Science Can't Settle Personhood Debate

By Jeffrey Weiss

The debate over the "personhood" amendment in Mississippi demonstrated yet again how bizarrely materialistic both sides will argue about an issue that has nothing to do with materials.

Both sides claimed that science was on their side, when there is really very little that science can offer about the question that voters were asked to decide. Personhood, for better or worse, is not an attribute that can be identified in a blood test. It is a quality that is utterly a matter of moral and, in many cases, religious definition.

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And yet both sides of the election argument turned to science in an attempt to sway voters. Inconceivable!

That the proposition was defeated at the polls this time doesn't make the tone of the pre-election argument any more understandable. And surely, the issue will pop up again in other states.

The proposed amendment to the Mississippi constitution was brief: "As used in this Article III of the state constitution, The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof."

Yes, all forms of abortion and some of the most popular forms of birth control would have instantly become illegal. In vitro fertilization would have become even more complex, with a mandate to preserve every fertilized egg no matter what. But those are practical considerations that were beside the moral point to supporters of the amendment.

The debate, if we can call it that, was a recapitulation of much of the argument about abortion and birth control over the past half-century or so.

On the one side, we find the organization PersonhoodUSA, which made the following claim to bolster its cause: "In 1973, the science of fetology was not able to prove, as it can now, that a living, fully human, and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various stages of development in a continuum until death. However, pick up any embryology book today and you will find that your life and every person's life began at fertilization."

I find that statement astounding on its face. I learned about the birds and bees before 1973, and that included the essential truth that every baby emerges uniquely from a fertilized egg. And I recall vividly the famous serious of photos in Life Magazine from 1965 that showed the continuum of development from conception to birth in the womb.

But leave that aside. Does the statement advance the argument that a zygote is a person? Only if personhood is simply a matter of biology, of the possession of homo sap DNA. But that can't be the case. Every cell in your body possesses the same DNA. But PersonhoodUSA would never argue that your finger is a person.

Similarly, PersonhoodUSA would not argue that egg and sperm are persons, even though they are each utterly unique and human and contain human DNA. And as I learned in fifth grade science class, are just as necessary for each of us to be born as the fertilized egg that we each once were.

Why doesn't PersonhoodUSA argue that sperm and egg are persons? Because PersonhoodUSA decided the line belonged at fertilization. That's a moral judgment, not a biological one.

On the other side, let's use renowned medical ethicist Arthur Caplan who devoted a column to a detailed examination of how relatively few fertilized eggs actually end up as live babies. Half never implant in the womb. Another significant fraction face spontaneous abortion. And therefore, Caplan argues, they should not be considered persons.

"Medicine and science know very well what many millions of heart-broken would-be parents around the world know first-hand: To call all embryos 'persons' flies in the face of spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and fetal death," Caplan wrote.

Should brevity of life be the deciding factor in determining personhood? Imagine a baby has just emerged from the womb and is taking its first breath of life. A gunman enters the room and shoots it in the head. Would Caplan, would any of us, deny that's a murder? How about ten seconds earlier? Or ten seconds before that? Or ten seconds before that?

As with PersonhoodUSA, Caplan has made his own judgment about where the line should be drawn about personhood. And it's essentially a moral decision, not a biological one.

Moral and religious judgments may be informed by the material facts of the world but are hardly decided thereby. To use the easiest example, my Catholic friends are taught that a cracker and wine regularly become in a real but undetectable manner the very body and blood of God's only Son. That's not a belief based on biology, so it can't be defeated by science.

Ditto on the discussion about when a person appears. A person, as the PersonhoodUSA people point out, is "is to be protected by a series of God-given rights and constitutional guarantees such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

None of which is visible in a sonogram.

And yet, one side comes up with photos of fetuses and recordings of heartbeats -- even though they would outlaw abortion for a human zygote that looks pretty much the same as a zygotic starfish and has no heartbeat. And the other side advances arguments about viability, survivability and other strictly scientific evaluations of the status of a zygote or fetus, as if that settles the moral question.

I'd like both sides to be more straightforward with each other and with us about what the real arguments are. Partisans on one side are mostly offering their interpretations of their understanding of the will of the Creator of the Universe. Ditto for some on the other side, with the rest applying their own derived ideas of how moral obligations ought to be conferred.

It's an important debate, with enormous implications for how many of us live our lives. But until the sign of a soul shows up on some oscilloscope, it will never have very much to do with science.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyWeissRCR.

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