Abortion, Bioethics, and Personhood: A Philosophical Reflection -- By: Francis J. Beckwith

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 04:1 (Spring 2000)
Article: Abortion, Bioethics, and Personhood: A Philosophical Reflection
Author: Francis J. Beckwith

Abortion, Bioethics, and Personhood:
A Philosophical Reflection

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is associate professor of philosophy, culture, and law at Trinity International University. He has published over fifty articles and twelve books including the award-winning Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Baker, 1993). His most recent book is Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life (College Press, 2000).

Abortion is the issue that first brought evangelical Christians and other cultural conservatives into the arena of bioethics. Although today bioethics is dominated by other issues that are perceived as more pressing, the answer to the philosophical question lurking behind abortion—Who and what are we?—turns out to be the key that unlocks the ethical quandaries posed by these other issues. After all, if human persons ought not to be either subjects of research or killed without justification, and if the fetus from conception is a human person,1 then embryo experimentation, abortion, and cloning2 are prima facie morally wrong.

However, some bioethicists have attempted to deal with the issue of human personhood by either sidestepping it or making a distinction between human beings and human persons, putting the fetus in the former category but not the latter. In this paper I will address both attempts.

Sidestepping the Issue:
The Failure of Neutrality

Some bioethicists seek to sidestep the question of personhood by suggesting a neutral posture toward it. They maintain that bioethical decisions can be made apart from answering this question. Take, for example, the 1994 recommendations of the National Institutes of Health Embryo Research Panel, a body consisting of bioethicists across many disciplines including philosophy, theology, law, and medicine. Formed in 1993, this panel was commissioned to make recommendations about what types of research on the embryo prior to implantation and outside the woman’s uterus (ex utero) are appropriate or inappropriate for federal funding. The main ethical concern for the panel was the moral permissibility of creating human embryos for the sole purpose of experimenting on them. After hearing thousands of hours of testimony by experts on all sides of the debate, the panel concluded in its final report that some research was acceptable for federal support, some warranted further review, and some was unacceptable. But what is remarkable is how the panel attempted to sidestep the issue of personhood, apparently believing that it was possible to make policy without addressing it. In the first 300 words of the report’s executiv...

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