Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University
The fundamental issue at stake in abortion debates is personhood, which is viewed differently around the world, an anthropologist writes.
Opponents and proponents of abortion rights often frame their positions in terms of two fundamental values: “life” or “choice.”
However, many defenders of “life” are comfortable with taking human life in situations such as war or capital punishment. Many on the side of “choice” advocate for government regulation of guns or mandates on masking and vaccines.
As I see it, “life” and “choice” are not, in and of themselves, really the issue. The central question is what – or who – constitutes a person.
This question has long preoccupied anthropologists, particularly those like me who specialize in the study of non-European religions. Some ideas usually taken for granted in the United States and Europe about what it means to be a person are, quite simply, not shared with followers of other religious traditions and cultures.
Ideas about personhood in U.S. culture are largely a product of Christianity, in which personhood is inextricably tied to the notion of the soul. Only a being who possesses a soul is a person, and personhood is treated as a black-and-white matter: Either a being has a soul or it does not.
A detail of the facade of a church in Conques, France, illustrates Christian teachings about salvation. Photo by JARRY/TRIPELON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
As a specialist of religion in Africa, I have become aware of religious traditions that treat personhood in very different and more nuanced ways. The majority of people in Africa identify as Muslim or Christian, but indigenous religions remain widespread, and many view personhood as a process rather than a once-and-for-all phenomenon.
This is well illustrated by beliefs about babies in the Beng culture of Côte d’Ivoire, which anthropologist Alma Gottlieb details in her remarkable 2004 ethnography, “The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.”
For Beng, all babies are reincarnations of people who recently died. They emerge from a place called “wrugbe,” which is simultaneously the afterlife and a sort of before-life. […]