Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A pro-choicer who gets it

Megan McCardle:

Listening to the debates about abortion, it seems to me that really broad swathes of the pro-choice movement seem to genuinely not understand that this is a debate about personhood, which is why you get moronic statements like "If you think abortions are wrong, don't have one!" If you think a fetus is a person, it is not useful to be told that you, personally, are not required to commit murder, as long as you leave the neighbors alone while they do it.

Conversely, if Africans are not people, then slavery is not wrong. Or at least it's arguably not wrong--if Africans occupy some intermediate status between persons and animals**, then there is at least a legitimate argument for treating them like animals, rather than people.

The difference between our reaction to the two is that now we know Africans are people. It seems ridiculous to think that anyone ever thought they might not be people. They meet all the relevant criteria for personhood in twenty-first century America.

But of course, those criteria are socially constructed. The definition of personhood (and, related, of citizenship) changes over time. It generally expands--as we get richer, we can, or at least do, grant full personhood to wider categories. Except in the case of fetuses. We expanded "persons" to include fetuses in the 19th century, as we learned more about gestation. Then in the late 1960s, for the first time I can think of, western civilization started to contract the group "persons" in order to exclude fetuses.


I am aware that I have constructed my beliefs about personhood in the face of these things--like any good undergrad, I know the answer I need to reason to in order to ensure both social comfort and maximum personal freedom. I like to think that I am too rigorous a thinker to be seduced by such ephemera. But I am also aware that a lot of very fine thinkers were seduced into reasoning that Africans weren't people. Whatever evidence they thought they had, we're pretty sure how they arrived at their conclusions: African personhood would have caused enormous personal and social upheaval. Thousands of their friends and family would have personally suffered enormously without their slave wealth. Ergo, slaves weren't people!

And if I look at my own reasoning, well, frankly, it's not even reasoning. I've never sat down and thought, "how do I know that Africans are human beings?" I know. And I'm enough of a Chestertonian to be okay with that way of knowing. But presumably if I'd been raised in 1840 Alabama, I'd know just as certainly that they weren't.

H/T: Real Choice