Thursday, March 27, 2008

Who's a person?

My 3-month-old child?

Or my 3-year-old cat?

Or maybe both?

Typically when individuals in favor of abortion or embryonic stem cell research argue that unborn human beings can be killed at various stages of development because at that stage of development the unborn aren't persons, they frequently use mental abilities such as awareness, consciousness, sentience, etc. to differentiate between whom they consider persons and non-persons. In the past, these assertions have always struck me as poor because there is typically very little reasoning as to why these certain degrees of mental capacities matter in such a way that we can kill one human being and not kill another. The criteria also seem to typically leave out groups of human beings like the profoundly disabled or newborns whom the criteria-setter typically doesn't think it should be legal to kill.

While raising my child for the last three months, the "they're a person if they have this mental ability" assertion has only gotten harder to accept. Over the last three months, I've come to the conclusion that my cat currently has more mental capacities than my daughter. In other words, my cat is smarter than my kid. Yet most pro-choicers who subscribe to the personhood argument for discriminating against the unborn (as opposed to the bodily autonomy argument) would likely consider my daughter a person but view my cat as a non-person. I can't see how they could reasonable argue this though.

While both of them sleep about 15 hours a day, when they're awake Rascal is more aware of herself and her environment than my daughter. I'm not sure if either of them has the ability for rationale thought but if they did, Rascal would certainly have more reasoning ability. Rascal knows how to break into our bedroom to take a nap on her favorite blanket while my daughter probably couldn't even find our bedroom if she could move around independently. Both feel pain and express themselves when they are in pain. Both attempt to communicate in their own way. My daughter doesn't appear to be able to understand a word my wife or I say to her but Rascal can lift her paw to shake on command in exchange for cat treats.

So if my daughter is currently a person because of her current mental capacities, I can't see how my cat isn't. I can't think of one thing which would make my daughter a valuable person while keeping my cat a non-person except for my daughter's humanness. But the whole concept of personhood (at least in pro-choice circles) revolves around the notion that being a living human organism doesn't necessarily make one a person. Some, like Peter Singer, even label the idea that humans are valuable simply because they're humans as "speciesism."

I wonder how thoughtful pro-choicers who hold these different criteria for personhood think when they're around young children. Would they see my daughter as a person or maybe just a potential person? I think that if they see my daughter as a person, they'd be nothing more than speciesists if they didn't find Rascal to be a person as well.

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