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Human, But Not A Person?

Can we assign personhood rights to the unborn? What is personhood anyway?

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There is no longer any debate over whether the human being in the womb is alive: science has unequivocally demonstrated that a unique human life begins at fertilization. Pro-choice advocates admit this, but object that although the human being in the womb is alive, it is not a person with value. They point to certain contemporary philosophers—like Peter Singer and Steven Pinker—who suggest that personhood can only be assigned to individuals who are self-aware, have memory of the past and anticipation of the future, or have a high enough IQ.

But these criteria lead to absurd conclusions. Why should individuals with more numerous and noble aims or high intellect not be considered more persons than those with fewer long-term aims or less brain development?

A criterion for personhood that depends on certain functions of human activity implies that individuals who perform the chosen function more excellently should have higher human value. Individuals suffering from severe Alzheimer's disease or under general anesthesia, who may not be self-aware or able to create future expectations, could no longer be considered persons. We know, however, that the human under general anesthesia retains his personal identity despite his temporary lack of self-awareness, so his personhood must cohere in his underlying nature.

Living human beings are valuable because of what they are, not because of some arbitrary attribute that comes in varying degrees and which may be gained or lost during their lifetimes. Human beings have an essential nature that equips them with the capacity to develop rationality and personal relationships. That human nature must be intrinsically valuable, otherwise it becomes impossible to say why objective human rights apply to anyone and impossible to claim that "all men are created equal."

Legally speaking, "persons" are guaranteed the fundamental rights of individuals, including the right to life. Historically, abuses of personhood have led to the genocide of groups deemed "non-persons" by more powerful political or social groups. For example, up until the 14th Amendment, African-American slaves were legally considered three-fifths of a person. Native Americans were exploited because they were treated as less than full persons. The racial distinctions used to label these groups as "non-persons" were conveniently invented to justify the violation of their rights.

In the United States today, "unwanted" children in the womb are systematically denied personhood. The elderly and the handicapped are at risk too. Why is it that, for them, being human not enough?

The answer can be found in Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court restricted the guarantee of fundamental rights to the only class of human beings the Court deemed worthy: born humans.

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