Bioethics, Ethics, Pro-Life, Sunday Quote

Sunday Quote! – Does location determine personhood?

ea-kaczorEvery Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!

Does location determine personhood?

I have been reading through The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice by Christopher Kaczor. It is a philosophical defense of the pro-life position and the notion that the unborn is a human person. In his discussion of partial-birth abortion, Kaczor makes the following point:

In Sternberg v. Carhartlater reversed in Gonzalez v. Carhart, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a constitutional right to… partial-birth abortion, and with it affirmed the legality of the conventional pro-choice view that abortion ought to be legally permissible through all nine months of pregnancy, until the human being has been entirely removed from the mother’s body. The court gave no justification why moving the head of the child just a few inches marks the crucial distinction between non-personhood and personhood… (52, cited below)

Frankly, I think this is something that any pro-choice individual must deal with: what is it about the location of the unborn which conveys personhood or prevents the unborn from being a person? What is it, that is, which transforms the unborn from non-person to person as the unborn is birthed?


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Check out my other posts on the debate over abortion.


Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice  (New York: Routledge, 2011).


About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


11 thoughts on “Sunday Quote! – Does location determine personhood?

  1. I am not aware of any sophisticated pro-choice proponent who would rely on such an argument (location). They tend to focus on the woman, that the baby is somehow an “intrusion” (whether wanted or unwanted) and since the baby completely relies on the woman for life, the woman has the choice to grant it until the baby is self-sustaining. Not saying what I think of the matter, just summarizing what I’ve read from people like Judith Jarvis Thompson, Eileen McDonagh, etc.

    I prefer Mary Ann Glendon’s level-headed treatment of this subject.

    Posted by Tim Henderson | March 31, 2014, 2:55 PM
    • I agree that generally speaking few academic advocates of the pro-choice position would endorse this argument, but I think it should be admitted on all sides this argument comes up not infrequently with the average “person on the street,” as it were. But if that’s not enough, the fact that Kaczor specifically is citing a Supreme Court decision shows that some think it carries weight within jurisprudence as well, and is thus worth addressing for the ridiculous notion it is.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 31, 2014, 7:55 PM
      • Not that it wasn’t worth addressing, you do hear “the man on the street” talk this way for sure. I guess I was thinking how frustrated some academics would be if people were “location” as a central point. I think things like Thomson’s “Violinist” thought experiment and such are more useful in getting to the core of the issue.

        Re: politics- it’s hard to grasp just what IS accepted as sense in many cases!

        Posted by Tim Henderson | March 31, 2014, 9:02 PM
      • Very true. I should note that Kaczor dedicates a significant amount of space to critique of the “Violinist” and related thought experiments.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 31, 2014, 9:08 PM
  2. Tim,

    Isn’t the dependency argument you cite as the more “sophisticated” argument simply parasitic on the location argument? That is, a baby which has just left the womb is in no significant way less dependent upon the woman than it was yesterday inside the womb. Yet how many of these “sophisticated” pro-choicers would say it’s right to kill the 1 day old infant on the dependency basis?

    This demonstrates that what most of these so-called sophisticated pro-choices are letting do the work for them is the location argument. Or, perhaps, some obfuscated combination of location and dependency.

    Since some pro-choice advocates *would* concede that the mother has just as much right to kill the 1 day old infant as they did on the prior day, then obviously they are not depending on the location argument. My point is that many pro-choicers whom you’re saying don’t rely on such an argument actually do when we look more closely at their position.

    Posted by Remington | April 1, 2014, 9:26 AM
    • P.S. I’ve heard all the “but you could then give it up for adoption” responses before. They don’t work. Let me just give a brief preemptive reply to that so we don’t waste time, in case you want to pick up that rejoinder:

      A pregnant mother could give her in-the-womb child up for adoption too. She just has to wait a few months or weeks before she is in a position to do so. But the same condition applies to many mothers with children outside-the-womb. A on a cruise ship, for instance, who decides she no longer wants her 1 year old has to wait for some period of time before she can give the child up for adoption. Or suppose she is on a boating trip with just her husband. They decide they no longer want their two year old, because they decide they like boys better. But they are three months away from the nearest civilized land where there would be people willing to adopt. On such logic, the parents would be within their rights to dump the daughter overboard.

      Posted by Remington | April 1, 2014, 9:32 AM
      • Remington: I would start by repeating what I wrote above-

        “Not saying what I think of the matter, just summarizing what I’ve read from people like Judith Jarvis Thompson, Eileen McDonagh, etc.

        I prefer Mary Ann Glendon’s level-headed treatment of this subject.”

        I could take the time to respond to you tit-for-tat but I won’t. I do not feel like using that energy to defend a position I don’t even believe in (pro-choice). Like I said, even though I think there are better approaches to defending pro-choice than “location”, I still prefer someone like Mary Ann Glendon’s views b/c they just make more sense. She is also, incidentally pro-life.

        I do feel that there is little or no correlation to the “location” and “dependence” ideas, though. It seems obvious to me how biologically a newborn baby is now able to breathe their own air and get outside nutrition from something OTHER than the mother’s body. Heck, millions of babies even WITH their mothers drink formula from day one and breathe their own air. They are a separate biological entity at that point, hence not “dependent” for biological function. ANYBODY could care for a baby once it’s born and have it survive, but not before it’s born.

        I’m only making that point b/c I think dependence deals with the heart of the issue better than location. Pro-lifers would do better to engage from that premise on a sophisticated level, and as Wartwick says above, use the location issue for the “man on the street.”

        Posted by Tim Henderson | April 1, 2014, 2:45 PM
      • As is I said, there is no significant distinction in dependence. That many pro-choices who use a dependency argument draw the line at location without justification show it to be parasitic on the location idea. Now you’ve disagreed and tried to point to some differences, but I don’t see where you’ve shown the differences to be any more relevant than location and if that’s the best you can do then this isn’t a more sophisticated position (it just happens to be one with a different focus). The baby in my boating scenario is dependent upon the mother and father even for things like milk formula. The formula belongs to the mother and father. Why should we think it’s *significant* that the milk isn’t chemically derived from the mother? The mother and child are separate biological entities at the point of conception, not at the point if birth. What you haven’t shown, but would need to if you’re going to get anything off the ground here, is why dependence on the mothers biology as opposed to he person as a whole is a significant difference.

        You say you’re not very interested in defending a position you disagree, and that’s fine, but you’ve done so anyway.

        Posted by Remington | April 1, 2014, 4:05 PM
      • You remind me of “that kid” in school who taunts and taunts and taunts until he gets a rise out of his victims and they fight back. Nobody liked that kid very much. I would recommend that you get as good at people skills as much as debating.

        Something worth considering (but I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to tell you something like this…)

        Posted by Tim Henderson | April 1, 2014, 5:37 PM
      • Let’s be careful on the psychoanalysis via internet. I would say to Remington that Tim has done some good clarifying on the issue at hand. Though your points would largely be on point, it seems to me that Tim’s comments have helped to focus the issue and also draw out the importance of this issue of “location” in the public and private realms of discourse.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 1, 2014, 10:06 PM
      • I think you’re overreacting a bit, Tim. In my last response I merely pointed out that in order for the dependency argument to not be just another “six inches down the tube” argument the pro-choicer needs to point to a morally significant dependency difference (or else they need to support infanticide, as I pointed out in my first comment). You were pointing to some differences, I was pointing out said differences weren’t morally significant.

        Posted by Remington | April 1, 2014, 11:11 PM

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