The US Supreme Court’s reversal of its earlier ruling (Roe v. Wade) upholding women’s right to abortion, has intensified the argument that the fetus, from the moment of conception, is a “person” and should have appropriate standing in the law. I have been reflecting on the history and meaning of the word “person” for over fifty years. In 2012 I posted reflections on the way personhood was being used to give corporations (fictional persons) rights to political speech once attributed to individuals. Let me just rehearse some of what I said then in order to understand how the concept of personhood is now being extended to the fetus.
“Person” goes back to the Latin “persona,” the word for the mask that was worn in public dramas. The masks were shaped to amplify the speaker’s voice. Their words could “sound through” (“per-sonare”) the mask so they could perform their role in the drama. To “have a persona” was to be able to take part in a drama beyond the roles of ordinary life.
From that dramatic practice it could be used to talk about those who had speech not only in the world of drama but also in the law. To have a persona was to have the right to participate in the drama of legal proceedings as well as public life generally, constricted as it was in Roman times. Mainly, “person-hood” was confined to male heads of households.
From the legal world it then entered the language of theology. It was Tertullian (2d century) who used it to apply to God’s presence in the world through the “persons” of Christ and the Holy Spirit. When it came time to develop the Trinitarian idea in the Latin church of the West, theologians came to speak of God being in three “persons.” This was how the Latin-speaking world translated the “hypostases” of Greek thought about the Trinitarian “instances” of God. (This is my interpretation of the Greek “hypostasis,” which is a very controverted matter itself.) In this way, people in the Latin West could talk about how God was participating in the drama of salvation that is human history. God had three “personae” constituting the divine life. The divergence between Greek concepts of “hypostasis” and Latin concepts of “persona” led to intense and abiding differences shaping the two Christian branches to this day.
Thus, as religion developed in the West it was God who had “person-ality.” So did the church, as the Body of Christ, who is the “second person” of the Trinity. As Christ’s “body,” the Church was also immortal, unlike the associations of human beings. It was a “mystical body” that was a bridge to life eternal. In this way, by the thirteenth century, the Church brought into being the idea that there could be a seemingly human institution that could transcend the mortality of the individuals composing it. (Incidentally, this is where our word “parson,” the representative of the Church, comes from.) At this point an entity that is seen as a “person” is now seen as a vital center of creative presence in the public drama of world history, that is, having divine origin. To have “personhood” is to participate in the divine autonomy and creativity of the Triune God.
In the thought of Protestant and radical reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the “person-hood” of Christ was then transmitted to believers through Baptism. They gain the right to appear in public as equals with a conscience. These conscientious individuals then form churches, which are associations of individual believers bound in covenant. This is the stream that feeds into American thought about freedom of conscience and association. To be a person went from being a participant in Christ’s body to being simply a human being created “in the image of God.” Over several centuries, this personhood, in law as well as theology, was extended to formerly enslaved people, now recognized as “persons,” and to women, whose “persona” had for centuries been borne by their fathers or husbands. All humans could now claim the divine attributes of a personhood that had evolved in the theological conception of the Divine. It became an attribute of human life as such.
At this point personhood was no longer the mask by which one participates in the larger drama of the law, but became the very life of the human being. On this basis some are claiming, as with the Platonic view I discussed last time, that from the moment of conception the fetus has the complete powers of the self created in the image of God. Such an argument is the outcome of a two-thousand year development of an idea that has moved from theater to law to theology and thence into biology. From the theater’s stage it moved to the heavens, from which it descended with all the powers of the divine into the microscopic assemblage of genetic material embodied in a single cell. Yes, it is a “religious” concept, but very few people understand how it has evolved to shape this particular argument about the right to abortion.
Americans are now faced with fierce and emotional arguments about the “rights” to be attributed to this fetal human as well as how it can be represented in the courts of law. Much of this argument will revolve around the question of whether this “person” has the capacities to act that can be called autonomous in some sense. In any case, “personhood” is a powerful rhetorical strategy drawing on centuries of cultural development. Awareness that “fetal personhood” is a theologically-inspired construct ought to help us sort out this legal, medical, religious, and deeply emotional controversy. Your own thoughts are always welcome here.