Personhood

Michael Egnor is trying to pick a fight over abortion with P.Z. Myers. Egnor is building a bog-standard argument that every human zygote has an inherent right to life, therefore abortion is immoral (the unargued assumption being that a woman’s right to life doesn’t really matter). It’s a reminder why the Discovery Institute, whose website Egnor clutters up with his occasional screeds, has been overtaken in media attention by old-school young earth creationism: Disco. and ID creationism are static, while young earth creationism always finds new ways to surprise you.

Anyway, in reiterating for the gajillionth time the same old anti-abortion, anti-woman catechism, creationist surgeon Egnor writes:

Human cells — skin cells, gametes, hair follicles, etc — are not human beings. A human being is a discrete organism. A human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens from conception to natural death.

There’s a problem here, in that sentences 2 and 3 here both seem to offer definitions (“A human being is…”), yet when we use them to test the question at issue – the fundamental personhood of a fertilized egg, fetus, or embryo – they give us different answers. The third sentence declares by fiat that every fertilized egg is a human and entitled to all the rights associated with personhood (Egnor later insists that being human inherently grants personhood, so we’ll treat these terms as equivalent for the sake of argument).

But what about that second sentence. Is a fertilized egg “a discrete organism”? What about an embryo? A fetus? You could say that they must be discrete because they have genetic differences from either parent, but then you have to ask whether cancers caused by certain mutations are also discrete organisms, and whether they, by virtue of possessing human DNA and therefore being human, are also entitled to a right to life. You could point also to dermoid cysts, and ask whether they are discrete human beings, entitled to the same protections Egnor wants for every fertilized egg. Or what about HeLa cells, and other human cell cultures capable of existing independently in the lab?

But let’s suppose some sophistry gets us past these objections. It is, after all, obvious that they are spurious. We know, intuitively, that there must be a distinction between an egg cell gone wild and a baby. That it’s hard to come up with a clean, uncomplicated distinction shouldn’t persuade us that there’s no distinction at all. But it should give us pause whenever someone claims that it’s easy to draw a line between human life and everything else. And if that line is hard to draw, we may have to accept that fertilized eggs and embryos and fetuses fall on that border, and that there are a range of plausible ways to handle the cases on the border, and that this is a choice best left to individuals.

Is an embryo a discrete human being? I think not. An embryo is dependent on its living host, a woman whose nutrients it relies upon, whose immune system protects it, whose lungs provide it with oxygen, and whose body carries out every other essential function. If the woman dies, an embryo cannot survive (medical intervention alters this case somewhat, but a reliance on medical life support hardly vitiates questions about the embryo’s discreteness). By the standard Egnor offered, a human being does not acquire the moral status Egnor is describing above until well into the pregnancy, and acquires it only gradually, with different organ systems becoming capable of independence at different points, and with full independence from parental support not coming until several years after birth.

In other words, even Egnor’s seemingly simple criterion that a human being must be “discrete” generates not a bright line, but a continuum. That his definition of “personhood” ignores the cognitive traits that make humanity distinctive among known living things is relevant, but secondary.

And to repeat myself, none of this gets to the really interesting moral challenges around abortion, which require some consideration of the fact that, whatever moral status we accord an embryo, the woman carrying the embryo is definitely a human, a discrete human being with a host of rights recognized in law and in most religious traditions. In traditional Jewish law, a woman who ends a pregnancy that endangers her life is treated the same way as anyone else who kills in self-defense. A pregnancy before the 40th day is considered only to be water, and an act which ends such a pregnancy is not punishable. In traditional Jewish law, full personhood only applies when either the head, or a majority of the fetus, has been delivered. The Torah assigns only a modest fine for someone who attacks a woman and terminates her pregnancy against her will, while prescribing death if the woman herself is killed, clearly showing that the Bible itself accords less moral status to the fetus than to the mother.

The political debate about abortion won’t go anywhere any time soon, and there are interesting discussions to be had about it. Stale, internally contradictory, and ultimately useless definitions of personhood don’t help things, nor does a simple recitation of anti-abortion dogma. This is a serious matter, and can’t be resolved with abstractions. We have to contend with the reality that biology is messy and complicated, and that the morality of the situation involves the pregnant woman’s rights, not to mention the needs of her family (including other children she might have who might not be entirely discrete from her). We have to be prepared to accept that different people give different moral weight to the fetus, and they change that weighting differently as the fetus develops. We have to accept that these moral weights are not assigned by scientific measurement, though they may be influenced by new scientific results. And that’s OK. Imposing someone else’s weightings on everyone is not OK, which is why I think this decision is best left to a woman and her doctor.

Comments

  1. #1 Ian
    December 5, 2010

    I think the old argument still applies – fire alarm goes off in the fertility clinic and you have to choose between rescuing fertilised eggs from the freezer, or actual children from the nursery. Which do you go for?

    A large proportion of fertilised eggs spontaneous abort. More than half, if memory serves me. If you believe in the personhood of a zygote, then it would take incredible callousness just to try to get pregnant (not to mention IVF). Suppose you’re trying to adopt a child from overseas, but about half the children die on their trip to the airport. And you have to organise each adoption before the child leaves its village. Imagine the horror a person would experience to put together a family of five. (Again, IVF becomes a hideous bloodbath, if you see zygotes as people. And what does that make a freezer full of frozen embryos – a prison camp? a concentration camp?

    No doubt there are people who think like that. But more than a handful?

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    December 5, 2010

    The anti-choice movement, like most other manifestations of fundamentalism, tends very strongly towards black-&-white, either-or, rigidly dichotomous thinking.

    It’s worrisome that Egnor displays all the signs of such a mentality while working in a field that calls for numerous, rapid, qualitative decisions with life-or-death(-or-countless-states-of-health) consequences.

  3. #3 Mary
    December 5, 2010

    I rarely argue about abortion on the internet anymore — there’s little point, and anyway I’m not confident enough of my own positions to make it worth the vitriol.

    But I generally agree with you about things, so it annoys me a little to see you making this “the fetus can’t be a person because it is dependent on the mother” argument.

    It so happens that I gave birth two weeks ago (really) and am presently exclusively breastfeeding my infant. She is hardly less dependent on me now than she was before birth. All her nutrition comes from my body. (Not to mention that without the shelter I have provided, or me whisking away her bodily waste, she would die quickly of other causes even if she didn’t need the nutrition.)

    “Dependence” clearly has nothing to do with personhood, or the many people hooked up to medical machines would be equally non-persons. (Machines whose “nutrients [they] rely upon, whose ‘immune system’ protects [them], whose ‘lungs’ provide it with oxygen, and whose [mechanisms] carry out every other essential function.”)

    What’s more, I can’t believe that you really believe there’s anything relevant in the fact that “In traditional Jewish law, full personhood only applies when either the head, or a majority of the fetus, has been delivered.” Logically, bio-logically even, how can birth fundamentally change the nature of the entity being delivered? In a C-Section delivery especially, nothing much happens to the infant except a change in location. What sense does it make to say that moving two feet from “inside” to “outside” magically transforms you from not-a-person to person?

    That otherwise intelligent, rational people make this argument so frequently drives me nuts. A much better argument is the one you hint at when you say human development is a continuum, with no bright lines.

    Still, we need to draw a line somewhere if we are going to say that, whatever our policy about abortion, child-murder is not okay. Most liberals are perfectly okay with drawing this line at birth, and most conservatives are happy drawing it at conception.

    I think both are too extreme, and equally arbitrary. I know people who’ve gone into labor at 27 weeks gestation and had healthy children, and I’ve heard of others as early as 24 weeks. That line will only be pushed back in the future.

    The best pro-choice argument I’ve heard actually concedes the personhood of the fetus. It makes an analogy with bone marrow donation. Consider a leukemia patient who needs a bone marrow donation (unquestionably a person) and a relative who is a match. Should it be legally required for the donor to undergo the invasive and dangerous donation procedure to save the life of the person with leukemia? Is it murder if they decline? Or would we say that the donor has the right to control his or her own body even at the cost of another person’s life?

    I think even most pro-life people would hesitate to say that we should require people to donate bone marrow or other organs if they happen to be a match for anyone who needs it. That would be a rather scary world, where the government could require our organs of any of us at any time.

    But making this argument requires pro-choice people to acknowledge that the mother/donor is not the only party with something at stake. I think that’s actually a much more honest position to argue from, and that you can reach the same conclusions (that abortion ought to be legal, at least up until some point in the pregnancy — personally I am uncomfortable with putting it all the way at birth) with this more honest starting point.

    I have absolutely no hope of convincing anyone on either side to frame the question in these terms, though, or to change the debate to where between conception and birth, the line of abortion legality should be drawn. Which I think would be a much more useful conversation. (And I don’t think it should be a “bright” line either — it seems to me there ought to be all kinds of exceptions for all kinds of special circumstances…)

    I’d be very happy if I could at least convince you to retire this irrelevant argument, though…

  4. #4 The Phytophactor
    December 5, 2010

    First there’s the fact that one out of about every 800 fertilized eggs becomes two persons with identical genomes. You cannot kill one twin and claim the unique genetic person still exists in the other twin. So clearly a fertilized egg cannot be equated with personhood, and neither can a unique genome. It’s interesting to turn the argument to a less controversial event, death. A very large percentage of the population agrees that a person is dead when their brain stops functioning even if the body is quite alive. A live, organized, discrete organism, the body, is clearly not the same as a person. So what then of the zygote, the embryo, or the fetus prior to the onset of brain function? Egnor just isn’t enough of an intellect to deal with any shades of gray.

  5. #5 Pierce R. Butler
    December 5, 2010

    Mary @ # 3: … abortion ought to be legal, at least up until some point in the pregnancy — personally I am uncomfortable with putting it all the way at birth…

    You do know that the very small number (approx 1%) of abortions performed during the third trimester almost all involve serious medical crises, right? Trying to ban such procedures on “moral” grounds is unwarranted interference with crucial health care decisions, based on nothing but misogynistic propaganda about non-existent irresponsible sluts.

    Congratulations on your new baby, btw!

  6. #6 Deacon Duncan
    December 5, 2010

    I wonder if Egnor has considered how materialistic his definition of personhood is? And not only does it make him a materialist, it really makes him somewhat of a fundamentalist materialist. There’s no room there for the idea that pregnancy “prepares a dwelling” that will become the abode of a living soul (as in Gen. 2:7), what makes us human persons are the purely physical characteristics of our purely physical bodies, according to his view. I’m a materialist, but even I don’t take such a reductionist view of humanity that I can equate the essence of personhood with the physical contents of a single cell!

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    December 5, 2010

    Mary: My argument about the dependence of the fetus on the mother is a response to Egnor’s absurd criteria, not a full-blown explanation of my own approach to the issue. All your points about the dependence of babies on parental care (though an adoptive parent could provide childcare in a way that no one can swap out a pregnancy) and life support machinery are well-taken. I think that those points just emphasize that Egnor’s criterion of “discrete human being” is unhelpful, and only complicates matters without any useful clarification.

    I raise the issue of Jewish law not because I think that settles anything, but because Jewish law and Catholic law both claim to rest on the same Biblical foundation, but reach radically different conclusions about abortion. If even groups claiming to share the exact same moral inspiration can’t agree about these issues, why should Egnor think that the issue is so simple as he’d have us believe. Why should any anti-choicer think that?

    Birth changes lots of things. There are all sorts of biological changes that happen post-partum, not least as a result of the severing of the umbilicus and the opening of the lungs. The baby’s eyes open, it starts interacting with the world in ways of its choosing (at least to some degree), etc. Before then, it is entirely surrounded by the woman’s body, and thus her health and wellbeing is tied to the baby’s in a very different way. That has moral consequences that seem obvious to me.

    In general, I agree with the pro-choice argument you sketch out by analogy to organ donation, but acknowledging that the moral status of the fetus (it’s “personhood,” if we must) changes continuously throughout pregnancy. A fertilized egg has little more moral status than any other cell in the body, while a baby whose head is crowning has no less moral status than a baby in a crib. And this is basically the analysis in Roe v. Wade: that there’s a balance between a woman’s needs/inherent moral status and the needs/moral status of the conceptus. In the first trimester, when the fetus is still largely unformed, the woman’s needs and moral status dominate the analysis. As you enter the second trimester, and the embryo becomes more developed, and even capable of surviving a very premature birth, one ought to give more weight to its moral status and needs. By the third trimester, when it can survive birth with much less medical intervention, the balance becomes level, and abortion can be legally restricted much more.

    But to forbid it entirely would, as Pierce notes, allow the needs of the fetus to outweigh the needs of the mother. Some pregnancies are discovered to be endangering the woman’s life only in the last trimester. To forbid her from aborting then would say that it’s more important to bring the pregnancy to term than to preserve that woman’s life. Allowing abortion in those cases allows the woman and her doctor and family to evaluate that balance for themselves, and to make the choice they think is most appropriate. I can see no good grounds for forbidding abortion entirely in the last trimester. As Pierce notes, third trimester abortions are rare, and are only performed for extreme cause. Common examples include hydrocephaly which makes vaginal birth impossible, coupled with bleeding disorders in the mother that make a c-section too dangerous. Also pre-eclampsia that threatens the mother’s life if the pregnancy isn’t terminated immediately.

    And Mary, congrats on your new child!

  8. #8 Arthur "No Sheds" Jackson of Ulm
    December 5, 2010

    What rights does a zygote have if, in development, it fails to grow a brain or a heart? If the mother miscarries, has she committed murder?

    I’m sure Egnor has thought all this through.

  9. #9 Russell
    December 5, 2010

    The question to ask Dr. Egnor: when a baby is born with two heads, how many persons are there? This is not a hypothetical. Here is one biological organism, of our species, that the law and everyone sensible counts as two persons, not one:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abigail_and_Brittany_Hensel

    The follow-up question is: why?

  10. #10 Mary
    December 6, 2010

    Oops. I didn’t mean to put my full name on that comment. I’ve generally been careful only to let my full name show up on the internet in professional contexts, and I’m a little afraid that since I’ve used it so rarely, this will end up being one of the first google results for my name. Given the topic, I’d rather it not be. Would you mind editing my last name out of my comment (and ideally, the replies to it?)

    Still, I do want to reply…

    Mary: My argument about the dependence of the fetus on the mother is a response to Egnor’s absurd criteria, not a full-blown explanation of my own approach to the issue.

    But Egnor’s definition of “discrete” doesn’t have anything to do with the dependency issues you describe. That is, he would never say that being dependent upon the mother makes the fetus not a discrete person. The points about HeLa cells, twins, and acephalic fetuses or two-headed children are more relevant responses.

    The first half of your post seems to the point; the second half just seems to rehash a too-common pro-choice argument that being dependent upon someone else for life-support somehow disqualifies one from personhood.

    (though an adoptive parent could provide childcare in a way that no one can swap out a pregnancy)

    Starting about half-way through the pregnancy, these days, we can substitute medical technology for the womb with some success, allowing someone else to provide “childcare” from that point on. (Indeed I’m not sure whether to use scare quotes there or not, since if the baby is actually delivered that early, that’s exactly what we call it.)

    And actually, surrogate pregnancy is becoming relatively routine (though the per-embryo success rate still isn’t great.) So someone else can substitute for the mother throughout the entire pregnancy, provided you start early enough. It’s a bad idea to base any philosophical definitions of personhood, or any policy decisions, on the relatively small window of time in which medical technology hasn’t yet found a way to substitute for the mother.

    But to forbid it entirely would, as Pierce notes, allow the needs of the fetus to outweigh the needs of the mother. Some pregnancies are discovered to be endangering the woman’s life only in the last trimester.

    And that’s why I say I’m in favor of “all kinds of exceptions for all kinds of special circumstances…” But that doesn’t mean we can’t have laws restricting the practice at all.

    It’s worth pointing out to pro-lifers who oppose life-of-the-mother exceptions that even homicide laws have exceptions for self-defense. (And a lot of other exceptions as well.)

    I don’t understand why the national pro-choice groups seem to agree with the national pro-life groups that there’s no point in having a law if it’s going to have exceptions. All of our laws have exceptions. But despite the fact that the vast majority of abortions do take place in the first trimester, the national pro-choice lobby generally seems to oppose any attempt to restrict late-term abortions at all.

    With such a gray-shaded issue, why do both sides insist on shouting “black!” and “white!” at each other? When the only reasonable solutions are complicated, why do both sides insist the answers are simple?

    That complaint is not targeted at you, though, so much as at the national debate in general. I like your blog because you don’t generally do that.

  11. #11 Don
    December 6, 2010

    Well of course it’s arbitrary. There is no non-arbitrary place to draw the line. We choose the arbitrary line based on sensible, practical ideas (which is why nobody is demanding equal rights for sperm cells).

    How about we just say that A is a person, if and only if you can reach out and touch A without invading the body of B? Again, it’s arbitrary, but it avoids a lot of practical problems, such as abrogating the rights of B in the name of protecting A.

    The anti-abortion crowd will still hate it, not because they like fetuses so much, but because the anti-abortion position is all about taking rights away from women in the first place. The fetus is just a handy excuse. If you don’t believe that, you can’t explain why the same people oppose sex education.

  12. #12 Josh Rosenau
    December 6, 2010

    Mary: I think you’ll find that there are already lots of restrictions on late-term abortions, and indeed there are few clinics that even provide them, and they are highly regulated. Roe and other court decisions place greater limitation on late-term abortions, and national groups don’t seem to object to that basic scheme, though they do object to restriction simply for the sake of restriction.

  13. #13 Anton Mates
    December 6, 2010

    Logically, bio-logically even, how can birth fundamentally change the nature of the entity being delivered? In a C-Section delivery especially, nothing much happens to the infant except a change in location. What sense does it make to say that moving two feet from “inside” to “outside” magically transforms you from not-a-person to person?

    Josh touched on this, but birth is hugely significant to the physiology and neurology of the infant. Oxygen levels in the blood and brain go way up from what they were in the womb. The infant’s metabolism speeds up, along with heart rate and blood pressure, and various autonomic systems like breathing and gut peristalsis turn on. There’s a giant surge in the levels of various stress hormones, and in the level of norepinephrine within the brain. Meanwhile, levels of various sedative/anesthetic chemicals (adenosine, pregnanolone, prostaglandin) produced by the uterus and placenta drop. All of this contributes to newborns having–obviously–far greater levels of arousal and awareness than they did before birth.

    In a nutshell, a late-term fetus may have all the same neurological hardware as a newborn baby, but it takes birth to switch it on. If you’re inclined to define personhood using neural or behavioral criteria, birth is definitely relevant.

  14. #14 Pierce R. Butler
    December 7, 2010

    Mary @ # 10: I don’t understand why the national pro-choice groups seem to agree with the national pro-life groups that there’s no point in having a law if it’s going to have exceptions. … the national pro-choice lobby generally seems to oppose any attempt to restrict late-term abortions at all.

    It’s obvious you’re not familiar with abortion politics in the USA. The anti-choicers are on a cultural crusade, part of the much larger hard-right grab for power, and have long histories of taking miles when offered inches. Reasonable compromises are simply not possible with these people.

  15. #15 Howie47
    December 11, 2010

    And we can remember the old “slippery slop” argument. When we rationalize certain individuals, as non-human and therefore without human rights. The door is flung wide open to purging the earth of who ever isn’t politically correct at the moment. “Science without religion is lame,”. You want to use a strictly scientific definition for, “what is a human being”. Be all set for the consequences. Maybe it’ll be the heads of your, race, religion, philosophy, political stand, or just because you were part of the old paradigm that must be eliminated to make room for new growth, that will be cut off. A decision that should be left up to God. Not us selfish corrupted mortals. Who just like to play god, for our own amusement.

  16. #16 Anton Mates
    December 11, 2010

    And we can remember the old “slippery slop” argument. When we rationalize certain individuals, as non-human and therefore without human rights. The door is flung wide open to purging the earth of who ever isn’t politically correct at the moment.

    Do you rationalize individual sperm, unfertilized eggs, tumors, cows, trees, and shopping carts as non-human? Has this flung the door wide open to your committing global genocide?

    Maybe it’ll be the heads of your, race, religion, philosophy, political stand, or just because you were part of the old paradigm that must be eliminated to make room for new growth, that will be cut off. A decision that should be left up to God.

    So murdering an entire racial, religious or political group is cool as long as it’s God doing it?

Current ye@r *