Who Shall Count as a Human Being?

A Treacherous Question in the Abortion Discussion
  • Sissela Bok
Part of the Contemporary Issues in Biomedicine, Ethics, and Society book series (CIBES)


In discussions of abortion policy, the premature ultimate is ‘humanity.’ Does the fetus possess ‘humanity’? How does one go about deciding whether a living being possesses it? And what rights go with such possession? These and similar questions have arisen beginning with the earliest speculations about human origins and characteristics. They are still thought central to the abortion debate. I propose to show in this paper that they cannot help us come to grips with the problem of abortion; indeed they obfuscate all discussion in this domain and lend themselves to dangerous interpretations precisely because of their obscurity.


Human Life Slippery Slope Clear Line Normative Conclusion Early Abortion 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” John Noonan, Jr., ed., The Morality of Abortion, p. 51, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. For a thorough discussion of this and other views concerning the beginnings of human life, see Daniel Callahan, Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality, New York: Macmillan, 1970.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Roe v. Wade, The United States Law Week 41, pp. 4227, 4229.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Roe v. Wade, The United States Law Week 41, p. 4227. For a discussion of this and other positions taken in the 1973 Supreme Court abortion decisions see L. Tribe, Foreword, Harvard Law Review 87, 1–54, Nov. 1973.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 6.
    Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, Book I, ch. XX, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Christopher D. Stone, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” Southern California Law Review 45, 450–501, provides an interesting analysis of the extension of rights to those not previously considered persons, such as children, and a discussion of possible future extensions to natural objects.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Joseph Fletcher, “Indicators of Humanhood: A Tentative Profile of Man,” The Hastings Center Report 2, no. 5, 1–4.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Edward Shils, “The Sanctity of Life,” in D.H. Labby, ed., p. 12, Life or Death: Ethics and Options, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968. David Hume, Essay on Immortality.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    William Langer, “Checks on Population Growth: 1750–1850,” Scientific American 226, no. 2, 1972.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    See S. Bok, “The Leading Edge of the Wedge,” The Hastings Center Report 1, no. 3, pp. 9–11, 1971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 16.
    See “Ethical Problems of Abortion” (footnote 1).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Humana Press Inc. 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sissela Bok

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations