Personhood, presumption of innocence, and politics. 

by Philip Jeske in , ,

 Personhood and Pregnancy

Sometimes I hear an argument repeatedly and, though I sense the fallacy of it, I can’t quite pinpoint where the error lies in order to formulate a rebuttal. One such argument for me involved what has become one of the last philosophical stand for pro-choice and pro-abortion advocates: Personhood.  Mind you, the science is in: human life begins at conception. Even the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services is, of late, drafting the appropriate adjustments in language, and the secular liberals of this country, being proponents of science, logic,and law, are finding themselves backed into a corner. There is no cogent argument left to dispel the fact that a human fetus is a living human being, beginning at conception; it is nearly incontrovertible at this point.  But what is a pro-choicer to do? Certainly they cannot advocate terminating the life of a human without justification because that is, by definition, murder.


Some common justifications to which they appeal are self defense,  where an abortion can save the life of the mother, and a women's right to bodily autonomy, which they claim trumps the fetus' right to life. The first argument, unfortunately for them, can only be used in very rare cases and therefore cannot be used as a general principle. The second only works if you believe that the right to remain alive, once alive, is not the most important right, which is untenable at best.  That leaves the convenient “out” which has been used by the prevailing powers for millennia, the idea that some humans are not persons, or are less-than persons. This was used on the Native Americans, Africans and African Americans, Japanese Americans, the Jews under the Nazi regime, the Aborigines of Australia, and many more.  Now it is being used on the unborn. There is, according to this argument, a difference between a human organism per se, and a human organism that has developed to the point of being a human person.

 The History of Denying Personhood

Historically, the reasons for describing some groups of humans as non-persons or less-than persons were often based on the perception of physical inferiority.  Since black people were said to resemble developmentally primitive humans, they were dubbed "savages", as were other non-white races. Their level of social or technological advancement was also an indicator that they were somehow inferior.  Physical and psychological maladies were used to label others as inferior and they were sterilized or euthanized globally, even here in the U.S.  This standard of assessing the value of a human, based on physical, psychological, or neurological markers has now been applied to the unborn. The idea is that, since some humans do not have the same level of consciousness as more "developed" humans, they must not yet be persons. It's the same old argument with new packaging.  Sub-development and sub-standard abilities, function, productivity, and even income have been, and still are, equated with being a sub-person.  Specifically here, the functionality used as a standard is consciousness, and less consciousness equates to less personhood.


There are arguments (see here, here, and here) which correctly identify this standard as being a non sequitur, arbitrary and convenient at best, but I realized one day that the arguments were a waste of time.  I realized that, because the emergence of personhood from a human life is not a scientifically specified marker, but merely a philosophical assertion, it has in it the kind of ambiguity that defies clear rebuttal.  Neither side can say, “Here it absolutely becomes a person” or, “It is absolutely always a person”, because there is no demonstrable and falsifiable standard for personhood that can be put forward and identified as an empirical fact.  And then it hit me that to argue the issue at all was to miss something very crucial. 


We ought to simply assume personhood of all humans, in that all humans are persons by definition. 


Warranted Axiomatic Assumptions

This is a moral assumption, which I admit seems like begging the question, especially coming from someone like me who is obviously Pro-Life.  However, I think the case can be made that most people already make similar moral assumptions in our everyday lives in other areas, and it is not unwarranted to begin arguments with ethical axioms.  For instance, consider the preamble to the Constitution, which begins with axiomatic declarations: We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is warranted to assume the value of human persons axiomatically, because to do otherwise is to invite tyranny and oppression. We simply begin our deliberations of rights with the assumption that all people are created equal (even for those who don't believe in a literal creator) and have rights by virtue of being human persons. 

The danger of not beginning with this assumption - that all people have human rights - is to invite more of the atrocities of the past. Millions have been slaughtered because it was instead assumed that only those in power, or those with superior traits, had these rights or at least had them to a greater degree.  Without this axiom of the right to life, those in power have too often invoked the principle of survival of the fittest and applied it mercilessly to those who were unable to defend themselves against those with the greater numbers and weapons.  The rights assumed in our U.S. Constitution are considered self evident and inviolable as a safeguard against tyranny of any sort.  Every person is of the same value, despite any of their traits.

 The Presumption of Innocence

The Presumption Of Innocence is a similar axiomatic standard that cannot be proven but is warranted because it must be assumed in order to maintain the right to personal liberty. When a person is accused of wrongdoing, we begin with presumption of innocence and put the burden of proof upon the accuser. We do this because we understand that liberty is fundamental to a moral landscape and it can only be defended by presuming the right to liberty for all persons. In fact, we value liberty so highly that we are willing to accept the possibility that this presumption may end in the freedom of a criminal, because this is more desirable than the punishment of the innocent. We would rather err on the side of protecting the possible innocence of a person, even if it means the guilty go unpunished.  One way to fully understand the importance of this axiom is to imagine yourself in a society which does not agree to it.  Imagine yourself accused of a crime, let's say treason for example.  What can you do to defend yourself?  Essentially, nothing.  Imagine how hard it would be for you to prove to the authorities - those with control over information - the negative argument that you did not commit treason.  You might think that you could simply refute the evidence of the accusers.  However, if you are presumed guilty until proven innocent, there needn't be any evidence presented by your accusers in the first place!  Simply, this would allow the powers-that-be absolute control over a society.  Anyone who was deemed a "problem" to those in power could be accused of any crime, and they would have no recourse to defend themselves because the accusation itself would be proof of the crime.

If you don't think this can happen, you haven't read any history.  For an example, you would only need to read the first few chapters of Solzenitzen's Gulag Archipelago to get an idea.


What does this have to do with the unborn? Simply, just as we assume the innocence of all accused, so we should assume the innocence of any human being accused of being a non-person. When there is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a person is guilty, they must absolutely be set free and exonerated. When a human cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be a non-person, they must be liberated from this charge and recognized as having always been a person. This ought to be self evident. If we would rather let a thief go free then penalize a person for a theft they didn’t commit, then we ought to rather let a non-person be free from the death penalty (which is what abortion clearly is) rather than make the mistake of allowing a potential person with undeniable innocence to be killed. If you cannot, beyond a reasonable doubt, prove that an unborn child is not a person, they must be given equal rights because the risk of killing an innocent person is too great and too costly a mistake to make.


As with the other examples, this is a warranted axiom because the same arguments apply. Imagine again a world, this time where personhood is not assumed.  Anyone deemed a non-person or less-than person could be and would be stripped of their rights.  I want you to seriously, for a moment, imagine that you were labeled as being a part of a group that no longer was considered to be a person.  If you really can't imagine it then, again, read your history.  Delve into accounts of men, women, and children who were deemed to be inferior because of race, economic status, pedigree, color, mental or psychological challenges, gender, sexual orientation, political views, or any dissenting ideas from the norms set by those in power.  If we, as a society, are still willing to label some groups as non-persons, we open the door to being labeled non-persons ourselves.  This is historically demonstrable and the thought of it becoming a present state of affairs ought to seriously frighten you, even if you are so selfish as to only care if it happens to you  and your particular tribe.

 The Erosion of the Principle

So, I thought to myself, this is a reasonable and strong position to take. We know the value of the presumption of innocence, therefore most people should see the parallel to the presumption of personhood.  Even though I didn't think it was a bullet proof argument, I assumed that the point of contention would be the unwillingness to admit the analogy was valid and the principle founded on the same idea of liberty.  However, now I think that the real hurdle is that people apparently don't even understand the value and importance in the principle of the Presumption of Innocence. The recent "job interview" of Judge Kavanaugh made that clear.

I will not here discuss whether I think that his accuser, Christine Blassey Ford, is telling the truth, whether Judge Kavanaugh was telling the truth, or whether either person believes what they testified to.  I don't think that was or is, ultimately, the most important issue in the whole debacle.  The ultimate issue is one of ethics and liberty.  Again, I was surprised at how many people were willing to dismiss Presumption of Innocence as a guiding principle, not just in a court of law, but as a foundation to liberty itself. To explain how important this principle is, let us examine the likely outcome of doing away with it.  Let's think on how this could have gone, had the accusers been able to use this situation to thwart the nomination of this man to the Supreme Court.

What essentially occurred was this. A man, who prior had never been accused of being unfit for any position he held, had a squeaky clean record and a decades long reputation of being an upright man, was suddenly accused of sexual assault thirty-six years in the past.  The accuser had little to no corroborating evidence to bring forth to substantiate her claim.  Rather, the narrative put forth by the accusing persons involved was that all women who make claims of sexual assault should be believed because so many women who are assaulted are dismissed.  When the idea was put forth in defense that we should presume innocence until guilt is proven, the accusers made the distinction that this principle is only applicable in a court of law, but not in what was essentially a job interview.

 The Real Slippery Slope

If this man had been denied the nomination because he could not prove his innocence, it would have set a precedent for how we evaluate the legitimacy of a person's qualifications for office.  It would have legitimized a certain kind of permission and power to any future person or group who might wish to block people from office, a sort of veto power that could not be challenged.  Any person or faction, wishing to thwart the political or ideological position of another, would merely need to make an accusation of sexual assault and that would be the end of it.  There would be no need for hearing a defense, because the accusation itself would be unassailable. There is no reason to doubt that false charges would be used on a regular basis to block certain people and it could be done by either party or any individual, because there would be no danger in lying.  The accused would not be allowed a defense, and the accuser would not be questioned.  This type of political sabotage would simply become the system of justice.

But this is not justice, and it ought to be fought against, and not only in criminal court or in our political sphere.  To do away with Presumption of Innocence as a general guiding principle is to do away with liberty.  Imagine it happening to you, your son, husband, or brother. Imagine that any man accused of sexual assault has no right to defend against such a claim.  This could have ramifications in trying to attain employment, schooling, rental agreements, and so on.  People's lives could be destroyed with one simple lie (or even the truth) with no recourse.  And how long before the list of unassailable accusations gets longer?  How long before certain groups get unlimited ability to make unassailable accusations?  Think about how close we were to telling government officials that they could ruin a man's life by making accusations that did not need to be substantiated.  How insane have we become, how ignorant of history, that we would allow our right to self defense to be obliterated?  Without the right to speak out against our accusers, any person at any time can destroy us, individually or collectively, with mere words.  This is too much power to give to those who arguably already hold too much power.


The same danger applies to the accusation that some humans are not persons.  Whatever group has the most power can make the accusation of non-personhood and it apparently does not need to be substantiated.  Women, the courts, a political party, the media, abortion apologists, all are claiming that they should be believed and are not required to prove their claim.  Again, this has been perpetrated repeatedly in the past by dictators and leaders of the free world alike.  We see what happens when some groups are labeled non-persons and that the same is happening here is undebatable.  That the unborn are innocent is undebatable.  That they cannot defend themselves against the accusation of non-personhood is undebatable.  That they are persons by virtue of being human is, I think, undebatable.  At the very least, it is a necessary presumption until proven otherwise.  History will show, once again, that this is a horrific injustice, a human rights violation and, quite frankly, genocide.


To sum up, some ethical axioms ought to be adopted as incontrovertible, simply because the potential and likely cost of not doing so is unbearable and unallowable.  Not to assume certain ethical axioms about humans is immoral and dangerous.  The presumption of personhood is no exception.

 Politics in Christian Life

So what ought Christians do? What ought to be the position of the Church and what actions ought we to take?  There are some who take the position that the Church in general need not, or even should not, get involved in politics because we should simply trust in God and focus on matters of spirituality instead of getting caught up in secular arguments.  Paul, in his epistles, says that we are to submit to the government and, at most, pray for them.  Therefore, we should simply follow the law and mind our own business of preaching and teaching, focusing on ourselves as the Church and keeping our minds on spreading the Gospel.


I say that this is bunk and a false dichotomy and I hope to write about this topic in the near future.  Basically, Paul did not live in a society in which the people even had a voice, the ability to sway governmental policy.  But we do.  And when you have the ability, you have a choice.  When you have a choice, you have a responsibility to make the right choice.  If you can use your voice and your vote to stop the slaughter of more than 3000 innocent children in the womb per day, then you MUST.  You must ask yourself if you are doing what you can to help the helpless, to feed and clothe the needy, to "look after widows and orphans" (James 1:27) as it were.

We still live in a country where we are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  We still live in a country where we can and should stand up and say, "EVERY human is a person and it is not on anyone to prove it.  Those who say that some humans are not persons bear the burden of proof, because to do otherwise is to invite the most egregious of evils, to enslave and murder the innocent, and then be exonerated by legal fiat.  This must not continue."


Do not take this accusation of non-personhood at face value.  Every human has been made in the Image of God and is equal in personhood and therefore equal in value with equal rights.  Stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves and require that their accusers substantiate this claim, because to do otherwise, to do nothing, is to allow evil to continue and make yourself an accomplice.