A case for an unborn person

Bonnie Willis's picture

About 15 years ago I taught an introductory psychology course at The King’s College. I will never forget a discussion I facilitated with the students during a session on Developmental Psychology.

When talking about the developmental stages of humans, I thought it would be interesting to explore the question of when human life begins, and what was the distinction between human life and personhood.

With the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and hundreds of thousands of citizens gathering at our nation’s capital to present their case for life last week, the points presented in my psychology class seem as relevant for today as it was then.

Within my psychology class we discussed five major categories whereby scholars define personhood: (1) biological, (2) self-awareness, (3) communication, (4) level of development, and (5) dependence.

Point number one was the least debated because it was understood that at the moment of conception, a fertilized egg has all the components of being human.

Point number two, self-awareness, was a bit more engaging. We reviewed how several scholars including infamous professor, Peter Singer, of Princeton University, have argued that until one becomes self-aware, he/she is not a person. Therefore, if self-awareness does not occur, one could terminate a life even weeks after he/she is born.

Point number three, communication, was surprisingly contentious because our text argued that while many species communicate, only humans have developed sophisticated languages to communicate. This assertion was hotly contested, and no one could prove or disprove whether an unborn child expressed any type of communication.

The fourth point was level of development. It was presumed an unborn child in the early stages of pregnancy was simply a glob of tissue. However, with the advent of pre-natal science, we now know that the basic elements of human life, such as the heart and limbs, are distinguishable within the first month of conception. We vigorously discussed what are, or should be, the developmental markers to assign personhood.

This point tied closely to the final point, dependence. Is there a level of dependence or independence in which a person must exist to be considered a full person?

We discussed various levels of physical dependence ranging from one who is a quadriplegic to one who is technically brain dead. We noted that while the unborn is dependent on its mother to survive, modern technology enables it to be a viable life outside its mother’s womb as early as 25 weeks old.

In our discussion, we were able to identify examples of how a living person could be either unaware, unable to communicate, be partially developed, or completely dependent upon others for existence, yet he/she was still considered a person.

Ironically, it was the ruling of Roe v. Wade that actually stipulated that states had the right to protect an unborn child once it was “viable” (i.e., able to live outside its mother’s womb). However, the Supreme Court ruling also stipulated that women had the right to terminate the pregnancy prior to its “viability” under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

Consequently, despite the philosophical, psychological, or even theological arguments concerning personhood, the single determining factor, of whether or not an unborn child receives any rights, is determined by the intention of the mother.

If a child is conceived in the womb of a mother who wishes to have him/her, he/she will receive protection. If that child is conceived in the womb of a mother, who, for any number of heartbreaking reasons, determines that he/she does not want that child, the child will not receive protection.

I know some readers will view this article as absurdly one-sided or simplistic, because I have focused on the unborn child, and have not explored the rights or plight of the mother who may choose to terminate that child.

But I have consciously done this, not because I am not concerned for such a person. Rather, I believe the “voice” of, and voices for, the unborn being aborted, needs to be heard more clearly in the debate concerning life.

Moreover, I remember being in my early twenties and thinking the last thing I wanted to be was a mother. I remember one of my girlfriends calling me, “the most un-maternal person she had ever met.” I also know how my family and friends witnessed a miracle several years later when my first child was born — she was beautiful and glorious, and I was transformed.

The truth is, arguments of legality, philosophy, and psychology only takes you so far when it comes to the issue of abortion.

The past 40 years have been a double tragedy on our nation. Not only have we had tens of millions of babies terminated before they had a chance to be born, because our laws do not consider them to be full persons. But we have also had millions of mothers suffering silently because they later realize they extinguished the hopes of a wonderful and joyous thing, a baby, a person.

I am encouraged that so many organizations and individuals, like those hundreds of thousands who participated in March for Life, continue to try to help and support the lives of the unborn and their mothers. My hope is that a time will come when women will not feel such hopelessness and fear that often comes with abortion, but they will, instead, choose life.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]