Yesterday I posted about the Journal of Medical Ethics‘ article about “post-birth abortions.” In this post I’d like to focus on one important aspect of that article: their definition of personhood.

Few questions could be more important than this: what makes a person? The way we answer this question reveals much about our worldview and will do much to shape the destiny of our society.

In their controversial article, Giubilini and Minerva argue that killing a newborn baby is morally different than killing an adult because the newborn has not yet formed “aims” for his or her future. It’s okay, they argue, to kill a severely handicapped child on the grounds that the child is incapable of forming aims for his or her life, and therefore, on the same grounds, there is nothing wrong with killing a healthy child who has “not formed any aim yet.”

The operative definition of personhood here is the ability to make goals, to develop plans. If you can’t make plans for your future, you’re not a real person. In killing a young child (an age cap of 1 year has been thrown out there, but this is as arbitrary an age as any), no real harm is done because we are not keeping the child from fulfilling any of her (nonexistent) aims for herself. In addition to being a completely arbitrary grounds for declaring someone a person and for constituting a “harm,” this definition is very convenient for the argument of the pro-post-abortionist.

Later in the article, the authors more clearly define personhood:

“We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”

Let’s let that suggestion that some animals are persons but some humans aren’t persons speak for itself. It is both bizarre and upsetting, but it’s not the part of the quotation that most concerns me. That last sentence causes my stomach to churn: “Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” Really? Are you sure? The authors’ worldview is on full display here. All remnants of the Christian worldview in which mankind carries inherent value as the image-bearers of God have been stripped away. All that is left is the Darwinian assumption that man is merely the accidental victor in the “race” to be the most-evolved specimen on earth. There is no dignity to man’s position atop the food chain. He has attained his self-awareness without intending to, and his seemingly dignified position is no reason to think that merely belonging to the human race should carry with it any special privileges—like the right to not be murdered.

Though the suggestion that merely being human does not warrant one the right to life has been hugely controversial, Giubilini and Minerva deserve credit for riding their worldview all the way to its logical conclusion.

They offer a case in point for what determines personhood. Let’s say a woman is pregnant with identical twins, both of whom are affected by a genetic disorder. The woman can choose to kill one of the fetuses and to use it to develop a cure for the other fetus. In this case, the woman decides that one fetus should be considered a person, and the other fetus should be considered a means to developing a cure. The value of each fetus is not determined by anything inherent to the fetus (both are identical)—the value is projected onto the fetus by the mother.

Who gets to decide what makes a person? Should our Creator be allowed to speak to that issue? Apparently not. Man has made himself the center of the universe, and he reserves the right to decide his own worth and the worth (or lack of worth) of the human beings around him.

What do we lose when we abandon the Christian worldview? Everything. We lose all steady footing for our society, for our progeny, even for ourselves. (I will speak to this a bit more in tomorrow’s post.) Now more than ever Christians must hold to that which we know to be true. The world needs the answers and the firm foundation that God has revealed to us.


  1. Great posts and analyses Mark! In addition to nailing down our definition of ‘person,’ I think Christians also need to nail down their definition of ‘church.’ Having a solid definition of personhood isn’t going to challenge the presumptions of people the likes of Giubilini and Minerva, as it’ll probably only serve to cement them in their own perverted linguistic universe. (I am not saying you are advocating only ‘having a solid definition of personhood’–this is just my foil for this next sentence 🙂 ) However, a church that sees itself as a hospitable community capable of receiving and welcoming the stranger–even ‘unwanted’ or ‘undesirable’ children–as gifts will present our culture with an alternative reality made possible by the blood and resurrection of Jesus. Verbally disagreeing with them isn’t as challenging as actually being a people *shaped* by the language of the Logos. Just as ordering a side salad necessarily (although maybe not intentionally or maliciously) judges the eating habits of your neighbor who orders fries (or abstaining from premarital sex, or refusing to salute the flag, etc.), likewise, a church that creates the space necessary to be hospitable (loving of those who are ‘strange’) and to be a community capable of attending to the needs of all in the Name and power of the Crucified King *is the only adequate and faithful* response Christians can and must have in wake of such an atrocity. Only a church that embodies the peaceable kingdom of the Lamb is capable of truthful witness against such ideas.

    Basically, “discipleship” (I put it in quotes because not everyone agrees as to what this is/means–I believe it means becoming a community conformed into the image of the Crucified King) is the only “solution” to this and all problems. Believing in Christ Crucified means having faith that the weakness of the Cross is the *only* way to confront and overcome *all* the evils of this world-especially when that means we “fail” to transform the world and get “crucified” ourselves. The task of the church isn’t to make the world more just or righteous; it’s to let the world know that it is in fact the ‘world’ resisting the Creator’s will for them. The only way this happens is if there actually exists a people that are obedient to the Creator’s will. The implication is that rather than focusing on rhetoric, we should be focusing on discipleship (which necessitates learning the language of the Logos), building up the household of God, the temple of God, into the kind of people that are a truthful and adequate witness to the newness and reality that Jesus is and gives, and into the kind of people that are capable of inheriting the new earth. (John Piper’s church, and Cornerstone Simi with their emphasis on foster care and adoption are tangible examples of what I’m advocating.)

    • Amen, Andrew! If all we do is talk about and verbally condemn the definitions and practices of the world around us, we are not truly being Christians in society. We have to show them an alternative. We can’t just say that their solution to the problem is not working, we have to show them what the true solution is. Well said.