What is a Person?

I've read it 5 times now, and I'm still not sure I understand the logic of Gary Will's NY Times op-ed piece, the Bishops and the Bible.

Willis argues that bishops, as church leaders, have nothing to say to the abortion debate, as he claims both the Bible and tradition are silent on this issue.

A eminent historian, Willis is blowing smoke, at least on the tradition side. From the Didache (one of the earliet Christian writings) to present day, the Catholic church has been against abortion. (A quick perusal of pro-life sites like this makes that clear.)

(As an aside, what's also interesting is that the Hippocratic Oath sworn by doctors contains this phrase--"I will not give a fatal draught (drugs) to anyone if I am asked, nor will I suggest any such thing. Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.")

Let me say, as FORCEFULLY AS I CAN, that I'm not trying to start on abortion debate on this blog.

But, having just completed a long piece on the question of personhood, I am taken aback by this section of Willis's piece.

The command not to kill is directed at the killing of persons, and the issue in abortion is this: When does the fetus become a person? The answer to that is not given by church teaching. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, who thought that a soul was infused into the body, could only guess when that infusion took place (and he did not guess "at fertilization"). St. Augustine confessed an agnosticism about the human status of the fetus.

Natural reason must use natural tools to deal with this question — philosophy, neurobiology, psychology, medicine. When is the fetus "viable," and viable as what? Does personality come only with responsibility, with personal communication? On none of these do the bishops have special expertise. John Henry Newman said, "The pope, who comes of Revelation, has no jurisdiction over Nature."

Willis is right on at least on point. The cental question of abortion (or stem cells for that matters) is "when does a developing life become a person?" Or better yet, when does a developing life "become one of us," as one of the ethicists I interviewed put it.

It is an essentially religious question--not a scientific one. Ask a group of scientist that question--when does a fetus become a person, and the answer will be "We don't know."

They'd say that because "Person" is not a religious term. It is a historic religious word (as Willis ought to know). It comes from personna--a Latin word that refers to the mask worn by actors in a Greek stage play. It came into use in the early church during the debates over the Trinity, and was used to show how one God could have three Persons or personnas.

Which puts it right up the bishop's alley, as they say.


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