Is a Fetus a Person?

Recently I had a discussion with some friends of mine concerning fetuses and personhood. Since then I have given a lot of thought to the topic, and I thought I’d make a sandbox post here for you and me to throw some ideas around.

Before I dive in, however, I would like to make something clear. At no point am I debating when or whether or not a fetus is a human being. I believe that fetuses are as human as you or I, and that it is so at the moment of conception, and as far as I am concerned there is no room for debate here. I fundamentally oppose abortion, and the question of personhood in this context has nothing to do with wavering doubts about my position. Let it be known from the onset that I am interested in personhood from a theological point of view, not biological. So the question I am pondering here is not, “Is a fetus a human?” but rather, “Is a fetus a person?” Please do not badger me on whether or not I believe in the sanctity and full humanity of the unborn. I am interested in a theological (philosophical) notion of personhood.

As my astute readers already know, the theological concept of ‘person’ owes its origin to the early discussions on the nature of the Trinity during the first four centuries of church history. The questions that emerged had to do with just exactly “what” or “who” the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are, how they relate to one another, and how can they at once be both distinct yet one. Enter the notion of “personhood.” The final analysis asserted that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God in three distinct persons – one in their divinity, three in their person-ality. The Father is the Son and Holy Spirit in every way except He is the person of the Father and not the person of the Son nor the Holy Spirit, and vice versa (2x). Using these categories to describe the nature of humanity, sin, and salvation means that humans were created for relationship, sin is the individualization (de-personalization) of humans, and salvation is the personalization of individuals. So, within this context, what can we say about fetuses? Are they persons too, or are they just individuals? Let me offer the following VERY rudimentary thoughts…

-At first I found myself wanting to say that fetuses are not persons, but rather individuals. After all, they cannot willfully relate to another, nor can they necessarily love another outside of themselves. They’re just sort of floating around in amniotic isolation. Their world is dark, relatively quiet, and generally devoid of thought or reason.

-But then I got to thinking about some things. I had to ask myself, “Isn’t there more to personhood than simply awareness, reason, or will? Does personhood hinge on these things alone? I realized that my answers to these questions fundamentally altered my whole point of view. I concluded that I absolutely believe that there is more to personhood than reason and will. I believe that personhood is just as much about relationality, life-to-life transference, and finding one’s identity in another as awareness, reason, and will. The fetal condition, then, could very well be one of beautiful personhood.

-As for relationality, does human life get more intimate (physically) than in pregnancy? Whenever else do we ever live completely in another person? When else do our lives ever fully exist in someone else who is not us? Granted, the fetus may not immediately be aware of this relationality all along the way, nor is the awareness the same as the mother who feels life growing within her. But is this not also true of our relationship to God? He is aware of us long before we are of Him, and in much more depth as well. That does not make us any less persons, does it? Therefore awareness cannot be the sole determining factor of personhood.

-The fetus is absolutely dependent on the mother for nourishment. The umbilical connection is one of supreme perichoretic significance. The persons of the Divine Family share life interpenetrably, one in the other – always connected, always sharing life, never apart. Where else in human reality (aside from sexual intercourse, perhaps) do we see this image of Divine Reality? The life of mother and child is so intricately connected that it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins, and yet never are we unable to distinguish mother from child. There is oneness and distinctiveness all at once – a beautiful picture of personhood.

-Each person of the Trinity finds their identity in the other two persons. The Father is the Father because of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the other way around. Each person’s true individuality is found in another. That, by definition, is what makes them persons. Now think about a pregnant woman. Her identity is forever changed due to the life that is in her. The fetus’ identity is bound up intricately with the mother’s (and father’s). There is no birth certificate that suggests otherwise. Once again, even though the fetus may not be able to acknowledge and ponder this reality doesn’t make it any less true or real.

-One of the most personalizing moments in redemption for a human being is when he or she comes to the realization that they are fully 100% dependent upon God. Is there is a relationship on earth any more dependent than that of mother and fetus?

But there are several objections I would like to raise at this point. For starters, doesn’t a person both receive and give? And isn’t the fetal condition one of supreme isolation?

-First let us consider the issue of receiving and giving? Is the fetus in this relationship only ever receiving, which is the essence of individualism, of a life centered solely on self? The answer, in my mind, is no. First of all, the relationship of mother to child is one of dependence (on the part of the fetus) by nature (and if you think about it, all human beings derive their “being” from God who IS Being. But that exclusively dependent relationship doesn’t diminish our personhood. Personhood is lost as persons begin to willfully become oriented around themselves, which is not the case with fetuses), so it’s not as though the fetus is somehow choosing to be centered on the self, it is only receiving life by necessity. Furthermore, it would be incorrect to assume that the fetus isn’t giving anything in return. Whether the unborn child is aware of it or not, it has much to give to it’s mother, father, and many others, in terms of joy, pleasure, pride, satisfaction, meaning, purpose, etc. Once again, awareness is not the only factor of personhood.

-And what about isolation? Is the isolation of the womb truly an isolation? Not when the fetus can hear every beat of the mother’s heart, feel every vibration of voice, experience every moment of the mother’s life from the inside-out. God does not exist in personal isolation. He has always existed as persons in communion. At no point does a fetus exist in isolation, but rather always in deep, intimate, personal communion. Dependent? Yes. Willful? Maybe not. But that doesn’t necessarily diminish personhood.

Obviously there is much more to say than this. There are other factors of true personhood that I have not mentioned. While I take the opinion that fetuses are persons, perhaps they are persons in a unique sort of way. After all, God alone is Person(al). All other personhood is derived from, images, and/or participates in the Divine Archetype. A married couple images God’s personhood in a different way than a single. The issue is whether or not we can ascribe any kind of personhood at all to the unborn, and I think the answer is a resounding YES.

(There are many other issues that spring from this discussion, not the least of which is at what point does a fetus/newborn/child become depersonalized by sin, etc. That, for the sake of simplicity, is for another day and time, as are all the many implications this topic may have for other issues.)

I know that there are probably more holes in my logic than a block of Swiss. I’m sure you could scrutinize every jot and tittle of what I have been saying. Perhaps I am wrong altogether. That is where you, my beloved reader, come in. What do you think? Have I missed anything, stressed the wrong things, said too much, not said enough? What say you? Feel free to contribute what you want. Like I said, this is a sandbox topic, at least for me. I have not worked it all out. Perhaps together we can arrive at an answer.

4 thoughts on “Is a Fetus a Person?

  1. Sean,

    This is an interesting post. I think it would be helpful if you could define the terms “human,” “individual,” and “person.” I think it’s hard to explain what personhood is unless we can understand what you mean by humanity and individuality and distinguish personhood from these terms. I found myself asking, is he using humanity simply in a biological sense, or does humanity also imply the Imago Dei? Does individuality mean anything more than a single human? Anyway, I just felt like the waters got a little muddy, and I had a hard time making clear distinctions.

    Regarding the main question “Is a Fetus a Person,” I think this is a fascinating question. I don’t know if I’m prepared to make any philosophical argument, but I’ll throw an anecdotal experience that makes me think that you may be onto something with your distinction between humans and persons. When Jill miscarried back in March, we experienced deep grief for our loss (Praise God, Jesus has really been bringing healing to us in recent months!). March was one of the worst/saddest months of my life, but the grief was considerably different than the grief aroused by the death of a loved one. Jill was just over two months pregnant, so it was very early on. On one hand, there was no physical way of relating to this baby. For example, Jill didn’t have a big belly, she couldn’t feel the baby kicking, we hadn’t had an ultrasound, etc…, but on the other hand, we knew that this baby existed and held enormous potential to be a person whom we would love deeply and who would dramatically change our lives forever. When Jill miscarried, we felt deep sorrow, but the sorrow was not the same as the sorrow we have experienced when a loved one has died. In some ways it was worse because the miscarriage brought an abrupt end our immediate hopes and desires of being parents. Yet, it did not feel like the death of a loved one because we really didn’t know the baby who died.

    I don’t write this to sound callused or flippant about early miscarriages. Believe me, we grieved deeply. I’ve just been trying to work out in my own mind why it felt so differently than other deaths I have experienced. I think that maybe your human/person distinction may be helpful. I don’t know…just a thought.

  2. Tristan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and forgive me for such a delayed response. Hopefully I can take a brief moment to clear these muddied waters by trying to make helpful distinctions between human, person, and individual.

    Whenever I used the word “human,” it was meant in a very generic sense. Human to me implies the sum total of what makes a human a human, imago dei and all. Then again, what exactly is the imago dei? How we understand God will determine how we understand His image in man. Of the various views, it is my personal opinion that the image of God in man is primarily personal relationality. God is tri-personal within His inner life. It is this relational reality that God has stamped on humanity and it is what separates us from all the rest of His creation.

    As I mentioned in my original post, the theological concept of ‘person’ owes its origin to the early discussions on the nature of the Trinity during the first four centuries of church history. Personhood is a theological category, and what it means is the fundamental question of human reality. Questions like, “who am I?”, “what am I here for?”, and “what does it mean to ‘be’?” are all person-al questions. What does it mean to be a person, not just biologically human, but a person created in God’s image?

    God is tri-person-al. We, as His image bearers, are person-al. To truly be, therefore, means to be in relationship, to be incomplete without another, to be in and for another — this is no less than what God is within Himself. To be a person is to give, receive, and share with another. It is more than biology. It is holiness in love. It is to fundamentally be oriented without oneself. If we think in these categories, then what is sin? Sin is nothing other than de-personalization. It is an individualism, the opposite of all I have said before. It is a perversion of the image. One is a ‘person’ in the context of another, whereas one is an ‘individual’ in the context of oneself. Rather than a personal, other-oriented existence lived for, defined by, and fulfilled in another, it is existence in an impersonal vacuum.

    Maybe this is still confusing because of the sweeping generalizations I am making. For that I apologize. But these are distinctions that I think are both helpful and necessary to make when we talk about God, humanity, sin, and salvation.

    Perhaps the most confusing part of all this is the original question, “Is a fetus a person?” But here’s my rationale for asking the question:

    1. I believe that human beings bear the imago dei from conception.
    2. I believe the imago dei is personal relationality.
    3. But how can a baby be a “person” if it cannot think, speak, will, etc.?

    My initial answer to this question was that a baby, though human (biologically), cannot be a person, but rather only an individual. I thought this because to me a person is one who volitionally is oriented around another, whereas an individual is oriented around the self. But I have since come to change my mind completely, and my logic is spelled out in part in my original post.

    Does that help at all? Your thoughts?

  3. Sean,

    Thanks for your response. I get the gist of what you mean by “person” based on Trinitarian theology, but I’m still a little foggy how to distinguish “person” from “individual.” In your response, you wrote:
    “If we think in these categories, then what is sin? Sin is nothing other than de-personalization. It is an individualism, the opposite of all I have said before. It is a perversion of the image. One is a ‘person’ in the context of another, whereas one is an ‘individual’ in the context of oneself. Rather than a personal, other-oriented existence lived for, defined by, and fulfilled in another, it is existence in an impersonal vacuum.”
    Am I correct in thinking that when you use the term “individual” you are using it to refer to a human who is sinful/anti-personal? If that’s what you mean by “individual,” then I think I can see your distinction. I just tend to think of “individual” in a more generic sense meaning something like “a single human being.”

    One last thought…you said, “Sin is nothing other than de-personalization.” I’m no sure I agree, but this just may be nitpicking at semantics. It seems to me that sin is not necessarily de-personal or anti-personal. What I mean by that is this: sin often appears to be others-oriented in nature. I think of the girl who really does love her boyfriend, and even though she doesn’t want to have sex with him, she sacrifices her virtue in order to give herself to him. Or, I think of the mother who deeply loves her daughter and wants what his best for her to the point that she ends up trying to sinfully control her daughter’s life. Neither of these cases seems to be de-personal sin but a type of sin that arises out of a skewed understanding of personhood and relationship with God. Both sins occur because the persons who commit them are TOO others-oriented and find their personal identity in another person rather than in God. Again, this is probably just semantics.

  4. Tristan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and reflective response.

    When I say “individual” I guess I would be referring to someone who, because of sin, exists in a condition of broken fellowship characterized by a heart curved in upon itself. Call it a “fallen” or “unredeemed” condition, but whatever you call it it is the imago dei tarnished. I believe that, in relational terms, God’s salvation is personalizing, i.e. one of communal restoration, characterized by holy self-giving love.

    Now, obviously this is a very specific usage of “individual,” just as is my usage of “person.” Obviously both words can be used in a more general sense describing a single human being, and I usually do. But for the sake of this discussion I am thinking much more in terms of individualism, it’s condition, and personhood as imago dei. Now, I also think there is room for such ideas as individuality, but true individuality comes from within the context of interpersonal relationships. For example, like I mentioned in my original post, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God. They are one in their essence, yet each is individual from the other. But it is their relationship to the other that characterizes the distinction. Within the Godhead, each person’s individuality is found in personal otherness. “Persons” therefore can only be individual within the context of personal relationships. Sinful Adam broke fellowship with God, his heart became curved inward, and the image was perverted. Consequently, all human relationships in the history of sin are characterized by the proclivity towards individualism – a heart curved inward.

    As for the second issue, let me clarify. First off, all sin is relational. I never meant to say that somehow sin isn’t an interpersonal thing. In fact, in my mind, sin is inherently an interpersonal category. There is no impersonal sin, nor is there one that does not have interpersonal consequences. What I said was that all sin is depersonalizing in that it makes us less persons. My personhood is diminished with each sinful choice I make – i.e. the image of God becomes more perverted as I acquire depravity. But never did I mean to say that sin is impersonal.

    As for the examples you brought up, I’m not quite sure how to classify those. I see what you mean by suggesting that sometimes sin results from one’s over-other-orientation towards another human being, but think about this. If I go against what I know to be God’s command just because I want what is right for that other person, then I have sinned by placing that person’s well-being above the law of God. But then again, the law of God is good and cultivates personhood, so ultimately there is no situation where sin will somehow (ultimately) benefit others. The young girl who sleeps with her boyfriend is a sinner, not because she loved her boyfriend, but because she loved her boyfriend more than God (and honestly, if she really loved her boyfriend then she would do what is best for him, and that would mean saying no to him even if he broke up with her over it). As for the mother who ends up trying to sinfully control her daughter’s life, that’s a tougher one to respond to since it is so general and lacks specificity. But the same principle applies. Never does sin somehow enhance another person’s situation, no matter how much it appears to at the time or on the surface. The only way that I can ever say that someone sinned due to an others-orientation is if that person did so without realizing it was sin — and that’s a whole other can of worms. In that case, the sin was not a willful transgression of a known law of God but rather an error of judgment. The difference between the two is the attitude or posture of the one committing the sin. The girl who knows that God commands chastity outside of marriage but sleeps with her boyfriend anyway is willfully and knowingly rebelling against God’s command. While this may appear to be due to an other-orientation toward her boyfriend, it is actually due to the lack of an other-orientation toward God. Yet if she sleeps with him in ignorance and purity of heart – which is hard to imagine could be possible, but for the sake of the discussion let’s postulate it – then her intent is not to rebel but to love. Granted, it’s wrong and her judgment is incorrect, but that is not willful sin. Wesley might call that “sin improperly so-called.” It’s like the child who makes mistakes out of a good intent. (By the way, I believe in entire sanctification, but I also believe that even the most sanctified believer sins like this every day.)

    Of course, this second issue you raised delves into the area of ethics, and there are a billion caveats and rabbit trails to chase in that discussion. I’m more interested in the ontological issues of personhood in this post. With all that said, does any of this make sense?

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