ensure that millions of babies will be murdered. Abortion is a sin and all followers of Jesus should denounce abortion.

You see, the personhood argument doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of God’s Word.

Jesus was famous, or, rather, “infamous,” in his day, for extending the Greco-Roman’s view of personhood to those marginalized and persecuted by society. He ate with beggars and lepers, healed the blind and the lame, and valued the input of women. Shocking those around him, he even allowed children to have unfettered access to him.

In the Old Testament, David praises God in Psalm 139:13-14, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Continuing in verse 16, David confesses, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

Clearly, God ascribes personhood to those who have yet to be born. What’s more, elevating autonomy over serving others, especially those who are dependent on us, is a grievous sin against God. Jesus’ followers are commanded to serve and defend the oppressed and the weak. Those in our society who are the most dependent on the kindness and mercies of others are those whom Jesus expects his followers to love and serve.

The early Church was known for denouncing abortion and infanticide, common practices throughout the Roman Empire. Early Christians were active in saving babies left to die by exposure. Abortion and infanticide are not modern inventions. Christians have been doing battle against Satan’s attack on God’s rule through abortion and infanticide for as long as we’ve been called Christians.

You see, one of the hallmarks of Christianity is that we defend the personhood of all human life. This belief is rooted in the Bible’s teaching that all humans are made in the Image of God and, therefore, are worthy of honor, dignity, and respect, and have value. Both genders and all ethnicities are fully made in the Image of God, no exceptions. People with Down Syndrome are fully made in the Image of God and deserving of our love, respect, and protection. People who are suffering from terminal diseases are fully made in the Image of God and deserving of our love and kindness as we seek to preserve their life. And humans who are still in the mother’s womb are fully made in the Image of God and deserving of the dignity, respect, and rights, including the right to life, afforded their fellow Image Bearers.

Any worldview that prioritizes autonomy over serving other Image Bearers is noxiously sinful. Any worldview that encourage mothers to prioritize their autonomy over nurturing and caring for their children is wicked. Of course, babies are dependent on their parents. But that’s partly what God has called parents to do – reflect how He cares for His children who are utterly dependent on Him.

The personhood argument for abortion is a lie of Satan-Serpent who wants us to believe that not all humans are made in the Image of God and that we can live autonomously from our Creator. Accepting that lie is direct rebellion against God. Thankfully, God delights in saving rebellious people. If you support abortion or have even had an abortion, repent of your sin and place your faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God will give you a new life that leads to eternal life enjoying God’s blessings for all eternity. However, refusing to submit to God through repentance and faith in Jesus brings with it the eternal punishment that your sins against an eternal God deserve.

Don’t prioritize human autonomy over the life of babies still living in their mother’s womb. The end of that road is eternal death for those who continue in their rebellion against God. The sexual revolution’s temporal idols are not worth losing your eternal life over.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Linda Hirshman, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (New York: Harper, 2012), 177-178

[2] Hirshman, Victory, 178.

3 thoughts on “The Personhood Argument for Abortion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s