A person's a person, no matter how small
As in the previous post where i briefly discussed the definition of marriage, i turn now to the definition of persons. Not just the nominal definition where we decide to use the utterance "person" to mean a certain thing, but beyond that to a real or explanatory definition, to discovering what is the essence of the underlying reality.
In his book Healing the Culture, Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D. moves through the 4 levels of definition, from the nominal, subjective definition to the objective explanation: what the subject is, what it does, and what is its final end or purpose. So, what is a person? What distinctive characteristics does a person possess? I cannot do justice to Dr. Spitzer's thorough analysis in one little blog post (i really recommend reading the book), but a brief summary would involve recognizing the inherent capacity for the transcendental: that persons alone have the drive and the ability to appreciate things like eternity, truth, love, goodness, beauty, etc. The religious perspective would call this the spiritual dimension of our nature.
Well, what of someone who doesn't appear to possess this dimensionality? Should such a one no longer be considered a person? Is a severely mentally handicapped individual not a person? What about someone in a persistent coma? For that matter, what of someone who is drunk? Or asleep? Turns out that the discovery of inherent powers also involves the recognition that these powers may not always be manifest, due to external or internal conditions, but that the underlying potential must still be acknowledged. Else we would end up with the silly notion that someone's inherent personhood could be turned off and on like a faucet, or was dependent upon accidental conditions.
OK, so when does a person become a person? Glad you asked. This may be one of the least ambiguous questions, since we have the biological evidence to support what our theology has taught us all along: that the new person begins to exist at the moment of conception, when all of the potential powers first come into existence. Yep, that little muffin in the oven is not just a blob of tissue, but a real person.
The quite simple yet undeniably reasonable conclusion to all this is this: that every being of human origin should be considered a person.
Even were we to entertain questions about this conclusion, we would do well to err on the side of caution, and assume personhood rather than deny it. History demonstrates the bleak alternative: Hitler doubted the inherent potential of non-Aryans. The Dred Scott decision questioned the full personhood of black slaves. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, repeatedly expressed doubt over the worthiness of the "inferior races". And on and on.
The ramifications are clear. Since the pre-born baby and the comatose patient are persons, let's see them as Whos and not merely whats.