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The serious difference between a “human being” and a “human person”

In making the distinction between being and personhood, did Pope Francis inadvertently contradict John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae?

Jesuit Father Matt Malone, outgoing editor-in-chief of America Magazine, listens during an interview with Pope Francis at the Vatican Nov. 22, 2022. (CNS photo/Antonello Nusca, America Media)

When Samuel Johnson sought to reject George Berkeley’s argument that our worldly experience consisted of mental abstractions, Johnson walked to a rock and kicked it, proclaiming, “I refute it thus” as a means of proving the point.

Such ad lapidem arguments often remain the Achilles heel of many pro-life arguments. What seems so patently clear to many of us remains terribly obscure to others. The danger of not making our arguments clear is to have them obscured in such a way where priests, bishops, and even popes make mistakes.

One of these mistakes was in Pope Francis’ recent interview with America Magazine, where the direct question was put to the Holy Father by Gloria Purvis. Should the right to life take priority over the question of social justice?

Francis demurred on the specific question, remarking that the pastoral question of abortion relating to persons should carry far more importance that the political question. Yet, in Francis’ answer, there was a troubling remark that could not be explained away as either a miscommunication or misunderstanding.

While defending the basic human right to exist in clear terms, Francis went out of his way to separate the idea of human being and human person, indicating that this question – long considered settled — was open as a matter for debate:

In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being.

This cannot be the case.

Human personhood is roughly defined by two qualities: existence and a rational soul. Pope Saint John Paul II offered his own definition of human personhood in Evangelium Vitae, specifically citing that human being and human person were synonymous terms from the very moment of creation. Quoting from documents on abortion and procreation from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, John Paul II wrote:

It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person… (EV, 60)

Critics who argued that a reduced potentiality means a reduced personhood find themselves firmly rebuked by John Paul II, who confirms that an “individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined” is indeed that human being. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that this ensoulment continues until the human person has exhaled his last breath, not when their potential for living is exhausted or diminished.

Francis’ answer is at odds with Evangelium Vitae in a most direct way. By putting distance between human being and human personhood, Francis intentionally or otherwise opens the door to a litany of horribles that have both moral and theological consequences too terrible to ignore.

The long history of human experience illustrates what happens when humanity is permitted to deny the personhood in others: slavery, the Jewish Holocaust, the Holodomor, the 70 million dead babies and mothers victimized by the abortion industry, Canada’s experiment in euthanizing the poor. All give testimony to the cruelty of treating one another as mere beings rather than full persons.

Of course, it is far more likely that Francis has not considered the question deeply enough. Too many Catholics forget how utterly spoiled we were to have such tremendous intellects in the Chair of St. Peter. Francis’ remark rightly emphasizes the pastoral over the political, yet the lack of theological precision in matters of life and death has dire and direct consequences in a world full of wolves.

Which brings us to a word of caution. One should have little interest in the cottage industry of “Francis-bashing” which passes for adult conversation in too many quarters of the English-speaking Catholic world. The great enemy of love, reminds John Paul II, continues to be utility and use.

When human persons are reduced to things, this is where Soren Kierkegaard’s admonishment in The Present Age rings most true: we can do the most terrible things to one another human person on principle. The bloody history of the modern age pays credence to this sentiment; rather than kicking a rock to prove the point, one need only ask St. Peter’s successor to be more mindful, even if we indulge in a little kick now and then.

(Editor’s note: This essay has been edited for sake of clarity since being posted.)


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About Shaun Kenney 1 Article
Shaun Kenney is a vice president for American Life League and a graduate student at the Catholic University of America.

42 Comments

  1. No, Francis, you are wrong. An unborn baby is a human person. A philosopher like St. John Paul II you are not. A theologian, you also are not. You confuse the faithful beyond belief. I’ve commented numerous times that your major problem is that you’re over-exposed. You give too many off-the-cuff interviews that result in your saying some pretty dumb things. I’d suggest that you reserve comments to matters of faith and morals when you specially intend to speak ex cathedra as Christ’s Vicar on earth.

    • Dear Deacon Peitler:

      Your comment about Francis being”over-exposed” is spot-on.

      The strength of the Church is men and women who rejoice in the Lord and serve Him in the spirit of love.

      Thank you for saying what needs to be said for the wellbeing of Christ bride, the Church.

      Yours in Christ,

      Brian

        • I remain severely troubled by these words by Pope Francis. Whilst it is clear he means to clear a path for those who have been a victim of the abortion industry, a road back to the Church, he inadvertently has created a slip-n-slide away from God. There is no doubt in my mind this isn’t the pope’s intention, but it is the logical outcome all the same.

    • With respect, Deacon, the Pope in that quotation is describing what “any book of embryology” can tell us. And he’s hardly the first Catholic I’ve seen argue for the pro-life position starting from that point. Personhood is a philosophical concept, the soul a religious one, but you can establish purely from embryology (which is presumably easier for everyone to agree on than those other disciplines) that even a zygote is a) biologically alive, b) genetically human, and c) a distinct human from either parent, not like their own cells.

      For Catholics, it then follows that every distinct human has their own rational soul, and may not rightly be killed except in very specific circumstances.

      Pope Francis is not dissenting from or altering Catholic teaching on abortion. He is following other Catholic writers in trying to start the argument from the common ground of pure biology. Focusing on the “living human being — I do not say person” part when he is describing what you can get from a biology book is disingenuous. A biology book isn’t going to talk about personhood any more than it’s going to talk about the soul.

  2. Pope Francis states: “On abortion, I can tell you these things, which I’ve said before. In any book of embryology it is said that shortly before one month after conception the organs and the DNA are already delineated in the tiny fetus, before the mother even becomes aware. Therefore, there is a living human being. I do not say a person, because this is debated, but a living human being. And I raise two questions: Is it right to get rid of a human being to resolve a problem? Second question: Is it right to hire a ‘hit man’ to resolve a problem?”

    With all due respect, I think Sean Kenney misconstrues the significance of Pope Francis’ remarks on human life and human personhood.

    As I read Francis’ remarks, he moves from what is a scientific fact–that an unborn child is a living human being–to helping people consider the ethical implications of that scientific fact when it comes to abortion–the killing of what is scientifically indisputably a human being. Francis chooses to avoid getting into the question of whether to describe an unborn child as a “person” because, as he notes, the application of the term in this case is “debated”. Instead, he focuses on what is not *scientifically* debatable.

    Is this a good rhetorical move? To sidestep the use of the term “person” and to focus instead on the scientifically factual element that the unborn child is a living human being? To leave it to his listeners to draw out the moral implication of killing a human being?

    Maybe, maybe not. But that’s a different issue from what Mr Kenney suggests:

    “Francis’ answer is at odds with Evangelium Vitae in a most direct way. By putting distance between human being and human personhood, Francis intentionally or otherwise opens the door to a litany of horribles that have both moral and theological consequences too terrible to ignore.”

    I don’t think Francis’ comment is at odds with Evangelium Vitae because I don’t see any reason to think he is doing anything more than choosing, at that particular moment, not to enter into the debate about applying the term “person” to an unborn human being, but instead, as I say, to let people realize the moral implication of the scientific fact unborn children are living human beings. He does not *deny* that unborn children are “persons” simply by choosing not to get into the debate about the use of the term. And he clearly maintains that killing unborn children is wrong.

    • By making a concession to a “debate” that has no basis in reality, he validates the presuppositions of such a debate, that it can be legitimate to doubt the personhood of the unborn. His implicit validation is evil and typical of his personal moral cowardice and willingness to constantly appease the expectations of secularists, whose values he’s always held in higher regard than those of Catholics whom he regards as “backward” for holding to moral absolutes.

      • Well-stated, Edward. Your insights dovetail in quite nicely with what I set forth in a comment in CWR on 11/29/2022:

        “The bogus debate on personhood wherein some people deny that the child in the womb is a person is based on purely subjective criteria of what constitutes personhood that purposely excludes the child in the womb. Moreover, many who favor abortion make the insidious claim that ‘even if the fetus is human, it’s not a person, and so it is morally acceptable to murder a fetus because it’s not a person.’ And now, based on the harmful ignorance of the Pope who proclaims that the personhood debate is an ongoing legitimate debate, he opens another door to those who will seize upon his words to proclaim that even the Pope does not claim the fetus is a person, and as such it does not deserve to be protected from abortion even though the Pope does not favor abortion.

        Why did the Pope feel the need to emphasize his unintelligent neutral position on the so-called personhood debate? How can this do anything but harm the pro-life anti-abortion cause for the reasons already stated as well as others? He could have stopped with his sloppy statement about fetal development, which was bad enough as previously discussed, but then he makes it a point to emphasize that he’s not sure of the personhood of the child.”

        Mr. Kenney’s reflections are spot on, and so it is actually Mr. Brumley who seriously misconstrues the significance of the Pope’s remarks in his (Brumley’s) wrongheaded effort to defend the Pope’s ignorant remarks on abortion and personhood in the America interview.

        To further illustrate the absurdity of the Pope’s remarks on the bogus personhood debate, imagine the following addition by Francis to a beautiful statement made by God Himself found in Jeremiah:

        “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
        and before you were born I consecrated you;
        I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” I don’t say you are
        person, because that is debated.

        There is no legitimate excuse for what Pope Francis did by failing to stand up for life beginning at the moment of conception, and for also making it a point that he is does not know if the human being in the womb is in fact a human person.

    • It is not 70,000,000+ babies murdered in the womb- that’s only the US. Perhaps 1,000,000,000+ worldwide?
      It has been reported that there is an inexplicable flash of light at the union of sperm and egg. If true, it calls to mind the scientific speculation that an intense flash of UV light May have formed the image on the Shroud when then Body of the Beloved One was resurrected.
      Absolutely no one had the right to murder a Life that Almighty God has willed- for without His Will nothing is – we are not even the ashes from which He made us without His benevolent Love.

      • The use of the term ‘abortion’ is a gross tactical error and a submission to ‘progressive’ mind control. The implication of the term implies the termination of something gone awry- such as an errant rocket that must be destroyed.
        So an ‘unwanted child’, an errant consequence of the abuse of gift of procreative pleasure, is terminated as an undesirable outcome.
        Lost to the general sensibility of social mankind is the wonder that Almighty God made the most exquisite physical pleasure His creatures may experience is the key to holding hands with God in the Creation of Life. How insulting it is to desecrate His holy gift.

    • The only ones debating personhood are those who wish to obscure matters so as to justify the killing of the innocent. There was nothing vague about the clear words of Evangelium Vitae on the matter of personhood. The Pope would have done well to simply quote his sainted predecessor on the matter.

      • Agreed. The only people who care if a human being is a “person” are those arguing to stop the life of said being. From conception to death, beyond all doubt all the DNA needed for that human being exists and grows, then dies. The idea of “personhood” comes into play as a way to define who is worth “keeping” on earth and who is not, whose “right to live” conflicts with another “person’s” right to live etc. It is an endless slide leading to dropping off the cliff of arguing that those with cognitive impairments of various types are not truly persons, and thus… In fact, we are already there and have been for many many years, that some beings SHOULD be aborted on the basis of their perceived lack of future cognition. What is to stop this discussion from continuing throughout life?

    • The Pope is saying that some human beings may not be persons…..
      Slave owners said blacks were not persons like whites…..
      The Nazis said Jews we not not persons……
      As we know Francis called an unrepentant abortionist who murdered over 2000 humans (according to Francis they weren’t persons) babies in the womb a “great” person……
      As we know Francis is filling the Pontifical Academy for Life with people who believe in murdering “humans” so his excuse must be at least they don’t kill persons.

      In the end an abortion supporter can say “even Pope Francis will not say if abortion ends a persons life” so abortion must simply be a heath care choice.

      Sure Francis may say abortion is wrong but that is like a person saying, “well the people the Nazis killed may have been human but I don’t know if they were actually persons… but i still think they were wrong.”

    • Unfortunately, Mark,the quiet war against Pope Francis waged by the EWTN empire has its consequences: good luck trying to convince anyone who has drank deeply of their Kool aid that the Pope is the Pope, not a communist heretic.

      Personally, I’ve come to love him as much as his two predecessors! He is trying to speak the Gospel to the world, and to the church(the latter is the harder to evangelize, sometimes).

  3. Thank you Mark Brumley! I think this is a great example, of which there are many, where the Pope can be given the benefit of the doubt (like M. Brumley does) or not (like so many who seem set on critical). I say, Let’s always be set on giving the Successor of Peter the benefit of the doubt! One reason: Jesus said of St. Peter and the other apostles, “he who hears you hears me, and he who despises you despises me”.

    • I don’t think Pope Francis can expect the benefit of the doubt from Catholics who seek to be faithful to the Church. His task, his vocation is to confirm the brethren in the faith; where he introduces ambiguity, he is not only not doing that, but actively doing the opposite. Individual theologians can expect to receive some latitude when they try to address theological conundrums; bishops? Not so much. Their job is to teach with authority, to hand on that which they received. The chief bishop? The same, only more so.
      This leaves to one side the question raised by Fr John Hunwicke, relying on St John Henry Newman’s theory, that Pope Francis has suspended the teaching ministry of the Roman Church, and that we can set aside anything that he attempts to teach until he re-engages it.
      https://liturgicalnotes.blogspot.com/2019/11/the-temporary-suspense-of-function-of.html

  4. The author appeals to greater “precision.” What St. John Paul II precisely says about the point at issue is this (from Evangelium Vitae, n. 60):

    “…from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person [not being] is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely [!] for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself [!], the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence [!], must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: “THE HUMAN BEING IS TO BE RESPECTED AND TREATED AS A PERSON FROM THE MOMENT OF CONCEPTION [italics]; and therefore from that moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (citing the CDF Donum Vitae, 22 February 1987, 1, No. 1: AAS 80, 1988, 78-79).

    Pope Francis appears to stretch the precise “moment” of personhood up to nearly a month…
    Is this simply extemporaneous mis-wording, again, or worse (enabling pastoral tolerance of first-month chemical abortions)? In the synodal process, regarding the separate and likewise obscured immorality of the homosexual lifestyle, we hear Cardinal Grech wanting to “stretch the grey area” (Grech’s words). In these two and all such cases, the signaling, whether intended or not, is to sideline, truncate or at last minimize the clarity and application of the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor:

    “Each of us knows how important is the teaching which represents the central theme of this encyclical and which today is being restated with the authority of the Successor of Peter. Each of us can see the seriousness of what is involved, not only for individuals but also for the whole of society, with the REAFFIRMATION OF THE UNIVERSALITY AND IMMUTABILITY OF THE MORAL COMMANDMENTS [italics], particularly those which prohibit always and without exception INTRINSICALLY EVIL ACTS [italics]” (n. 115).

  5. My sense is that Mr. Kenney and other critics of the Pontiff Francis (et al) are right on point: the issue at the root of the matter is being “a person.”

    While Mr. Brumley’s case is that PF may be making an appeal from another angle, the ultimate question is whether the angle taken has a flexibility that retains the strength of the truth, or bends so far that it cannot vindicate the truth.

    My conclusion is that it cannot vindicate the truth.

    I believe that in the 19th century in the United States the arguments defending slavery centered on the assertion that slaves were not persons under the US constitution.

    The contemporary legal arguments defending abortion persist in the same rationale: that unborn human brings aren’t persons.

    Well: we are persons to God.

    Anything that doesn’t admit that doesn’t ultimately admit the truth.

  6. Perhaps you can square the Holy Father’s recent appointments to the Pontifical Academy of Life with you say is his commitment to the protection of the lives of the unborn.

  7. the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (I., 1), makes very clear, at the moment of conception, or the moment of a human being’s existence at conception, he possesses and is a body/soul composite and should, therefore, be treated as a human person. This is true because without a soul you don’t have a human being. And, according to the infallibleteaching of the Council of Vienne of 1312 (Decrees, 1), it is the soul that is the “form of the body,” or that which makes the body a living human body and along with the body makes the person a living human person. From the moment of conception, then, there exists a human person with all of the essential rights—especially the right to life, that are afforded to all human persons. In fact, Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter, Evangelium Vitae (para. 60), says very clearly:

    Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation…”

  8. What about Jesus? He is a Divine Person. He was also a human being, but was not a human person, according to Church teaching. Perhaps this teaching needs to be revisited. As Son of God, He is a Divine Person. As Son of Man, wasn’t he a human person?

    • No, Jesus Christ is NOT a human person. He has a human nature (assumed at the Incarnation) but His Personhood is Divine. Man is a human person (at least some of us are.)

        • Jesus is true man and true God (cf the hypostatic union). But he is a Divine Person with two natures: Divine and human. It would be suggested that you revisit the early Church Councils that settled this theology. Anselm also is a good souce. Suffice it to say that “personhood” has specific meaning in philosophical thinking. That is why I am so critical of Francis’ using such terminology in an interview setting. The terms used have great significance in our understanding of who Christ is. These terms require a finesse that an interview doesn’t lend itself well to. Consequently, Francis runs a grave risk of creating confusion in the minds of the faithful. The faithful are already frightfully confused about what it means to be a human person, what it means to be a man or a woman, and who man in in relation to God. There is no room for Catholics to be confused about who Christ is.

      • Well said, Deacon Peitler.
        And your point is a crucial one doctrinally. Here’s a meditation on the fact that Christ’s personhood remains totally divine, even as He totally elevates human nature into Himself. Jesus Christ is not a sort of hybrid, as if a “quaternary” (a term rejected by Sts. Augustine and Newman) muddles the Trinity.

        “The union between the two natures in Christ is a personal union. It takes place in the Person of the Son of God….They are not mixed or fused with one another to form a third thing distinct from both. Rather they are united to one another indirectly in the Second Person of the Trinity….But in the Incarnation, the person pre-exists the union of the two natures, because it is the Person of the Eternal Son of God.

        “In the Incarnation the Son of God, Who is eternal, assumes to Himself a complete human nature, a body and soul. By this union the human nature becomes the human nature of the Son of God. He is the Person existing in this human nature, the Person responsible for all its actions, the responsible Agent acting in and through the human nature in the world of men. It should be clear at once that the human nature of Christ has no personality. If we were to look at the human nature of Christ and ask, ‘What is it?’ the answer would have to be, ‘It is a human nature’. But if we were to inquire, ‘Who is he?’ then we could not give in reply the name of any human or created person, because there is no created personality present in Christ. We should have to say, ‘He is Christ, the Son of God.’”

        (Walter Farrell OP,STM and Martin Healy, STD, in “My Way of Life,” Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1952, pp. 450-451)

  9. Aquinas actually thought ‘ensoulment’ occurred several weeks post conception, an argument espoused by Biden years past seeking to justify limited abortion.
    Ensoulment itself is an ambiguous word, originally the soul in Gk thought meant any being that was self motivated. A plant had a soul.
    John Paul II was correct in removing the ‘ensoulment’ ambiguity by declaring person and being were synonymous from the moment of conception. Although, to be fair to Pope Francis, his remark distinguishing personhood from being may refer to legal descriptions of person. For example one Justice argued an infant is a person when he’s detached from his umbilical cord.
    At the moment of conception there is human life [the term Chief Justice Rehnquist preferred in his Opinion contra the rational for abortion in Casey]. That human life, distinguished from all other life, as a person, this understood as specificity. A human life at conception is inherently a person.
    At any rate perhaps the best argument for personhood circa conception was that of John the Baptist when 3 mo in Elizabeth’s womb recognized Jesus in Mary’s womb.

    • And as I always remmind my fellow good Catholics, not that I don’t have healthy reservations over whether I qualify, the most compelling additional confirmation of God’s intended understanding is reflected in Our Lady’s identification to Bernadette at Lourdes. She did not say I am the result of, she said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

    • Greetings, Father:

      You may have forgotten (innocently, I am sure, but you mentioned an intention to use the provided insights in some upcoming sermons 🙂 ), but several years ago, I wrote in a CWR comment directed to you that the Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception; not the Immaculate Implantation or Immaculate Birth or anything else. With the addition of modern science that includes the fine work of Dr. Maureen Condic, it has been conclusively demonstrated that all human life begins at conception. Please note the following that I wrote as part of an article that appeared in another Catholic publication:

      “Promulgated on December 8, 1854, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception declares:

      ‘We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.’ (Cf. Denz., n. 1641.)

      Well before science definitively established that all human life begins at conception, Holy Mother Church, in defining the Immaculate Conception, specifically states that the grace which preserved her from the stain of original sin was granted to Mary by Almighty God at the ‘instance of her conception.’ This grace was not granted at the moment of transplantation or at the moment of birth. Instead, it was granted at the very first moment of Mary’s life, at the moment of her conception.

      But if Mary was not alive and not a separate being from the first instance of her conception, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would ultimately make no sense as the grace would have been granted to a non-existent being. However, since it was granted to Mary at the first instance of her conception, the only reasonable conclusion is that she was alive and a human being separate from her mother. And there would have also been no point in emphasizing Mary’s conception if such was not the beginning of life for her as it is for all human beings.

      So objective science has established when all human life begins at the first moment of conception, and the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception presciently reinforces this reality in its infallible teaching on the grace given to Mary when her life began at the first moment of conception. Taken together, an infallible teaching and objective science are indeed powerful allies in the ongoing fight against the monstrous crime of abortion.”

      God Bless.

  10. Quoting a penitent abortionist thoughts with regard to the gestation of human life: “There was a time in your life when you were this big and a time in your life when you were even bigger, but it was always you. There is only one you.”

    • Also Dr. Seuss, whom I understand–and unlike drag queens–is banned from kindergarten and library gatherings: “A person is a person, no matter how small.”

  11. I defend Pope Francis’ statement that “personhood” does not have a definition agreed upon by everyone. It is certainly not well defined in the case of a fertilized egg or zygote. Consider, for example, what happens when the developing cell mass divides to form identical twins? Has one person become two persons?

    To be clear human life is a continuous process of development that must be respected from its beginning. Any stages of development such as zygote or fetus are terms that have been developed for our descriptive convenience. Respect for human life is not just a tenant of my Faith and my religion but also required for human justice.

  12. Human person & human being from the point of view of philosophy can or not refer to the same reality. Human person more accurately designates the (biologically & spiritually)being each human being is. Personhood begins with the first nanosecond of ones existence & the person does not cease to exist at physical death. Human being can be an equivocal term. It can be used to indicate the person with her/ his human nature- body,soul & personal act of being. Or, and here lies the problem, to as equivalent to human nature- body soul combo- which I believe is why the defense of life argument encounters problems in its defense. Hopefully, when the anthropology of 20th century philosopher Leonardo Polo is more widely known & studied the defense of life will have a surer grounding.

  13. The statement – “a reduced potentiality means a reduced personhood.”

    What does that mean? It makes absolutely no sense at all.

    Life begins at conception – at the INSTANT of conception. It has been that way since the beginning of time, is so now and will be so – forever.

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