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Posted on January 29, 2020 at 10:18 AM

In ethics it is very important to communicate with clearly
defined terms. This becomes especially important when dealing with a very
divisive topic such as abortion. Fifty years ago, in the ethical debates about
abortion, some expressed concern about how the term human being was used by
those who claimed that abortion was wrong. The basic argument for the position
that abortion was wrong went like this: It is wrong to kill an innocent human
being. A human fetus is an innocent human being. Abortion involves killing a
human fetus. Therefore, abortion is wrong. It was claimed that this was not a
proper argument because the term human being meant different things in two of
the premises. In the first premise human being means an individual with full
moral status, but in the second premise human being is used in its biological
sense. The claim was made that not everyone believes that every member of the
human species has full moral status, so we should not use the term human being
in this argument. It was proposed that everyone involved in the discussion
abortion use the term person to represent those individuals who have full moral
status. Since this discussion in the 1970s the term person has been used in the
ethics literature as a technical term which is defined as those individuals who
have full moral status.

However, it seems to me that the term person has the same
problem as the term human being. In common usage it means other things than
individuals with full moral status. It is commonly used to refer to adult human
beings although children are sometimes included in who we think of as persons.
It many times means those with whom we communicate and have a relationship. In
legal terms it means something different. It refers to those who have certain
rights and responsibilities under the law. It involves those who can be held
accountable for their actions and those who can do such things as owning
property and entering into contracts. The legal definition a person can include
entities that are not human beings such as corporations. This becomes a problem
when we look at how we define who is a person. Instead of looking at how we
should understand who has full moral status, we tend to look at who fits with
how we commonly use the term person. The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade stated
that “the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole
sense,” but that does not necessarily mean that the unborn do not have full
moral status. Mary Ann Warren asserted that it is those who we consider to be
persons rather than those who are genetic human beings who make up the “set of
beings with full and equal moral rights.” However, she defined personhood based
on cognitive capacities that are characteristic of fully healthy adult human
beings who are moral agents and leaves out many, such as infants and those with
cognitive disabilities, who we would commonly consider to have full moral
status.

I would suggest that the term person has the same problem as
the term human being in the discussion of who has full moral status. Using the
terms human or human being to represent those who have full moral status
assumes that all biological human beings have full moral status. Using the term
person to represent those who have full moral status assumes that having full
moral status is based on something other than being a biological human being.
But that is the question. What we are trying to decide is whether it is correct
to decide who has full moral status based on being a member of the biological
category of beings we call human beings or based on having certain cognitive
attributes or capacities. Since both terms essentially beg the question, it
would be better to use neither. In discussing whether a fetus or some other
individual has full moral status we need to focus on how we decide who has full
moral status and recognize that using the terms human being or person in a
moral sense represent positions on that issue.

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