Failure of Personhood (in Mississippi and Elsewhere)

I was honestly surprised last Tuesday when Mississippi rejected the referendum that would have legally defined “personhood” as beginning at conception. I figured the personhood movement targeted Mississippi because it was the safest red state they could have possibly picked. I’m not going to speculate on why things happened the way they did. But as someone who opposes both abortion and the manipulative use of abortion as a partisan political tool, I really hope that some of those who were involved in this initiative will reprioritize and change their tactics. To me, the personhood movement itself is a witness of the failure of personhood in modern Western thought, because thinking the state can decree “personhood” negates the meaning of personhood. Rights do not make a human being into a person; only relationships can do that.

In Paul Tournier’s The Meaning of Persons, he talks about two ways of experiencing reality: the world of things and the world of persons. To perceive reality as a world of things is to see a forest of categories rather than individual trees. We see poor and rich, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, intellectuals and rednecks, hip and square, nerdy and cool (or whatever the kids’ slang is these days). We relate to other humans not as persons but as categories: Sam is my gay black friend who proves that I’m not racist or homophobic; Andrea is my wild, adventurous friend who I go clubbing with; Paul is my intellectual friend who I go to the coffeehouse with; etc. In the world of things, we define ourselves in solidarity with a tribal category (plain, honest folks; free spirits; union members; fellow Marines; etc) and in opposition to a different tribal category (elitist latte drinkers; back-woods inbred fundamentalists; greedy bankers; morally filthy Hollywood stars; etc).

To live in the world of persons is to appreciate the way God’s image is reflected in the irreducible idiosyncrasies of every individual in our lives. We live in that world when we do not need our imagined invisible audience to notice what a brilliant conversation we are having with our artistically successful hipster friend and when we’re not embarrassed to sit with boring old friends who have nothing remarkable to say. But as long as we are actors in the sitcom about our lives whose identity is an amalgamation of consumer products, then we are not living in the world of persons.

Tournier writes that “to become a person, to discover the world of persons, to acquire the sense of the person, to be more interested in people as persons than in their ideas, their party labels… means a complete revolution, changing the climate of our lives” (183). I agree with what Tournier affirms here; we do not start out as persons; we  have to become persons (though I’m not saying that becoming a person in this sense is equivalent to already being a living creature). How do we become persons? By discovering who we are in relationship to other people. I imagine it’s unsurprising that a Christian pastor like me would say that you become a true person when you find where you belong in the body of Christ, which is the group of people who have been gathered out of automated existence into a community of true being.

I really don’t think there’s any other social entity that produces authentic personhood in the same way as the body of Christ, since other groupings of people coalesce around ideologies and market-manufactured identities. I might befriend somebody from outside my ideological tribe but as long as my identity is ideologically-driven,then my relationship with that person will be inherently tokenistic (my friend from the “other side” who proves that I can transcend categories by befriending someone who is black, in the military, a libertarian, etc).

Someone who is truly interested in embracing other people as persons cannot live in the world of ideological absolutes. This is where the anti-abortion movement often reveals itself to be anti-personhood. If you are ideologically committed to the concept that life always begins at conception and you think that’s the conceptual firewall that must be defended at all costs, then what do you do when a 9-year old girl who would die in childbirth gets pregnant because she was raped? This is what happened in Nicaragua in 2003. Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo threatened to excommunicate the girls’ parents, the girl, and the doctor when the girl got the abortion she needed to save her life (though public outcry forced him to back off his threat). The pro-life website LifesiteNews mobilized its readers to send a letter to Nicaraguan health officials expressing support for “the lives of both the young mother and her unborn child,” claiming that this case was “being exploited by feminist organizations to press for abortion legalization.”

Brave New Films

The “feminist” organization they cited, the Nicaraguan Network of Women Against Domestic Violence, is actually a group I interacted with a decade ago while working at an NGO in Washington, DC. The signature initiative of this group would be scandalous to ideologically rigid feminists. Their goal in the work they do with domestic violence is to create reconciliation between domestic abusers and their abused spouses largely through the mentorship of repentant abusers who formed the Network of Men Against Domestic Violence. In other words, they take the controversial approach of viewing abusers as persons rather than monsters who are irredeemably damned. This is the opposite of being ideological and the opposite of the perspective of entities like LifesiteNews in which legislative precedents are more important than the particularities of individual lives (i.e. because I’m “pro-life,” I can’t be bothered with the complexity of your life).

So how do unborn babies become people? A good place to start would be to treat their mommies like people. Whatever else is true about abortion, it is the product of women not being treated with dignity. People who oppose abortion as a cause that’s part of their ideological anti-feminist tribalism might use “personhood” as a legislative tactic in the pursuit of an ideological victory. It’s an entirely different approach to invest your energy into creating programs and support systems that nurture and affirm the personhood of mothers and their unborn babies. I know that this is already happening in many quiet ways across the country. I suspect that a critical hurdle we must overcome to end abortion in this country is for personhood to win over ideology within the leadership of the anti-abortion movement.

Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at

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About the Author

Morgan Guyton

Morgan GuytonMorgan Guyton is the author of How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. His blog Mercy Not Sacrifice is hosted at Patheos. He and his wife Cheryl are co-directors of NOLA Wesley, a Reconciling United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, LA.View all posts by Morgan Guyton →

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  • Anonymous

    “The inalienable right to life possessed by every human being is present from the moment of initial formation, and all human beings shall be entitled to the equal protection of persons under the law.” Download the free Personhood Booklet at:

  • Anonymous

    I’ll preface my comments by saying I don’t know a lot about the legal ramifications of the personhood amendment or the politics of why it failed.  Like Morgan, I’ll not comment on it, but keep myself to a response to Morgan’s comments.

    I think Morgan makes some excellent points about personhood when he quotes Tournier.  His observations about how we separate people into categories is poignant.

    But in the end, using Tournier’s discussion of what makes a human being a person to defuse the personhood amendment is merely a semantic debate.  If the supporters of the amendment had labeled it the “human life” amendment the discussion of what makes someone a person would have little to no bearing on the debate about whether the amendment is worthy of support.  Morgan makes a decent point that perhaps the amendment was mislabeled, but that’s about it.

    As to the broader topic of outlawing abortion, he reverts to the “ticking time bomb” scenario of the abortion debate.  What I mean is, his argument using the example of the nine year old girl who was raped is like the argument I hear from those who support torture that we need to allow torture in all circumstances because in some incredibly small number of circumstances there might be a terrorist who knows the location of a time bomb set to go off and we’ll need torture to get that information from him.  This is what focusing on those incredibly small number of situations in which a woman is raped or in danger of death from childbirth sounds like to pro-lifers.  The vast majority of abortions take place for other reasons.

    Seeking to draw the line on “personhood” somewhere other than birth is no more ideological than using birth as the point after which human life should be protected.  Using birth is just a much more commonly held ideology.  Morgan rhetorically asks how unborn babies become persons.  He dodges the question by talking about their mothers.  After all, had he answered it directly he could just as easily be accused of having an “ideological absolute” as someone who would answer that question differently.

    He’s right that in many instances abortion is the product of women not being treated with dignity.  Men have played a huge role in this sad state of affairs.  It’s an unmitigated good pro-lifers have evolved their mission to provide support to pregnant mothers as well as protest the horror that is abortion.  But accusing those who oppose abortion of “ideological anti-feminist tribalism” isn’t helpful.  The only ideology here is that all human life is sacred and should be protected under the law.  Whether we call that life “personhood” or not is immaterial to the larger issue at hand.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your response, Sam. I’m not sure you believe me or not, but I actually do oppose abortion myself. In this essay, I’m speaking as someone who wants there to be no abortion and who thinks that unborn life is sacred. Perhaps I’m playing around too much semantically in talking about “personhood,” but I really want for the anti-abortion movement to succeed which will only happen when it unhinges itself from its slavish commitment to being a partisan wedge issue and its incoherent coupling with antithetical ideologies. How can someone be pro-life and be an advocate of social Darwinism at the same time? Abortion is a market-based solution to the problem of poverty.

      You’re not really pro-life if you have no interest in the well-being of babies once they’re born. I know there are many people in the pro-life movement who really are interested in the well-being of children born into poverty, but too many prominent voices have shown that their primary ideological investment is in attacking feminism, not defending babies.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks Morgan.  I absolutely believe you when you say that you oppose abortion.  I think that one can honestly oppose abortion and support the right to have one at the same time.  That being said, I’d ask you to examine your views on public policy related to abortion and compare your views with the most radical supporters of abortion on demand and see where they conflict.  Do they?  The vast majority of people I’ve met who take your position (personally opposed, yet support the right of women to get one) don’t differ much at all from the NARAL-types except for possibly beliefs about whether abortion should be publicly funded.

        I didn’t mean to knock your discussion of personhood per se; it’s an important discussion and one in which I wish more Christians engaged.  I just don’t think it has a lot to add to the discussion about at what stage in human development our laws should protect life.I don’t think attacking feminism is a helpful strategy in the cause of reducing or eliminating abortion in our society.  But I also don’t think that’s the main motivation of the vast majority of pro-lifers who want to restrict access to abortion.  Their desire is to save the lives of unborn babies.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing out the politicians who support abortion rights and criticizing them for it.

        • Let me clarify my views further. I don’t think women should be allowed to have abortions except in extreme circumstances like rape, incest, or medical necessity. I also think that the prohibition of abortion will be better advanced if Democratic politicians can no longer take for granted that their constituency supports abortion rights and can no longer say that anti-abortion activists are really just a front-group mostly focused on winning votes for the GOP. The less that strategy is focused on single-issue voting and the more that Democrats are engaged directly, particularly those whose political beliefs are grounded in Catholicism or another socially conscious form of Christianity, then the more successful the movement will be, if the goal is really to stop abortion and not to keep working-class whites tethered to the GOP.

          • Anonymous

            Thanks for getting back to me.  I apologize I forgot to respond until now.  I also apologize for assuming your views on abortion were different than how you described them in your last comment.

            However, the reason I made the assumption that I did was that you criticized those who want to restrict access to abortion as overly ideological.  Therefore, I assumed you were not among that group.

    • RevEntrepreneurMomInvestor

      I do not read semantic argument in Guyton’s article.  I appreciate his attention to the meanings ascribed to personhood and how those meanings project into questions of moral decisions.  

      In this particular piece, he mentions the moral conundrum of comparing the life of a 9-year-old rape victim facing a probable death if she delivers a child versus the life forming in her uterus.  Where is God in this choice?  This is a choice, as the mother remains a minor.   

      I appreciate theologically reflection on the COMMON and FREQUENT conundrums of our day. They are the rule, not the exception. Hubris is the guide that says that all rules are absolute. 

      I oppose abortion in general but value human life to the extent that I believe with the ultimate stewardship responsibility of life must have choice.  Until society chooses to step up to responsibility for unwanted newborns or for children in distressed families,  that choice must remain with parents.  That’s the natural way market economies must ascribe decisions, like it or not. 

      It would be helpful if churches/agencies with strong ideologies on unwanted pregnancies and children in distress would invest in intervention rather than lobbying. It would certainly have better outcomes in the real world.  

      Re: Biblical discernment … the course of Biblical / Christian history is a continuing discernment of who God is.  May we continue to contribute to that history … adding our human wonderings of discovery to our wonderings about God and God’s will (which continues to exceed our capability to comprehend).  Claims to a human knowing of God’s comprehensive will are flawed.  

      • “It would be helpful if churches/agencies with strong ideologies on
        unwanted pregnancies and children in distress would invest in
        intervention rather than lobbying. It would certainly have better
        outcomes in the real world.” Yes!

      • Anonymous

        I appreciate Morgan’s attention to the discussion of personhood too.  As I said, I think he makes some excellent points in quoting Tournier.  But as I said in my reply to him, I don’t think it helps us make a decision about at what stage in human development our laws should protect life (which was what the personhood amendment was about).

        I acknowledged his story about the nine year-old rape victim.  It’s a sad, tragic situation.  But the vast majority of attempts to limit abortion make exceptions for situations like that.  It’s also an extreme case that occurs very rarely.

        The choice that you allude to, which is a lot more common, is a choice between bringing a healthy, normal pregnancy to term or ending it.  It’s awful that some people in our society don’t value their fellow humans (born and unborn) enough to care for them.  But I’m not sure why ensuring that every single child is cared for is a prerequisite for banning an unjust and immoral practice.  I wouldn’t justify slavery with the argument that “We don’t have a social safety net yet in place to take care of all these poor, uneducated people, so let’s let the practice continue.”

        I agree with you that the pro-life movement needs to invest as much time as it does in helping parents and children in need as they do lobbying on abortion.  There’s a strong link between poverty and abortion.  But we have to admit that abortions would still take place even if poverty was substantially reduced.  Reducing poverty will not end abortions.

  • Megan

    I really appreciate this post.  I’m actually from Mississippi and was very against this piece of legislation.  Thanks for writing! 

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