I was struck by the relevance to each other of two completely unrelated articles in today’s NY Times “Review” section. The first was an op-ed by Ross Douthat devoted to a denunciation of “abortion extremists” who would countenance abortion in the late stages of pregnancy. The second was an article by philosopher Jeff Sebo advocating for the rights of chimpanzees to be considered persons.

Douthat doesn’t make an argument for his point of view; he seems to think it obvious that reasonable, decent people should be able to see that late-term abortions are heinous atrocities. He is particularly horrified at the use of abortion to avert the birth of a Down Syndrome baby.

Sebo does make an argument; to my mind, it’s both interesting and compelling.   He makes a distinction between two terms that are often used interchangeably: “human” and “person.”

‘Human’ is best understood as a biological concept that refers, at present, to a member of a particular species, Homo sapiens. In contrast, ‘person’ is best understood as a moral and legal concept that refers to an individual who can hold moral and legal rights.”

What makes a being a “person?” Sebo says it’s not genetic identity, which defines a species, but “conscious experience, emotionality, a sense of self or bonds of care or interdependence.” He observes that Kiko and Tommy, the two particular chimps whose rights he is advocating for, are “conscious, emotional, intelligent, social beings whose lives are deeply entangled with our own.” I would note further that research findings on dogs have discovered capacities for joy, pain, and social bonds that bear significant similarities to their human counterparts.

Sebo’s animal rights argument has practical and legal ramifications that I don’t want to deal with here, but I can’t help noting the relevance of his definition of personhood to the abortion rights issue. No fetus–not even a third trimester fetus—experiences consciousness, emotion, or a sense of self or bonds with other beings. A fetus therefore cannot be a person, a being with moral standing and legal rights. (Is it too outrageous to suggest that a chimp—and even a beloved household pet–has a stronger claim to being a person than does a fetus?) The pregnant woman carrying the fetus, on the other hand, is inarguably a person. She has the right to choose the kind of life she wants to live, a life that may or may not, at the time of decision, include motherhood. Her rights trump the “rights” of any fetus at any stage of pregnancy.

I wonder if Douthat has read Sebo’s article.


  1. Bill M April 23, 2018 at 2:12 am

    Hi Tony,

    How does this definition of person fit with that of the Supeme Court, relative to corporations? I judge they are quite different because if person was as defined here, there is not much chance a corporation would qualify as one.

    • tonygreco April 23, 2018 at 2:31 am

      Honestly, I’m not familiar with the Supreme Court definition, but I strongly suspect that you are correct.

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