My thoughts on personhood. . . .

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “personhood,” abortion, when life begins, and what value should be placed on the earliest stages of human life.  I’ve hesitated to enter this discussion as it gets so emotionally charged and because religious interpretations figure so centrally in this discussion.  However, I’ve realized that I can’t state my opinion properly in a couple of sentences here or there. I’m long winded,  and I do have something to say on this issue.

Part of the problem is defining the words we use in this discussion in a way that everyone can agree on.   The problem exists because even science doesn’t agree on one answer to each of these questions.  My hope, in writing my thoughts, is that maybe we can put down anger for a few moments and try to find some common ground that will allow us to understand each other better and to respect each other’s views.

Let’s start with a basic one first. What is life? You would expect that it’s easy to define life and when human life begins, but there’s a lot of controversy on this one.  The controversy exists not because life is so hard to define but because of the implications of that definition.

According to the dictionary definition, it’s simply the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.  By this definition, all plants, viruses, and microorganisms have life and human life begins when an egg is fertilized and begins to divide and develop.

But does that mean that from the moment that an egg is fertilized that it is a person with the same rights as you and I?  Does the embryo have rights that override the rights of the mother whose womb he/she is growing in?

Let’s step back from those questions a moment.  It’s clear that we don’t treat all living organisms the same.  We routinely kill viruses and bacteria without hesitation because of either a real or perceived threat against us.  We, as a group, have decided that human life is more valuable than viral life.  We also kill bugs and plants with no real hesitation.  We don’t begin drawing a line until we get to animals.  Why is that?  It’s because animals have some level of intelligence or consciousness that we recognize.  We give more value to them for that, but we still place them below humans.  Why are we okay with that? Science still argues with itself over what differences exist between animals and humans and whether or not animals are self-aware.  So for the sake of argument, I’ll just allow that human life can be valued more because of our consciousness and our self-awareness.  Further, I’ll state that it’s the combination of our intelligence, the capacity to speak a language, our creativity, the ability to make moral judgments, our consciousness, our free will, our self-awareness and our ability to reason that sets human life apart from other forms of life.  I’m sure we can come up with more, but I think you get where I’m going with this.  This all ignores the fact that as a society we consider killing in the process of war or the death penalty to be acceptable, but that’s a different discussion.

Now that we’ve concluded that our consciousness is what makes human life more valuable or deserving of protection, we are left with another question:  When does human consciousness begin?

Between week 24 and 28 of pregnancy, the physical network of nerve cells that’s necessary for human consciousness begins to be in place.  It’s roughly 2 more months before an EEG will signal the beginning of the global neuronal integration that’s needed for consciousness.  Many of the circuits needed for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.  Does this mean that the baby is conscious at this point?  No, it just means that most of the pathways are finally in place.  Studies show that during the third trimester, that the fetus is almost always in one of two sleep states, basically sedated by the placenta.  Neonatologists have concluded that the fetus is sedated while his/her brain matures.  2 decades ago a pediatrician discovered a large surge of norepinephrine occurs when the fetus disconnects from the maternal placenta.  Along with being removed from the sedative effects of the placenta, this surge during the birth process arouses the baby.   “As he/she draws their first breath, they begin to experience life.”(1)

So there’s evidence that the biological means for consciousness begins to develop during the second trimester and continues into the third trimester.  There’s also evidence that the fetus is sleeping throughout the pregnancy.  So, can we conclude that consciousness starts before birth or at birth?  Babies don’t begin to exhibit their own personalities immediately after birth.  It takes months for parents to begin to see those traits that are unique to their child.  So are they finally conscious when they begin to exhibit their own personality?  These are questions we can’t answer at this time.  Science is working on the questions, but we don’t yet have the answers.  We don’t know when consciousness starts, partly because there’s controversy over what consciousness means.

So where does that leave us?  What rights does an embryo or fetus have? Does an embryo or fetus have more rights than the mother whose womb he/she lives in? If, as the constitution says, “all people are created equal,” then when does a person begin to exist?

To answer that we need to think about this question:  What is a person?  And this is where the discussion always gets heated.  There’s so much disagreement around when a fetus or embryo or baby becomes a person.   And it seems that so much of that disagreement comes from religious beliefs.   Since Christianity claims a Jewish history and that Jesus is fulfillment of Jewish law, I’m going to go back to the ancient Jewish concept of a person.

The Hebrew word “nephesh” is “the usual term for man’s total nature.”  The word is used 755 times in the Hebrew Bible and goes back to a root meaning “to breathe.” (2).  A “nephesh” is understood to be a creature that breathes,  so based on that definition a fetus was not considered to be a person under ancient Jewish law.  This is consistent with Exodus 21: 22-23 which states that if men are fighting and cause a woman to miscarry but the woman is unharmed, a fine is levied.  If the woman is harmed, then the life for a life, eye for an eye rule was applied.   We see similar examples and interpretations in other Jewish texts.

The other religious argument I see regularly is the command that Thou shalt not kill.   It’s important to remember that this was not a prohibition on taking any life.   The Israelites killed animals with God’s blessing.  They killed their enemies in war with God’s blessing.  They even killed each other for violating God’s laws.   “ The command not to kill was not pro-life in an unqualified way.”(2)

Additionally, to say that the Christian Bible is silent on abortion because abortion didn’t exist then, is also incorrect.   There were laws regarding abortions as far back as 12,000 BC (the Assyrians), and the Greeks and Romans had many techniques for abortions.   We see both old and new testament authors regularly “condemning practices of their neighbors such as idolatry, idol worship, and pagan temple practices, yet they didn’t condemn abortion.”(2)

My views, since the Bible is essentially silent on the issue of abortion and science has not resolved all the questions of life and consciousness, are based entirely on opinion, just like everyone else’s.  It can’t be God’s opinion because that wasn’t provided in any of the ancient texts.

Personally, the concept of viability is important to me.  By viable, I mean able to survive after birth without medical intervention.   By that definition, medically, a fetus is not viable outside of the womb until around 34 weeks.   Yes, babies have been born much earlier, but they can only survive with Herculean medical efforts.  So by my definition a fetus isn’t viable until it’s able to be born and survive without medical intervention.   If the lungs aren’t developed yet, it’s not viable.  Again, that’s my opinion, not fact.   That doesn’t mean that I oppose medical intervention for babies born prior to 34 weeks just that from a standpoint of discussing personhood, I consider viability an important piece of the puzzle.

In American society,   we as persons, have certain freedoms.  One of the most basic in my opinion is the freedom to choose how to believe and to not have to live by another’s belief system.  That means that I have to allow others to live by belief systems that I don’t share.  So, if in your belief system, abortion is wrong, don’t have one.   But please, respect my right to believe differently.  Don’t use legislation to try to make me live according to your beliefs.  We risk so much when we allow one groups religious beliefs to trump another’s.  If it’s okay to use Christian beliefs or “God’s” laws to determine the laws of the land, then it’s also okay to base laws on the beliefs of Islam, or Buddhist beliefs.  We have  to allow all groups to live by their own beliefs but not bind those beliefs on others or we lose our most precious freedom.

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