Human Life and Personhood

There are several reasons why I have never jumped on the “Personhood” bandwagon when it comes to unborn children.

I believe that life in the womb is God-ordained human life; that is a theological assertion. But to call that living human being a “person” is to interject a legal term into the discussion. A “person” has rights and responsibilities under the law and those rights go much further than the “right to life.”

For instance: if a two month old fetus is a “person” under the law, he or she is entitled to legal representation independent of the mother or father, he or she would have standing in court for damages done by his or her parents during gestation, and he or she would have claims on property and income.

More than that, the constitution of the United States directs the government to take a census every ten years and count every person. This would be problematic if millions of these “persons” are hidden in somebody’s womb. This is not trivial, as the number of “persons” in a region determines how many representatives that area is entitled to and how much money it is entitled to. These are not minor things. If we declare that a fetus is a person, would a parent be legally required to report that to some government office?

We have never treated the unborn as “persons”—they do not receive a birth certificate (or a conception certificate, which would be more appropriate)—they do not receive a Social Security number—they are not granted insurance policies—and they are not embalmed and buried (unless death occurs late in the pregnancy, and I cannot remember reading very many pre-natal obituaries in the newspaper.

A birth date, not a conception date, is still the standard in determining age. A driver’s license is granted when a person reaches 16 years of life—which means 16 years since birth. How old are you is the common language? We mean: how long since your birth? Age from birth affects things like school, military service, and even marriage.

This discussion about “personhood” is important these days because the movement to outlaw abortion has adopted a new strategy: to pass state constitutional amendments declaring that the unborn child—the fetus—is a person. On November 4, for instance, voters in Colorado will vote on such an amendment.

Tomorrow I will write about the theological description of the unborn child. That also is fraught with complications.


3 comments so far

  1. Diana Hsieh on

    FYI, the Coalition for Secular Government just published an issue paper on reproduction and questions of personhood: “Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person” by Ari Armstrong and myself.

    It’s particular target is Colorado’s proposed Amendment 48, which would give fertilized eggs all the legal rights of persons. However, it also defends the right to abortion on the grounds that the total biological dependence of the embryo/fetus on the woman mean that it’s not a person with rights. That requires life as a separate entity, i.e. birth.

    The paper is available at:

  2. Rick on

    I was just wondering, since that fetus isn’t a person, is it ok, in your opinion, to kill that fetus?

  3. Jimmy Gentry on

    Good word about the issue of abortion and personhood. I remember a similiar article you wrote when pastor at Third Baptist Church, Owensboro. It will be interesting to see what Colorado does with the law if it passes. Life, of some sort, does begin at conception, but that doesn’t mean personhood.

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