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What Makes a Person a Person?

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Dr. Seuss got it right.

So what makes someone a person?

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Dr. Seuss got it right.

So what makes someone a person?

How we answer this question can mean life or death for a lot of people. Why? Because with personhood comes entitlement to rights and civil protection. Those who advocate placing maternal rights above the rights of unborn babies often say that what makes someone a person is that he or she has “function.” That is, personhood means having the ability to do or function in some way. To these individuals I am a person because I am able to think, to respond to stimuli, to feel, to reason (okay, more or less).

The ramifications in the abortionist’s office are enormous. Lacking the ability to reason, the “developing mass of tissue” in the mother’s womb is considered a non-person and thus has no rights. The rights of the “true” person—the mother—take precedence. It’s a clever argument. And it’s also effective as evidenced by its use to justify about 1.2 million abortions per year in the U.S. alone.

Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton, carries the personhood-as-function view to its logical extreme when he states that a parent’s rights take precedence over those of his or her infant who, by virtue of being not yet fully mature, is unable to function. Singer concludes that it would be ethical for a parent to take the life of the baby, since it isn’t a person—as “it” lacks conscious awareness of self, which is, in Singer’s view, essential to personhood.

My cats are self-aware. They can feel emotion—as is evidenced by their purring when I scratch their heads. And I believe they love, though I could make a much stronger case for animals loving by pointing to a pet who greets me at the door, tail wagging. (My cats just glance over and move on.) Still, my cats do seem to care in their own independent kitty way.

Whatever functional criteria one comes up with for personhood—be it self-awareness, ability to create, feel, or love—some member of the animal kingdom can match it. This clouds the personhood definition—especially since a few chimps have learned some sign language and can now “communicate.” Clearly function is not what makes us what we are.

We could argue that what gives us personhood is our very existence. But an amoeba exists. Does it thus have rights? Though some have argued that it does, the answer is no.

What makes us persons is that we are human beings. I am a person because I am, and I am human. What makes me a person is not what I do. “I” have existed from the one-cell zygote stage. Imagining ourselves in the point of view of a zygote, we could rightfully say, “I don’t think yet, but I exist and I bear the image of God—therefore, I am.”

Viewing ourselves this way is fully compatible with the statement in Genesis about humanity being made in God's image (Gen. 1:27).

Humans are persons worthy of respect by virtue of the fact that we are created human, not because of anything we do. From the zygote to the incapacitated and everything in between, human beings are persons because we "are," and we have human DNA. We do not lose our humanity or our personhood when we have diminished or absent function.

This truth has ramifications in the embryonic stem-cell lab, in the abortion clinic, and in the hospice.

A. W. Tozer said that what we think about God is the most important thing about us; C.S. Lewis quite disagreed. He believed, instead, that what God thinks of us is the most important thing about us. When we consider what makes us human persons, it would appear that Lewis got it right. Even if a human never has enough capacity to think about God, he or she is still the object of God’s unique creation and care, possessing personhood.

God made the animals, but He didn’t make them in His image. So regardless of size, if we bear God’s image, we are precious in a way that the animals are not. A human person’s a person—no matter how small.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Worldview, Women's Articles