The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of Questions of Personhood (and Mindedness) to the Abortion Debate
Johnson is professor of philosophy at King’s College (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) who also produces lecture series for The Teaching Company’s The Great Courses. His specializations include metaphysics, logic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion, and his “Great Courses” include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy, The Big Questions of Philosophy, and Exploring Metaphysics. Kyle has published in journals such as Sophia, Religious Studies, Think, Philo, and Science, Religion and Culture. He has also written numerous book chapters, including eleven entries in Bad Arguments: 100 of The Most Important Logical Fallacies in Western Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018). He is also the editor-in-chief of The Palgrave Handbook of Popular Culture as Philosophy (Palgrave, forthcoming), and the editor of Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019). He maintains two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take), and most of his academic work is available for free download on academia.edu.
Author: David Kyle Johnson
Title: "The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of Questions of Personhood (and Mindedness) to the Abortion Debate"
Journal: Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry
Journal Issue: Volume 1, Number 2
Date: Fall 2019
Disagreements about abortion are often assumed to reduce to disagreements about fetal personhood (and mindedness). If one believes a fetus is a person (or has a mind), then they are “pro-life.” If one believes a fetus is not a person (or is not minded), they are “pro-choice.” The issue, however, is much more complicated. Not only is it not dichotomous—most everyone believes that abortion is permissible in some circumstances (e.g. to save the mother’s life) and not others (e.g. at nine months of a planned pregnancy)—but scholars on both sides of the issue (e.g. Don Marquis and Judith Thomson) have convincingly argued that fetal personhood (and mindedness) are irrelevant to the debate. To determine the extent to which they are right, this article will define “personhood,” its relationship to mindedness, and explore what science has revealed about the mind before exploring the relevance of both to questions of abortion’s morality and legality. In general, this article does not endorse a particular answer to these questions, but the article should enhance the reader’s ability to develop their own answers in a much more informed way.
Keywords: Abortion, Personhood, Mindedness, Sapience, Sentience, Self-awareness, Pro-life, Pro-choice, Fifth Amendment, Roe v. Wade, Don Marquis, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Morality of Recreational Sex, Fetal Consciousness, Fetal Pain
More From the Author:
(footnote) David Kyle Johnson, “The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of Questions of Personhood (and Mindedness) to the Abortion Debate,” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry 1, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 121-53, https://doi.org/10.33929/sherm.2019.vol1.no2.02.
(bibliography) Johnson, David Kyle. “The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of Questions of Personhood (and Mindedness) to the Abortion Debate,” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry 1, no. 2 (Fall 2019): 121-53. https://doi.org/10.33929/sherm.2019.vol1.no2.02.
Johnson, David Kyle. “The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of Questions of Personhood (and Mindedness) to the Abortion Debate.” Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry, vol. 1, no. 2, Fall 2019, doi.org/10.33929/sherm.2019.vol1.no2.02, pp. 121-53.
Johnson, D. K. (2019). The Relevance (and Irrelevance) of Questions of Personhood (and Mindedness) to the Abortion Debate. Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry, 1(2), 121-153. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.33929/sherm.2019.vol1.no2.02.
Aaltola, Elisa. “Personhood and Animals.” Environmental Ethics 30, no. 2 (2008): 175‒93. https://doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics20083025.
Alcohol.org. “Serving Alcohol to Pregnant Women.” July 5, 2019. https://www.alcohol.org/laws/serving-alcohol-to-pregnant-women/.
Aquinas, Thomas. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. 1945. Edited by Anton C. Pegis. Reprint, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
Bourget, David, and David J. Chalmers. “What Do Philosophers Believe?” Philosophical Studies 170, no. 3 (2013): 465‒500. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11098-013-0259-7.
Brown, Warren S., Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, eds. Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998.
Brusseau, Roland. “Developmental Perspectives: Is the Fetus Conscious?” International Anesthesiology Clinics 46, no. 3 (2008): 11‒23. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/aia.0b013e318181a88e.
C., Richard. “In the Comics Did Thanos ‘Kill’ Just Sentient Beings or All Creatures with the Snap?” Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange. March 5, 2019. https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/206658/in-the-comics-did-thanos-kill-just-sentient-beings-or-all-creatures-with-the-s.
Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. Rev. ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010.
Churchland, Patricia Smith. Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind/Brain. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986.
Cullmann, Oscar. Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament. 1964. Reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Derbyshire, Stuart W. G. “Can Fetuses Feel Pain?” The BMJ 332, no. 7546 (2006): 909‒12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7546.909.
Derbyshire, Stuart W. G. “Fetal Pain.” In Prenatal and Preimplantation Diagnosis: The Burden of Choice, edited by Joann Paley Galst and Marion S. Verp, 119‒30. New York: Springer Cham, 2015. doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-18911-6_6.
Descartes, René Meditations On First Philosophy. Edited by John Cottingham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781139042895.
Goldscheider, Frances K. “Men, Children and the Future of the Family in the Third Millennium.” Futures 32, no. 6 (2000): 525‒38. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/s0016-3287(00)00005-7.
Green, Joel B., ed. What About the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2004.
Hyde, Dominic, and Diana Raffman. “Sorites Paradox.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sorites-paradox/.
Jarvis, Gavin E. “Early Embryo Mortality in Natural Human Reproduction: What the Data Say.” F1000Research 5, no. 2765 (2017). http://dx.doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.8937.2.
Jefferson, Thomas. “To the Danbury Baptist Association.” Founders Online. January 1, 1802. founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-36-02-0152-0006.
Johnson, David Kyle. “Do Souls Exist?” Think 12, no. 35 (2013): 61‒75. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s1477175613000195.
Jones, Siân, Valsamo Anagnostou, Karli Lytle, Sonya Parpart-Li, Monica Nesselbush, David R. Riley, Manish Shukla, Bryan Chesnick, Maura Kadan, Eniko Papp, Kevin G. Galens, Derek Murphy, Theresa Zhang, Lisa Kann, Mark Sausen, Samuel V. Angiuoli, Luis A. Diaz, and Victor E. Velculescu. “Personalized genomic analyses for cancer mutation discovery and interpretation.” Science Translational Medicine 7, no. 283 (April): 2015 283‒53. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.aaa7161.
Korsgaard, Christine M. The Sources of Normativity. 1996. Edited by Onora O’Neill. Reprint, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511554476.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1975. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Jones, Siân, Valsamo Anagnostou, Karli Lytle, Sonya Parpart-Li, Monica Nesselbush, David R. Riley, Manish Shukla, Bryan Chesnick, Maura Kadan, Eniko Papp, Kevin G. Galens, Derek Murphy, Theresa Zhang, Lisa Kann, Mark Sausen, Samuel V. Angiuoli, Luis A. Diaz, and Victor E. Velculescu. “Personalized Genomic Analyses for Cancer Mutation Discovery and Interpretation.” Science Translational Medicine 7, no. 283 (2015): 283ra53. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/scitranslmed.aaa7161.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. London: Whitmore and Fenn, 1821.
Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral.” The Journal of Philosophy 86, no. 4 (1989): 183‒202. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2026961.
Mavrodes, George I. “How Does God Know the Things He Knows?” In Divine and Human Action: Essays in the Metaphysics of Theism, edited by Thomas V. Morris, 345‒61. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Mann, William E., and Alvin Plantinga. “Does God Have a Nature?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 42, no. 4 (1982): 625‒30. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2107384.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Boston, MA: James R Osgood and Company, 1871. https://doi.org/10.1037/12289-000.
Murphy, Nancey. Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511802805.
O’Neil, Rick. “Intrinsic Value, Moral Standing, and Species.” Environmental Ethics 19, no. 1 (1997): 45‒52. dx.doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics199719138.
Panagopoulos, Johannes. “Ontologie oder Theologie der Person: Die Relevanz der patristischen Trinitätslehre für das Verständnis der menschlichen Person.” Kerygma und Dogma 39, no. 1 (1993): 2‒30.
Perry, John. “The Problem of Other Minds.” Philosophy Talk. May 28, 2014. https://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/problem-other-minds.
Pervolaraki, Eleftheria, Richard A. Anderson, Alan P. Benson, Barrie Hayes-Gill, Arun V. Holden, Benjamin J. R. Moore, Martyn N. Paley, and Henggui Zhang. “Antenatal Architecture and Activity of the Human Heart.” Interface Focus 3, no. 2 (2013). http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2012.0065.
Porter, Lawrence B. “On Keeping ‘Persons’ in the Trinity: A Linguistic Approach to Trinitarian Thought.” Theological Studies 41, no. 3 (1980): 530‒48. https://doi.org/10.1177/004056398004100303.
Rettner, Rachael. “Is a ‘Fetal Heartbeat’ Really a Heartbeat at 6 Weeks?” LiveScience. May 17, 2019. https://www.livescience.com/65501-fetal-heartbeat-at-6-weeks-explained.html.
Robinson, Howard. “Dualism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dualism/.
Robinson, William. “Epiphenomenalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epiphenomenalism/.
Russell, Bertrand. “Is There a God? .” In Last Philosophical Testament, 1943‒68, edited by John G. Slater and Peter Köllner. Vol. 11, The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, 542‒49. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Slade, Darren M. “The Logic of Intersubjectivity: Brian McLaren’s Philosophy of Christian Religion.” PhD diss., Liberty University, 2019.
Smart, J. J. C. “The Mind/Brain Identity Theory.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-identity/.
Smith, R. Scott. “Emergents and the Rejection of Body-Soul Dualism.” Christian Research Institute. June 21, 2011. https://www.equip.org/article/emergents-and-the-rejection-of-body-soul-dualism/.
Szentagothai, Janos. “Downward Causation?” Annual Review of Neuroscience 7, no. 1 (1984): 1‒11. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ne.07.030184.000245.
Taylor, Angus. “Animal Rights and Human Needs.” Environmental Ethics 18, no. 3 (1996): 249‒64. http://dx.doi.org/10.5840/enviroethics199618316.
Teichman, Jenny. “The Definition of Person.” Philosophy 60, no. 232 (1985): 175‒85. https://doi.org/10.1017/S003181910005107X.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” In Biomedical Ethics and the Law. 1976, edited by James M. Humber and Robert F. Almeder. Reprint, 39‒54. New York: Plenum Press, 1977. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4684-2223-8_5.