Personhood of the Unborn

[NPR, “All Things Considered,” January 21, 1998]

A recurring question in the abortion debate has been whether the fetus meets the definition of “person.” Why should this be relevant? What advantage is it to be a person? What does a person get?

At the most basic level, persons get protected from violence. Not all persons are allowed to drive or to vote, but every person is allowed to call the cops if someone tries to beat them up. There are probably many laws that are unnecessary or foolish, but the irreducible minimum are those laws that protect persons from violence—that prevent the larger and stronger from crushing the smaller and weaker. Laws against violence even the odds, replacing an older and more instinctive law of “might makes right.”

When we question whether someone is a person, it is because we want to kill him. We do this with our enemies in wartime, or with anyone we would like to enslave or exploit. Before we can feel comfortable treating others this way, we have to expel them from the human community.

But there’s just no logical reason to expel the unborn. A fetal child’s body is made of cells that are growing and dividing, so it’s indisputably alive. It’s composed of 100% human cells, so it’s human. And those cells bear a distinctive DNA, different from its mother’s or father’s, different from any other person on earth. From the moment of conception, the unborn is a unique, living, human, being. How could it not be a person?

Some say it’s not a person because it lacks awareness, or consciousness. Some say the unborn only receives a soul at a certain point of development. But these sound like theological or philosophical speculations. People may believe the soul doesn’t appear till six months, or departs at 42 years, or takes alternate Tuesdays off. It’s fine for people to believe whatever they want, but they can’t use these beliefs to write laws that justify killing. Being unique, alive, and human is qualification enough to be part of our human family.

Years ago I came over from a pro-choice to a pro-life position, after reading a magazine article describing an abortion. This second trimester abortion involved injecting a substance directly into the uterus through the abdomen. The writer described his horror as he saw the unborn child within begin to thrash in response to this invasion, as she fought for her life.

Suddenly it didn’t seem important to me whether or not the unborn had a soul or consciousness. What she had was a will to live, the most fundamental thing any human has. Though poor, weak, and tiny, this child struggled with all her might to cling to life. When we take that away, we take away the only thing she has.

About Frederica Matthewes-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.

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