“When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.” ~ G.K. Chesterton
“When it comes to alleviating suffering, we must prioritize the needs of the thinking, feeling, actual person walking around on two legs over and above that of the non-sentient, non-sapient, potential person in the womb.” This is a common argument for abortion that, framed in both emotionally dense and philosophically loaded language, puts the pro-life advocate into several difficult positions at once—first, to seem to not care about another’s suffering and second, to have to wade into the deep, philosophical waters of defining personhood. This argument reveals many things about the debate, not the least of which that it hinges upon the seemingly nebulous concept of personhood and an equally unquantifiable calculation of suffering. While the latter must be responded to delicately and with compassion (for it is a species of the problem of evil), the personhood aspect of the debate must be engaged, and it can be from practical, philosophical, and existential standpoints.
Practically speaking, the problem of defining personhood today is compounded by the authority crisis of modernity. There simply are no universally accepted experts when it comes to deciding ethical issues. Ultimately, it seems that one’s worldview becomes the sticking point. Even amongst those that share a given philosophical outlook, say, naturalism, there exist differing opinions about the criterion upon which to base the concept of personhood. And these definitions do not overlap or complement each other. In The Ethics of Abortion, Christopher Kaczor makes the case that “each standard of personhood is an ‘independent operator’ that stands or falls alone and is in competition with the other proposed standards.” Indeed, it could be argued that given the mere presence of so many conflicting interpretations, the wisest, most ethically sound approach would be to protect all human life from the moment of conception until a consensus can be reached. The preciousness of human life should give us enough reason to restrain ourselves from making a decision on the moral status of the embryo.
We must never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with one of the most fundamental rights a human being has – the right to life. The definition we choose here cannot but have vast ramifications. Kaczor writes that “the question of which human beings we ought to treat with respect also applies to various other ethical questions such as race relations, national rivalries, religious conflicts, slavery, criminal punishment, conjoined twins, deformed human beings, handicapped human beings, and ethnic cleansing, to mention a few.” The tendency of societies to distort the definition of personhood to selfish and cruel ends should give both the religionist and secularist pause.
Also, the various human characteristics put forth as a means which personhood is defined are ultimately arbitrary and based upon the presence of various abilities. Such a performance approach to defining personhood means that “a being is to be accorded respect if and only if the being functions in a given way.” Again, these can differ widely and are often contradictory like “self-awareness, rationality, sentience, desirability, ethnicity, economic productivity, gender, native language, beauty, age, health, religion, race, fertility, birth, and national origin,” to name a few. Also, properties like self-awareness, sapience, and sentience exist on a sliding scale and are not always present in a given individual, even one that is fully developed. All of these criteria then provide shaky ground to determine that value of a given life. Something more fundamental to human existence is needed in order to ensure that the concept of personhood is not abused.
From the philosophical standpoint, we have not far to look for a more solid grounding of personhood that sidesteps the performance problem. It is founded upon teleology and the ideas of form, substance, and potentiality put forth by Aristotle. In speaking of something’s potential, like a rubber ball, philosopher Ed Feser writes that Aristotle meant something fundamental to all human beings. ‘Potential’ here is being used to describe what he calls “a capacity that an entity already has within it by virtue of its nature or essence, as a rubber ball qua rubber ball has the potential to roll down a hill even when it is locked in a cabinet somewhere.” In a strict Aristotelian sense, a newly conceived zygote “has within it the potentiality for or ‘directedness toward’ the actual exercise of reasoning, willing, and all the rest that a rubber ball doesn’t have, that a sperm or egg considered by themselves don’t have, and that even a skin cell, despite having the full complement of human DNA within it, doesn’t have unless it is re-directed away from its natural end (i.e. functioning as part of the skin) by a scientist attempting to clone someone.”
One could also take the argument a step further to argue from an existential perspective that those inherent potentials are incredibly unique and unrepeatable given what we know about the complexity of DNA and the process of genetic recombination. That uniqueness alone should tell us that what is aborted is not merely a clump of cells with some random future, but a highly specialized substance that is, biologically speaking, already in the act of reaching some end point. That endpoint will be completely unrepeatable in many ways in addition to sharing more generalized characteristics of persons “walking around on two legs.” That nascent human life, if allowed to continue, will come to its end one day with its own set of experiences—distinct episodes of love, laughter, sorrow, and suffering—and we have no right to assume these will be any less valuable than those of another. We have an obligation to their existence that was brought into being at conception, regardless of any extenuating factors of their parents—the drama, sadness, failures, accidents, even violence—that surround that moment. We have an obligation to not value our immediate circumstances over and above their very existence, but to give what is totally dependent and defenseless the freedom to enter into what Chesterton called “the supreme adventure” of life.
Finally, from a purely scientific standpoint, we now know that at the moment of conception, a human being is created with a complete genome that is primed, ready, and indeed already functioning to carry them forward into the future. It is fascinating to note that this human life is brought into existence “by means of a self-sacrificial combination and union of a human spermatozoon and human ovum.” In the end, science itself gives us what is perhaps the most essential (and powerful!) clue as to what is required of us, both men and women, when new life is conceived.
“We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by what flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being.”
~G.K. Chesterton, “What is Right With the World”
 Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (New York: Routledge Annals of Bioethics, 2015), 59-60.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ed Feser, The Last Superstition (Southbend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 2008), Kindle Locations 2452-2453.
 G.K. Chesterton, The G. K. Chesterton Collection (Catholic Way Publishing: Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 1863.
 Christian Erk, “Potential Persons or Persons with Potential? A Thomistic Perspective,” Ethics in Biotechnologies, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2012: http://www.bioethica-forum.ch/docs/12_3/07_Erk.pdf.