Personhood: Multiple fronts on the 21st-century battleground
By Sarah Quale — Personhood is a legal strategy, a moral philosophy, and a cultural movement that’s rooted in both faith and reason. Personhood is our only consistent defense against all direct attacks on human life and human dignity that have happened, are happening, and will happen in the future. So what are those attacks, specifically? What does personhood look like on the ground? Is it practical, and does it have any chance of actually advancing in America?
What does “personhood” mean?
The concept of personhood is actually quite simple. Personhood declares that humans are human and that our equality is based on our humanness. Nothing changes the scientific fact that we are biologically human from the very beginning until the very end. Therefore, as humans, we deserve equal protection under the law because we possess inherent, natural rights that are granted by God, not by government.
Personhood affirms that the right to life applies without exception to every human being, regardless of developmental stage, manner of conception, individual characteristics, biological traits, life situation, society’s view of us, and even whether we are wanted by our own parents.
Personhood is the consistent application of the pro-life movement’s most basic principles. It’s an alignment between what we say we believe and how we act upon that belief. In the realm of politics, this means we can never accept the dehumanization or discrimination of any human being in any law, for any reason. This includes the “hard cases” like the rape-conceived, the disabled, and those with poor prenatal diagnoses. Personhood declares that we must never sacrifice any human being in order to make political gains, perceived or real.
Personhood also acknowledges that human beings are made in the image of God, using a specific, purposeful design with five interwoven elements set forth in Genesis 1:26-28—life, marriage, family, sexuality, and gender. Personhood recognizes that any attempt to twist, pervert, or redefine any of these elements is an attack on the whole human person.
Ultimately, personhood is the undoing of the culture of death, which is why it is such a threat. It has been the driving force in correcting the greatest injustices in history and will continue to be, as present and future attacks persist in the 21st century.
So what does this mean for the pro-life movement?
As pro-life advocates, our question for any supporter of any practice that destroys human life should not be: “At what point should we prohibit this destruction?”, “When should we start to restrict it?”, “What about this situation, or that one?” Instead, our question must be this:
Are all human lives equally valuable or not?
All arguments for the destruction of human life are based on the answer no. But if we say yes, that every single life matters and has purpose, then I propose that we must stand on the principled, consistent foundation of personhood to defend that life.
Period. Full stop.
We cannot fight relativism with relativism. We must declare that our rights are inherent, unchanging, and essential to our humanity and then follow up with principled actions. This means we must bring moral courage into every situation where human life and human dignity are directly targeted.
So what are those situations where human life and human dignity are directed targeted? What issues does the personhood movement speak into?
The cultural (and thus, legal) applications of personhood
This is the obvious one. But it must be said that the reason the pro-life movement focuses so intently on being anti-abortion isn’t because we’re pro-birth. It’s because pre-born human beings are completely left out of the equality conversation, and thousands are being brutally killed every single day. Their very existence as members of the human family is repeatedly denied by legislatures and courts, most egregiously in Roe and most recently in Hellerstedt.
Unethical advances in science and technology
The pro-life movement’s laser focus in the 20th century on abortion, though noble and necessary (and unfortunately prolonged by a focus on compromised incrementalism), has not adequately expanded to address a very formidable threat: Unethical advances in science and technology. Let’s look at a few areas of immediate concern:
- The creation, exploitation, and destruction of human embryos for experimentation is happening on a massive scale in America and throughout the world. The drive to cure disease and even improve consumer products, using living human beings at their zygotic and embryonic stages of development, has devastated science and medicine in America. The use of cells, tissue, and organs from aborted children is also a gruesome, tax-payer funded venture pursued in the name of advancing science.
- As uncomfortable and taboo as conversations might be, we must also specifically address the destruction leveled by the assisted reproductive technology industry, which provides most of the humans used in experiments and kills far more than abortion every year. From IVF and 3-parent embryos to future technologies like self-cloning, designer babies, and artificial wombs, the focus here is solely on the desire to parent, no matter how many lives are lost in the process. This is an extremely sensitive and emotional area that personhood can and does speak truth into.
- Other emerging biotechnologies pose a very real threat to human personhood as well. Currently, the transhumanist movement is planning a future where genetic enhancements and nanotechnologies will converge to evolve the human species. A eugenic gene-editing tool called CRISPR is already permitting researchers to engineer the human genome faster, cheaper, and more precisely than ever before, giving them the ability to alter the entire human gene pool over time. Not just to eradicate disease, but to alter intelligence levels, physical traits, and even personality characteristics. Very serious ethical questions are being debated right now: Will enhanced humans be more valuable to society, and what are the implications of that? Should genetic enhancements be declared a right and how will that right be distributed equally? What traits will be considered good, and who will decide?
We are entering unknown territory here. And outside of the personhood movement, the Christian voice in this arena is nearly silent.
The most recognizable, and now more broadly opposed, end-of-life issues are physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. But the personhood movement also fights for conscience protections in these areas and against the disability discrimination that is a core tenet of the “death with dignity” agenda. It is important to note that end-of-life issues don’t just apply to the elderly, but across all stages of human development. This means personhood has a voice in practices related to poor prenatal diagnosis, hospice care (including perinatal hospice), the giving of food and water during debilitating mental states, organ harvesting practices, the equal treatment of born children with disability and disease, and of course, infanticide.
Human beings are not commodities. We are not objects or property, and we fought a bloody civil war to declare as much. We possess an intrinsic value and worth because we are made in the image of God, so human trafficking, whether for sex, labor, or organ harvesting, is a core violation of our personhood. Thankfully, our society is beginning to systematically address the trafficking epidemic with detection, prevention, support, and healing programs, as well as changes in law and social service protocols.
The personhood movement is also concerned with attempts to define legal personhood in other ways, as this diminishes the nature of human beings as God’s exceptional creation. Non-human personhood efforts can be organized into three legal categories:
- Rights for nature: This faction of the non-human personhood movement has made leaps and bounds across the world, granting legal personhood to rivers, lakes, and forests. Here in the US, part of Lake Erie was granted personhood status in efforts to protect it environmentally.
- Rights for animals: Efforts to confer legal personhood upon animals, such as elephants, dolphins, and chimpanzees, have made great strides as of late. Though state courts in America have thus far denied animals the rights of personhood, several judges have signaled their willingness to rule in favor in the future.
- Rights for AI: Artificial intelligence (AI) is fast becoming ubiquitous in our society—from Siri and Amazon Echo to chat bots and self-driving cars. Corporations are discussing the benefits and risks of personhood status for AI, as concerns about legal liability for AI behavior and decision making loom on the horizon. There is an ongoing debate about AI personhood in European nations that is informing non-human personhood efforts here in the US. It is critical for us to understand the impact this will have on human personhood.
So how can we respond to these advances now?
It is our duty to be good stewards, conserve and care for our natural resources, and treat animals with respect for the God who created them. This is because God granted His human creation dominion over the land and the sea and all the creatures therein (Genesis 1:28). In modern society, humans have put legal protections in place to prevent abuse, maltreatment, and destruction, and we should be vigilant to protect and revere what God has placed under our care. To grant personhood to non-human entities, however, denies human exceptionalism and ignores the millions of humans whose personhood is specifically and intentionally denied by leaders in the non-human personhood movement every day. And it’s not just the pre-born.
Attacks on marriage, family, sexuality, and gender
God is the Creator first, and He used a specific design for humankind on purpose. Each of the elements that make up the human person—life, marriage, family, sexuality, and gender—are under God’s authority, regardless of our secular culture’s denial and rebellion. Personhood speaks against the direct attacks on God’s wholistic design, how our culture and government institutions are promoting them, and how these attacks harm the most vulnerable among us. Examples include the drag queen story hour phenomenon, the transgender revolution’s impact on children, and sexual agendas pushed onto our youth.
Personhood IS the 21st-century battleground
Personhood is the only legal strategy, moral philosophy, and cultural movement that addresses all direct attacks on human life and human dignity that have happened, are happening, and will happen in the future. Personhood is the connecting force. It’s the ground beneath our feet.
It’s our only consistent defense.
But the personhood movement doesn’t advocate for any one particular legal or political strategy. That would be impractical and unreasonable. Instead, we advocate for the adherence to universal moral principles. In the words of Personhood Alliance president, Gualberto Garcia Jones:
“We believe the pro-life movement has done great harm to its own ability to succeed by promoting legislation that specifically excludes protections for politically unpopular groups of people. We also believe the movement has made a mistake in delegating the responsibility for social change to judges and politicians who continue to compromise on the pro-life movement’s most basic principles.”
So what alternatives does the personhood movement offer? How can “universal moral principles” be applied in the real world? Is personhood practical, and does it have any chance of actually advancing in America?
Practical applications of personhood
Personhood advocates know that abortion, and other direct attacks on human life and human dignity, won’t end overnight. But in the quest to end the injustice, we can never sacrifice human life. We can never align ourselves with a Utilitarian philosophy that seeks “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Therefore, the Personhood Alliance currently has 24 independent affiliate organizations who are pursing personhood as the essential strategy for restoring legal protections to all human beings, without exception, and shifting the culture to one that honors God’s wholistic design for the human person. Here’s what this looks like on the ground, at the state and local levels, where the real battle is being fought and won:
- Defunding the abortion industry, and its allies pushing sexual agendas onto children, through health codes, public health funding, and comprehensive sex-ed grants
- Ensuring conscience protections for health professionals
- Battling against physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia legislation, including POLST and MOLST programs that open the door for legalized killing of the elderly, disabled, and infirm
- Introducing personhood language in key legislative efforts, like fetal homicide bills, personhood laws, and bills against embryonic research and human genetic experimentation
- Pursuing ballot initiatives for state constitutional amendments
- Pursuing court battles that declare the personhood of pre-born human beings
- Fighting against child endangerment in drag queen story hours and comprehensive sex-ed programs
- Implementing the Personhood Alliance’s 3-step Sanctuaries for Life initiative
A call for moral courage
Abortion, and all other direct attacks on human life and human dignity, aren’t legal problems. They’re courage problems. As such, the Personhood Alliance’s 3-step Sanctuaries for Life initiative reflects a new strategy in the pro-life movement—a return to constitutional self-government and a call for the Church to step out in faith and boldness.
The initiative provides a blueprint for local municipalities who want to educate and engage their communities to address why abortion is happening, reclaim Christian charity through community-led programs and services that honor life and family, and put substantial, non-violent roadblocks in the way of abortion to prevent pre-born children from being killed.
The inspiration for this biblically and constitutionally sound strategy is the approach of the early Christians, who radically shifted the Pagan culture under heavy persecution. They didn’t wait for politicians or judges. They changed the culture by going out into the culture, despite the unjust laws.
We need to be courageous like that once again.
The pro-life movement must find a way to combat judicial tyranny and stop giving our power and authority away to politicians and judges who promise to protect life, but compromise and abandon us every time. The Personhood Alliance proposes this initiative as the strategy that will finally end all forms of legalized destruction and dehumanization and begin to shift the culture back to life.
For more information about this initiative, visit our Sanctuaries for Life page.
Personhood is indeed the 21st-century battleground. Personhood is what it looks like when the pro-life movement stands on a biblical foundation to wage war on the culture of death and when our political and cultural strategies finally align with our deeply held convictions.
The personhood movement simply acknowledges that our ways must begin and end with God’s ways. To move forward in our own way is to continue to prolong the injustice.
Sarah Quale is president of Personhood Alliance Education, the educational arm of the Personhood Alliance, and the author of the Foundations online pro-life curriculum. She is a member of the International Christian Visual Media Association and Christian Women in Media and is the founder of Educe® online learning.