FIRST-PERSON: On personhood, what did the Founders say?

Baptist Press
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Posted: Nov 11, 2011 5:52 PM
FIRST-PERSON: On personhood, what did the Founders say?
ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) -- While a battle concerning the legal status of pre-born children may have been lost with the defeat of Initiative 26 in Mississippi, the war over the definition of personhood is far from over.

Initiative 26 was a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution so as to define life as beginning at conception. The simple 21-word amendment stated: "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." Mississippians defeated it, 58-42 percent.

Abortion advocates saw the initiative as a threat to abortion access throughout the U.S. and pulled out all the stops in seeking to beat it. The opposition, though, skirted the issue of personhood and instead focused on possible problematic ramifications if the initiative was passed. It was speculative fear-mongering at its best.

It seems to me that the issue at the heart of Initiative 26 was not really adequately addressed. The critical question that must be answered is: "When does personhood begin?" Is it at conception? Perhaps it is during gestation? Does it occur at birth?

There are some so-called bioethicists and philosophers who contend that a newborn baby should not be considered a person. For them, personhood does not occur until sometime well after birth.

Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer believes that personhood is rooted in self-awareness, which an infant does not possess. As a result, he believes that parents who have given birth to a handicapped child should have a month to decide whether or not they will allow it to live. One has to wonder why Singer adds the qualification of "handicapped" to the equation. If in Singer's view the newborn is not a person, what difference does it matter whether the child is handicapped or not?

I find it interesting that Singer is at the forefront of the animal rights movement that seeks to extend human rights to animals. In the Princeton professor's warped worldview, a chicken has more right to life than a newborn.

Jeffery Reiman, a philosophy professor at American University, agrees with Singer. He has said that infants do not "possess in their own right a property that makes it wrong to kill them" and that "there will be permissible exceptions to the rule against killing infants that will not apply to the rule against killing adults and children."

So when does personhood begin? Does it begin at conception, during gestation, at birth or sometime after?

It is worth nothing that abortion advocates have forced this personhood argument to the fore. The abortion debate became intensely serious in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion upon demand was legal throughout the United States. In those early arguments, abortion rights advocates insisted that the pre-born child was not a living being but merely a collection of tissue.

As medical technology advanced, a seeming window into the womb was created that dispelled the pro-abortion position that the baby in the womb was not a living being. Pro-life advocates used medical science to show that pre-born babies were very much alive.

With medical science doing more to undermine the pro-abortion argument than to advance it, abortion advocates turned to philosophy in an attempt to bolster their position. "The fetus may be alive," they argued, "but it was in no way a person and thus could still be aborted." Thus, the debate on personhood ensued.

The question of personhood must be answered and the definition that is adopted has far-reaching implications. And make no mistake: The legal definition of personhood will be derived morally and philosophically. Personhood cannot be gazed at through a microscope or measured by a medical instrument.

Those who insist that morality cannot be legislated are simply wrong. All laws are founded upon an idea of morality -- what is right or wrong. All laws flow from a philosophical worldview. The issue is not whether morality is going to be legislated, but rather in what philosophy will it be rooted.

The founders of America staked the claim of personhood on the idea of a divine Creator. In the Declaration of Independence we find the following phrase: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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."

The signers of the document that established the foundation of America believed that the unalienable right to life was established by a Creator. Many of those men were Christians. No doubt, their philosophy was shaped by the Bible.

For those who wish to establish that personhood begins at conception, the Bible is not only informative, it is authoritative. As a philosophical document the Bible is unrivaled in its longevity as an authoritative source of moral information. It also possesses a persuasive authority that no other document in history can claim. And in a philosophical debate, persuasion wins the day as well as the vote.

A battle over personhood may have been lost in the recent defeat of Mississippi's Measure 26, but the war over the definition of personhood is far from over. Biblical principles should unashamedly take front and center in future debates.

Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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