"Babies are not persons"
Updated: Jul 27, 2022
“Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons. Hence their lives would seem to be no more worthy of protection than the life of a fetus.”
- Peter Singer
What is a person? This seems an odd question. Everyone knows what a person is. A person is a person – you know – a homo sapien, a human being. There are about seven billion persons on planet Earth. We see them every day. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them. So how could there even be a question as to what a person is?
It seems, to some, personhood is a fuzzy concept. Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, is one of them. He claims that babies “are not persons.” He defines personhood in terms of capabilities. To him, if you’re not self-aware and understand your own existence over time, you’re not a person. Based on this definition, babies, people in comas, and some who are mentally impaired don’t measure up. They’re not actual people.
I’m just glad Peter Singer isn’t a medical doctor.
Peter Singer’s worldview
Singer’s worldview is that of naturalism. He doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t seem to be an old-fashioned scientific materialist who sees the world through the eyes of matter. He also doesn’t seem to be a humanist who sees the world through the eyes of people. Instead, he seems to fall somewhere in the middle category of those who view the world through the eyes of biology. Given this, he sees personhood and value in biological terms.
It’s clear that human life biologically begins at conception. However, Singer and others contend that human life and personhood are two different things. This has long been a topic of the debate over abortion. However, Singer extends this debate to after a baby is born.
To Singer, personhood is determined functionally. You are a person if you possess two things – self-awareness and an understanding of your existence over time. But, is “personhood” dependent upon a list of capabilities? If so, what would preclude Singer or others from adding more items to the list? What about IQ, the ability to care for yourself, the ability to remember the past, or the ability to communicate? Is personhood truly dependent upon capabilities?
The implications on human value
Since infants are not persons in Singer’s view, they have lesser value. If they are not wanted, Singer sees no problem with parents terminating the life of an unhealthy child. He suggests giving parents this option up to twenty-eight days after a baby is born. After all, to Singer, neither a baby in a mother’s womb nor one just born are “entitled to the same degree of protection as a person.”
Does Singer consider killing a healthy baby to be wrong? Yes, he does. However, the reason he offers is not what you might expect. He states it is wrong to kill a healthy baby, because someone else might want it. So, to Singer, a baby’s real value seems to be dependent upon whether someone wants the child – not upon the intrinsic value that a child possesses.
The implications on morality
Singer’s worldview resembles that of 1st and 2nd century Rome. Unwanted babies were simply left along the roadside. Babies who were found were often raised to be prostitutes. Others died. Jews, who saw people as created in the image of God and inherently valuable, were criticized for thinking it wrong to kill “excess” children. Christians, who saw abortion and child abandonment as murder, were also scorned. Is this the world that Peter Singer wants to return? Is a child only valuable if someone else wants them?
Peter Singer doesn’t reject the idea of morality. Though he doesn’t agree with the idea of moral absolutes, he does think morality and ethical standards are important. He thinks we need them. He also believes that people should live ethically rather than selfishly. Singer even supports many humanitarian causes. Yet, if all people don’t possess the same value or are ascribed personhood based on capabilities, what kind of morality results?
A theistic view
A worldview that includes God is very different from Peter Singer’s. This is particularly true of Christian theism.
Like Judaism, Christianity conveys that people are highly valued by God – even if they’re not valued by others. People are not merely things or smart animals; they’re beings with the capacity to know God. The Tanakh and the New Testament both teach that God loves people and invites them to love him back. Christianity further conveys that God entered his creation as a person – Jesus Christ – to demonstrate just how much he loves and values us all.
In a Christian worldview, the sick and handicapped, the rich and poor, the educated and unschooled, the moral and immoral are all valued and loved by God. He values everyone so much that he suffered and died to demonstrate it!
How do you want to be valued?
Peter Singer’s view of personhood and value may make sense through the eyes of biology. Yet it is demeaning when viewed from the eyes of humanity in general and frightening when compared to the value we desire.
Most of us want to be valued highly, equally, universally and unchangingly. This is the value that we seem to ascribe to ourselves. Yet, the only way we can truly possess this kind of value is if the source of our value is not dependent on the chemicals we contain, our abilities, or someone else’s opinion. This kind of value requires a universal valuer who values us highly and equally – always. A valuer like that could only be God.
About Peter Singer:
Peter Singer was educated at the University of Melbourne and at Oxford University. He was a professor of Philosophy at Monash University in Australia and is presently a professor of Bioethics in the Philosophy Department at Princeton University. He has been an advocate of animal rights, poverty relief, environmentalism and abortion.
 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 210.  IBID, 217.  IBID, 211.  Peter Singer, Frequently Asked Questions, 1-29-2021, https://petersinger.info/faq  Justin, First Apology, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 172.  Tacitus, The Histories (London, England: Penguin Books, 2009), 247  Athenagorus, A Plea for the Christians, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 147.  Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle (Princeton University Press, 2011), 167.  Peter Singer, How Are We to Live? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), 235.  John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11.