The abortion debate revolves around one seemingly key question: Is a fetus a person? Yet this is an entirely irrelevant course of inquiry because “personhood” is a manufactured, self-referential term that serves no purpose other than an exclusionary one. What should matter instead is one’s human existence.
As an artificial term that draws on nothing for meaning but its own definition, personhood may be endowed with whatever definition or limitation that present circumstance require. This is not a new concept. From Nazis to British imperialists in India and everyone in between, the powerful have always inflicted their specifically tailored theories of personhood upon those they seek to suppress as inferiors. History is littered with examples of how the meaning of “personhood” has been adapted and used as a bludgeon to deny a certain class of humans their most basic rights of life and liberty.
But why not simply deny the human quality of those one seeks to subjugate? That is, why invent and weaponize a new category altogether? Because one’s human quality is not nearly as arbitrary, volatile, or subject to convenient manipulation as one’s personhood. Membership in the human species is dependent on a unique conglomeration of scientific, moral, and rational capacities that feed into how the term “human” is defined.
This holds true on a scale that transcends the individual. For example, while sickness or deformity may diminish an individual’s faculties, such a subject still claims full membership in the human genus and species. Since humans can only be born of humans and humans can only give birth to humans, the requirement to adjudicate membership in the species on a case-by-case basis is dissolved and individuals cannot so be excluded from the human definition. As such, the very nature of human existence preempts all artificial exclusion or alteration.
Furthermore, the inviolability of the human status is due to a firm, multifaceted understanding of what it means to be a member of this unique species. But, more importantly, this understanding, unlike that of personhood, is not merely dependent on an arbitrary definition proffered by circumstance but draws on independent efforts by diverse fields to arrive at a fundamental consensus on the existence of “humanness.”
This is not necessarily to say that one can define the “human quality” in objective, or even definitive, terms. Rather, as St. Thomas Aquinas would likely maintain, the quiddity of a human is merely the intelligible knowledge of what being human entails — not knowledge by description, but by a pattern of understanding that is external to the definition itself.
One knows when one encounters a human and one knows exactly what qualifies one as a human, even if those qualifications exist in an intellectual understanding that cannot be channeled through words. There is seldom any confusion or debate as to whether one is indeed human, regardless of the unique characteristics that an individual may possess or be afflicted with.
To be sure, this does not imply unanimity on this issue. Philosophers of every era have had their own, divergent theories regarding the human condition. But the one consensus to which they could almost universally subscribe was the existence of a unique human condition that fundamentally defined what it meant to be human and positively differentiated humans from the remainder of the biosphere.
For Socrates and Plato, it was the ability to pursue the Good, however defined. Aristotle thought it was the potential to ascend to divine rationality. St. Thomas Aquinas saw humans as possessing a unique essence that was geared to seek fulfillment in God, while St. Augustine believed that character and self-examination would lead humans to higher dimensions. Descartes believed in pure rationality and method. For Kant, human rationality begot moral duty. Even Nietzsche decried, but acknowledged, the unique human consciousness that was prone to destroying itself with searches for external truth and meaning.
While there is a concrete and external definition of what it means to be a human, there is no such understanding of “personhood.” Ironically enough, it is not now, nor has it ever been, seriously doubted that the targets of “dehumanization” campaigns are human, because of the insulation from ad hoc appropriation that the term enjoys. It is, however, child’s play to abuse the parameters of a self-referential category — namely, personhood — that one has concocted for the very purpose of abuse.
Additionally, personhood is little more than a grammatical paradox: to know what it means, one requires a definition, but the only meaning of the term lies exclusively in the definition. This means that much of the meaning of “personhood” is itself erected on arbitrary premises that differ broadly from one framework to the next. Indeed, one’s definition of personhood is itself merely an arbitrary framework within whose favorable terms one wishes to conduct the debate.
To the extent that any line must be drawn on the issue of murder, it must be drawn at human existence, thus implicating abortion. Personhood is nothing but a sequence of letters whose meaning can be conveniently rented out from one dehumanization campaign to the next.