Fetal Personhood?

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.



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Abortion Metaphysics

The life-and-death controversy over termination of pregnancies, as I intimated last time, continually leads me back to the metaphysical disputations rooted in our ancient philosophers. In broad strokes, the controversy is fueled by two different understandings of the reality of life itself. One comes out of the Platonic tradition as it has evolved in the Christian West over the centuries. In the Platonic vision our own world is a dim or distorted manifestation of eternal “ideas” (eidon)—the pure forms of things outside of but informing the transient world we inhabit. In the ancient Hellenic world, this relation of seen and unseen worlds underlay the so-called Gnostic myth of the way an eternal soul entered into flesh, dwelled on earth, and then returned to its pure immortal state among other eternal souls. I see this myth every week in the obituaries of my small-town newspaper. This is the mythic template for the original creeds of the Christian church, in which the eternal “word,” or Christ, became flesh (was incarnated), lived among us, was crucified, died, and ascended back into heaven to reign eternally with God the Father. It is a myth we celebrate every Christmas and Easter. It is deeply woven into the taken-for-granted metaphysics of many Christians.

This is the metaphysical and mythical worldview behind claims that “life” begins at conception, when, in this modern version, the eternal life enters into our world. In earlier centuries, as with St. Thomas Aquinas, the soul’s entry was delayed for thirty to six days (depending on your sex). In English common law, it entered upon “quickening.” What is enduring here is the notion that there is a “soul” or “life” that somehow takes form in this world in the fleshy materials of the womb. It is of the eternal, the absolute, the divine. It is the manifestation of the ultimate form of being. Here is the source of the sense that it lays absolute and timeless claims upon us.

In the classical world, it was Aristotle who formulated a quite different perspective on reality, one that sees it as a process of unceasing growth and development. Rather than being focused on the relation of the eternal and the transient, he directed our attention to the biological reality of constant change and self-organizing development. While this was often conjoined to a notion of the “telos,” the full realization of its inherent organizing principle, our attention in this view  was constantly directed to the forms and processes of growth. This perspective, this metaphysic, underlay the subsequent development of Western science, finding in Aquinas (13th c.) its fundamental religious expression. Later, I would claim, it appears in an evolutionary form in the work of the Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The life we know is not the manifestation of some pre-existent eternal “idea” or “soul” but a growth toward an ever-greater, more complex form of reality and consciousness— what Chardin called the Omega point.

It is this Aristotelian metaphysic, whether acknowledged or not, that underlies the conception of human pregnancy as the complexification of matter into increasingly conscious forms of life, with heightened value and claims on the lives of others as it gains increasing self-consciousness and autonomy. The emerging human being deserves our care from its very inception, but this is different from the absolute rights doctrine that sees it as the immediate manifestation of an eternal soul.

These are not easy ideas or distinctions to grasp immediately. I hope I have been able to dissipate at least some of the fog that may be besetting you as you make your way on this. In a sense, both are religious and metaphysical views that are informing our policy arguments. That the Platonic view has so deeply permeated Christian theology does not mean that the Aristotelian is any less “religious.” Indeed, the Thomistic tradition, even if ironically, attests to the enduring religious power of an Aristotelian metaphysic. It finds even more pronounced expression in the various evolutionary worldviews and myths of our own time.

In a sense, we need both emphases in our ethical debate, but only as emphases, rather than absolutes. Only then can we begin, it seems to me, to defang the poisonous rancor that now puts so many women’s lives in jeopardy, even if our previous legal regime led some to a callous disregard to the mystery of engendering and caring for the precious life we are and create.


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Tragedy, Crime, and Abortion

We are all acutely aware of how difficult it is to find our footing in this turbulent time. Our eyes and ears are assailed with violence, lies, and destruction, blinding us to the beauty of the creation and of the love that sustains us day by day. Our language itself is torn apart as people use words as weapons in their own search for power and domination. We lose the capacity to think, communicate, and construct a common world of meaning.

As I pick through the cacophony of news, I, like you, have been trying to grapple with the consequences of the US Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision overthrowing 50 years of women’s right to control their own reproductive lives. In the process I have been thinking about tragedy and crime, and about the clash between static and developmental views of reality. In short, like any academic, I have been thinking about Aristotle and Plato.

The Supreme Court’s decision has now turned a tragedy into a crime. The word “tragedy” is misused daily in our common speech. We speak of the massacres of children in Uvalde and New Town as “tragedies.” No, they aren’t. They are crimes. They are evil acts seeking to do evil things. When we go back to the origins of the tragic sense, following Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, we see in “tragedy” that out of good intentions can come self-destruction and evil. Good intentions, pursued by “good” people, can lead to bad ends. This is the tragic reality embedded in human life. In calling something a tragedy, we are actually trying to say that an action or event outstrips our moral categories, which assume that we ultimately live in a moral universe where good produces good and evil produces evil. This is the utopia of every moralist. And the law, if nothing else, is a moralistic enterprise.

Termination of a pregnancy is a tragic event. A woman and her physicians and supporters seek her good. The emerging human life is also a good, seeking its fuller development. In the collision of two sets of goods, one set is badly injured or lost. We can only struggle to salvage what we can. In the midst of tragedy we try to find ways to heal the loss, to rekindle hope in an ultimate reconciliation, to trust in resurrection beyond the deaths in life.

But the law, like morality, wants to see crime and criminals in the midst of tragic struggle. And we, too, seek to minimize the tragic in our life by seeking to contain it in the clear walls of crime and punishment. But, as Thomas Aquinas and many others have pointed out, the effort to contain tragedy within the law’s conception of criminality can also produce yet more tragedy, loss, and evil. And so it is in the tragic arena of terminated pregnancies, where the Dobbs decision will cause additional women to lose their lives, ostensibly for a greater good.

As a Christian ethicist I, too, tried to put all of life into the moral categories that would eliminate tragedy from life. It is the inevitable tenor of ethical work. But as a Christian theologian, I also remember that if the Christian story stopped at the crucifixion, it would be a tragedy. The story of Jesus would be the story of a good life and a good man, brought to death in pursuing the good vision that could not survive in this twisted world. And thus, tragedy and a tragic vision is a critical component of Christian spirituality and ethics. But the story does not stop there, for the path to the cross is also the path to resurrection. There is a final state of joy and laughter, of resurrected life. As Aristotle would point out, there is, finally, a life in comedy.

Both phases of our life’s vision need to be claimed and lived into. Without awareness of the cross we are tempted to turn life’s intractable tragedies into crimes. We try to eliminate tragedy with the magic wand of ethics and law. At the same time, without resurrection, we become lost in despair and the entanglement of interminable evil consequences that the Greeks of Aristotle’s time called the furies. In a time when the furies seem to be all around us, the vision of a comedy of resurrection and a new heaven and a new earth becomes precious indeed. Both moments of this story need to be held on to as we struggle with the many dimensions of this life and death dilemma.

Next time, I will turn to our conceptions of the eternal and the developmental conceptions of existence that are at play in the abortion debates.

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Aiming at our Heart

Even as our throats are choked with grief and our tongues are silenced before the evil of the violence in Ukraine and across America, we know that we must return to words and the thoughts they embody. They are about the very heart of our life. The guns that threaten the very possibility of public life, whether in Uvalde or Kyiv, can only be overcome with the trust, covenants, and constitutions that arise in  argument, mutual education, and respectful agreements in open publics. This is a truth ancient in origin and refined in the crucible of human experience.

We grieve deeply as we recognize that the United States is the only high technology republic in the world that suffers this constant gun violence. This violence is rooted in our history of European invasion and settlement, of vicious enslavement of native and African peoples, of civil war, and ethnic rivalry. But it only survives because powerful groups continue to re-heat these conflicts for their immediate profit and power, so that this past still haunts us in the fevered minds of mass-murderers and would-be vigilantes alike.

As I, like so many of you, have wrestled with these shadows and fearsome horrors in these past weeks, I have repeatedly returned to two facets of this constant threat, one constitutional, the other essentially spiritual. Here are my thoughts on these two points. The constitutional issue, as I have argued before, takes us to the Second Amendment and the false claims that have come to enshroud and enshrine it. Politicians love to start any proposal to respond to gun violence with some version of allegiance to this Amendment to the US Constitution of 1787/89. But what do they mean by this act of obeisance? Does it include the meaning of the conditioning clause with which it starts (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”)? Most of them do not see it as establishing the purpose and conditions of the words that are to follow, but any lawyer trained in the Latin roots of this clause knew full well that that is what it intended to do. The Second Amendment is about the preservation of state militias.

In addition, though, we must remember that this purpose also implied the defense of state resistance to the federal government established by the Constitution. In short, the second amendment bears the seeds of secession and ultimately the Civil War of 1861-1865. Not to be forgotten is that this State “security” included the formation of militias to pursue, capture, and in the process terrorize the enslaved people fleeing their owners in the various states. Only the gradual subordination of these state militias into the National Guard, beginning in 1903, has removed this dagger from the heart of the Republic. The view that the second Amendment was about the preservation of these state militias governed court rulings until the end of the twentieth century. Even in the Heller decision of 2008 this has remained the Court’s basic understanding, though now used, in Scalia’s strained argument, to justify the individual right to “keep and bear arms” in the home.

And what are we to make of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”? In contemporary arguments for “gun rights” the term “people” has lost its 18th century meaning as a near-mystical body providing alternative legitimation to the political order from that of monarchs claiming the divine right to rule. “The People” was not a collection of individuals but a collective, “body politic” assembled in councils and public assemblies. It was as theological or mystical a concept as was that of King James I’s “divine right” of kings. Contemporary interpretations, like that of Justice Scalia’s Heller opinion, reduce it to being a collection of individual consumers. This it never was.

And “keep and bear arms”? This is once again a military term of an organized militia. A person carrying a hunting rifle into the woods is not “bearing arms.” Neither is a person seeking to intimidate an elected official with a semi-automatic rifle while standing on the steps of a government building. In any case, it is hard to argue, in the context of the whole amendment, that a self-appointed gang of armed men calling themselves a militia is the “well-regulated militia” of a “people” defending “the security of a free State.”

In short, the interpretation of the Second Amendment that is used to defend the wide-spread possession of weapons designed to kill people—many people—ignores entirely its original context and meaning (despite Scalia’s so-called originalism) and contravenes much of its original purpose. It also blinds us to its original function not merely as a check on federal power but as an implied threat to its very existence. The use of the second amendment to justify wide-ranging possession, display, and use of firearms of every type has revealed once again this  sinister underlying implication of these words.

We need to relentlessly expose the lies and half-truths surrounding this amendment so that we can create the legal structures we need to defend ourselves from the domestic terrorism and impulsive killings that take the lives of over 40,000 Americans every year.

The spiritual crisis points us to the loss of bonds among family members and communities and to the mental torment of so many isolated, angry, and despairing individuals in our society. This is not merely a matter of mental health services but of the erosion of the nurturing communities that make us human. At its core is a sense of fear and threat unallayed by a deep trust in the love at the heart of life. We are being torn apart by the logic of capitalist competition, economic dislocation, and a media universe driven by algorithms that promote fear and violence rather than widening circles of trust and cooperation. As this list unfurls we see that its characteristics are rooted in an individualism of self-advancement rather than mutual service, in fear of losing one’s status rather than in enhancing the well-being of all. This is a litany of alienation that is not unknown to us. It can only be countered by a renewal of the life of mutual concern that needs to be replenished constantly in our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques, in schools and neighborhoods as well as in town halls and union halls, in civic clubs and voluntary associations. The media universe needs to serve these face-to-face groups of mutuality rather than manipulate a demographic of isolated and fearful consumers.

And thus it really is about the soul of America. Our politicians continue to fail us in nurturing the public love that can free us from this fear. Freedom is not about independence from others. It is about the bonds of mutual care that free us from our isolation and fear. Now we have to see if indeed “the people” is anything more than a motley gang of potential murderers. Maybe, just maybe, it may become a tapestry of many threads seeking to become a magnificent quilt embracing us all.

Thanks again for reading this far and pondering with me. Your own thoughts are always welcome in this struggle.

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