Can We Separate Persons From Non-Persons Based on Appearance?

Response By Quinn R.

In the previous Q & A post, I suggested that in order to have a productive conversation about the issue of abortion, it might be useful think about the concept of “personhood” and when the unborn become persons, if ever.

Before discussing how to distinguish between persons and non-persons among the unborn, it is important to note that in a debate over whether the unborn are persons, the burden of proof lies with those who believe that they are not. This is because almost all of us assume that we ourselves are persons and have a right to life. One who believes that the unborn aren’t persons must draw a distinction to show why this assumption shouldn’t simply extend to the unborn.

There are four general differences between us and the unborn which could form the basis of an argument that the unborn aren’t persons. Those differences are:

1. The unborn are less developed than us.

2. The unborn are more dependent on others than we are.

3. The unborn live in the womb.

4. The unborn differ from us in appearance.

We will examine each of these differences in more depth later, but for now, let us see how one might use a distinction of appearance to argue that the unborn aren’t persons. Although this is perhaps the distinction least commonly used in the abortion debate, we can gain useful tools for analyzing the other differences by looking for the precise reasons why appearance succeeds or fails to create a distinction relevant to personhood.

One might argue, for example, that a microscopic embryo could not possibly be a person with a right to life. This may seem intuitive to some, but such arguments run into a problem of “drawing the line.” How tall do you have to be to be a person? How heavy? Let’s say that one says the unborn need to be at least a foot tall to have a right to life. Why this precise height? Why not a foot and one inch or 11.5 inches? It appears that no matter how one attempts to draw this sort of discrete distinction, one cannot avoid being arbitrary in their reason for doing so.

Almost all of us assume that we ourselves are persons and have a right to life.

Instead of setting a discrete threshold that something must surpass to be to a person, one might want to assign value on a “sliding scale.” In this case, a microscopic embryo would have very little personhood, but would acquire more of the benefits of personhood as it grows larger, finally culminating in the right to life. However, such a sliding scale is problematic as well because if we, for instance, judge the worth of someone’s personhood based on their size relative to others, it would mean that on average, women are worth less than men because women tend to be smaller relative to men. We would run into similar unpleasant consequences if we tried to judge the worth of someone’s personhood based on how much they look like the average person, since this would mean that those who are disfigured would be worth less than those who are not.

What do you think? Can we separate persons from non-persons by appealing to a difference in appearance or another difference? How might we do so? Let us know at

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