On personhood

By Chris Reilly

“Personhood” is a concept that has been around for awhile in the pro-life community. Unfortunately, it has not yet achieved recognition as a legitimate, strategic way of communicating the humanity of the baby within the movement or with the general public. It deserves to do so.

Personhood is, quite simply, as the dictionary says, “the state or condition of being a person.” If you are a person, then you have personhood.

The basis of personhood is the fundamental truth that all human beings deserve equal status as individual persons, regardless of their age, stage of development, health, function, or condition of dependency. 

For much of our society, however, the inclusion of preborn babies, disabled individuals, and the fragile elderly in the category of persons is a severe strain on their mental frameworks. Powerful self-interests—whether personal lifestyle, individual “rights,” or financial concerns—tug hard at individuals who are confronted with perceived sacrifice in protecting the most vulnerable humans. Our society constantly hammers home the idea that individual lifestyle and “rights” are sacred. This makes it even more difficult for many individuals to embrace concepts that seem to interfere with their happiness.

The concept of personhood, then, is exactly what is missing from the pro-abortion and anti-life society. Our inability to express and market the concept of personhood is a fundamental failure of the pro-life movement.

So how do we communicate the concepts of the person and personhood? The core of being a person is a process of continuous and integrated development that includes physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual characteristics. All of these processes are essential, and all of these develop from the moment of creation until they reach their climax at the moment of death. Personhood is dynamic—not a snapshot or selection of some particular stages of development.

Our emphasis should be on drilling into societal consciousness the facts of dynamic physical, mental, and emotional development at both ends of the life process (e.g., a baby’s heart begins to beat within 18-24 days). This is nothing new, but we should be creative in repeating these messages in ways that gain attention. Personhood should always be referred to as a continuous, integrated process. As we chip away at the artificial markers that separate the earliest and latest events in these processes, we will expand society’s practical definition of a person.

The spiritual process of development poses specific marketing difficulties and opportunities. On the one hand, our secular society—and even much of the pro-life movement—is tone-deaf to and resentful of arguments based in theological truth. On the other hand, there is no more direct path to the truth of personhood than by acceptance of God and the human soul. The key here is to segment our audience by its ability and receptiveness to spiritual concepts and language, then develop messages to suit each segment.

Personhood is a deep, profound, and often awkwardly expressed concept. All the more reason to buckle down, do the hard work, and make it the centerpiece of our communications.  

Chris Reilly is director of development at American Life League and has a forthcoming book on eugenics.