Designated Unperson

[Sisterlife, Spring 1991]

The abortion debate stands or falls on a single question: is the unborn a person? One would not necessarily know this from the great heat and little light that usually surround the issue, as pro-lifers target additional social ills caused by abortion license, and abortion defenders charge that pro-lifers only want to punish women for sexual activity, or keep them pregnant and out of the workforce. But so much passion would not arise if the issue were not literally a matter of life and death. In the Roe v. Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that if the “suggestion of personhood [of the unborn] is established, the [abortion rights] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.” Thus, the personhood of the unborn child is the single point on which the entire debate turns.

Abortion defenders generally concede that the unborn is both human and alive, but still harbor a half-focused and ill-expressed feeling that he is not quite yet “one of us”—not really a person. This position is one which is impossible to defend logically or scientifically, and sets a dangerous precedent for any other living human decreed not “one of us”. Let us examine some of the arguments used to depersonalize the unborn.

The unborn is not a person because she is so small. The charge that “Every good argument for abortion is a good argument for infanticide” finds confirmation here. Size remains relative throughout human life. The 6-week fetus is very small compared to a newborn, but one could just as justly compare the newborn’s size with that of Hulk Hogan. The argument from size is a version of one of human society’s most durable, least honorable assertions: might makes right. Big people can throw away small people. As most women are smaller than most men, it is a dubious assertion for women to champion. Too many of us know in our own bodies what violence at stronger hands is like.

The unborn is not a person because he is unwanted. We speak here women’s disabling fear: I’m nothing without a man. If no one wants me, I don’t exist. If worth depends on someone else’s approval, then we may in turn eliminate our own children who do not please us. Worth based on wantedness, that chimerical achievement, is ominous for children, blacks, women, the disabled, and other living things.

The unborn is not a person because she does not have human form. This is in fact untrue; that “glob of tissue” finds order quickly, and every baby aborted has a face, hands, eyes, gender, and a beating heart. But even if a method were available that could strike during that rush to recognizable form, it would be an ominous precedent to embrace. Discrimination against living human beings because they “look funny” has a long and ignoble history. The truth is that even the earliest embryo has a human form, though it may be unfamiliar. We are all “globs of tissue” in changing form from conception until death.

The unborn is not a person because he would be disabled. Our disabled friends may well feel a chill; if we’d only caught them before they were born we would have spared them their unhappy, unsightly lives. Killing in the name of compassion has had a tenacious appeal for this ruthless and sentimental age. We stand with Scrooge, with the strong and healthy, and locate the “surplus population” in the weak and sick. It is worthwhile to recall that we are each only temporarily able-bodied, each potential candidates for lovingly-administered death.

The unborn is not a person because she could be abused. Prenatal dismemberment is indeed an effective preventative for postnatal abuse, though the net result to the child may not be what she would have preferred. Implicit here is the assumption that the lives of the abused, like the lives of the disabled, are not worth living; that the rape survivor, the battered spouse, should never have been born. When this future abuse is only theoretical, as in the case of an unborn child, we make a devastating affirmation of the abuser’s power, and undermine the hope of those who believe the past can be overcome. The presumption that abortion would prevent child abuse has been cruelly mocked by statistics which indicate that, though every child in America under twenty could have been legally aborted, reported child abuse has increased 500%. The notion of the disposable child persists even after birth.

The unborn is not a person because he is not sentient. Consciousness, self-awareness, is a trait which gradually emerges and then fades during the course of a normal human life, and is by no means fully present in a newborn; the average housecat is capable of more intelligent interaction than a month-old child. Some would choose six months fetal age as the point that the potential for this future awareness is present; however, potential is a slippery concept, as all the potential abilities of a lifetime are present at the moment of fertilization. To attach increasing value to those of increasing awareness is no doubt flattering to the intelligentsia who developed the standard, but a bit worrisome for the rest of us—especially for our mentally disabled friends, who may grow up to star in their own TV shows for all we know. The unborn child is only temporarily lacking in awareness, in consciousness, and daily moving toward its completion. To rush to kill him before he achieves it is as repulsive as rushing to kill a recovering coma victim before she can open her eyes.

The unborn is not a person because she does not yet have a soul. Although a person’s body unquestionably begins at the moment the sperm dissolves in the ovum, some say their religious beliefs decree that the soul is invested later; this reflects pre-scientific belief that the unborn was an inert lump until she suddenly came to life (“quickening”) and the mother felt movement, about the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. While some of our ancestors sincerely believed the pre-quickened fetus not to be alive, modern proponents hold the eerie notion that she is a living body without a soul. Religious people have every right to enter the abortion debate with vigor, but quirky religious ideas that the soul arrives at 6 months gestation, or departs at age 48, or takes the day off alternate Wednesdays, cannot be the basis of law—especially as a defense of the right to kill. Venerable religious traditions calling for the immolation of children, or throwing of virgins into volcanoes, should likewise be ineligible for exception from laws that protect life.

The unborn is not a person because he lives inside his mother’s body. The unborn is not a part of his mother’s body, any more than an astronaut is part of his space ship. The fact that neither is viable without necessary access to oxygen, food, and shelter does not prove that they are not persons. Both the fetus and the astronaut are tenants, though in the case of the unborn it cannot be denied that he can be an uncomfortable and demanding one. Does this give the mother the right to evict her unwanted tenant? The situation may be like that of a sea captain who discovers a stowaway and considers whether to throw him overboard. The missing factor in the analogy is that the unborn did not take up residence in his mother’s body under his own will, but was called into being (in virtually all cases) by a consciously-chosen act that the participants were aware could result in pregnancy. For both parents, undertaking to have sexual relations must be accompanied by a responsible recognition that (even with careful contracepting) a child may result. That this result disproportionately taxes the woman, that the man can walk out, abandoning his responsibility to her and his child, does not prove that it is right for the woman to do the same. Choices that lead to greater responsibility, greater accountability, are choices that lead to a stronger society for women and their children, and men as well. Choices that feed the cycle of heedless abandonment hurt us all.

This century has already taught us, in too many bloody lessons, that it is a dangerous thing to designate any human life “unperson”. Devaluing, rationalizing, renaming, discarding seem to spread outward in concentric rings of expediency. When women so desperately agree to depersonalize their own children, believing it to be a condition of full participation in society, a lot more is at risk than those tiny lost lives. Better check your size, your sentience, your wantedness; there’s no telling who is next.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.