The Perils of Personhood
Weiss (Roslyn)
Source: Ethics, 89, No. 1, Oct., 1978, 66-75
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s introduction

  1. In the abortion debate, one of the more overworked arguments concerns the if and when of the humanity of a fetus. For those who argue along these lines, the answer to these questions guarantees a resolution of the entire abortion issue. Thus, if the fetus is human, it must not be aborted except when the mother's life is endangered (and, for some, not even then); but if it is not human, it may be aborted under any circumstances.
  2. Despite some fine discussions taking this approach, many sense its futility, if only because each side is hopelessly deaf to the protestations of the other; each insists not merely on the correctness of its view but on its self-evidence. Inevitably, philosophers turn elsewhere for answers.
  3. One alternative is to challenge the validity of the implication, "If X is human then X may not be killed" (instead of focusing on the truth of the antecedent). This is the route traveled by Thomson. In her article, "Thomson (Judith Jarvis) - A Defense of Abortion", Thomson grants the humanity of the fetus from the moment of conception, but nevertheless rejects the view that abortion is therefore impermissible in all cases (notably in the case of rape).
  4. Another alternative, supported by Mary Anne Warren and Michael Tooley, among others, diverts our attention from such concepts as "human," "human being," and "Homo sapiens" as they apply to the fetus, and centers it instead on a new concept, "personhood1," claimed to be distinct from these others in a most crucial and decisive way. It is to this concept that I now turn, as the major concern of this paper.
  5. I intend, then, to propose and defend the following three theses:
    1. "Personhood" is the natural and logical consequence of a rights-centered approach to abortion.
    2. The implications of the "personhood" view are at times absurd and at others dangerous.
    3. Rights alone can therefore not form a solid basis for the moral issue of abortion; the importance of duties emerges.

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