An interesting claim was offered in class discussion one day. The students were discussing the famous, or infamous, 1999 exchange between Senators Santorum and Boxer about partial-birth abortion, in which Boxer refused to specify any point, even after birth, at which the child was entitled to Constitutional protection as a human person.
Student reactions fall all over the map. Some criticize Boxer for refusing to answer, others sympathize with her because she was being pressed to answer a question she preferred not to.
To one of my students, Santorum’s line of questioning seemed unfair, because it supposed that one is either a person or not. Well, I think that one is, from the moment of conception. In my student’s view, though, personhood is a matter of degree. Asking “What makes someone a person?” is like asking “How many grains of sand have to be added together they count as a heap?”
Call this the Heap Theory of human personhood. Many of the public would agree with it. Just as a larger group of grains may be more like a heap than a smaller one, you may be more like a person than I am. On a 100-point personhood scale, perhaps you’re a 62, but I’m only a 51.
People who hold this view never think through its implications. If the premise is true, then we ought to initiate a rigid caste system, because the desires of those who are higher on the personhood scale should trump the desires of those who are lower -- even as to questions such as who shall be permitted to live.