Quick Response #27: You Need to Be Human Plus Something Else to Have Personhood

This quick response video addresses one of the most challenging pro-choice dialogue points, what we call the “human-plus” argument: that you need something like human nature, plus another feature like sentience or consciousness, in order to have personhood.

As Emily Albrecht explains, the human-plus argument isn’t challenging to respond to because it’s a good argument, but because it’s a bad one; human-plus is ad hoc, adding extra requirements just to exclude the unborn, and it’s hard to get people to realize why this is a problem. This video walks you through what we’ve found to be most effective when trying to help someone avoid being ad hoc in a dialogue about abortion.


Sometimes, you’ll make a good argument for the personhood of unborn humans, good enough that the other person can’t maintain their old pro-choice view, but they’ll still reach for something to justify abortion. We notice that this happens sometimes after we make the Equal Rights Argument, as we did in Quick Response #2: The Embryo Isn’t a Person. We explain why present abilities don’t offer a good basis for personhood, and why something like human nature is a better answer. If you haven’t watched that video, pause this one now and watch that first. After understanding the Equal Rights Argument, some pro-choice people come back with, “well, something like human nature might be important, but you need something else, too. You have to be human, plus X.” X is always some functional ability, like “you have to be human, plus sentient” or “you have to be human, plus viable” in order to count as a person.

Human-plus arguments, as we refer to them, are basically always committing a logical mistake called the ad hoc fallacy. When someone is being ad hoc, they’re engineering arguments and facts to match a conclusion they decided in advance. Ad hoc arguments are designed to reach a conclusion even if the best evidence doesn’t lead to it. It’s important to note, though, that people are often ad hoc unintentionally, so they can think they’re being open-minded but inadvertently make this mistake. Because of this, it can be hard to effectively point out what’s going on in the conversation, and even harder to demonstrate the problem to them in a way that they’ll recognize as a thing they were doing.

One approach is to ask two questions. First, how did you come to the conclusion that functional ability X should be added to human nature when explaining who has personhood? Second, what does your ingredient X offer to make “something like human nature, plus X” better than just “something like human nature.”

These questions usually help show that there is only one difference between “human plus X” and “human”: unborn humans are conveniently excluded. Remember, whatever functional ability you fill in for X, without human nature, either excludes some born humans or includes squirrels, both of which are a problem. Human-plus arguments piggyback off of the benefits of our answer to the Equal Rights Argument, because they don’t want to give the wrong answers to uncontroversial questions about who is or isn’t a person, but it adds the functional ability X back in just to make sure the fetus isn’t granted an equal right to life. In other words, X alone can’t explain personhood because it gives obviously wrong answers about who is a person. Using just “human nature” explains personhood perfectly well but gives the often undesirable answer that the unborn are persons. For many people, human plus X seems to fix both problems; it doesn’t get those obviously wrong answers, but it also successfully excludes the unborn, which is a desired outcome for most pro-choice people.

In order to make it clear what’s going on to the person who might be unintentionally doing this, it’s helpful to give an example of a clearly ad hoc move. If I wanted to argue in favor of abortion, and I decided that personhood was a result of “something like human nature PLUS being not a fetus,” that would be ad hoc, and I think most people would agree with that. I just added something for no purpose other than getting the answer I wanted in the first place!

Here’s the thing: that’s basically what the human-plus answer does! If you add something and the only thing it does is exclude one class of beings—unborn humans—it’s just as ad hoc as saying, “humanity plus being not a fetus gives you personhood.” There is functionally no difference between just “human nature” and “human nature plus X” except you’re excluding one class of beings—unborn ones. I’m saying “all the humans should have rights” while an ad hoc pro-choice person is saying “all the humans except this one group of humans should have rights.”

Human-plus arguments are the sort of thing that ought to raise some red flags when you hear them. There are so many examples in history of people denying rights to a class of people because, when they drew their equal rights circle, they used factors like “human plus male” or “human plus white.” We’re not saying that people who make human-plus arguments all have the same motivations or culpability of people justifying slavery, but the fact of the matter is that these arguments have been used to arbitrarily deprive people of their rights for centuries. Given that, it’s reasonable to ask: is “human plus X” a good argument for abortion, or is it another example of ad hoc reasoning used to deprive people of their rights?

The biggest challenge of the human-plus argument is that it can be difficult to help someone realize they’re making a logical mistake. Often, they’ll insist that there’s nothing wrong with their argument and walk away. Still, the approach we’ve outlined is one of the most effective ways we know to try and help someone realize they’re being ad hoc about abortion.


Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh has worked in the pro-life movement since he was 18. A sought-after speaker, Josh has spoken for more than 23,000 people in six countries and in 22 of the 50 states.

Josh’s primary passion is helping pro-life people to be more persuasive when they communicate with pro-choice people. That means ditching faulty rhetoric and tactics and embracing arguments that hold up under philosophical scrutiny.

He has publicly debated leaders from Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Georgians for Choice, and one of the leading abortion facilities in Atlanta.

Josh also wants to bring relational apologetics to the pro-life movement. “Some pro-choice people will not change their mind after one conversation on a college campus. Some of them will only change their mind after dozens of conversations with a person they trust in the context of friendship.”

Josh is formerly the host of a globally-heard podcast turned radio/TV show, Life Report. He now hosts the Equipped for Life Podcast. He’s also written dozens of articles for LifeNews.com and the ERI blog.

He directed the first 40 Days for Life campaign in Fresno, resulting in up to 60 lives saved.

Josh has been happily married to his wife, Hannah, for 15 years. They have three sons, Noah, William, and Eli. They live in Charlotte, North Carolina.

David Bereit, the National Director of 40 Days for Life, sums up Josh’s expertise this way: “Josh Brahm is one of the brightest, most articulate, and innovative people in the pro-life movement. His cutting-edge work is helping people think more clearly, communicate more effectively, and — most importantly — be better ambassadors for Christ. I wholeheartedly endorse Josh’s work, and I encourage you to join me in following Josh and getting involved in his work today!”

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