Can We Kill Human Beings If They Are Not Persons?

For the past two weeks a pair of undercover videos have revealed executives from Planned Parenthood admitting that the abortion provider sells intact fetal body parts. That revelation shocked many people, but what was not surprising was that pro-abortion advocates would rush to defend both Planned Parenthood and the killing of the unborn.

A prime example comes from The New Republic, where Dr. Jen Gunter takes issue with the fetal parts being referred to as “baby parts”:

These are not “baby parts.” Whether a woman has a miscarriage or an abortion, the tissue specimen is called “products of conception.” In utero, i.e. during pregnancy, we use the term “embryo” from fertilization to 10 weeks gestation and “fetus” from 10 weeks to birth. The term baby is medically incorrect as it doesn’t apply until birth. Calling the tissue “baby parts” is a calculated attempt to anthropomorphize an embryo or fetus.

Gunter is a doctor, not an English major, so I blame the editors at The New Republic for not catching the obvious error. We can assume that Dr. Gunter does not know that anthropomorphize means “to ascribe human form or attributes to (an animal, plant, material object, etc.).” Obviously, being an OB/GYN, Dr. Gunter knows that whether we use the term embryo, fetus, or “product of conception”, what the human woman is carrying in her human body is human. You can’t anthropomorphize a human by ascribing human attributes to a human.

We can assume she is simply misusing the term because otherwise it would mean that Dr. Gunter thinks that the offspring of a human (the term fetus means “offspring”) is something other than human. No one could make it through medical school and be that ignorant of basic biology, so that can’t be what she meant. Also, she surely didn’t think Planned Parenthood was selling researchers “non-human tissue.”

I suspect what Dr. Gunter was intending to convey was that the use of the term “baby parts” implies that the fetuses are not only humans (which no sane person can disagree with) but also persons. By using the term “baby parts” we pro-lifers are, I believe Gunter meant, personalizing the fetus by ascribing the attributes of personhood to a human being in this early stage of development.

That’s a view that many pro-abortion advocates hold. Which raises an interesting question: Not every person is a human being, but is every human being a person?

Rights and Non-Human Persons

Examples abound of non-human persons: Christians believe that the Godhead consists of “three Persons of one substance”; U.S. Supreme Court justices have ruled that corporations are “artificial persons”; fans of Star Trek argue that androids like Data and aliens like Spock are all (fictional) persons; and the Spanish Parliament even ruled that great apes are “legal persons.”

Clearly, being a member of the human race is not necessary to be considered a person. But should all human beings be considered persons? Historically, the answer has been a resounding “no.” Slaves, women, infants, Jews, and “foreigners” all share a common history of being denied legal or moral standing as persons, despite being recognized as humans. The judgment of recent generations, however, has without exception concluded that denying personhood to these members of the human family is a great moral evil. I have no doubt that future generations will judge our denial of personhood to humans in the womb just as harshly.

Yet while recognition of personhood is the foundation of certain positive rights, it should not be required for a basic negative right: the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law. In other words, people cannot claim a right to kill you simply because they will not recognize you as a person.

Rights—whether positive (imposing an obligation on others) or negative (obliging others to refrain from certain acts)—should be assigned based on a subject’s ability to respond as a moral being. For example, a Belgian Sheepdog has no moral accountability and thus no moral obligations to me as a person. If he eats my hamster, I can’t fault him for not respecting my right to private property. But since I am morally accountable, I have an obligation not to cruelly torture and kill the dog for depriving me of my pet rodent.

Non-Personal Human Beings?

Likewise, human beings at the earliest stages of development have not developed the moral accountability to be assigned positive rights. For this reason some thinkers, like philosopher Daniel Dennett, believe that a class of human beings exists that are not yet persons. Let’s call this class of homo sapiens “non-personal human beings.”

For the sake of argument, let us concede that certain humans are not persons, just as certain persons are not humans. To be sure, human persons are no less human beings than any manner of non-human person. By definition, being a human being is essential to being a human person.

It is one thing to kill non-personal human beings (such as human embryos), and another to kill human persons. But we cannot kill a human person without killing the human being as well. In fact, you cannot kill any type of person unless it is embodied as a living, biological being. The Spanish may be able to kill great apes, but lawyers cannot kill a corporation. What is being killed is not the person but the being .

This distinction is important because those who argue that it is acceptable to kill non-personal humans base their rationale on the claim that what matters is not the being (the living biological organism) but the personhood (a set of functional criteria such as consciousness or rationality). This view has become a common perspective in secular bioethics.

Should We Be Able to Kill Bioethicists in Their Sleep?

Most reasonable people—a category that doesn’t always include bioethicists—would be horrified if we followed these views to their logical outcomes. Ethicist Joseph Fletcher, for example, believed that humans with an IQ below forty might not be persons, and those with an IQ below twenty are definitely not persons. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer believes that since patients with Alzheimer’s and infants up to the age of twenty-four months are not persons, it is not wrong to kill them. Not surprisingly, when you allow intellectuals to define personhood, they will attempt to establish a criterion based on intellect, reason, and consciousness.

Although they intend to include themselves within the lines of demarcation, they are not wholly successful. For instance, if these philosophers were to fall into a deep sleep they would cease to meet the very criteria that they have established for personhood. Using their own arguments, it should be ethically sound to kill them before they wake up.

They may protest that they were, in fact, persons before they fell asleep. But so are the “hopelessly comatose.” Yes, but the difference, they’ll counter, is that they’ll meet the criteria again once they wake up. This is certainly true, but if they are killed in their sleep they won’t ever wake up, so that point becomes irrelevant. What does it matter that a human being was once a person or will once again be a person? If it is morally acceptable to kill non-human persons at all, what matters is their status right now.

(Francis Beckwith and other scholars have used similar examples to demolish the ‘functionalism’ argument, which defends the killing of “non-personal” humans.)

The reason it is wrong to kill philosophy professors in their sleep is the same reason it is wrong to destroy embryos and fetuses: Moral people do not kill innocent human beings. Not all persons are human beings, of course, and it may possibly be the case that not all human beings are persons. But all human beings—whether persons or non-persons—are equally human; this is not a mere tautology, but a scientifically verifiable fact.

Semantic Games to Justify the Killing

Dr. Gunter claims that pro-lifers are using medically incorrect language to distort the facts about abortion. But Gunter and other advocates for embryo and fetal destruction are the one’s playing semantic games. They should simply admit they believe it is acceptable to kill some human beings because human beings do not have, per se, intrinsic worth or an inherent right not to be killed.

They should also stop making the ridiculous claim that their opinions on personhood are based on science (when did metaphysics become an empirical science?) and should instead employ historical arguments to defend their position. History, after all, is filled with examples of people justifying the “termination” of other human beings. If abortion advocates want to justify the killing of certain groups of human beings, they can find a sufficient rationalization somewhere in the history of humanity—there’s no need to make the argument personal.

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