When does a person become a person?

When does a person become a person?

It seems like a silly question, yet the entire abortion debate hinges on this. Abortion is permitted because in the United States(and elsewhere) a human being is not considered a person until birth. Legally. (Of course, we must also recognize and remember that this is the same country whose courts defined black persons as property (Dred Scott v. Sanford) until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Slaughter-house cases)

But unfortunately even many intelligent people (too many) accept this idea that personhood begins at birth without question. Without looking at the issue from a reasoned, scientific perspective and that’s a problem.

So, I invite every person to consider these questions: What makes a person a person? When does a person become a person?

Our constitution grants citizenship (legal personhood) at birth. Is this a scientific truth? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it needs amending—desperately, because innocent lives hang in the balance.

What is it about birth that could possibly bestow personhood on another? What is the fundamental change that takes place in that instant one moves from a fetus to an infant that transforms one into a person?

Is it the air? Does the air contain magical effects that bestow personhood the moment one touches it? No, this cannot be logical since animals and insects and rocks are all touching the air and they are not persons. Thus, it is not the air. Nor is it something else about the environment into which one enters upon birth, changing your environment does not change who you are.

Is it a level of self-awareness? Does birth suddenly grant one the ability to be self-aware? No, this is neither logical since no one remembers their infancy with a clear constancy of “I” (persons claiming to remember ‘bright lights’ etc. are not demonstrating a level of self-awareness), much less the instant of their birth. Furthermore, a two-year old has a lesser level of self-awareness than a twelve-year old, or a twenty-year old. Does personhood admit of degrees? No. Not even legally. It either is a person, or it is not; there is no half-person. Also, there are legal adults with a very low level of self-awareness, if at all, due to mental conditions. Plus, according to some studies done in fetal psychology (who’d have ever thought there’d be such a thing!) fetuses in the third trimester are very similar to newborn infants, and infants apparently are able to retain some sort of memories of being in the womb—preferring the sound of mom’s voice, the voice of relatives or anyone else who was frequently around when they were in the womb, preferring to hear the same stories/music they heard while in the womb, etc. Thus, self-awareness cannot make one a person.

Is it dependency? Does birth make one completely independent? No. The baby is still reliant on the mother (or someone) to feed him, change his diaper, etc. –his very life still depends upon someone else. Toddlers and children are still pretty dependent too. For that matter, so are most adults! Dependency, then, cannot be the criteria for personhood either.

What else could it be?

Could it be size? Does a baby grow a bit bigger the second he emerges from the birth canal? No… in fact, most babies usually even drop their weight after birth before gaining the pounds. Besides, once we start talking size, we’d end up with degrees again since we (typically) grow bigger as we get older. Personhood cannot admit of degrees.

So then, perhaps some people are willing to grant now that a fetus is at least a person. But what about an embryo (or a zygote)? Surely I can’t be expecting everyone to grant personal status to “a bunch of cells”? …Or can I? According to our current study of medicine, from the moment of conception the zygote/embryo has everything it needs to live and grow. Pregnancy is simply a matter of growth and development. An embryo has measurable brain waves at about 43 days after conception. Foundations of the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system are laid after a mere 20 days of existence. The embryo posses a beating heart after about 24 days (though you can’t hear it on a Doppler until about the second trimester)… that “bunch of cells” truly does have amazing capabilities: that zygote needs nothing added to it to develop into a complete human body—compete with personhood! And it possessed all of this, as our medical science admits, from the moment of conception.

Our science will admit it, why won’t our courts?

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