The Ontology of Personhood - "Abortion in the Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy" by Marek Czachorowski

This article begins with a specific definition of what abortion is. It is the direct killing of a human being before it is born. Now, Czachorowski says that the morality of abortion comes down to, in reality, an argument over the ontological status of the human being beginning at conception. In other words, is a human being at conception the same in its nature as the human being at other points in its development? Czachorowski answers, yes, the ontological status is the same. 1 

Czachorowski's Article

Historical Opinions on Delayed Animation

Czachorowski begins then with a look at a few historical perspectives. [Though these perspectives clearly are at a disadvantage with regard to their scientific understanding of conception and human growth] Plato is mentioned as holding that from the seed given by the man that the soul begins to proceed, though other time he contradicts himself, holding that the soul is received as the child takes its first breath outside the womb. Aristotle is likewise mentioned, holding that the humanity of a child develops as it receives its three part soul, vegetative - sensual - and rational, though it is argued that Aristotle is not clear exactly in what means or when a soul is received. Others, like Tertullian, and the Stoic Aenesidemus, held that from the first moment of the implantation of the seed in the woman that the matter and form of the human were combined, thus that is was fully human from the start. 2 Both Saints Augustine and Jerome admitted unsurety at to when the rational soul was given by God to the child in the womb. St. Thomas Aquinas, depending on the biology of Aristotle, followed his lead holding that the human being is made up of a three part soul - vegetative, sensual, and rational - and thus the rational part would not be infused until the body was ready to receive it, leaving a bit of a delay. This interpretation of Thomas has been disputed, though, and some hold that Thomas thought that the body was prepared for the rational soul instantaneously, leaving no delay at all. 3 [It should be pointed out that regardless of when these saints speculated about the infusion of a rational soul, they still held that abortion was a grave crime as it was ending a developing human life, something Czachorowski points out later in the article] 

The Clarification of Modern Science on Conception

These older speculations have become a moot point today, as we now understand the process of human generation infinitely more clearly than someone in the ancient world. How do our scientific discoveries, though, play into the philosophical consideration about the ontological status of a human being from conception? Czachorowski points out that today there can be no logical claims to a delayed ensoulment because it is clear that from the first moment of conception that the human being is driven by the same impelling force through to full growth and adulthood. In a physical sense this is the genetic and onto-genetic coding which guides the process along. In a philosophical sense this can be thought of as the soul, or act of being, which is present in the potentiality of the matter. Either way, the whole the person, including their rationality, is present in that original program of development at conception. 4 


To deny this would be to locate the ontological status of being a human at some arbitrary point in the process of the growth or decay of human, instead of as the process of life itself. In other words, it is not to be more human when one is five years old than ninety five years old, both are different stages in the same process of the growth and decay of a human life. Therefore, the same ontological status holds true of the earlier stages in the womb, as nothing is different ontologically about the human in the womb. The whole human being is present in the program of development which is generated at the moment of conception. 5

"Furthermore, all the theories that state that the beginning of human life is later than at the moment of conception (e.g., based on such criteria as the moment of birth, the ability to exist on one’s own, the possession of consciousness, the development of nerve tissue, the ability to move, etc.) arbitrarily take some stage of human development as the determining factor in the existence of the human being. This leads to absurd consequences when one is forced not to recognize as human beings those who certainly are human beings." 6

Application to the Morality of Abortion

Czachorowski talks about the common presence of Abortion in many ancient cultures. He mentions Plato and Aristotle. Plato, in his famous Repubic, holds that for breeding and eugenic reasons abortion can be performed. Aristotle talks about the aborting, or murder, of the deformed, who should not be reared because of their deformity. He also talks about those who conceive children when they are forbidden by some law for having more children. Then an abortion must be performed before pain is felt. Seneca also talks about the killing of deformed children by drowning as something acceptable. 7

For the early Christians this was, of course, condemned. Even if they could not pinpoint the exact moment of the rational ensoulment, all of them - from Clement of Alexandria to Jerome - held that to kill an unborn child would be a grave crime against God and man. In the words of Tertullian, "'To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing...'". 8 For Aquinas, the same held true. He calls out, as well, the use of abortifacient means of ending life in the womb. 9 Czachorowski point out that it was not until the writings of the Marquis de Sade that the justification of abortion came back to European thinking. 

How do people seek to justify this practice today? Czachorowski points to forms of moral relativism which try to give some subjective justification for the action over the objective ontological status of the human being. Once the ontological status of the human being has been established from the first moment of conception, it cannot logically or morally make sense to perform an abortion. Any attempt at this will be a perversion of the moral good. Some justify it by putting personal pleasure over the life of the other. Others, by claiming an authority over the life of other human being through a self proclaimed justification, or by the justification of some outside authority. Again, these cannot be justified because one is placing some subjective desire or criteria over the objective nature of the human being. It cannot be justified to kill another because of one's personal pleasure, justification, or the justification of another. Rather, this is something that is grounded in the Natural Law and "If abortion is the taking of the life of an innocent and defenseless human person, then this act is always and everywhere morally wrong." 

A child also cannot be considered "an unjust aggressor" to be defended against because the child did not choose or consciously will its existence on its own. Nor can anyone who posits doubts about the personhood of the human being in the womb be justified because, just as the early Christians thought, even the possibility of killing that human life is not morally acceptable. 10 To kill the human being in the womb because it would serve the supposed well-being of the mother also logically cannot be acceptable because that is to subject that human life for the desires of another. The objective goodness of that life simply outweighs any perceived benefit of aborting that life, even in cases of rape or poverty. These conditions cannot take away the objective nature of the human being in the womb. It is still a human being. 

Mother Teresa

Now, Czachorowski does point out a distinction in which a mother's life may in danger because of that pregnancy. In this case, there cannot be a directly willed killing of the human being in the womb, but only a direct willing of saving the life of the mother which may result in the unintended death of the child. 11

"The killing of the child before birth in order to save the life of the mother in cases where these goods are in conflict is also not morally justified. This situation must, however, be distinguished from abortus indirectus, that is, from cases where the obligation to save the life of a woman in immediate danger justifies a medical intervention which indirectly—unintendedly but unavoidably—results in the death of the child (e.g., the surgical removal of part of the fallopian tube in a case of extra-uterine pregnancy which poses an immediate threat to the lives of both mother and child). Cases where the death of an unborn child is merely allowed must be distinguished from cases where the child is directly put to death in order to save the mother’s life. In the latter case the child is treated merely as a means to the end of another person, which is as morally unjustified as it would be to treat the mother merely as a means for the good of the child. Since persons can never be treated merely as means to an end, they must not be treated as such when a mother’s life is in danger." 12

Lastly, Czachorowski finishes by talking about the fact that a human being's life cannot be ended when it is impaired, the ontological dignity that belongs to them is still present even in impairment. 13


1 - Marek Czachorowski, “Abortion in The Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” Studia Gilsoniana 7, no. 4 (October–December 2018): 567–578:  - Pg. 567

2 - 568

3 - 569

4 - 570

5 - 571

6 - 571

7 - 572, 573

8 - 573

9 - 574

10 - 575

11 - 576

12 - 576, 577

13 - 577