Toward a Feminist Concept of Personhood
The doctrine of fetal personhood is morally offensive from a feminist, socialist, and humanist standpoint because what makes human life distinct is its capacity for consciousness and sociability. To reduce it to genetics, to equate Holocaust victims with aborted fetuses, is to demean human life and the moral value of consciousness. It is, moreover, to demean pregnant women, who are treated in this perspective as the physical vessels for genetic messages rather than responsible moral agents. Motherhood in this sense becomes, not a socially determined relationship, but a physiological function, a "fact of life." At the same time, "right-to-life" ideology equates pregnancy with motherhood as it has been defined in modern Western patriarchal culture—as a moral and social duty. Although pregnant nulliparous women do not usually regard themselves as "mothers," since in their experience there is no "child" with whom they have a relationship, this doctrine tells them they should become instantaneously "motherly" from the moment of conception.
Reducing motherhood to a passive biological state is a way of dehumanizing it, stripping it of dependence on women’s consciousness. Oddly enough, however, imposing an absolute maternal duty on pregnant women induces the same deadening passivity. Biological determinism and moral absolutism arrive at the same end. The antiabortionists’ charge that women who get abortions are invariably "selfish" and "irresponsible" insults not only women as moral agents but motherhood as a human practice and a conscious, demanding activity. By insisting that the abortion question has only one answer, the "right-to-life" position denies the role of human will and judgment in moral decision making, particularly in decision making about childbirth and sex. It thus denies the full human personhood of women.
What is necessary to personhood, it would seem, is personality—the existence of a self, which implies a psychological and a social component beyond mere biological integrity or vitalism, involving some degree of self-awareness in relation to others. What it means to be human involves an irreducible social or relational basis without which the very concept of humanity, or persons as actual or developing moral beings, makes no sense. Now, a difficulty we run into here is the tendency of liberal moral philosophers, following in the classical and particularly Kantian tradition, to associate personhood with attributes of developed human beings—not only "consciousness" but "reasoning," "self-motivated activity," even the ability to "judge between right and wrong."52 One problem with this rationalist-individualist concept of personhood, as I suggested earlier, was always its use in the interests of a ruling elite to exclude those considered insufficiently "rational" or "motivated" or "civilized" from the civic or even the moral community: slaves, women, children, the colonized. In this respect, the concerns of some of those who oppose abortion contain a decent, though I believe mistaken, moral impulse. They are concerns shared by many liberals, especially Catholics, who disapprove of abortion, although they do not identify with the conservative politics of the organized "prolife" movement. That impulse is (1) to affirm the Kantian principle of a "person" as one who is a being in and for herself, an end rather than a means; and (2) to deny that this involves a set of intellectual or cognitive prerequisites that would exclude or disqualify a whole range of human beings considered "inferior" or "unfit." These are concerns meant to appeal, not unreasonably, to leftists and especially feminists, sensitive to the political consequences (for women, for blacks) of a "moral" tradition that elevates mind and reason and denigrates the body.53 Antiabortionists frequently raise the prospect of a "slippery slope" (always a polemical device) that leads from fetuses to "euthanasia" among the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, the elderly, and so on. More persuasive perhaps is their argument that the classical definition of personhood leaves no way to distinguish between infants and fetuses and therefore would allow infanticide:
If to be human means to be a person, to be a self-conscious subject of experience, or if it means to be rational, this state of affairs does not come to pass until a long while after the birth of a baby. A human infant acquires its personhood and self-conscious subjective identity through "Thou-I" encounters with other selves; and a child acquires essential rationality even more laboriously. If life must be human in these senses before it has any sanctity and respect or rights due it, infanticide would seem to be justified under any number of conditions.54
What concept of personhood would avoid biological reductionism yet include newborn babies, as well as allowing for the developmental variations in the fetus at different stages; that is, would accord with the common-sense notions about who has a "right to life" and who does not that most people in fact apply in everyday life? While there are practical historical reasons why infanticide has mostly fallen into disuse (not the least of which is access to legal birth control and abortion!), there is a coherent philosophical explanation for why most people treat babies differently from fetuses, and late fetuses differently from early ones. This explanation lies in a theory of personhood whose elements are humanist, socialist, and feminist.
The Kantian principle of treating persons as ends in themselves, with intrinsic value, is an elegant version of the bourgeois myth of atomized individuals; it disregards that the necessary premise for such persons to exist is the prior human world of interrelationships, interdependence— in short, of social life. Philosophers of diverse persuasions have understood that the preformed, self-sufficient monad—of which the fetus as person is a vulgarization—is not only philosophically but socially (and biologically) implausible. The Catholic humanist Jacques Maritain presents a concept of the person that is insistent in its emphasis on not only spirituality but sociability: "The person is a whole, but it is not a closed whole, it is an open whole. … It tends by its very nature to social life and to communion. . . demands an entrance into relationship with other persons. To state it rigorously, the person cannot be alone."55 The Marxist humanist Agnes Heller clarifies the necessary interrelationship or "synthesis" between "self-consciousness," or "I-consciousness," and consciousness of being part of a larger whole, a "species-being" in Marx’s sense: "The Individual is a person who ‘synthesises’ in himself the chance uniqueness of his individuality with the universal generality of the species," who has a consciousness not only of himself/herself as an end but of "his (her) world. Every person forms his world and thus himself too."56 "Personhood" or "humanism" in this view is not static, not a set of physical or even intellectual "properties"; rather, it is a process, a continual coming to consciousness. We become humanized, in a never-ending development that involves, as consciousness, rational and "moral" faculties but, more primally, feelings, sensations, the body—and always in a context of relationship with others. It is this relationship, this interdependence, that humanizes us; the particular physical, verbal, or intellectual mode of relating is secondary. Seen from this perspective of humanization as a continual process of "movement toward liberation"57 or greater consciousness, personhood must inevitably involve some differences of degree. Moral philosophy cannot avoid distinguishing "between the human and the ‘truly human/ "58 as for example when we speak of the "inhumanity of man." More important, this theoretical perspective on personhood may help us to formulate a more precise philosophical approach to the meaning of fetuses and infants at different stages of development than either the "right-to-life" or the rationalist-individualist position allows.
We begin to see, then, why antiabortionists jump so easily between two apparently contradictory positions—the "ensoulment" argument (that the fetus has a perfectly independent soul from the moment of conception) and the "genetic package" argument (that all we are and can be is perfectly contained in our DNA). Both arguments rest on the false premise of totally isolated, self-sufficient individuals connected only to God or their own biochemical structure. Both explicitly reject any social conception of human beings or humanness; any other person, including the biological mother, becomes inconsequential. But the idea of "persons" as self-contained atoms is a fallacy at any stage of human development and certainly at its inception. Without consciousness, awareness of others, or ability to communicate its needs, the fetus cannot be a being "in and for itself" (a person); it is less so even than a mature animal. Its identity as a "human life" is thus all the more inevitably endowed or bound up with contextual meanings; it is the social context and the value placed on the fetus by those immediately concerned in its care that determine to a large extent its value in the world and even its rights.
Nothing could illustrate more clearly the fallacy in "right-to-life" thinking about personhood than the frequently voiced claim that the fetus exhibits "sensitivity to pain" and therefore should be recognized as human. This is equivalent to saying that the fetus "feels bad" when we abort it, which is absurd, since we do not know, nor can we know, what the fetus "feels." Pain as a concept refers only to subjective feelings, not to biological responses that can be measured; sensitivity to touch and reflex actions, on the other hand, can be found in plants and have little to do with pain. It is precisely because the fetus is not a subjectivity and therefore cannot take cognizance of or communicate its "bad" feelings that we cannot recognize it as a person. We can only recognize its value in a context of relationships with others, defined by their subjectivity. For loving "expectant parents," an unwanted abortion is an event occasioning mourning and a deep sense of loss because of the social context of longings, care, and expectations that envelop the pregnancy. The scarcity of children available for adoption to infertile couples, or the desires of a potential father or grandparent for a child, may be other circumstances that endow the fetus with value. But those are as extrinsic and utilitarian (i. e., bound to particular interests) as are the pregnant woman’s wants and needs, and cannot be used to argue that the fetus has value in and of itself.
If, however, a relational concept of personhood requires an existent self-awareness, then it becomes difficult indeed to include the newborn infant. Where can we derive any moral principle against killing small babies other than from the subjective reality that babies are nice and responsive and we like them better than fetuses? The problem here results from assumptions about consciousness and the humanization process, shared by Marxists as well as liberals (and all who have not broken fully from the Enlightenment tradition), that focus exclusively on verbal and "rational" modes of communication. To correct these outmoded assumptions, we can look at theories of developmental and object relations that psychologists have proposed about the formation of the "self" in the infant; we can even look at the lived experience of pregnant women, which supports those theories.59 They tell us that the emergence of a "self"—the psychological process of individuation in which the child begins to acquire a consciousness of itself in relation to, and separate from, others, and thus a consciousness of others—occurs, and can only occur, in an interactive and social context.
The relationship with others constructs the self in a complex and sometimes protracted process of reciprocal perceptual and later emotional cues, so that the "self" could not possibly be a genetic or inborn property. Thus, the antiabortion argument that "I cannot will that my mother should have had an abortion when she was pregnant with me," so I cannot "consistently deny to others the right to life that I claim for myself," is illogical. There was no self, no "me," during my mother’s pregnancy with me, with whom my present self is continuous.60 The fetus has no interest in preserving its body because it has no "self," no consciousness: "… while you have interests regarding your body, your body and its parts have no interest of their own, and in its earliest stages a fetus is only a body and not a self at all. . . ."61 While the self, the person, cannot exist separately from its body and its sensory apparatus, which is the biological precondition for its consciousness, the body predates the self and may survive its extinction (as consciousness).
What, then, of the "preindividuated" infant prior to its development of self-awareness, and of the fetus in its later stages? A social, relational concept of personhood, because it is focused on process rather than some illusory substance or property, allows us the possibility, the only humanist possibility, of encompassing such beings within our moral framework. It gives human content to the otherwise mystical, abstract notion of "potentiality." Human pregnancy, like any other human experience, is never raw biology; its biological dimensions are mediated by the social process of coming into relationship, in this case the earliest, most elemental relationship, which is what humanizes it. "Relationship" means, first, that there is interdependence; and, second, that there is consciousness of this, even if that consciousness is one-sided for a time. Willis captures the human reality of pregnancy when she says: "There is no way a pregnant woman can passively let the fetus live; she must create and nurture it with her own body, a symbiosis that is often difficult, sometimes dangerous, uniquely intimate."62 The idea of a "symbiosis," however, can only refer to a social or cultural construct, a learned response. On the level of "biology alone," the dependence is one-way—the fetus is a parasite.63 Not only is it not a part of the woman’s body, but it contributes nothing to her sustenance. It only draws from her: nutrients, immunological defenses, hormonal secretions, blood, digestive functions, energy. Even the concept of "viability," whenever it may occur, is meaningless—a device to protect doctors against lawsuits and to denigrate the role of the pregnant woman in prenatal nurturing. What does it mean to speak of viability in a society that has no intention of providing care for the children of working mothers, much less aborted fetuses? More important, the fetus is never viable insofar as it remains utterly dependent for its survival on the mother or another human caretaker until long after birth.
Yet pregnancy, like all relationships, is characterized by mutual dependency in a social and moral sense. For the pregnant woman, whether she wants the fetus or not, is caught up irrevocably in a condition of intimacy with and perhaps longing for it as well. The experience of going through a full-term pregnancy, bearing a child, and giving it up for adoption is punitive and traumatic for a woman because the relationship by then is real; it exists. No woman who has ever borne a child needs to be told that its "personality" and certainly its relationship to her begin to emerge well before its birth. It is not surprising that until relatively recently (and perhaps still) the moment of "quickening" was considered by most women the dividing line between the nonexistence and existence of a "child." The movements of the fetus are signs, communications, that denote to the pregnant woman its life and its dependence on and relationship to herself. Certainly up until that time a pregnant woman is in no sense a "mother," for the simple reason that motherhood is a socially constructed relationship, not a biological condition alone (the situation of adoption is an obvious example). She is not yet a mother any more than the man who has inseminated a fertile ovum with his sperm becomes from that moment a "father." With the onset of movement in the uterus, the woman begins to develop her consciousness of interrelatedness. That consciousness, emerging out of reciprocal sensory activity, marks the beginning of the social relationships that are the necessary and sole basis through which the fetus’ development of a "self/’ its humanization, is possible.
The point is not that the fetus now has a "subjective" relationship with this particular "mother" but that it has objectively entered the community of human beings through its social interaction with (and not only its physical dependency on) an other. Its earliest "socialization" occurs through its body and the interdependence of its body with a conscious human being. The fact that the (post-"quickening") fetus or the early infant is not yet a "self" does not negate this reciprocal quality. Piaget, for example, discovered that the three-month-old infant, in the process of "assimilating" visual images (a hand) to motor activity and sucking, engages in imitation of the caretaker’s movements, even before there is any recognition "of another’s body and his own body. . . ."64 But of course, the existence of the other and its (her/his) attentive consciousness is the necessary precondition for the imitative activity to occur. What is irreducible and indispensable in this humanization process (the formation of the "person") is the subjectivity of the pregnant woman, her consciousness of existing in a relationship with the fetus. Short of artificial wombs and Brave New World laboratories (which may be the "final solution" "right-to-lifers" have in mind), there is no getting around this, no eliminating the pregnant woman as active agent of the fetus’ "personhood." For it is her consciousness that is the condition of its humanization, of its consciousness evolving from the potential to the actual.
In the everyday practices of abortion and childbearing, more clearly than in opinion polls or surveys of attitudes, we can read the social record of a moral sense about abortion that comes close to the one I have just presented. If 1.5 million abortions a year indicate a compelling need and desire for abortion among women, we may also notice that between 92 and 96 percent of those abortions occur within the first trimester, and over half within the first eight weeks.65 These data are significant in understanding popular values about "fetal life." They confirm the sense that most women have, in term pregnancies, of developmental differences that correspond to differences, changes, in their relationship/obligation/ bond to the fetus. This sense determines, too, that a miscarriage often has a different meaning when it occurs in the first or second month of a pregnancy, when it may not even be noticed, than when it occurs in the fifth or sixth month, when it becomes the occasion of mourning— the loss of "someone." Even our ordinary language expresses this. We say, "She had a miscarriage," in the earlier case, and after some hard – to-define but real point later on, "She lost her baby."
Peter Steinfels, editor of Commonweal and a forceful spokesperson for liberal Catholic opposition to abortion, urges liberal Catholics to admit "quite frankly that the moral status of the fetus in its early development is a genuinely difficult problem. . . Steinfels acknowledges that to equate "a disc the size of a period or an embryo one-sixth of an inch long and with barely rudimentary features" with "Albert Einstein and Anne Frank as human beings" is "based on bad biology." He thereby opens up the possibility of different degrees of "life" or "personhood," for such acknowledgment implies that humanization is a developmental process rather than a distinct moment or quality.66
Looking again at the data for 1978-79 regarding the gestational period in which abortions occur, the impression of a kind of implicit moral code among women is strengthened if we break down who are the small number of women who get "late" abortions (after twelve weeks) and why. As we might expect, the 5 to 8 percent of abortions in those years that occurred after the first trimester tended to be among teenagers 67 Delayed abortions among teenagers are mainly the result not of personal attitudes so much as of public policies that (1) create legal and administrative obstacles for teenagers who seek abortions, (2) restrict Medicaid funding for abortion, and (3) support a dominant culture and "morality" that punish the sexuality of unmarried young women. In a different sexual culture with unrestricted availability of legal, publicly funded abortion services, nearly all abortions (except in a small number of health-related cases) would occur early in a pregnancy. This would be desirable from the standpoint of women’s health and well-being as well as sensibility to the fetus and its development.
Given this developmental view of pregnancy and its moral implications, what would be a feminist-humanist position on amniocentesis and other forms of prenatal diagnosis? For amniocentesis usually implies an intention to abort if the fetus does not meet certain specifications, and to abort at a relatively late stage of fetal development. (The procedure cannot be performed earlier than at sixteen weeks of gestation.) "Right – to-lifers" have opposed these techniques almost as strongly as abortion, citing them as support of the "slippery slope" argument and inevitable contributing factors to the escalation of abortion. But this has little basis in fact. In the gestational data cited earlier, pregnant women aged 30- 39 had lower percentages of abortions after nine weeks than other age groups, indicating that abortion following amniocentesis is not a frequent occurrence among them.68 In short, amniocentesis would seem to have had a negligible impact on abortion rates. This is not to say that abortion following amniocentesis in the second trimester raises no moral questions or poses no hard dilemmas for women (or prospective parents). It does not follow from the feminist position that holds that only a pregnant woman can decide about abortion that abortion raises no moral issues, or that the fetus makes no moral claims on the pregnant woman.
Here we need to distinguish between the political question—who should decide—and the moral question—whether abortion is right or wrong in a
given instance—and begin to enunciate feminist principles for the latter as well as the former. The situation of prenatal diagnosis followed by a decision to abort is a specific one because it nearly always involves a context in which pregnancy is desired but a particular fetus is rejected for its characteristics. That such choices may be morally ambiguous or even immoral in certain cases seems unquestionable. Choosing to abort solely on the basis of gender preference, whether for male or female, would be grossly sexist and therefore antifeminist and immoral. A different case is that of Down’s syndrome, one of the most common concerns of women undergoing amniocentesis. Down’s syndrome represents a wide-ranging disorder in terms of its symptoms, although the chromosomal abnormality detected through amniocentesis is always the same, and one can never know with certainty that one is rejecting a "nonfunctional" individual. Similarly, with neural tube defects such as spina bifida, it may turn out that one chooses abortion when surgical correction is possible. And, of course, the question of what is "humanly" functional is a morally laden one.69 A decision to undergo abortion in such cases is probably always made in terms of competing moral claims to those of the fetus: limited family or community resources; obligations to other children; or the pregnant couple’s sense of the limits on their capacity for, and vision of, parenting. It could hardly be otherwise, since pregnancies always exist in a context of social relations and moral commitments, not in isolation.70
The other side of the matter is the immeasurable human benefit of a social and medical context in which such a choice exists. For the 5 percent of tested women who receive a positive amniocentesis result, the prospect of ending the pregnancy and undergoing a second-trimester abortion is undoubtedly painful and anguished; some prefer to go through with the pregnancy. But for most, it seems nothing short of miraculous that what used to be a question of ill fate—the responsibility for a child born with severe, incapacitating handicaps—is now subject to human intervention and choice. Like safe, legal abortion, amniocentesis may be an occasion of sorrow at the same time as it is a condition of expanded human freedom and consciousness.71
The point here, then, is not the particular outcome of the decision one way or the other so much as it is that such moral decisions are inevitably hard; they must be approached with the fullest attention and care given toward all their consequences on the part of those immediately involved. This might be called the "ethic of people being allowed to work out their own ethic," to take their own moral judgments seriously.72 In this regard, a feminist morality of abortion cannot totally separate the political question of who decides from the moral question of what decision to make, any more than it can prejudge what is "right" in a particular case by reference to some holy writ. For it is women whom the culture trains in "maternal thinking," to exercise care in regard to questions about life; it is pregnant women themselves whose consciousness is closest to the reality of the fetus and the total circumstances in which it exists. In the last analysis, their decisions are most likely to be morally informed. What the antiabortion movement is about is the discrediting of women’s moral judgment.