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The Problem of Personhood

In this episode Trent considers pro-life objections to focusing on the personhood of the unborn and critiques pro-choice arguments against unborn personhood.

Welcome to the Council of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic answers.

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Totally true, even though the guy who wrote that, Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel, was super pro choice. His wife hates when pro lifers use that line and protests and other things like that, but it doesn’t take it away from being true. A person’s a person, no matter how small. But now we have to wonder, is person a term that applies to all? See, Dr. Seuss, anybody can do this rhyming stuff.

Welcome to the Council of Trent podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answers apologist and speaker Trent Horn. And today I want to talk about the problem of personhood. But before I do that, I want to let you know, big shout out and thanks to our subscribers at You are the people, the persons, who make the podcast possible, I will say. I love giving you access to sneak peaks of my upcoming books.

Hopefully soon, I’ll get some sneak peeks. I’ve done the audio book for Can A Catholic Be A Socialist. I’m currently recording the audio book for Counterfeit Christ. So, that’ll be my next audio book out there. We’ll have sneak peeks of that, coming up for you on the podcast. I will be doing an open mailbag episode here soon, where you get to submit questions for me to answer on air. If you want access to all that and more, be sure to go to, become a subscriber. You’re going to like the way you subscribe. I guarantee it. What was that the men’s warehouse guy.

So let’s talk then about the topic for today’s show: the problem of personhood. Now I’ve been doing pro-life apologetics for a very long time, since I was 18 years old. So, if I had to look back, then pretty soon I’ll have been doing pro-life apologetics for the past 20 years. I mean, that’s what I was doing even before I was engaged in Catholic apologetics. I was debating abortion with people. I was befriended by the president of the state Right to Life organization here in Arizona.

Funny story, how that happened. I got into a lot of the pro life stuff because his daughter asked me to take her to her prom, because she went to a tiny Catholic high school, only about like 20 students in the entire high school. There was one year, there was a guy who was valedictorian, and we went to the graduation ceremony. There was only one guy graduating. It was a tiny Catholic high school.

And it’s like, yeah, he was valedictorian and student body president, senior class president, valedictorian, homecoming King. Sure must be great if you’re the only person in the 12th grade, in senior year.

So, everyone in this school decided to bring somebody else who didn’t go there. And so she invited me, and so then I went and I had the obligatory go and meet the father moment and have my wits totally scared out of me. Which is fine because I met him, and then he chaperoned us and took us down to Beefeaters I think Beefeaters in Phoenix. And we went and did all that.

And it’s so funny, whenever I tell this story, people are always like, “Is that where you met Laura?” I’m like, “No, no, it’s not.” But she was a nice woman. I still know her. And a lot of the people from the church where I went to, to this day. But I met her father, who was the president of the state Right To Life organization, and he helped me grow in my pro-life abilities.

I remember speaking with other pro lifers about these different issues, and I was creating this leadership document. It was a training manual to teach people how to be pro-life, and I designed it in a really crummy way on Microsoft word. I had all the text boxes wrong and it looked super cheesy, but I did the best that I could. And I had one of the other pro-life advocates, an older pro-life advocate in our state Right To Life organization, review it, for peer review to see if I was on the right track.

And this guy was pretty old school. And he said, “Trent, don’t talk about all this personhood stuff. Persons, that’s just a way to confuse the issue. Look, it’s a human being. It’s a baby. You don’t kill babies. That’s the end of the story. You don’t need all this person stuff. It’s just distracting the issue.”

And you know what? I’m sympathetic to that view that older gentlemen in the Right To Life organization shared with me, that when I hear people on [inaudible 00:04:12] say, “Oh, well, the fetus is not a person,” I want to ask them, “Well, what is a person?”

It sounds like this term, you’re coming up with, saying that some human beings are not persons. I feel like you’re just coming up with this term specifically to disqualify people. So, at first, I would say, yeah, I am kind of suspicious of it. What do you mean some human beings aren’t persons? Because when you look throughout history, as people have been disqualified and mistreated and oppressed or murdered, executed, persecuted, it’s been done so under the guise of saying that they’re not really persons.

There’s a wonderful scene, a movie you have to see. It will make you cry, like no other film, but it’s called The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. I’ve talked about it before. And it’s a film. It’s about a young boy who’s eight-years-old. I think his name’s Bruno, and his family relocates to live outside of a concentration camp where his dad works as a commander. And he befriends a boy at the perimeter fence of the camp named Shmuel. And so, although I think there’s a ton of stuff, obviously, that is historically inaccurate. I don’t think Shmuel would have been allowed to be anywhere near the fence of the camp, lest he be shot by the guards. So, there’s a lot of stuff that would be historically inaccurate. And it’s important to be historically accurate when, especially something like the Holocaust.

And remember, for people who deny the Holocaust or the traditional accepted historical facts related to it, go back a few free for all Fridays. I have an episode a few weeks ago on what is Holocaust denial and how to refute it. So, be sure to go and check that out.

So, the films about how Bruno moves there, he befriends Shmuel. He doesn’t understand what the camp is about. He thinks the camp is a farm and everyone’s dressed in pajamas. Their uniforms are pajamas. And he goes and he talks to his dad about it, and he’s trying to understand it. And his dad says something very sinister and revealing about the Nazi justification for the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. So, here’s their exchange.

Home is where the family is. Isn’t that right? Bruno, you have to at least give the place a chance. I promise you, it won’t be long before you’ll-

Why do the farmers wear pajamas? I can see them from my window.

So, at first he says that little question. “Why do the farmers wear pajamas?” And his father thinks, “What the heck is he talking about farmers?” And then he looks out the window and you can see him lower his head, like, “Oh, how do I explain this to him, what’s going on?”

The thing is Bruno, those people, you see, they’re not really people at all.

And then the wife comes in and they’re interrupted, but it’s that line. That’s the one line to the movie that stuck out to me, even all these years later. “Well, you see, those people,” and so casual how it’s delivered, but it’s so jarringly offensive and absurd yet. It was just commonplace for people there at that time. Well, these people, they’re not really people.”

And this is, of course, it’s not just Germany. You go to the United States during the time of slavery. In Mark, Twain’s novel, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, there is a scene. I think it’s Huck Finn. There’s a scene where they’re talking. I think Tom Sawyer is there, so it was maybe earlier on in the book. They’re talking to Aunt Polly and they talk about how a steamboat exploded. Aunt Polly asked, “Did anybody get hurt?” And they said, “Oh no, nobody got hurt. Nobody got killed. Just a few Negroes.” And Aunt Polly says, “Oh good. I’d be worried if somebody got killed.”

And so there, it’s like, “Oh, well African Americans, they’re people, but they’re not really people.” So, I understand the problem with this kind of mindset. I almost want to say, “Yeah, we should just get rid of the term person. Let’s just say it’s just humans. If you’re a human being, you have a right to life. That’s the end of the story.”

But from a philosophical standpoint, I know that the term person is a valid category to be able to deploy. We have to determine what this word means. For example, in her 1973, article on the moral and legal status of abortion, the philosopher, Maryann Warren, attacks the idea that the unborn have a right to life, just because they’re human.

She says being human can’t be what gives you a right to life because she could imagine giving the right to life to a nonhuman individual. And so she writes this in her article, “Imagine a space traveler who lands on an unknown planet and encounters a race of beings utterly unlike any he has ever seen or heard of. If he wants to be sure of behaving morally towards these beings, he has to somehow decide whether they are people, and hence have full moral rights. Or whether they are the sort of thing, which you need not feel guilty about treating as, for example, a source of food. How should he go about making this decision?”

Warren goes on to say that the space traveler would probably look for at least one of five criteria consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, and communication about an indefinite number of topics, or self-awareness. So, the space traveler, if he sees something strange on this planet, he needs to know, is this a person I should respect, or is it a non-person? Either a plant or an animal that I could use for food, for clothing, for things like that, because maybe it’s not human.”

And so I’ll bring this up to a more, not down to earth, more one all you’re familiar with in popular culture, comic books. I mean, think about Superman. Is it wrong for Lex Luthor to kill Superman? Most will say, “Well, yeah, of course it’s wrong.” But guess what? Superman is not human. He looks human, for sure. That’s a wonderful coincidence in the comic books, but Superman is not human. He is Kryptonian, so he’s not a human being, but everyone agrees that Superman is a person. It’s wrong for Lex Luther to try to kill Superman.

And so that means that person and human are not identical terms. I once gave this as a pro-life lecture, and an older man in the audience said, “But that’s just a comic book. Superman’s not real. Aliens aren’t real. Why do you keep bringing this up?”

So I said to him, “Well, let me give you an example. You, as a Christian.” This was at a Catholic church. I said, “As a Catholic, let me give you an example of a nonhuman person: angels. The catechism says the existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that sacred scripture usually calls angels is a truth of the faith. The witness of scripture is as clear as the unanimity of tradition. That’s paragraph three, 28 of the catechism. It says that angels, what are angels? Angels are intellects or what we might call persons that do not have physical bodies.

The Trinity would be another example of non-human persons, though we use the term person in an analogous way to talk about how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons within the one Godhead. So, the Trinity have nonhuman persons and a loose term. Now, you can use the term person to refer to angels and humans in the same way. So, the term person is a useful term that we have to define is pro-life advocates. We can’t just get away from that. We have to be able to define it.

So, how do we define persons? How do we come up with a proper definition? Well, I like the definition it’s rooted in the work of the philosopher Boethius. He was a fifth century Catholic philosopher, and he said that person is an individual substance with a rational nature. So, an individual being that maintains its identity over time, that has a rational nature.

So, being a person refers not to what you are able to do right now, but to the kind of being you are. Now, I remember once I was watching a debate on abortion, and the pro choice advocate was very smooth. He came up with and asked the pro-life advocate, “Why is abortion wrong?” Pro-life advocate says, “Because it’s wrong to kill human beings.” And the pro choicer put up a slide with pictures of Superman and Yoda and Bigfoot and aliens. Well, Harry and the Hendersons’ Bigfoot, I think, but all these non-human persons from fiction. And he said, “Well, what about these? Are these persons? Would it be wrong to kill them?” And the pro-lifer just didn’t have an answer to that.

But I have an answer. Yeah, a person is an individual. Here’s how I would define it based on Boethius, the definition I use. A person is an individual member of a rational kind. That’s what a person is. So, you and I are persons. Angels are persons. They are individual members of the angelic kind. Aliens, if they have rational abilities, they would be a person.

So, Superman is a Kryptonian. He belongs to the Kryptonian kind. He is a person. The guy in the debate, he had a picture of Yoda up there, a person I am. So, is Yoda a person? Yeah, he is a person. But guess what? Under my definition, it’s not about whether you can function as a person at the present moment, but it’s that you have a person-like nature, or you have a rational nature. So, Superman and Yoda would be persons under this definition, an individual member of irrational kind, but so would baby Superman, baby Kallel when he’s put in his little spacecraft and sent off to Earth.

Which by the way, I saw the DC AU, the DC animated universe, has a wonderful film based on a Superman comic called Superman Red Sun. I highly recommend it if you want to check out a cool DC animated film. It’s an adaptation of a comic book that imagines what would have happened if Superman’s rocket, when he was a little baby, instead of crashing in Kansas, what if it had crashed in the Soviet Union, and then Superman grew up to be like the Soviet Superman? So, check it out.

So baby Kallel would be a person, even though he’s Kryptonian. Baby Yoda, which he’s called The Child. It’s not supposed to be Baby Yoda. But in the Mandalorian on Disney+, Baby Yoda is a person, even though a talk he cannot like full-grown Yoda can. So, this term person applies. And guess what? If it applies to all these individuals of kinds, it would also apply to unborn Kallel, unborn Yoda, and unborn human beings because they’re individual members of a rational kind.

And I appreciate philosophers. A lot of philosophers see, if we link personhood to rational abilities, then we have to either include the unborn or exclude infants, because there’s not really that much of a difference between the rational abilities of a third trimester fetus and of a newborn baby. Peter Singer writes this. He says, “Pro-life groups are right about one thing. The location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make such a crucial, moral difference. We cannot coherently hold that it is all right to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born, everything must be done to keep it alive.”

So, right now, Singer sounds like your regular advocate. But here’s where the switch comes. He says, “The solution, however, is not to accept the pro life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite, to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth.”

Now, this is a dangerous track to go down, to say, “Well, maybe all human life is not equal because we’re really committed to human equality. In fact, another bioethicist who supports legal abortion, Jeff McMahon, he wrote an article in 2008 in the Journal of Ethics called “Challenges to Human Equality,” and he says that this idea that Singer proposes, that we’re not all equal, that our value comes from what we do, from our functional abilities. McMahon is really worried because if our value comes from an unequal property, like our intelligence or cognitive abilities, then human rights become unequal as a result.

Because if you ground what makes us valuable in something that is not equal among us, if you ground it in something equal, like our human nature, then you have a reason to say all human beings are equally valuable, or have an equal intrinsic dignity. But if you ground it in something unequal, for example, you say what makes us valuable as human beings is our IQ scores. Well, guess what? That means higher IQs are more valuable than lower IQs.

So here’s how McMahon puts it. “All this leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. It seems virtually unthinkable to abandon our egalitarian commitments, or even to accept that they might be justified only in some indirect way.” So, he goes on to say, “Oh, well, we have to say we’re all equal because it’s a useful fiction.”

Well, that’s not good when we can come out and say, “Oh well, it’s fictional, so nevermind. We don’t have to treat each other as equals.” And he ends his quote by saying, “It is hard to avoid the sense that our egalitarian commitments, our commitments to human equality, rests on distressingly insecure foundations.”

And some thinkers are willing to say, “You know what? We just got to get rid of the foundations and just accept that we are unequal, and that may be some human beings are not really persons, not just the unborn, but even infants. So it starting in academia. You have Singer.

You have Jacob Appel, who is a prominent bioethicist. And here is an argument he gave in 2012 video on Big Think. The video is called The Case For Permitting Abortion Until Birth. But he says, you can have abortion until birth because, technically speaking, you could even have infanticide after that. Here’s what he says.

As a society today and bioethicists particularly, have largely focused on the question of when life begins. I am fairly radical in my views, in the sense that I would permit abortion up to the point of birth. I think that the arbitrary distinction that fetuses acquire personhood at a certain point is simply to gray an area, a too uncertain premise to enforce in law. The example I always use, and it’s somewhat trivial, but at the same time, evinces the question. “Well,” I think. “Is small children making jello.”

Okay. So before we get to the jello example, the point here is that Apple really does believe that you’re not a person even after you’re born. So, where he draws the line in human development to say person, non-person, you can kill, you can not kill. He draws it at birth just for practicality, because he doesn’t really know exactly when we become persons. And hence this jello example he’s about to give.

If you have a small child making jello, they put the colored water in the refrigerator, they run away. They come back 30 seconds later. They put their finger in the jello. Is it colored water, or is it jello? And they do this over and over again until suddenly, miraculously, it becomes jello. The development of a fetus operates the same way. Birth is an easy guideline. The truth is, since I believe that sentience and talking…

Okay, well, so here he’s creating the continuum fallacy, trying to say, “Oh, well, we can’t pick a point along this continuum. So we have to just pick an arbitrary point.” You could do the same thing with when does blue become green, for example. There’s going to be a fuzzy middle where you can’t be sure, but you can know what blue is and you can know what green is.

So, he says, “Well, we can just pick birth. We know when somebody is born.” But even here, you have a continuum fallacy because birth is a process. So, when is it not a person? Is it when the toe comes out? Is it when the leg is out of the birth canal? Is the baby a person if their head remains in the birth canal?

People used to say, “Well, yeah, they’re not a person because you can do partial birth abortion, AKA the dilation and extraction procedure invented by the abortionist Martin Haskell, you deliver the baby up to the head, and then you, you sever the spinal cord and evacuate the cranial contents. Ugh. Gosh, I can’t believe we live in a time and place where this happens and people are so morally senseless they can’t be outraged by this.

I mean, thankfully, most people are against late term abortions, but if they find out being opposed to late term abortions can logically lead to them losing access to early term abortions, then they’re willing to sacrifice the babies they normally would have said it’s barbaric to kill in this way, where you evacuate cranial contents, AKA suck the brain out of the skull.

You do the best you can. And my advice to you, by the way, when we deal with pro-life stuff and abortion stuff, take time for mental health days. Especially if you’re doing pro-life stuff on a regular basis, you’re praying in the abortion facility, you’re running a pro life group. You’re doing volunteer work.

This is a weird, bizarre, pathologically insane things we have to deal with and it takes a toll on the human psyche. So reserve for yourself, mental health days. Take a break from doing pro-life work to keep your own consciousness in check and make sure that you’re spiritually well taken care of to do this important work, to fight such a grim and an awful evil.

So, Appel takes birth as just a practical dividing point. But even there, you can’t take it because you’ll say, “Well, birth is a continual process. Prior to the Supreme court’s ban on partial birth abortion, you could kill a baby while its head still remained in the mother’s body. So, he’s contradicting himself, even with this example, but then it gets more shocking as he goes on.

Cognition or consciousness to find life. There probably are infants in the first few days of life who don’t really have cognition, who don’t have the sentience. But for a practical, realistic way of running the world, we couldn’t live in a world where we euthanized them or allowed infanticide.

That being said, I would also add, as a bioethicist, I have written extensively on treating infanticide, and particularly mothers with postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, as distinct from other murderers and other criminals. I think we should grant great latitude to women who kill or euthanize their infants at birth and treat them with kindness, as someone’s difference from an illness.

And so what I am thankful, at least, in this episode. I mean, that was 2012, but I mean, it’s [inaudible 00:21:29] people can still vote on it. It has 38 positive votes and 100 downvotes. So, unlike most Big Think videos, it has a significant number of downvotes. So, it’s nice to see most people see no, we should not. I mean, obviously we should be aware and cognizant of mental illness, regardless of who the victim is, whether it is an infant or not. If someone has mental illness, we hold them according to that standard.

But we shouldn’t use kid gloves for someone that kills kids. We should treat their psychological state as it is, but the lives of children are valuable, regardless of how old they are or how young they are.

Finally, what I want to look at, then, is this idea that personhood is related to cognition, sentience, our ability to think. I want to examine some videos from Nathan Nobis. Nathan Nobis is a philosopher who has addressed this issue on the tears of pro choice philosophers. The best one out there is David Boonen. Nobis would be someone who is up there as well. Someone who has at least seriously engaged the literature.

A lot of pro choice thinkers out there don’t even bother to engage the best thinkers on the subject like Francis Beckwith, Chris Keis or Patrick Lee, Robert George. They don’t engage in any of that stuff. Nobis has at least engaged in some of these arguments and runs a reply to show why he says that the prolife view of personhood doesn’t work. So, I’m going to play a clip here from a series he does on YouTube, where he tries to make an argument saying that we should be skeptical of the idea that all human beings are persons in virtue of the kind of being they are. So, here’s what he says.

So, and then the claim of course, is that if something has a rational human nature, then it’s [inaudible 00:23:06] wrong to kill that being. So, this is a pretty abstract sort of argument. And I guess it seems true that you could say that the being on the top right of the picture has a rational human nature. Maybe that seems plausible.

But some people argue that premise two is pretty abstract and maybe kind of doubtful. Consider somebody in a permanent coma. Do they have a rational human nature? Either yes or no, but at least many of us think that it could at least be okay to let somebody die in a coma, permanent coma. But they have a rational human nature, then that would be wrong according to the second premise.

We could also think about babies born without brains, anacephalic babies. They’re missing most of their brains. Do they have a human nature? Because again, many people think it would be okay to let them die, even with we can keep them alive a little longer.

So, the problem here with Nobis’s objection is what he’s saying is, “Well, how can you say that something with a human nature is a person? Does it have a human nature? Does that apply to all human beings? If you’re just a member of the human species, do you have a human nature?”

And he brings two examples of say, maybe not all human beings have a human nature, and so they’re valuable. He picks anencephalic infants, infants who, in the process of development in the womb, do not develop an upper brain, and will die either during pregnancy or shortly after birth, and people who are in irreversible comas. Do they have a human nature?

And so he says maybe they don’t have human natures because nearly everyone agrees it would be okay to allow someone in a near reversible coma to die or to allow an anencephalic infant to die.

But here Nobis is confusing refusing to provide disproportionate care to someone with direct killing. Because I would say that an anencephalic infant, their developmental defect that is going to bring about the end of their life. That is on par with maybe let’s say you had a three year old who had a bacterial infection that ate away at their brain or tragically got a hold of their dad’s firearm handgun, and shot the top of their head off.

In that case, what most people would say is that we would provide painkillers to ease this child’s pain, but we would understand that we wouldn’t provide overly unnecessary kinds of medical care because the prognosis for the child is grim, it would be futile. It would just be prolonging existence. It would be avoiding the inevitable fact of death instead of choosing to kill someone who was alive.

So, these objection, both of the anencephalic infant and someone who’s an irreversible comatose state, we should still provide them with the most basic care you give a human being, like shelter, heat, comfort, food, water. But other things like a heart lung machine, for example, or other kinds of technologies that may be expensive or physically burdensome or emotionally burdensome, we aren’t obligated to give those to people. They are people.

The other thing that Nobis misses out on here is that we determine if a kind of being is a person based on the capacities that they will have. So, we would say, for example, that a human being in an irreversible coma and anencephalic infant, or even just a severely disabled human being, the fact that they will never engage in rational thought is a tragedy. Why is it a tragedy for that being? Because they are the kind of being who ought to engage in those behaviors. Whereas it’s not a tragedy if a cat never learns to talk, except for that cat on a Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I never remember his name. Or any other kind of animal, a dog or a horse. Mr. Ed, Wilbur.

It’s not a tragedy that horses and cats and dogs are never able to engage in rational thought or speak because it’s not in their nature, but it is in the nature of human beings and all human beings equally share in this nature, and so that means all human beings ought to be equally protected. All human beings are persons because remember what our definition of a person is. A person is an individual member of a rational kind. So, whether you are a human, unborn or born, whether you’re an angelic person, an extra terrestrial person, you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and virtue, not of what you are currently able to do, but in virtue of just what you are.

So hope this helpful for you all. If you want to go deeper into this subject, the resource I would recommend would be my book Persuasive Pro-life. I also cover this in my course at I have a course there called Evidence for Catholic Moral Teaching that has several lessons on the issue of abortion. So, you’ll definitely want to go and check that out.

And if you’re on my Twitter page, by the way, go and click on the link there on the pinned post so you can register and get your pass to the Love Life Conference, where I’m going to be presenting a new talk, Finding Jesus at LGBT Pride Parades. Along with other great talks from the Everts, Madden Cameron Chris Stefanic, that you’re not going to want to miss it. So check that all out. But you want to go deeper into the subject, check out my book persuasive pro-life. So thank you all so much and I hope you have a very blessed day.

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