What I Wish Feminists Knew: The Personhood Debate at the Heart of Our Abortion Wars

COMMENTARY: The more we expel God from our hearts and from the center of our lives, the more miserable and dehumanized we become, and the blinder we become to the humanity of others.

This is no temporary soul whose DNA has suddenly burst into being. This is an embodied human soul on a journey through time. This is a soul destined for immortality ...
This is no temporary soul whose DNA has suddenly burst into being. This is an embodied human soul on a journey through time. This is a soul destined for immortality ... (photo: Steklo / Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: Reader advisory: This commentary highlights the horrific reality of abortion. Read with prayerful care.


Two radically conflicting understandings of personhood are at loggerheads in our culture, and the abortion wars will continue to rage as long as Americans fail to face these two views of personhood and discuss them. 

The first view of personhood is what one might call the “Self-Made Man” or “Self-Made Woman” view, which holds that a human being is truly “free” only when he or she stands completely independent, apart and alone. 

This view has some but not all of its philosophical roots in the thought of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said that we do not belong to others: We belong to ourselves.  

The second view of personhood, which we might call the “Mother Teresa” view, has its modern philosophical roots in the thought of 17th-century philosopher John Locke, who said we belong not to ourselves but to God (and by extension to others). 

Building on this “self in relation” concept of personhood, some 21st-century pro-life feminists now say a woman becomes truly free not when she stands alone in radical individualistic isolation, but only when she is connected with others in love. 

J. Budziszewski, a philosopher at the University of Texas in Austin, tells us that because both Kant and Locke said we should not use other people as means to our own ends, many people think the two thinkers are very close. Certainly, both Kant and Locke would have said that the sexual revolution, as it has been promoted for the past 50 years, was philosophically wrong because, solely on the basis of reason, no one should use another person merely as a sex object to satisfy one’s own needs and desires. Both Locke and Kant would disapprove of the sexual revolution’s use of another as means to one’s own sexual gratification, a teaching that also runs deeply throughout Pope John Paul II’s classic Love and Responsibility

The difference between Kant and Locke, according to Budziszewski, lies in “the reason they give for not using others as means to our ends.” He then goes on to explain that “Locke says we are here to serve God’s ends; Kant says each of us is an end in himself. Locke says we belong to Another; Kant says we belong to ourselves. In short, while Locke roots our dignity in God, Kant makes us out to be little gods. The two thinkers turn out to be as far apart as two thinkers can be, for they worship different deities.” 

What happened in the 1960s, if I may be so bold as to say it straight, is that many bright young people of my boomer generation suddenly decided to reject Locke’s view of personhood and start following Kant’s view of the self. Pampered by post-World War II prosperity, reared and coddled by the childrearing philosophies of Dr. Spock, college-educated in numbers that would have been unimaginable to our grandparents, we didn’t just think we could have it all. We proudly thought we were it all — the penultimate achievement of all previous generations. If someone had told us in the 1960s that we’d forgotten God, many a boomer would likely have shrugged and replied, “Yeah. So what’s your point?” 

We failed to understand that man (as in all of mankind) is, at the very essence of his being, a worshipping creature. There is nothing we can do to change this. It is the way we are designed. We cannot break off our natural relationship with God and be fully human any more than we can stop breathing and remain alive. 

“It is impossible to be human and not bow down,” Dostoevsky said.

“If God is rejected, before an idol we bow.” 

If we do not worship the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we will worship something or someone else, often ourselves. Power, money, sex, honor and physical beauty are all idols to adorn the self that promise us happiness and freedom. But when we turn them into gods by making them the central focus of our lives, they enslave us and destroy our humanity. 

The more enslaved to idols we are, the unhappier we become. The anxiety, ennui and depression we witness among so many people today are mere symptoms of the ordinary misery that naturally ensues when a radical individualist over-focuses on the narrow dwellings of the “self” to the exclusion of God and others. In the late 20th century, when the ubiquitous malady of self-seeking struck my generation, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman dubbed the spiritual disorder of our souls the “Boomer Blues.” In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa called this same affliction “the gloom of idolatry.” 

The more we expel God from our hearts and from the center of our lives, the more miserable and dehumanized we become, and the blinder we become to the humanity of others. This brings us full circle back to the abortion debate that is now being fought state by state in our nation. 

The little one in the womb at the moment of conception is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. And yet, at that instant in time, when the sperm enters the ovum, the DNA that will give the little one his individuality — his brown eyes, his curly hair, his little crooked smile — comes into existence. His unique DNA, which bursts into being in an instant, identifies his personhood so completely that if (God forbid) he should get into serious trouble with the law 20 years down the road, prosecutors will be able to use his DNA against him to convict him in court. 

He is tiny, vulnerable and terrifyingly dependent. He occupies almost no space at all. Lacking all control over space (the realm of doing), he is a mere cipher in the eyes of many rich and powerful politicians — a nobody. And yet, in the dimension of time, he has everything the rich and the powerful lack. Where they have only noise, he has silence. Where they have division and war, he has connection and peace. Where they violently compete with their fellow man in order to have more, he rests quietly and can simply be. He is a mere cipher in the eyes of the rich and powerful — an insignificant nobody. Yet despite his miniscule size and lack of worldly power, he embodies all of time from his conception to his death and beyond. For this is no temporary soul whose DNA has suddenly burst into being. This is an embodied human soul on a journey through time. This is a soul destined for immortality. 

Who will say that such a small one has any significance? Who will care about him in his hiddenness? Who will protect him in his silence? Who will welcome him with love into the human community? At the moment in time when his DNA is formed, only his beloved mother can shelter him from harm. When the little one implants himself in his mother’s womb, it is her generous “Yes!” to becoming a unity of two that will begin his life in love. 

But what if she says No? What if she should say, “Not now, my child, and not ever. I have my own life to live. I have work to do and money to earn. I do not belong to you. I belong to myself. I cannot be bothered with someone so weak and so small as the period at the end of this sentence.” 

What if the little one in the womb’s beloved mother should freely say such a thing? Or what if the young mother is scared and alone and has no one she can permanently count on for love and support? What if the little one’s natural father could care less? Then all too frequently something horrible will happen. In her book unPlanned, Abby Johnson described her participation in the swift and bloodless separation of an unprotected 13-week-old unborn baby from the abandoned mother, as she watched the procedure on an ultrasound: 

“My eyes still glued to the perfectly formed baby, I watched as a new image entered the video screen. The cannula — a straw-shaped instrument attached to a suction tube — had been inserted into the uterus and was nearing the baby’s side. … 

“At first the baby didn’t seem aware of the cannula. It gently probed the baby’s side, and for a quick second I felt relief. Of course, I thought. The fetus doesn’t feel pain. I had reassured countless women of this as I’d been taught by Planned Parenthood. The fetal tissue feels nothing as it is removed. Get a grip, Abby. This is a simple, quick medical procedure. … The next movement was the sudden jerk of a tiny foot as the baby started kicking, as if trying to move away from the probing invader. As the cannula pressed in, the baby began struggling to turn and twist away. …

“And then the doctor’s voice broke through … ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ he said lightheartedly to the nurse. He was telling her to turn on the suction — in an abortion the suction isn’t turned on until the doctor feels he has the cannula in exactly the right place. … And then the little body crumpled and began disappearing into the cannula before my eyes. The last thing I saw was the tiny, perfectly formed backbone sucked into the tube, and then everything was gone. And the uterus was empty. Totally empty.”

In a matter of seconds, with the wave of a wand, pure relationship and connection give way to a silent void. No bloody mess. No fetal cry of pain. Not even a whimper. Just a jocular “Beam me up, Scotty,” followed by emptiness. 

Something in the woman dies at this moment along with her child, although it may take her years to acknowledge what it was. 

She will never forget this hour. This is the view of personhood handed down to her from on high by the men who wrote the legal dividing wall between mother and child known as Roe v. Wade, which has now been overturned. 

And what can those who continue to defend Roe v. Wade with their carefully worded political statements do for her now? 

They cannot do anything for her. They are not interested in doing anything for her. They have no desire to care. They look and have no compassion.

With the wave of a wand and a “Beam me up, Scotty,” the marriage between the pro-abortion branch of feminism and the sexual revolution has reached its journey’s end. The sexual-revolution train, with all its fashionable thinkers aboard, has arrived at its silent destination. The connection with the other is broken. The woman has made her pure blood sacrifice to the sex revolution’s gods, and she is once again unattached and “free” — “free” to work unencumbered for the corporation 24/7, “free” and available for sexual pleasure on demand. 

Once again, she is empty, and the mundane world has left her alone. Only when she seeks God’s loving forgiveness and learns the higher truth that with him she is never alone will she find the peace and healing she needs to be truly free. In her restored dignity, she will then be able to exercise her natural feminine genius by making “room for another” in her heart and sharing our Blessed Mother Mary’s love with the world.