Senator Kerry recently, and inadvertently, revived an old debate. He claimed a few weeks ago to believe that "life begins at conception." Now he adds that personhood does not begin at conception. He spoke instead of the 'fertilisation process' when a human being is 'first formed and created.'
The distinction he makes is an important one, of course, but it revolves around how we define "person." In the law (and both Senators Kerry and Edwards are lawyers), anything and anyone defined as a person thereby attains certain rights.
Corporations, for instance, have been considered persons in a limited sense since 1886, long after America’s founding fathers were safely dead. As is noted in The Case of Evelyn Hart (a model brief published in the Seton Hall Constitutional Law Journal, 2000, by those who wish to recognize great apes as persons) "[C]orporations can be criminally liable but cannot be incarcerated; they must pay taxes, but cannot vote… Human beings, for the most part, are persons; but not so long ago in this country, some were while others were not." The reference is to slavery, of course, but change the sentence to present tense and the argument applies equally well to the unborn.
The argument, however, brings forward a very important point: the concept of personhood is not limited to human beings. There’s a good reason for that, of course. The concept of personhood is divine, not human. Those who wish to argue for the separation of church and state, take note. If you are serious about the idea, then we must abolish the idea of "person" from our midst.
You see, the word "person" comes originally from the stage plays put on by the ancient Greeks and Romans, in which the word referred to the masks the actors habitually wore on stage. Tertullian adopted the word to explain the Trinity, and Boethius created a technical definition of the word in order to explain Tertullian; he described "person" as an individual substance of a rational nature. Thomas Aquinas is somewhat more poetic, but no less accurate in elaborating, "Person signifies what is most perfect in all nature."
Why would he say this? Because "person" describes the inner life of the Trinity. It describes the relationships within the Trinity. Each Divine Person is defined solely and only by His relations to the other two Persons. Father begets Son, Son is begotten by Father. Father and Son breathe forth Spirit, Spirit is breathed forth by Father and Son. And what has this to do with us?
Boethius’ definition tells us what a person is, but it is not immediately obviouis why a person is. Modern man focuses on the "what" to the detriment of the "why." We are persons because we are called by God into a relationship with God. That is, though each human being is an individual substance, we have a rational nature only and precisely so that we can respond to God’s call. If God did not call us to Himself, we would each be, in a certain sense, human animals. Rationality is that which allows us to choose what kind of person we will be: to choose our end, to choose the means to attain that end, and the ability to rest in that end. This is the classical understanding of the person.
Unfortunately, this puts those who would deny God’s existence in rather a pickle. This technical Christian understanding of person is very useful, for it is the basis for every right the state extends. The post-Enlightenment atheist, however, wishes to embrace the technical understanding of "person" and "individual human rights" while denying any responsibility towards the God who endowed us with those rights. That is, he insists that each human being can be a person without regard to divine relationship.
Sadly, the previous sentence is a contradiction in terms. The very concept of "rights" requires one to acknowledge the very relations that create personhood, at least to a minimal degree. After all, rights only exist in relation to another who has rights. My right to bodily existence is not something an Ebola virus or a hungry lion can violate. A lion can kill me, devour my living body or my smoking corpse, but the lion cannot deprive me of my right to live because the deprivation of rights, the negation of rights implies the one who takes from me has the intent to take from me, personally.
Put another way, the existence of rights implies a recognition of me as a person, not just the simple recognition of a chunk of meat with a certain skill at locomotion. There must be a person who recognizes as well as one who is recognized, that is, there must be relationship of some kind in order for rights to exist. Thus, if God does not exist, all I need do in order to legitimize the death of another human creature is refuse to recognize this relationship. If I insist on acting towards another person, or another group of people, as a lion acts towards a gazelle, then I cannot be accused of violating anyone’s rights. If enough people refuse to recognize these rights, these persons don’t exist at all. Rights become subjective, fluid, relative. There is no third party referee.
The only way individual autonomy can be guaranteed is through the existence of a divine being Who guarantees it. If we deny the divine being, then we deny our own existence.
And this lies at the heart of John Kerry’s quandary. If he would insist that personhood is something that exists apart from a call to intimate relationship with the Persons of the Trinity, then he must say personhood exists in some other way, for it would not do to discard the concept entirely. He must say personhood depends on a specific number of brain cells being present, or a specific kind of muscular movement (heartbeat or respiration, for instance), or a specific set of reactions towards self or another human person (self-awareness or other-awareness). Once the criteria depends on physical data, everyone is free to weigh in and put forward their own criteria. You may be opposed to infanticide, but why should I oppose it? Perhaps you dislike assisted suicide or the killing of baby seals, but I may wield a club against both with impunity. As the Supreme Court said in Planned Parenthood versus Casey, reality becomes whatever we define it to be.
That’s why John Kerry can honestly say he has never waffled on any position. He simply re-defines reality as he feels the need. It's a wonderful skill, as long as you are the one with the club.