by William Cutrer, M.D. and Sandra Glahn, Th.M.

Say the word “abortion,” and you’ve guaranteed a lively discussion. In our last column, we raised some questions—is it a right? A therapy? Murder? What about mothers on death row?

The most basic question in the abortion debate is this: What is the legal, moral status, if any, of the entity being aborted? If it is not a tiny, human individual—if it is only a mass of “living tissue,” not a living being—then we need no justification for abortion. However, if it truly is a unique human person, taking a life requires some justification—for example, if it is done to save another life. So the key issue emerges: When does personhood begin?

Personhood as function

Even semi-scientific minds will grant that from the first cell onward, the union of sperm and egg makes a “human.” However, what makes someone a “person,” entitled to rights and civil protection? Those who advocate choice—putting maternal “rights” above any potential rights of the unborn—often argue a functional definition for personhood. That is, they define personhood as the ability to do or function in some way. Thus, they would say we have personhood only when we are able to think, feel, reason, or respond to stimuli in the environment. While human in origin and potentiality, the “developing mass,” they would say, is not really a human person, and therefore the rights of the mother clearly take precedence.

It’s a clever argument, as is used to justify more than ninety-eight percent of all elective first trimester abortions, which number approximately 1.2 million per year in the U.S. alone.

However, before that tiny embryo is developed enough to feel or reason, he or she has brainwaves and a heartbeat.

At three weeks, the heart begins to beat.
At seven weeks, pain receptors in the brain.
At twelve weeks, the baby’s sex is evident.
Babies born at approximately twenty weeks have survived.
These facts would suggest “personhood” before the time outlined by those holding to “functional personhood.”

Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton, carries the “personhood as function” view to its logical extreme and states that parental rights take precedence over those of the infant who, by virtue of being not yet fully mature, is unable to “function.” He teaches that it would be ethical for a parent to take the life of the baby, since it isn’t a person—as it lacks conscious awareness of self, which is, in his view, essential to personhood.

Whatever functional criteria one comes up with, be it self-awareness, ability to create, feel, love etc., some other species (dolphins, chimps) can match them in some ways. This clouds the personhood definition—especially since some chimps have learned some sign language and can now “communicate.”

Clearly function is not what defines us as human.

Personhood as being

We advocate defining personhood not on the basis of function, but of “being”—thus, the phrase, “human being.” This view is fully compatible with the statement in Genesis about humanity “being made in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). It is also consistent with the biblical texts that say that our origins as believers began in the mind of God as his “workmanship” before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4), with the intention that we would perform good works in Christ (2:10). The New Testament word “workmanship” is the word from which we get the English word for “poem.” We are God’s unique and beautiful artwork, designed in his mind before the foundation of the world.

Thus we are persons worthy of respect by virtue of the fact that we are human, not because of anything we do, or can do. So the aged, the mentally handicapped, and the comatose, do not lose their humanity when they have diminished or absent function.

Simply by being human, we have innate dignity.

Scientific support

At what point do we begin “being”? Consider the news we have recently received from the Human Genome Project. We now know for sure that from the first cell following fertilization, the 3.2 billion nucleotide pairs that will direct and inhabit every one of the trillions of cells that follow are distinct, unique—and human.

Truly we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psa. 139:14). Fearfully—because an error in just a few of those nucleotide pairs would cause the human possessing them to be extremely handicapped, or unable to survive. Wonderfully—because all of our diversity and complexity is housed in the genome of the very first cell.

The strength of any argument against abortion lies in demonstrating that the pre-embryo, the embryo, the unborn “fetus,” the ball of cells—whatever point you choose along this continuum of human growth—possesses not only “life” but is a unique, individual, being. We have not another species, but a human life.

The most foundational argument in the abortion debate relates to when personhood begins, and the scriptures would suggest human personhood begins not at the stage at which a human “functions,” but at the stage where there is a “being,” even if it has only one cell.