Nancy Jecker on personhood and abortion

Submitted by Kate Goldyn on
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Nancy Jecker examines defining personhood in light of the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that could strike down Roe v. Wade. If the right to an abortion is overturned by the court’s final ruling, which is expected in June 2022, it will not be the end of the abortion debate. Jecker discusses why defining personhood is so central and problematic to the debate.

In short, there are plenty of reasons to figure out what personhood requires. Doing so demands wrestling with at least three common opposing views.

The first holds that fetuses qualify as persons from the moment of conception. Supporters say that from conception on, the developing fetus has “a future like ours,” and abortion takes that future away. A variation on this theme is that at conception, a fetus has the full genetic code and therefore the potential to become a person, and this potential qualifies the fetus as a person. 

A second view regards personhood as arising at some point after conception and prior to birth. Some people reason that a human being’s moral status is not all-or-nothing, but, like human development, a matter of degree. Others say that what matters is consciousness and other cognitive capacities, thought to develop late in the second trimester. 

Finally, a third view maintains that personhood begins at birth or shortly thereafter, because this is when an infant first acquires a sense of themselves and an interest in their own continued existence. Another source of support for the third view is Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s claim that what makes human beings morally special is their rationality and capacity to be autonomous.

Read the entire article on The Conversation: “What is ‘personhood’? The ethics question that needs a closer look in abortion debates.”