What is personhood?

By Gualberto Garcia Jones, Esq.,—What is legal personhood? It is the cornerstone of our fundamental human rights, but what does it look like, and why is its impact so catastrophic for the culture of death?

To acknowledge the personhood of a human being is to recognize that human being as a brother or sister, a son or daughter, and a bearer of God-given inalienable rights and the equal protection of the law. Personhood is the right to have rights. On the other hand, to deny a human being’s personhood is to cast them out of the human family, to create a second class of human beings, and to deny them the standing before and equal protection of the law.

What does personhood look like in practice?

Here are a few examples:

  • A doctor who recognizes personhood and treats a pregnant mother understands that he or she has two patients who are equally deserving of care and attention.
  • An attorney or judge who upholds personhood interprets the law so that the child in the womb enjoys all the same basic protections afforded to other human beings.
  • An activist who stands upon personhood shows the world the hidden injustices being perpetrated against pre-born children and demands those injustices are rectified by principled, non-discriminatory laws.
  • A pro-life organization that promotes personhood never accepts the dehumanization of any human being based on race, sex, economic status, stage of development, level of dependency, physical and mental ability, medical prognosis, manner of conception, contribution to society, wantedness, or any other factor.

Abortion advocates know that if we clearly define the pre-born child as a person, the child will have the same legal right to life as any other human being. They know that, to continue to legally kill pre-born children, they have to hold the line on personhood. Because personhood not only scientifically and philosophically destroys all their arguments, it targets, pulls up, and exposes the very root of the culture of death.

Roe v. Wade and the “Blackmun Hole”

Personhood holds the key to filling the “Blackmun Hole,” a startling admission in Roe’s majority opinion that exposed the antithesis of the pro-abortion position:

“If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the 14th Amendment.”
– Justice Harry Blackmun, Roe v. Wade

The question of when life begins

In 1973, the science of embryology was not yet able to definitively prove that a living, fully human individual with unique DNA exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various states of development along a continuum, until death. However, shortly after the Roe decision was handed down, and ever since, embryologists have been proving what is now a common scientific understanding—that human life begins at fertilization. Pick up any embryology textbook today, and you’ll find that your life, and every person’s life, is scientifically defined as beginning at that moment.

“[The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being.”
– Keith L. Moore, in The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th ed. (2003). p. 16.

If the Supreme Court acknowledged the humanity of the pre-born child, according to modern science, it could end this age-based discrimination and restore the legal protections of personhood to the pre-born.

The denial of personhood

The horrific reality is that, in America, there is a group of living human beings who have no consistent protection under law and therefore, are being killed in the thousands every single day. While this is truly astounding, it’s not unprecedented.

“In the eyes of the law…the slave is not a person.”
– Virginia Supreme Court, 1858

Throughout history, certain people groups have felt the brunt of a system that denied their humanity, stripped their personhood, and subjected them to horrors beyond the imagination. While the legal framework that made such horrors possible has now been removed, it remains firmly in place for pre-born Americans.
There remains one, and only one, group of human beings in the United States today for which being human is not enough to be protected by law. It is no surprise that in the Supreme Court’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision in 2016, the majority of the Court did not refer to the child in the womb one single time in its entire 40-page opinion. For abortion advocates, the pre-born child has no say and no standing, and for all intents and purposes…they do not exist.

So what is a person?

A person is a human being from its earliest biological beginning—at every stage of development and in every circumstance—who naturally possesses the inalienable right to life and deserves to be protected equally under law.
Personhood, then, stands on a solid foundation that proclaims there can never be a path to abolishing abortion or any other assault on human life and human dignity that includes the killing of innocent human beings. The Personhood Alliance works to strengthen this foundation, educate the pro-life movement on adhering to a consistent morality in both policy and strategy, and call the Church to raise up the biblical standard in today’s corrupted landscape.
Gualberto Garcia Jones, Esq., is the president of the Personhood Alliance and a licensed attorney in the commonwealth of Virginia. He is a human rights advisor to the Holy See Mission to the Organization of American States and works in Washington DC to stop the expansion of abortion in Latin America.

10 Comments on “What is personhood?

  1. Just before midyear if he Lord tarries, I’ll have my third go round on my 25th birthday–1969 in Vietnam, 1994 in the Amazon, and now in a place that once was called America. As a child I remember seeing the Hippocratic oath on my great uncle’s wall–do no harm and no abortion. Around Y2K my aunt told me a family secret before she died. I raged at my uncle’s long dead partner for violating that oath because it was not socially acceptable to have a seven month baby (as the first born, my older unacknowledged sibling) and grieved for my long dead mother who could never express her sorrow. That’s all gone with the wind. It’s now time for principled, practical action. What can most effectively advance the moral acceptance of the personhood of the child in the womb? We need an end run around the courts and public opinion. As a protestant I acknowledge the historic cultural leadership of the catholic church in our society twice–in segregation in the 60’s and now abortion. How do we lobby for the Pope to issue a bull acknowledging the personhood in the sight of God of the unborn child in the womb? It might not be this Pope, buy who knows? Whether a few years or decades, he could speak with the most moral authority on this issue. We need a man in the Vatican. Please respond.

    • Hi Granville,
      Pope John Paul II wrote specifically about personhood in the seminal encyclical that clarifies the position of the Catholic church on abortion. In Evangelium Vitae (1995), Pope JPII wrote:
      “Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time-a rather lengthy time-to find its place and to be in a position to act”. Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide “a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?”. Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (Par. 60)
      The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is the document that Catholics use to ascertain the application of the gospel to our daily lives also directly touches on the issue of personhood:
      2270: Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.
      2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.
      As far as what this particular Pope could do, it would never hurt for him to continue to emphasize the personhood of the pre-born as his predecessors did!!!

  2. Science has developed by leaps and bounds since 1973 when an evil law legalised abortion. Mankind up until then had no problem with a woman getting pregnant, calling it a baby and giving birth. Even a cat has more maternal feelings toward its kittens than many a female these days. How low has mankind fallen when compared to the Animal kingdom?
    Products of conception, fetus, mass of cells much like a tumour, Horror of Horrors!!
    All those supporters of a woman’s “right to her body” crap, remember that you were an embryo and a fetus once.
    A woman’s right to her body ends when a human life begins!

  3. While I applaud the contribution of everyone seeking to end the horror of abortion, I fear lawyers who would immediately begin chipping away at the meaning of “personhood” and “person”. I’m also concerned that, as proposed, any RTL Amendment would bar the use of war to defend ourselves and prohibit capital punishment as a tool of justice. I humbly suggest the following as a better version:
    The right to life, from fertilization to natural death, shall not be abridged, except for:
    Self-defense, when the minimum force necessary to protect one’s self is used – terminating a pregnancy for any reason other than saving the physical life of the mother shall not be construed to be self-defense;
    during a lawfully declared war against another nation or political entity;
    and for capital punishment administered by the States or Federal government after due process for heinous felonies determined by the States or Federal government to require the execution of the convicted felon to protect the public.

    • Well said. Complete and precise.
      However, we must also state that ‘personhood’ is synonymous with the beginning and development of each unique DNA (double helix) which happens when the combined egg & sperm become attached to the uterine wall.
      With the exception of identical twins, every DNA is one that has ‘never existed before’ and will ‘never exist again’. So we know conclusively that there is no ambiguity about ‘when life begins’ as suggested by Justice Blackmun in Roe vs. Wade.

  4. Regarding ensoulment, this is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not “produced” by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.”
    Due to clear science and common sense that a unique human life begins at conception, I firmly believe that a soul is immediately created by God at conception for that human person.

  5. I don’t see or hear the most important scientific fact in this discussion.
    The most important scientific fact is human beings have human being DNA!!!
    DNA formed us in our mother’s womb.We got 1/2 of our DNA from our mother
    and 1/2 from our father.It’s our DNA that makes us human beings and not giraffes or
    rhinoceros. If you do a test on an aborted living organism growing in the mother’s
    womb it will be a human being because it has human being DNA,not a dog or a cat.
    DNA scientifically proves that embryos,fetuses, are human beings.Their DNA speaks
    loud and clear for them. It’s science is pro life.

  6. Why is it that the Catholic Bishops are so reticent to support Personhood Amendments? This seems counterintuitive. Understanding the “strategy” – as it once was – 2021 presents new opportunities previously unavailable to us. US Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia noted years ago that we just “didn’t have the votes” necessary to amend. The decision to a piecemeal approach to end or limit abortion was, by default, appropriate at that time. That is no longer the case. Why hasn’t the USCCB changed its strategy, as Personhood seems to be – finally – a prudential stand by the US Roman Catholic Church?