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Abortion and the human person

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 9 July 2018

The fall of Christendom and the rise of secularism has profound consequences for our understanding of the human person. The latter would have it that humanity is but a species among species. This is so because nature is taken as the primary source of our being. Evolutionary theory and the discovery that we share a large amount of our DNA with other species underlines the point. Human beings are biological.

The other view of humanity is that, of course it is biological, but the essence of our being is not to be found in our DNA but in culture, particularly religious culture. The jumping off point for Christianity and Judaism is the understanding that we are indelibly made in the image and likeness of God (Gen.1:26). We may deny it, we make act as if it is not true, we may rebel and try to create ourselves out of nothing, but we will remain in the image and likeness of God, no matter how marred that image has become in us.

The view of humanity as primarily natural, would suggest that individuals may be reduced to their descriptors be that genetic, psychological, familial, or racial. But that would be an inadequate description of the person. I use "person" here because it carries more depth than "individual" which connotes one among others. Persons cannot be reduced to their descriptors because they are sentient beings, and as such are essentially unknowable. Indeed, we are unknowable to our very selves. We have no control over the thoughts that emerge in us, even those who attempt self-awareness are strangers to themselves. This is why "artificial intelligence" is a misnomer.


This conclusion should raise questions about the adequacy of the naturalistic view of human beings because of the assumption that if we had enough information we could predict behaviour and thought and thus be able to reduce the person to mechanism. Being created in the image and likeness of God means that we share with God a profound unknowability. Even when we read in the gospel of John:"No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known(John 1:18) we are given, not a complete and reduceable description of God but a person.

The origin of the equalitarianism ideal that is the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), may be found only in the Hebrew scriptures and not, as sometimes proclaimed, in the writings of Enlightenment Philosophers. This is recognised by the enemies of the UDHR: "Already in 1981, at the 36th session of the U.N. General Assembly, the representative of Iran had declared that the UDHR represented a secular interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which could not be implemented by Muslims; if a choice had to be made, he said, between its stipulations and "the divine law of the country," Iran would always choose Islamic law. Since then, Iran has led the struggle to modify the UDHR." National Review.

By promulgating the UDHR with equalitarianism at its centre, (all people are included as having rights regardless of "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status") the UN borrowed a key understanding of the nature of humanity from Christianity, stripped it of its provenance, and claimed its universality. It is no wonder Muslim communities have so much trouble with it. But the point remains, secular understandings of human rights that have taken over the language of justice and equity, are based on a religious tradition that holds that persons stand as being created in the image and likeness of God.

The first article of the UDHR begins with "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". I don't think that there is a sinister agenda here that denies the rights of the unborn, brevity is obviously at the fore in the framing. However, the question arises as to the status of the foetus: is the foetus excluded from the Declaration? It is exactly here that the Jewish and Christian understanding of what constitutes a person comes into conflict with the secular or naturalistic. To maintain that human persons are created in the image and likeness of God is to exclude all other foundations. For example, we cannot maintain that to be a human person one must be rational, or conscious, or physically able because the image and likeness of God is indelible. To treat another person as an end or to violate a person sexually, psychologically or economically is to trespass against the God given gift of human dignity.

In other words, we are not to violate the human person in the womb or in severe dementia at the end of life because no person can be reduced in accord with their descriptions. We may say that the foetus in unaware of itself or its life or death or future but that does not remove personhood, does not remove the image and likeness of God.

The debate about when a human being is endowed with rights is just as obscure as the medieval debate about when the foetus is ensouled. After the blastocyst is attached to the uterus there is no marker in development that signifies a transition from an animal state that has no rights to a human being who has. Even Birth does not mark a border. Indeed, if self-awareness is taken as the sign of personhood that only comes about during the years of early development.


It is ironic that pro-abortionists are very quick to use the language of human rights to justify their position. By proclaiming that each woman has a right to determine what happens to her body they unconsciously rely on the religious tradition that was used to promulgate the rights of all in the first place and that by logic must include the rights of the foetus. Which will prevail, the rights of the foetus or the mother?

It seems impossible to refuse the conclusion that the foetus is a child, ie a potentially self-aware human being and that it may not be disposed of as passive tissue or as animal life. These are not difficult arguments. While it is usual to dismiss pro-lifers as irrational religionists it seems to me that irrationality is more descriptive of the pro-abortion position.

Legislation that forbids abortion after twenty weeks, or so, is arbitrary. These limits have more to do with our perception of the foetus as a human baby than with logic. When we think of human development we think in pictures. We may have a hard time thinking of the early stages of the blastocyst as a child because there is nothing in its structure to suggest the presence of a human being. However, as the foetus develops it looks more like a baby and is more likely to produce distress in the hospital staff responsible for its demise. The boundaries for abortion are more to do with our innate sensitivity than of concern for human life.

Having said this, no one wants to return to back-yard abortions and death by haemorrhage or sepsis. It occurs to me that we support many people in our society, the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly and the dying we do not support women who find themselves pregnant and do not have the finances, the life skills or have not completed their education? We do not do this because we are still captive to a morality that labels unwed mothers as irresponsible sluts, their children as bastards and both a liability on social welfare. But these women and girls, their children and their fathers are members of our community. The child has devoted grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and maybe even siblings. By not giving the parents adequate support so that educations can be completed and new families formed we drive many to seek an abortion because there is no other option. For many, particularly if they go on later to produce families, the lost child will haunt them.

What sort of society are we that we do not support those among us, who in adolescent passion, or loneliness or inexperience find themselves in the family way? Are we to compare ourselves to ancient Greece when babies were left to die of exposure? Are we really a compassionate society that holds on to the equalitarian ideal of the UDHR?

Popular opinion throughout the Western world is strongly for the freedom of women to abort their children. We may ask how this is possible. I think the answer is simple, it is because we have made personal freedom an idol and our only philosophical grounding is utilitarianism that amounts to the means justifying the ends. We must be free at all costs even if the cost is the life of a child. We are blind to the reality of abortion because we are so tied up with our lives that we fail to find time for children. In so doing we damage our own humanity.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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