A Reflection on Personhood, Peter Singer, and Abortion


Sharran Sutherland: “I am hoping that by sharing these pictures of my precious little boy that it might just make one person who is contemplating abortion decide to let their child live.”  Read more here.

“He has been with us in the darkness of the womb as He will be in the darkness of the tomb.”  ~Gilbert Meilaender, “Bioethics: A Primer for Christians”

It is revealing to look at how metaphors change throughout history, for these most often reflect shifts in the ways we look at the world and ourselves. Consider how the expressions for “having children” have changed. Older metaphors contained in them a sense of reverence for the process: “begetting” in ancient Israel, “genesis” in ancient Greece, and “procreation” in premodern times here in the West. Today, we “employ a metaphor of the factory, ‘re-production,” perhaps “impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation),” observes philosopher Leon Kass.[1] A phenomenon so deeply rooted in our biology is spoken of in mechanical and impersonal terms that seem at odds with our humanity. This is just another hint that the two-story view of the human being – with its splitting of body and mind, biology and will – has insinuated itself into our discourse. This is another outworking of the two-story view of truth in our world today (see the footnote for an explanation).[2] Nowhere is this bifurcation of the human person more apparent than in the case of abortion and the personhood theory used to justify it.

Personhood theory separates the concepts of human being and human person into a dualism – someone can be a human being without being a person and without enough moral value to warrant protection. Just because someone is biologically human doesn’t mean that they are a person. Thus, a separation between our minds/consciousness and our bodies is created by the idea. This theory sees no value in the material body, but the mind, cognitive function, and consciousness are given precedence. It perpetuates a very low view of the human body itself. A key part of our identity is devalued – the physical. This is why unborn babies can have their body parts bought, sold, and experimented on – ultimately treated as property. What this all means is that “we have a new category of individual: the human non-person,” and almost anything goes when it comes to what we do with them.[4]

Personhood theory – the idea that moral value comes from certain levels of awareness/abilities – seems to be uncritically accepted in modern secular bioethics today. Peter Singer represents one such example, and he offers us a chance to see a bioethicist work out its logic. A materialist, Singer sees nothing valuable in an organism being a member of a certain species given the continuum of evolutionary development. He notes that the view that human life is uniquely sacred is a religious holdover from our Christian past. He contends that the sanctity of human life has only perpetuated a tendency towards speciesism – a preference for our species over others – that is not unlike racism. Given his materialism, the assumption that our species is special is wholly unfounded and contrary to the brute facts.

Singer challenges us to reconsider how we value animals that have the same cognitive abilities that under personhood theory confer moral value to humans.[5] As an atheist, he must do this, for if reality is at rock bottom only meaningless, amoral matter (lower story), then using ethics to discover what we value must be ultimately arbitrary (upper story). From here then, Singer follows the upper story logic where it leads with nothing to hold him back. As a utilitarian, Singer concludes that a society that allows the killing of viable humans in the womb because they lack cognitive abilities required for personhood should re-evaluate killing those outside the womb at similar cognitive levels – like newborns (both unwanted and disabled), the disabled, and elderly. After all, both actions are performed for the greater good of those involved.[6] In essence, personhood – this two-story division of the human being – not only justifies abortion and technologies like IVF but justifies the killing of unwanted infants, if their parents should choose. This is infanticide, and this is the brutal ends towards which the logic of personhood points.

In the end, Singer challenges those who assign moral value to humans based on personhood theory to reconsider how they treat animals with similar levels of cognitive abilities. Ironically, he is then applying this unquestioned, radical dualism to animals. Who is to stop him, since both animals and humans originate at the same biological level of meaningless matter? What is the basis for secular ethics to delineate between the two?

Christians can agree with Singer that we need to take better care of animals – in food production and in the realm of scientific testing. But we Christians base our concerns over the ethical treatment of animals from the standpoint that everything within the material realm has value and purpose. We have a responsibility to care for our bodies, for animals, and for the environment, behaving towards them in ethical ways. We view the world holistically and from the vantage point that all creation is intrinsically good because it was declared so by a transcendent God. Needless suffering of animals is wrong, not because of personhood theory as Singer would contend, but because animals have been created by God. It is clear that God cares about His creation in Scripture and we should, too, especially since we have been given the task of caretaking as His image-bearers. As image-bearers, we have the capacity for moral reasoning that no other animal has (animals don’t have bioethicists!). As image bearers, we do take precedence when it comes to value, but it is not an either/or –i.e. that we have value and the rest of the material realm does not. Rather, it is a both/and that has been exacerbated by the Fall (our sin!) and has forced us into positions of choosing one over the other. Creation groans and eagerly awaits for Christ’s return.[7]

In contrast to the dualistic secular ethic, the Christian ethic is grounded in transcendent God “who does not value achievement more than potential, who cares even for the weakest and least developed among us,” as Gilbert Meilaender writes in his primer on bioethics.[8] In contrast to the exclusivity of personhood arguments, the Christian ethic is inclusive. Being begotten of human parents is enough to warrant our protection. Meilaender writes that “those who never had or who have now lost certain distinctive human capacities should not be described as nonpersons; rather, they are simply the weakest and least advantaged members of the human community,” and this should call for greater protection.[9]

Singer rightly notes that the ancient world had no qualms with killing defective infants (though he fails to mention that the female gender qualified one as defective).[10] Ancient views on personhood were grounded in what they valued: gender, social status, nationality, etc. (like today it is grounded in what we value here in the West– cognitive abilities). It was in such an environment that Christianity was birthed. Its stringent and admittedly demanding ethic set Christianity apart from the moment of its conception. God became man and was for a time one of these weakest amongst us. G.K. Chesterton called it a paradox that at Christ’s birth “the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”[11] It was upon this paradox that a revolt against this ancient value system was set in motion in the human conscience. Women and children were some of the first souls to finally feel their worth.

The Incarnation was a revolution, though it would take time for its seeds to take root and flourish in the sin-hardened soil of the human conscience. Unfortunately, just as metaphors gradually shift with the culture, the resurrection of the ancient and cruel logic used in personhood theory seems to signify a turning back “against the long and arduous history in which we have slowly learned to value and protect — for Christians, to see Christ in — those who are ‘least’ among us.”[12] This is perhaps why Chesterton called Christianity an eternal revolution – it must never grow weary of swimming against the tides of time.

“To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam.” G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”


[1] Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) 30.

[2] Truth is divided between knowledge that is objective, fact-based, scientific, rational, cognitive (lower-story) and subjective, opinion, feelings-based, non-rational, non-cognitive, and moral (upper story). This also describes the division between modern versus post-modern, analytic versus continental streams of philosophy. This means that theological truths, such as those found in Christianity, are ultimately merely a matter of opinion and are not based in objective reality. In essence, they are “cognitively meaningless.”

[3] Ibid., 25.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press) Kindle Edition, 74: “This use of ‘person’ is itself, unfortunately, liable to mislead, because ‘person’ is often used as if it meant the same as ‘human being’. Yet the terms are not equivalent; there could be a person who is not a member of our species. There could also be members of our species who are not persons.”

[6] In Practical Ethics, he writes, “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”

[7] Romans 8:19-23.

[8] Meilaender, 30.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Indeed, as it still does in many parts of the world.

[11] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), 145.

[12] Meilaender, 33.

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