Pro-Choice Legalism vs Pro-Life Grace: How Soteriology Informs Our Idea of Personhood

In his 2005 National Review article, “Human Non-Person,” Wesley J. Smith discusses the idea that some bioethicists differentiate between human life and human personhood. Thus, a human life that is not a person can be aborted, euthanized, and mined for body parts to aid actual “persons.” A key feature of the personhood view is that to qualify as a person, one much achieve some level of functionality such as sentience or the ability to value one’s own existence. Such views mean that the unborn child is not a person who can wronged. In 2013, Minerva and Giubilini argued that the newborn is not a functional person, therefore they advocated for an idea they called “After-birth Abortion,” i.e. the euthanizing of newborns no longer wanted by the birthing mother. In like manner, some would argue that a person with modest or severe dementia (or severe Alzheimer disease) would no longer qualify as a person, opening the way for non-voluntary euthanasia.
This paper argues that Biblical soteriology should play an important role in determining how we as Christians define personhood. I will argue that the functional models require the human entity in question to merit their sacred standing through achieving a certain level of works-like functions. In short, the functional model of personhood mirrors a soteriology of salvation by works.
By contrast, this paper argues that in a biblically grounded world view, personhood is a gracious gift of God. Just as salvation is not merited but is granted on the basis of grace, personhood likewise is a gracious gift of our Creator, which we recognize apart from appeals to meritorious functions. This paper will build this idea, in part, by reviewing classic texts such as Psalm 139, but arguing that when we focus on God forming or knitting the unborn in the womb, that many actually miss the larger point. This paper will argue that the fundamental concept in such verses is the continuity of identity of the person as before and after birth. These texts treat the unborn and the post-born as one and the same person. We can also argue, then, that based on the continuity of identity, the unborn is image of God and thus a protected person, even though the visible expressions of that image are not yet visibly enacted. Personhood, and thus the sanctity of human life, is a gracious bestowment of a loving God. Our soteriology should inform our concept of personhood.