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As a precocious child, I watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite from the fourth grade onward. One winter evening when I was in the fifth grade Mr. Cronkite’s lead story was one I did not understand: “The U. S. Supreme Court today in a seven to two vote legalized abortion.” I ran and asked my mother what “abortion” was. She was hesitant to say, as if the term I had used were an obscenity. Finally she said, “It’s killing babies before they’re born.” My mouth dropped and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. To this day that sinking feeling returns when I consider the great evil Justice Harry Blackmun and his court majority inflicted (via Roe v. Wade) on the American people that day, January 20, 1973.

In considering the morality of abortion, the key philosophical question is when does human personhood begin. Even supporters of abortion would say that the human being begins at conception—the issue is, at what stage does the human being become a human person? Is every human being a human person? Or does a human being become a human person at a particular stage of development. Parents with teenagers may believe that a human being does not become a human person until around age twenty, if even then. Seriously, though, philosophers Michael Tooley and Peter Singer have both argued that a human being does not become a human person until several years after birth. Singer believes that a baby should not be declared a human person until he is a week old; during that time, it is, Singer believes, morally permissible to kill the baby, for example, if it has an incurable disease that would cause it endless suffering. Tooley holds similar views. Bonnie Steinbock believes that sentience, the ability to feel pleasure or pain, is the point at which personhood begins to develop; she argues that this ability is not present until the third trimester. Before then, the human being present does not have the moral rights that a person does.

The separation of human personhood from human being finds its roots in the mind-body dualism of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes argued that the mind, defined as consciousness, is the self, and that the body, though closely connected to the mind in this life, is not essential to one’s identity. Although not as dualistic as Descartes, John Locke (1634-1704) explicitly argued that the human being is not the same thing as a human person. For Locke, the human being is the living human body; the human person is the individual consciousness. The continuation of the same person is guaranteed by the continuation of consciousness, and this is revealed by having a stream of memories stretching back through time. Thus, if my consciousness were transferred into Hugh Laurie’s body, the body would remain that of Hugh Laurie, but the personal identity would be that of Michael Potts.

An alternative position holds that the human being and human person cannot be separated; as long as the human being is alive, the human person remains. This view is associated with some followers of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Philosophers J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae are representatives of this position. They argue that what constitutes personal identity is the soul, defined as the “form of the body,” the informational pattern, encoded in DNA, that makes the person the kind of entity he is. This informational pattern is specific to a particular body, and as long as that body lives, the pattern is present. This is true even if the body does not have all its powers, for example, in a zygote , embryo, or on the other end of the scale, in an elderly person suffering from severe Alzheimer’s Disease. This view, I believe, makes better sense of the embodied nature of human existence than the radical Cartesian separation of mind and body. It recognizes that humans can BE persons without FUNCTIONING as persons, as when a person is in a dreamless sleep or under anesthesia. Thus, as soon as the new information pattern encoded in the genetic code after conception is present in the zygote, a human person is present. Thus, abortion kills a living human person and not just a living human being.

I am aware of arguments regarding twinning and the lack of implantation of around 40-50% of embryos. As far as twinning or other multiple births, the informational pattern for all the births are present in the case of identical twins, triplets, etc., and it would be wrong to destroy the zygote(s) at whatever stage of development it is in. As far as lack of implantation—in the past the child mortality rate was as high or higher than 50%, yet no one questioned the personhood of children.

Even if conception is not when human personhood begins, one could argue we cannot know for sure—would you risk shooting a person if you heard a rustle in the bushes and thought it was a deer? In a similar way, would you risk killing a human person by killing an embryo you are SURE is not a human person. Some confidence can kill.

Men often pressure women into abortions; I have known at least two cases among family and friends in which this occurred. It is ironic that most feminists support abortion when it empowers men to be sexually irresponsible—if the woman gets pregnant, a man can pressure her to kill the evidence.

Morality is not necessarily the same as legality, but if abortion is murder, it should be prohibited. Although abortion due to rape or incest is still murder, most Americans support it being legal—even with that exception, almost all abortions would be illegal. Now I do not think that a constitutional amendment is the answer; overturning Roe v. Wade and putting abortion back into the hands of the states is most consistent with federalism. Then it is up to those on both sides of the issue to make their best cases—and the representatives of the people would decide instead of dictatorial judges.

Although abortion is objectively a grave moral evil, one of the worst mistakes a person can make, the subjective guilt of the woman may be lessened by circumstances such as rape, incest, or threats from a boyfriend. But abortion doctors are, to use a Southern expression, “lower than a snake’s belly” in using medicine to kill instead of to heal. I hope and pray that people will wake up and work to stop the great evil of abortion in American society.

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