The SLED Test for Personhood

In the abortion debate that continues to rage in America, many arguments center on whether the fetus in the womb is a human being at the moment of conception. If so, pro-life advocates argue, it is wrong to kill the innocent human being. If the fetus is not human, pro-choice advocates argue, there is nothing morally wrong with aborting it.

However, with science strongly in favor of the former view (the unborn is human at the moment of conception), pro-choice advocates will often deploy another argument. It goes like this: Although the fetus in the womb is a human, it is not yet a person, and therefore does not have a right to life. Therefore, it is not wrong to kill the unborn. What is the difference between a human and a person? you might ask. Well, that’s a good question, and there doesn’t seem to be any wide agreement on this. Some criteria to determine personhood that you might hear offered are: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency.

In their video, “Why Abortion is Unjust Discrimination,” the team at Stand to Reason shows how using these criteria arbitrarily to determine personhood ultimately results in unjust discrimination towards the unborn.

Size: The argument here is that the unborn are somehow less valuable because they are small. But as the video points out, a four-year-old child is much smaller than an adult. Does this mean it is ok to kill the four-year-old? Of course not.

Level of Development: Is someone less human because their mind or body is not fully developed? Would we say that it’s ok to kill a teenager because their mind and body is not fully developed? Again, of course not. Teenagers are still persons.

Environment: “Can changing a human’s location alter someone’s status as a person?” According to the video, we don’t think this way in everyday life. Being in space, under water, in a cave, or in a hot air balloon does not change your status as a person. “So how can a seven-inch journey through the birth canal magically transform a valueless human into a valuable person?”

Degree of Dependency: Since the unborn are dependent on their mother for life, does this make them less valuable? Young children are also dependent on their parents for many years. If we simply left children to fend for themselves once they were born, they would not survive. Does that make them less valuable?

Being too small, not-fully developed, inside the womb, or dependent are not sufficient reasons for disqualifying humans from personhood. If we strip away the God-given value of human beings by saying they are not yet persons, our value must come from the arbitrary choice of other humans. What is to keep us from saying that a child with six toes, a cleft lip, or a deformity is not a valuable person? What’s to keep us from saying that a person with blonde hair is not a more valuable person? Who gets to decide who is a person and who is not?

Furthermore, using these criteria to justify abortion could have greater consequences. Why can’t these criteria be extended to the mentally or physically disabled or to the elderly? In Nazi Germany, Nazi doctors were killing off people who had disabilities because they were deemed useless to society. Clearly, ideas have consequences, and determining personhood by arbitrary criteria leaves the door wide open for such travesties to happen again. When our value no longer comes from being made in the image of God, we lose all hope for any basis for human dignity and we are left to the whims of those who happen to be in power.

In contrast, the Christian worldview affirms that all people—regardless of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency—are human persons made in the image of God, endowed with intrinsic dignity, value, and worth from the moment egg and sperm unite. This is the message of hope that we must share as we stand for those who have no voice!

Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.