- a cause for an action or event.
- a sufficient ground of explanation or logical defense.
This is a post I’ve wanted to put together for a long time.
As my wife and I have walked this road of being parents to a child lost in miscarriage, we have had no shortage of sympathy, compassion, and care. But on occasion we’ve encountered friends that, while sympathetic, don’t ultimately understand the cause of our grief. For many, the grief of miscarriage is little more than a big disappointment. At worst, some have gone so far as to suggest that we don’t have real reason to grieve with the intensity that we have.
That is why I wanted to write this post: to show how there is reason to the reason for our grief. In other words, the cause of our grief has a logical, rational justification. And there are few cultural scenarios I can imagine in which this justification would be more important.
The reason we grieve is not because we are disappointed that the pregnancy didn’t pan out the way we wanted, though that’s part of it. The reason isn’t because we wanted a baby right away and were denied it for a time. The reason we grieve isn’t even just because a human being died, though one did. The reason we grieve is because that human being was a person.
You may ask, what’s the difference? Well, in some ways, there isn’t a difference between a human being and a person; at least I don’t believe there should be. But I make a point of calling Levi a person because of what personhood means. A person is a being that has innate moral dignity, meaning that their life is valued higher than other species and they possess rights. We have a moral obligation toward persons by virtue of this innate dignity. In short, they are set apart; some would say sacred.
To explain it a different way, what is the difference between hunting and murder? Well, unless we’re playing “the most dangerous game,” we only hunt animals. Why is that? In either case, something dies. Moreover, something is killed. So what makes hunting any different than murder?
Whereas we do not have moral obligations toward animals, at least not in the sense we’re talking about here, we do have moral obligation toward humans. If someone were to hunt a human being we’d be appalled in a way that ought to eclipse whatever we felt about Cecil the Lion. It doesn’t even matter if that human was hunted for sport or food. In fact, I can’t tell which would be worse. On some intuitive level, we sense that humans are set apart.
Now, I recognize this is vague so far. Personhood is hard to define, and part of the reason is because it is exactly the definition of personhood that scholars are arguing about. They recognize that it refers to beings that are owed a particular honor or dignity, but what exactly makes something a person? Is it some ability they have? Is it something innate? Is it achieved?
Well there are a few ideas to that end, but I will only cover the main two here.
First, there is the capacity definition of personhood. This is the argument maintained by Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, and others. They would argue that a person is a person when they attain to certain functions, such as a certain level of cognition, the ability to feel pain, the ability to communicate, and so on. There are different suggestions as to which set of functions constitutes personhood depending on which scholar you are consulting, but ultimately the criteria comes down to observable operations.
Secondly, there is the substantive definition of personhood. This defines personhood according to the biology of what a thing is. In other words, something is a person if it is a certain species, in this case human. If a Christian were articulating the substantive definition, they would say this is because humans have been made in the image of God. Non-Christian articulations of the same definition have been put forward by men like Patrick Lee (a Christian himself), and are centered around the language of intrinsic value, rather than the image of God.
Now, I reject the capacity definition for a couple reasons. Firstly, how does one decide the criteria? It seems that one can offer one set of functions just easily as any other. There doesn’t seem to be any substantial argument to explain why one criteria is better than any other. On the same token, I could construct criteria that would confer personhood on a zygote, just as someone else could construct it around a toddler.
Secondly, the criteria tend to be very ill-defined. Why is one level of cognition insufficient while another is? Because of the way the argument has to be constructed, any one of us could at any time be excluded as a person by the vagueness of the definitions themselves. Thirdly, and related, this leaves the definition up to whoever gains enough power to make the decision, in which case personhood could be denied someone because of race, ethnicity, sex, etc.
Finally, on the grounds typically put forward, a capacity definition would exclude a number of people groups from personhood on the grounds that they don’t meet the given criteria. Such groups include: the mentally disabled, the elderly, infants, the comatose, and, in some articulations, the sleeping. By virtue of this reasoning, euthanasia, eugenics, post-birth abortion, and infanticide can and have all been justified. Those already vulnerable in human society become even more so.
As for myself, as you may guess, I take the substantive view. Aside from the fact that this view just seems more common sense, I take it in part because it is streamlined enough to avoid the dangerous pitfalls of the capacity definition. In other words, biology is not arbitrary. Additionally, it makes sense given the fact that the DNA structure of a human will remain unchanged, like all organic life, from the moment of conception. The zygote is, unquestionably, human. Therefore, given that both sides of the argument mark out humans, of at least most types, to be persons, it seems to me that any criteria additional to biology alone is arbitrarily and unnecessarily exclusive.
Lastly, but certainly not least, the Bible suggests that it is so, not only in Genesis where God confers His image on humanity, but elsewhere, such as in Psalm 139.
So taken together, the weakness of the capacity argument and the simplicity of the substantive argument convince me of the latter. But what does that mean for our grief?
It means that what Ashley and I grieve is a person, with just as much dignity as any adult, valuable, precious, honorable, and image-bearing. And that person, lost after 9 brief weeks of life, was our child. When people diminish the equal personhood, the equal grieve-ability of the unborn, they are diminishing humanity itself. They are buying into the capacity definition, which would suggest that in order to be grieved a human must meet a certain set of arbitrary criteria.
The question comes down to whether you believe humans are persons. If they are, then it is not weak to mourn what we never knew except in a blurry, indistinct sonogram. If they are, then their vulnerability should lead us to give them special honor. If they are, it seems to me an act of godly and obedient courage to see the horror in the invisible and silent deaths of the miscarried, and yes aborted, children of the world, and to give them the tears they deserve as God’s image bearers lost to sin’s rampant chaos.
Much of the research for this post is condensed in Ethics for a Brave New World by the Feinbergs.