The Christian Problem of Personhood as a Litmus Test for Abortion
Updated: May 19, 2020
Before I became a mother, I was pro-choice. I was young, naïve, and had never really thought deeply about what exactly went on with the development of a child in the womb. Steeped in the liturgy of a materialistic society and subjected to the incessant refrain of secular feminism’s mantra, “my body, my choice,” I thought it was self-evident that only the pregnant woman should be able to determine whether she was ready to take on the responsibility of parenting a child. And besides, the fetus was just a clump of cells – if you caught “it” early enough, it wasn’t like you were really killing an actual person, right?
When I found myself facing an unplanned pregnancy at age 23 though, everything changed. When I saw those two little pink lines on the positive pregnancy test, I instantly and inexplicably felt protective of my baby. It was a baby, a little person. I knew in my very bones that it wasn’t just a clump of cells, no matter what those around me who pressured me to have an abortion claimed.
As my pregnancy progressed, I looked forward every week to checking my pregnancy app to see how the baby was growing - what size fruit it was, what new developmental changes had occurred, and counting down the days to when I could finally meet my baby face to face. It seemed incredible to me that I could have ever thought any baby was just tissue, akin to a tumor. I learned that at just 5 weeks of gestation, the time when many women have the first discernible clue that they are pregnant as a result of a missed period, the baby’s nervous system and circulatory system is forming. By week six its heart begins to beat and distinguishable features such as the nose, ears, and jaw begin to take shape. By the end of the first trimester, when it’s still legal to obtain an abortion in many states, the baby’s kidneys are starting to function, its vocal cords have formed, and it has its own distinctive fingerprints.
Thank God, literally, that my heart of stone had cracked just enough to be able to receive even a smidgen of God’s grace at that pivotal moment in my life. God’s grace alone enabled me to make the right choice. When she was born nine months later, I named her Emily Grace. I was completely awestruck and in love – she was so tiny and perfect, like a little rose bud. The first thing I noticed before the nurse even placed her in my arms was a sweet dimple on her cheek, a dimple that still flashes whenever she smiles.
Surely those who are pro-choice just don’t know all of this, I thought. How could any woman who had carried a pregnancy to term, waiting with expectant hope and joy to meet her little one, eagerly reading, as I did, how her baby was growing each week of her pregnancy, be pro-choice? They must not know. They simply can’t know. If people knew, if they understood, then everyone would be pro-life, I imagined.
The Personhood Argument
Over time, I became more and more involved in the pro-life movement and now serve as president of the board of a local crisis pregnancy center. Through these experiences, I’ve learned a lot about why women facing unplanned pregnancies choose abortion and what demographics are choosing abortion. Contrary to my original assumptions, most women seeking abortion aren’t unwed teenagers: a significant percentage are in their late twenties or thirties, married, and even already have other children of their own. It’s not enough to point out the physical human characteristics of the unborn baby to these women – they already know.
In fact, the best pro-choice apologists are well-versed in the stages of fetal development. I was having a civil (believe it or not) conversation with a friend who is both an atheist and a staunch advocate of what the left calls “reproductive rights,” and he said something I will never forget. In response to my appeal that a pre-born baby is just a small human and therefore deserving of all the rights as the rest of us larger, already born humans, he replied, “well of course it’s human, what else would it be?”
I was struck momentarily dumb. He went on to explain that the issue for him isn’t whether the fetus is human, the issue is personhood. “Human” is merely a species designation. Personhood, however, is something more. According to the dictionary, personhood is “the quality or condition of being an individual person” and, in the minds of many pro-choice advocates, develops on a sliding scale rather than being a characteristic conferred at the moment of conception.
This assertion is not limited to the secular left. In fact, many self-proclaimed Christians of all denominations subscribe to this theory of personhood to justify their support of abortion at various (and arbitrary) stages of fetal development. The problems with this philosophical line of reasoning are many, and entire books could be dedicated to them. What I want to focus on in this post, however, is the incompatibility of the personhood argument in support of abortion with Christian doctrine, specifically as demonstrated by the pro-life witness of St. John the Baptist before his birth in the story of the Visitation.
The Pro-Life Witness of St. John the Baptist
On May 31, the Church observes the Feast of the Visitation, when Mary, after learning from the archangel Gabriel that she will bear Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with St. John the Baptist:
During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” // Luke 1:39-45
Every mainline Christian denomination affirms what is known as the doctrine of hypostatic union, or, more simply, that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human. Established by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, hypostatic union affirms that although Christ possesses two natures, the natures are inseparable and together form one complete Person. You cannot have the divinity of Christ without the humanity of Christ, and vice versa. It’s a mystery we will never be able to fully comprehend on this side of the veil, but if you call yourself a member of any major Christian denomination, it’s a doctrine you must affirm.
It’s important to underscore here that when the Church speaks of Jesus’s “human nature,” she does not mean simply that He is a member of the species homo sapiens. On the contrary, the human nature of Christ speaks to the very essence of who He is. It is His personhood. Which brings us back to the story of the Visitation.
At the sound of Mary’s greeting to her cousin Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth, moved by the Holy Spirit, realized this wasn’t simply a normal instance of fetal movement. Her son, while in the womb, pointed her to Christ, also in the womb.
The implications of this are enormous from multiple perspectives. For our purposes, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard any theological scholar of any denomination seriously attempt to argue that Christ wasn’t fully Christ until he passed safely through the birth canal in Bethlehem. And even if that was the case, if Christ in utero was nothing more than a small member of the human species without possessing full personhood, then what is the point of including this particular Gospel narrative at all? Why did St. Luke, writing under divine inspiration as all Christian denominations affirm, bother to mention that a pre-born baby recognized the pre-born Messiah?
If you answered something to the effect of “to add evidence for the divinity of Christ,” then yes! You are correct. One of the reasons this narrative is included in St. Luke’s Gospel is to further establish Christ’s nature as the divine Son of God. But, as affirmed by the doctrine of hypostatic union, Christ’s divine nature is inseparable from his human nature. Pre-born John the Baptist wasn’t simply recognizing pre-born Jesus’s divinity, but also His personhood.
“Okay,” you may concede at this point. “Jesus possessed full divinity and full personhood as a fetus. He was the Son of God though, clearly an exception to the norm – we shouldn’t take this to mean that every fetus obtains full personhood from the moment of conception.”
Taking this position, however, ignores the personhood of St. John the Baptist in utero. Humans are the only creatures created in God’s image. We are the only species on earth capable of recognizing Christ as Lord through the use of reason. The ability to do this requires us to have all the elements of personhood (and take your pick of any of the major philosophical definitions of personhood: the naturalist tradition espoused by Descartes, Locke, and Hume, the significance-based view of Charles Taylor, the personal unity view of Francis J. Beckwith or J.P. Moreland, the rational nature or self-awareness theories of personhood of Harry G. Frankfurt, Boethius, or Mary Midgley and others, or even the intersubjective basis of personhood proposed by Nikolas Kompridis). St. John the Baptist’s ability to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, recognize Christ in the womb, and alert his mother Elizabeth to that fact, all while in the womb himself, requires personhood on his part.
If you’re a Christian and support abortion based on the theory that the fetus doesn’t obtain personhood until [fill in the blank] stage of fetal development (or any other theory, for that matter), then you have some serious theological implications that you need to consider. Is Christ both fully human and fully divine? Is the Bible truly accurate? Are the Gospels divinely inspired? Is this all just some massive allegory, not to be taken literally? Are there different rules for some people, those who are specially chosen by God, that don’t apply to your average member of the human race? I don’t say any of this to be hostile or argumentative, but these are questions that cut to the core of Christian doctrine. And they are questions that, if answered in light of authentic Christian teaching, render abortion at any stage and for any reason intolerable.