HomeLUMINAvol. 21 no. 2 (2010)

Personhood and Abortion: An African Perspective

Ebunoluwa O. Oduwole

Discipline: Philosophy



One of the most fundamental issues in contemporary ethical discourse, which philosophers have not been able to reach any considerable consensus is the question of personhood. It is the question of what constitutes the humanness, dignity and personal identity of a being. Within the Western philosophical circle, no uncontroversial answer prevails. Any answer given to the fundamental question has serious implications for one’s moral judgment on the moral worthiness or otherwise of moral issues like euthanasia, human rights, capital punishment, helping the poor, abortion amongst others. For instance, in the discourse on abortion, the question of personhood takes the form of: When does personhood begin and can there be any justifiable grounds for consciously bringing to an abrupt end, the existence of such personhood by another individual? Some modern bio-ethicists like Baruch Brody, I.W. Summer and Mary Warren have responded to this question and in fact come up with certain criteria of personhood which suit their advocacy for abortion.

While the question of personhood and abortion has received spontaneous reactions, albeit controversies, from philosophers in the Western philosophical tradition, it has received apathy in African philosophical discourse. This paper is an attempt to explore an African philosophical perspective to the themes of personhood and abortion. Using the Yoruba thought as a foil, the paper seeks to provide a comparative critique of Warren’s position on the discourse and consequently, to establish that human personhood for the Yoruba begins at pre-conception and that the act of abortion is ethically condemnable in Yoruba ethics.