"Personhood" is not an uncommonly heard word when engaged in discussion about abortion rights. I am not exactly certain what this phrase means, and I do not believe the people who use it know what it means either, as debates involving this word typically sound like a quarrel between Webster and Wikipedia. One thing only is certain--that whatever the word may actually be defined as, it is used for only one purpose: to determine who matters and who does not.
I once pointed out that abortion is a conflict between two human individuals with rights that are at odds, hoping that a discussion would ensue revolving around which right supersedes the other (as it goes in any other situation, like self-defense, war, child-support, etc.). I received, however, not a discussion on rights, but a denial of the situation itself.
"The fetus can't have rights."
"Because it isn't a person."
One of the human individuals in the situation didn't matter enough to affect any decision made--and it did not matter because it was not a person.
I never mentioned the word person, so I inquired of him what a person is, and received this response:
"A person is a human who is sentient and conscious, can feel and think."
According to this abortion-on-demand advocate (and many others of his position) it is not enough to be a human individual. To have rights, to be considered a relevant party in a life or death situation, one must have some additional characteristic.
I call this the "Human Individual Plus" mentality.
I refuse to discuss the particulars of this additional characteristic. What characteristic is needed, exactly, will change slightly from debater to debater. Some will say consciousness, others the ability to feel pain, others free will, and still others skin color. I myself rebel against the insinuation that ANY additional characteristic is necessary for a human individual to matter, to have basic human rights.
Abortion advocates and others would have us believe that while every "person" is a human individual, not every human individual is a person--and only persons can have rights. In effect, they say some human individuals do not have basic human rights. I assert that all one need be to have human rights, is a human individual. I maintain that if one need use the word "person" at all, he can only mean by it "human individual". Any other definition of this term is arbitrary and relative, for two reasons.
The first is that the addition of a characteristic to the life line of a fetus...that point of personhood at which we say "You have basic human rights now; congratulations, you matter!"...breaks a fluid process. From the moment of fertilization to death, the conceptus-zygote-embryo-fetus-infant-adolescent-adult is the same single entity. It is a human (as opposed to a canine) organism. And because it is an organism, it is individual. It not only has its own unique DNA, but grows toward its own end, on its own genetic pattern, unique to its own compilation of cells; its eight life signs are separate from any other organism. Some have claimed that because it appears to be a parasitic life it is thus not an individual life, but no one has ever argued that a parasite is part of its host and not an individual organism. Thus, it is a scientific, biological fact that the unborn is a human individual; and to choose a single point in this line for the human individual to suddenly be more than a human individual is arbitrary unless that point is relevantly significant.
Yet I have yet to hear a Point of Significance that is truly relevant. Most commonly, this Point is named as consciousness. "One must be conscious to have rights!" I hear all the time. But this begs the question: what does consciousness have to do with rights? Really? And the same may be asked of any other stated Point of Significance. Why is this additional characteristic relevant? I have never found a satisfactory answer, and I therefore maintain that *if one can exercise the right without having this additional characteristic, one does not need this characteristic to have the right.*
To maintain otherwise would be sort of like arguing that one must own a television to have Netflix. While Netflix and television, admittedly, often are found together, in practical reality, television has nothing to do with Netflix. It certainly is not a necessary part of owning an account and watching Sherlock. If one need not be conscious, feel pain, be viable, or have free will to live, then one need not have it to claim living as a right. If one need not have a television to watch Netflix, then one need not have a television to watch Netflix. The two are superficially, but certainly not really or relevantly, connected. Naming a Point of Significance for "rights-owning" that has nothing to do with exercising rights, is arbitrary.
Choosing any moment when a human individual begins to matter is relative. These Points are chosen with little regard for the actuality and substance of the human individual in question, but instead are influenced by the mentality and situation of the one doing the choosing. To say that one doesn't matter, is always to say that the speaker doesn't care.
As long as Personhood asks "when does a human individual begin to matter?" and not "when does a human individual begin?" it will be an arbitrary and relative discussion, a poor base for opinions that determine the life or death of a human individual, and no base for politics. The only way to avoid this flimsy foundation is to say that all human individuals, nothing more and nothing less, possess basic human rights.
The Problem with Personhood is that it is meant to exclude those who would otherwise be considered persons.