Mark pointed out the other day a newspaper story about a pair of ethicists arguing that newborn babies shouldn’t be treated as persons before the law. The ethicists say that being born does nothing to change the nature of the infant’s internal existence or cognitive ability. So if she was not a person before birth, she isn’t afterwards, either – and if she can be aborted before birth, she can be “aborted” for some time after birth, too.
I am tempted to dismiss the conclusion as mere silliness from clueless academics. But I wonder if there’s something we can learn from even the silliest people.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics (published online on February 23), Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva do not give a precise moment when the infant becomes a person. But they do offer a definition of personhood:
“We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”
So until the baby develops enough self-knowledge to be aware of her own existence, and enough sense of time to be conscious of a future, killing her deprives her of nothing she is actually aware of and thus carries little moral significance – according to Giubilini and Minerva.
My first grandchild Enzo is almost four months old. I spent a happy few days with him in my daughter’s home in Alexandria, Virginia a couple of weeks ago. Enzo laughed and jabbered and smiled and squirmed. I doubt that he has much of a sense of a future, so I suppose Giubilini and Minerva wouldn’t blink had we decided to have baby Enzo euthanized.
I am convinced Enzo is as much a person as anyone. But, like Mark, I am also convinced that the moment of birth didn’t make Enzo a person. Choosing birth as the point when a person comes into being does give us a bright line. We know when birth has happened, and when it hasn’t. Bright lines are helpful to reduce disputes. But if the bright line doesn’t mark a significant advance in what the infant can do or feel, its clarity is an illusion.
Several states are considering amending their constitutions to define the beginning of human personhood as the moment of conception. As a bright line, conception makes more sense than birth. Conception marks a major event: the start of the development of a human being. And the transformation from unfertilized ovum to fertilized conceptus happens in a few moments, almost like flipping a switch – a nice feature of bright lines.
But does this undeniably major event mark the start of personhood? There’s a potential person, of course, and for many that’s enough to embrace the bright line of conception.
But conception doesn’t determine how many new persons there are going to be. Usually a conceptus develops into one person. But sometimes it becomes identical twins. Twinning doesn’t occur until the conceptus has undergone several rounds of cell division.
If conception initiates personhood, then sometimes the single-cell conceptus is two people. This doesn’t make sense.
It makes even less sense when we consider that the single-celled conceptus has so little about it that we associate with personhood. It has no perception of pain or pleasure. Once it divides into two cells, it has no way to process stimuli as a single organism, no unifying consciousness greater than a pair of amoebae. It won’t have any of these things until it develops a nervous system and basic brain function.
At the other end of a human life, when the heart stops beating and the brain stops working, we declare the person dead. At death, many individual cells are still responding to stimuli and playing their little parts. But we don’t wait for the last cell to lose its metabolism to call the person “dead.” The person has already left this world when her heart stops beating and her brain stops working and she can no longer experience anything as a single organism.
Why couldn’t personhood begin sometime after the potential for twinning has passed? I am drawn to the idea that a person appears when the embryo has developed enough to have its own heartbeat (a marker of independent existence as a single organism with a circulatory system to spread nutrients) and its own functioning nervous system (as a marker of a unified experience for the entire human organism). In other words, the initiation of personhood might mirror its cessation. When you have a heartbeat and a rudimentary brainwave we know that you have taken up residence. When the heart and the brain cease, we know you have abandoned the scene.
I find this much more persuasive than either insisting that personhood begins at conception or that it doesn’t begin until well after birth.
Giubilini and Minerva have talked themselves into a box. To stay there they will have to ignore obvious facts that the rest of us are never going to forget – a newborn has all the characteristics of a person. Having staked out a public position these forlorn ethicists will be tempted to dig in, to blind themselves to the obvious and never really listen to their critics. If they stay in their box, their professional lives are doomed to being wasted. To the extent they have any effect on the abortion debate, it will be mostly as obstacles to finding a solution.
But those who have wedded themselves to the moment of conception may be making a similar mistake. There is at the core of their position a quandary – how can there be two persons in one cell? – and a lot of problematic empirical data about how the conceptus is more amoebic than person-like. To insist that conception has to be the start of personhood is to ask all the rest of us to ignore these facts. And it invites the pro-life movement to dig in, ignore the evidence, and never really listen to those who disagree.
I hope we all can do better than that.