The argument that drove the Roe v. Wade court case in 1973 was the idea of fetal personhood.
This has no universal, agreed-upon definition as it is the biological, ethical, or philosophical understanding of when a human is considered a person. At the heart of this debate are questions about when personhood begins and what protections should be afforded to preborn babies.
Fetal personhood establishes a crucial framework necessary for protecting the innocent lives of preborn children based on biological facts.
Fetal Personhood Definitions
Because fetal personhood is societally subjective and widely debated, there are varying perspectives about the personhood of preborn children.
The Pro-Life Perspective
Life begins at conception, and all life is worthy of protection, regardless of location. Biology backs up this pro-life argument, as the fetus is a distinct human being.
Furthermore, the pro-life perspective argues that denying fetal personhood is a denial of basic human rights. If we deny personhood to preborn children, then we open the door to discrimination based on characteristics such as location, age, or ability.
The Pro-Choice Perspective
Labeling preborn children as individuals with human personhood is dangerous for the pro-abortion agenda of trying to make abortion morally acceptable.
Pro-abortion advocates argue that personhood begins at birth or viability outside of the womb. They believe that until a child can survive outside of their mother’s body, they do not have personhood or have protection under the law.
This line of thinking is dangerous and goes against the belief that all humans are created equal and have inherent value, regardless of dependency. Babies outside of the womb, toddlers, young children, and some elderly are dependent on the care of others, but that does not make them any less worthy of protection.
Anthropologists, Philosophers, and Bioethicist Perspectives
Vanderbilt Law Review considers the anthropologist’s perspective on fetal personhood and writes, “Fetal value is not only subjective, it is also relational. Neither tort law nor pregnant people view the fetus as entirely separate; the value is in the baby’s relationship with the world, which depends on the pregnant person.”
Because the anthropological perspective on fetal personhood figures that a child in utero is considered part of the mother until its birth, they believe it is up to the mother to determine the quantity of harm inflicted by losing a preborn child via miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion. In other words, grief is a self-inflicted phenomenon and not based on external reality.
Consider this analogy in light of the philosophy above: If a loved one is murdered in cold blood, it is one’s own perspective to grieve or not to grieve, thereby attributing value or insignificance to the loved one murdered. The loved one only has value if he or she is grieved. Common sense tells us this is not the case. The loved one was a victim because his or her personhood deserves protection. Otherwise, murder would be excusable based on subjective opinion.
From a philosophical standpoint, many argue that personhood is tied to rationality or self-awareness, neither of which can be ascertained during pregnancy. However, this belief ignores the inherent value and potential for development in every human being from conception.
Another philosophical subtext is that pro-abortion supporters value the life of the mother over the life of the baby. For instance, Pregnancy Justice presents the following straw man argument: “They [mothers] will have their personhood symbolically denied by the simultaneous glorification of white supremacy and of ‘fetal persons’ over living, breathing women.”
If the birth of a baby will put strain on a mother’s finances, career, goals, or health, then she deserves to put herself first.
This is another dangerous philosophy as it becomes a slippery slope to discrimination and dehumanization.
Once an embryo implants into a mother’s uterus and pregnancy begins, that preborn baby becomes a biological person in development. As that baby grows, his or her unique biological code develops as well.
Biology confirms life begins at conception. When the sperm and egg unite, they create a new cell with its own DNA, distinct from both the mother and father’s genetic makeup. This single cell carries all of the information necessary to develop into a fully formed human being.
The idea of personhood is applied to the field of bioethics, resulting in varying hypotheses. The Linacre Quarterly describes competing hypotheses relating to understanding the human zygote, embryo, and fetus. One hypothesis argues that:
“A human being has existed since fertilization and that personhood is always inherent in a human being at all stages of development. A human being does not become a person at a particular stage of development following fertilization. It follows that a human person is in continuous development of potentialities and a human being has been a person since he or she began to exist at fertilization.”
This hypothesis supports the pro-life perspective, using biology as a basis of understanding the human condition. The second hypothesis arbitrarily proposes that:
“A biologically human entity becomes a human person at some point after fertilization. That is, that not all human beings are human persons and as a result, not all human beings have moral status. Proponents of the latter may believe that a zygote, embryo, or fetus are developmental stages of human life and have potential to become a human being or person, but may not yet be a person.”
Personhood at Fetal Viability
If personhood is solely dependent on viability outside of the womb, then shouldn’t we consider every medical advancement that has improved the chances of survival for premature babies? Medical technology continues to increase the ability of preterm infants to survive at earlier gestational ages. Does this mean that their personhood changes with each new medical breakthrough or change in gestational age?
This was an argument brought up in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court case, where Mississippi Attorney General, Lynn Fitch, argued that viability outside of the womb is not a definitive marker of personhood.
Fetal Personhood and Abortion Laws
The concept of fetal personhood is central to the debate surrounding abortion laws. Those in favor of abortion rights argue that recognizing fetal personhood would effectively ban all abortions, as it would grant legal rights and protections to the preborn.
Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in his majority opinion in response to Roe in 1973, “If this suggestion of personhood is established, [Roe’s] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”
Roe v. Wade 1973
The Supreme Court federally legalized abortion based on the mother’s right to privacy to terminate her pregnancy without government interference, until the point of fetal viability. Roe protected abortion rights until viability, but after viability, it was up to each state to determine their abortion laws.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey 1992
The Supreme Court reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade but changed the viability standard to the ability to live outside of the womb without extreme medical intervention. This shift allowed for more restrictions on abortion after viability.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey brought up a new litmus test as a provision to the law by considering the “undue burden” on the mother seeking an abortion. The undue burden test is the legal standard for determining if abortion laws undermine constitutional rights. The court wrote: “An undue burden exists, and therefore a provision of law is invalid, if its purpose or effect is to place a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”
Georgia’s Heartbeat Bill, 2019
There are many examples of the positive impact that fetal personhood recognition can have on society. In 2019, state officials in Georgia expanded protections to the preborn, declaring that fetuses are “human beings with full legal recognition.”
Georgia’s new law also came with some perks. Once the fetal heartbeat is detected, a pregnant woman may claim the preborn as a tax deduction, eligible for a $3000 deduction per fetus. This was a significant victory for pro-life advocates, who argued that recognizing the humanity of the preborn was necessary to protect their rights.
This example demonstrates how recognizing fetal personhood can lead to positive policy change that protects the vulnerable and promotes family values.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization 2022
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the most recent Supreme Court case challenging abortion laws and overturning Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022 after 49 years.
Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act banned abortions after 15 weeks, with exceptions for medical emergencies or cases of severe fetal abnormality. The central argument in this case was whether a state can ban abortions before viability, as established by Roe.
Mississippi argued, through Dobbs, that the Constitution does not protect the right to abortion, so abortion law reverted back to the states to decide their own legislation and regulations on the subject.
Recognizing fetal personhood has important implications for the abortion debate and legal considerations. It challenges the notion that a pregnant woman’s rights supersede those of the preborn baby and raises questions about when personhood begins.
While there are philosophical and legal complexities surrounding this issue, it is clear that fetal personhood is the glaring biological truth pro-abortion advocates talk circles around to avoid accountability and perpetuate the greatest genocide of our generation.