Reinforcing the value of life.

Reaffirming the pursuit of happiness.
Our Message on Personhood

"An incomplete definition of 'person' can adversely affect individual persons and
the culture."

Robert Spitzer
S.J., Ph.D.

What is personhood?

When is a fetus a person?

What does it mean to be a person?

Does an unborn baby have dignity?

To say that a single-celled human being at conception is no larger than the dot at the end of this sentence is to simply give a description based on appearance. It is not an explanation or definition of what this human being is. Aristotle 2400 years ago noted that to obtain a true definition of what something is, you must discover what its powers are and what it is meant to be.

This ancient
Greek philosopher noticed that all living creatures are designed to reach a certain goal. Every species has a different goal. They called this goal "telos" which means "end." If you can discover what something's telos (final goal) is, then you will know what that creature is. For example, the goal of an acorn is "oak tree." It's the goal of "oak tree" which causes the acorn to grow and change the way it does. Acorns already have "oak tree" written within their nature. In the same way, if we can discover the "end" or "goal" of the human being, we will know what the human being is.

At conception each of us becomes a self-possessed
human person. We possess our own future; it belongs to us uniquely and no one else. No matter our size, present within us at conception is the complete design of what we are meant to be and a guiding force that brings that development about. This power and the information necessary to direct it must be present at conception in order for development to occur.

Personhood is not dependent on whether one is currently manifesting all one’s powers or not. It is not a temporary state that comes and goes with our degree of functionality. A machine could conceivably be designed to look like us, and mimic numerous
human traits, but to mimic functionality is not personhood. Indeed, there are already machines that actually function more efficiently than we do at specific tasks, but I seriously doubt your vacuum cleaner ever wonders about the fairness of it all. You, however, are intrinsically oriented toward that unique human characteristic, evident even in young children, to desire and reflect on transcendent realities like justice and truth.

Our dignity at conception is often obscured by labels assigned to stages of development such as zygote, blastocyst, fetus, or infant. But, an embryo is not less of a
human being than an infant, anymore than a child is less of a human being before puberty than after. At every stage we are whole human beings. This problem with labels is not new. In fact, Abraham Lincoln used to illustrate it by humorously asking how many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? The answer is four, because it makes no difference if you call it a leg, it is still a tail. In the same way, how we label a stage of development doesn’t change the fundamental nature or reality of that which we label.

Nor does the inability to perceive personhood in others serve as proof that it must not be present. Our own lack of clarity does not alter objective reality. We can not earn for ourselves, or bestow on others, what is already ours by nature.

Our culture’s eclipse of reason has resulted in untold suffering and a relentless violation of inalienable rights. The unborn, the elderly, the disabled are all targets of these self-appointed final arbiters of personhood. Inevitably, none of us are immune from their arbitrary judgements. Healing the culture must begin with acknowledging that at conception, a unique, self-possessed
human person comes into being. Their future, as well as ours, depends on it.

Click to read more on the Life Principles philosophy, including In-Depth Discussion of "Personhood"

Our Message on the Beginning of Life Issues

© Copyright 2005 Center for Life Principles. All Rights Reserved. A project of Human Life of Washington.