The Perils of Personhood

  • Roslyn Weissz
Part of the Contemporary Issues in Biomedicine, Ethics, and Society book series (CIBES)


In the abortion debate, one of the more overworked arguments concerns the if and when of the humanity of a fetus. For those who argue along these lines, the answer to these questions guarantees a resolution of the entire abortion issue. Thus, if the fetus is human, it must not be aborted except when the mother’s life is endangered (and, for some, not even then): but if it is not human, it may be aborted under any circumstances.


Moral Agent Public Affair Human Happiness Potential Person Human Vegetable 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    An especially enlightening article is Lawrence C. Becker’s “Human Being: The Boundaries of the Concept.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 4, no. 4 (Summer 1975), 334–358.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Roger Wertheimer, “Understanding the Abortion Argument,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971), 67–95, esp. 70–75.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971), 47–66.Google Scholar
  4. 4a.
    Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legl Status of Abortion,” The Monist 57, no. 1 (January 1973), 43–61;PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. 4b.
    Michael Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide,” Philosopy and Public Affairs 2, no. 1 (Fall 1972), 37–65.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    See, for example, works on abortion by such philosophers as J. Thomson, R. Wertheimer, R. M. Hare, G. Grisez, and B. Brody, to name just a few.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    This term is borrowed from Peter Singer, “Animal Liberation,” review of Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, eds., Animals, Men and Morals, in New York Review of Books (April 5, 1973), 17–21.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    R. M. Hare, “Abortion and the Golden Rule.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 4, no. 3 (Spring 1975), 203. Since Hare believes that our intuitions result from our upbringing, he urges that we resist the temptation to allow our ethical positions to be based on an appeal to intuition.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Warren added a “Postscript on Infanticide” to a reprint of her article which appears in Richard Wasserstrom’s anthology Today’s Moral Problems (New York: Macmillan Co., 1975), pp. 120–136. In it she states unequivocally that an infant has no right to life, but she does offer two arguments in opposition to infanticide. The first is that at least in this country and in this period of history there are people who wish to have newborn babies unwanted by their parents. “Thus, infanticide is wrong for reasons analogous to those which make it wrong to wantonly destroy natural resources or great works of art” (p.135). Second, as long as there are people who are willing to pay additional taxes in order to provide the means to care for unwanted infants, it is wrong to destroy them. (These arguments do not apply to feticide because fetuses violate their mothers’ rights to freedom, happiness, and self-determination, and the rights of these mothers override the rights of those who would like the fetuses preserved.) Of course, however, since the infant has no right to life, should an occasion arise in which society cannot afford to, or is unwilling to, care for an unwanted or defective infant, its destruction would be permissible. Technically, Tooley does not regard the term ‘person’ as synonymous with ‘one who has rights’: he restricts it so that it applies only to those who have a ‘serious right to life.’ The reason he gives for this is that not everything that has rights necessarily has a serious right to life. But that does not explain why he cannot have the term ‘person’ refer to anything that has rights and some other term refer only to things that have a serious right to life. In fact, his criterion for ‘personhood’ is just his general criterion for having rights applied to the specific right to life, as follows: To have a right to X, one must be capable of desiring X; to have a right to life, therefore, one must be capable of desiring to live.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    Hart, “Are There Any Natural Rights?” Philosophical Review 64, no. 2 (April 1955), 175–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 20.
    See William K. Frankena’s “Natural and Inalienable Rights,” Philosophical Review 64, no. 2 (April 1955), 215.Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    Baruch Brody in his article “Thomson on Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (Spring 1972), 335–340, disputes Thomson’s claim that, in self-defense, a woman may procure an abortion when the fetus threatens her life. According to Brody, in order for X to be justified in killing Y in self-defense, at least two conditions must obtain: (1) The continued existence of Y must pose a threat to X’s life, a threat that can be met only by the taking of Y’s life. (2) Y must be unjustly attempting to take X’s life. Since in the abortion case only the first of these conditions is met, self-defense remains unjustified. The only time it is permissible to take Y’s life when only the first condition is satisfied, according to Brody, is if Y is going to die shortly anyway.Google Scholar

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© The Humana Press Inc. 1988

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  • Roslyn Weissz

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