When Does "It" Become a Person?

The Planned Parenthood controversy and the meaning of personhood.

Posted Aug 09, 2015

The sting and subsequent controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood has brought into high relief profound moral questions about when a “something” becomes a “someone.” The secretly taped exchanges that captured Planned Parenthood personnel discussing “grisly” details of crushing body parts and harvesting tissue from the unborn for a fee has understandably generated an uproar in many pro-life camps and has moved many to push for defunding Planned Parenthood.

The issue is heated and intense because it brings into high relief one of the most foundationally important questions that any system of belief that spells out right and wrong must address, which is the question of what constitutes a human and why. The essence of this debate as it relates to abortion recently emerged in an exchange between Chris Cuomo and Marco Rubio on CNN. After being challenged by Cuomo regarding his record on reproductive rights, an exchange ensued between them regarding the nature of human life. Rubio repeated an argument that he often makes, which is human life begins at conception. Cuomo questioned this claim, and said the science was unclear. Rubio said it was a clear scientific fact that human life began at conception and thus it follows that abortion is taking a human life and we should have laws against that.

In my survey of the abortion debate, the question of whether a zygote, embryo or fetus is alive is one of the most crucial. Frequently those who are pro-life argue, as Rubio did, that science is clear on this issue. Human life begins at conception. The pro-choice folks then question this and say there is debate about it. Although I am pro-choice, there should be no debate about this issue. The facts are clear and with the appropriate definition of terms we can unequivocally conclude that human life begins at conception.

Thus, those in the pro-life camp are correct in this argument. However, the argument does not end with this claim. Why? Because an entity that is technically living and has human DNA is not equivalent to an entity that we should consider a person with all the rights, moral values, and protections therein. In short, there is a difference between a living human entity at the cellular level and a person. Consider, for example, if I scratch my arm, many thousands of living human cells will die. However, despite the fact that these cells were clearly “human” in terms of their structure and makeup and were clearly alive (in terms of metabolism, growth, organic complexity, etc.), no one would suggest we need a funeral for each cell that perished. In other words, there is clearly much more to being a person than having human DNA and being alive in the technical biological sense of the term.

The ToK System helps us to sort out these issues, in part because of the way it divides up the world up into four dimensions of complexity of matter, life, mind, and culture.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

A particular human life begins at conception, when sperm and egg meet to form a zygote. It is worth noting here that both the sperm and the egg are also alive and they are “human” in a very similar sense (i.e., they have human DNA). It is true that a zygote is unique in that it is a germ cell that will start to grow into a separate human being. But the point is that, in terms of its complexity and essence, at conception, a zygote is on the same dimension of complexity as the sperm and egg (i.e., they all exist, like the cells in my arm, at the biological dimension of complexity). The bottom line here is that just because something is alive and is human, it does not follow that the entity is a fully functioning human being.

And this is where it gets complicated, which is why few commentators or discussions enter this territory—in this day and age, complicated thought tends to be avoided for sound bites and loudly shouted opinions. In American law, the term generally used to denote entities that are conferred rights is “person”. An entity conferred personhood is deemed to be fundamentally different from nonperson things: Persons have rights and freedoms, whereas nonpersons do not. Generally speaking, one can do anything that one likes with rocks, streams, and plants, so long as they do not infringe on the rights and well-being of other people. There is a gray area with nonhuman animals. Nonhuman animals—at least higher animals like birds and mammals—are granted legal protection from cruel treatment; however, they are obviously not granted anywhere near the same protections as persons. For example, nonhuman animals can be owned, sold, locked up, experimented on and so forth in ways that would be a fundamental affront to the rights of persons. Interestingly, there has been a movement to grant some great apes the legal status of persons, which in turn would fundamentally alter how they were treated.

Given that persons are granted both moral value and legal status, it follows that we must have reasons for why this is the case. That is, what is it exactly that constitutes a person that is different than other entities and justifies special treatment and protections? This is a profoundly important question that is answered differently by different worldviews. It is because of these conflicting worldviews that the debate about abortion rages on.

The Judeo-Christian worldview provides one such framework. In it, humans exist at a special place on the ladder of creation. Made in the image of God, humans are a unique creature granted a mystical, transcendent soul that enables them to have free will and dominion over the Earth. Human specialness is central to the whole narrative and for many who hold to this worldview, conception provides a sensible point at which a soul is conferred by God. This is the basic justification scheme that links devout Christianity to a pro-life position in America. It follows deductively from this position that abortion is the murder of unborn human beings.

This narrative is relatively straightforward and is obviously compelling for many. Folks like Rubio seem to suggest that it works this way. However, there are many angles from which one might offer substantive critiques, both from within a Christian perspective and without. From within a Christian perspective, one can raise basic questions about the nature of a soul and when and how such a soul is imparted. For example, surely it is possible that the human soul resides more in the nervous system than in the DNA. If so, zygotes that form when sperm meets egg do not have souls. It is only later with the formation of the brain and nervous system that a human soul begins to take root. Or consider that in the ancient times when there was zero knowledge about development in utero generally the birth process itself was the demarcation point and it was believed that God imparted the soul when infants took their first breath. The point here is that although current Christian arguments tend to claim that human beingness is there from the very beginning, there is nothing definitive in Christian teachings that human zygotes or embryos or even fetuses must be thought of as full-fledged, soul-bearing human beings.

It is also important to keep in mind here that the whole concept of a soul is a faith-based concept, and thus folks can essentially have faith that it emerges whenever they intuitively feel like it should. In line with this point, if one steps outside the Christian theistic worldview, the whole issue of the soul is a nonstarter. As a secular humanist (and agnostic atheist), I believe we should look to science to ground the description of our understanding regarding our natures. From this starting point, the evidence is overwhelming that humans are a uniquely evolved species of great ape, and we are no more likely to have a supernatural soul than a chimp or a housefly for that matter.

Now a secular scientific worldview such as the one I adopt is quickly confronted by the problem of human exceptionalism. From the point of view of many religious critics, if you take away the idea of a God-given soul, then you inevitably commit to a “molecules to man” evolution and the conclusion must be that humans are beasts that do not warrant any special treatment. Thus, religious critics argue that the absence of theology means that there are no grounds for treating humans in an exceptional way. This critique has some merit in that it is indeed the case that some secular scientists have argued we are essentially just complicated arrangements of matter and energy. And other scientists have argued that humans are just another kind of animal that does not warrant special status.

One of the reasons I advocate strongly for the ToK System is that it is a secular theory of knowledge that offers a very clear view of why how humans are not fully reducible to complicated arrangements of matter and energy. It also argues that humans are a radically different kind of animal, one that is qualitatively different and thus exceptional and potentially justifiably worthy of special moral rights and protections. A fully functioning human is a unique being that has self-reflective awareness, an explicit sense of self-in-relation-to-other over time, and an awareness of right and wrong. In the language of the ToK, humans are the only beings that exist at the dimension of Culture (capital C culture refers to explicit knowledge systems that guide action and moral reflection) and operate on systems of justification.

Returning to the abortion debate, if self-reflective awareness and the capacity to justify is a key aspect of human exceptionalism, then it is immediately clear that a zygote or embryo is not a fully functioning person. Indeed, a potential problem emerges such that the essence of personhood from this perspective emerges much later in development. Even a newborn infant is not a fully functioning person in this sense. And, indeed, I would concede this point and argue that if a newborn infant were the peak of human existence and consciousness, then humans would not be all that special. Indeed, I would presume that a mature lion like Cecil has a more complex mental life than a newborn human infant.

So, according to this logic, should we consider newborns persons in the legal sense? Yes, and the reason is that their status as such is a function of their expected developmental emergence. In other words, we should consider them developing persons worthy of full rights and protections. Indeed, from the point of conception, the entity can be thought of as a developing person. The point of debate should center then on how much development needs to occur such that the individual has rights that warrant protection. My sense of this leads to me to the position that during the first trimester abortions should be safe and legal (and as rare as possible!) because the essence of personhood is very early and minimal. Beyond the first trimester, the developing person has developed enough so that legal and moral rights begin to emerge such that protection is now warranted. By the third trimester, the only justification I could see for ending the life of an emerging person at this stage would be that it threatens the life of the mother (a fully emerged person). By birth, an infant is afforded the rights of personhood (even though he or she is not a fully functioning person).

The bottom line here is that just because human life scientifically starts at conception, it does not mean that the legal and moral status of personhood should start at conception. If certain folks like Rubio have faith that somehow a soul is magically imparted into human DNA at conception, then they are free to live their lives based on that mystical notion. Our system of laws, however, should not be based on ancient faith-based notions, but clear scientific understanding that leads to an informed, morally workable framework for human exceptionalism and the developmental emergence of personhood.