Science Can Help Define Personhood

By Cathy Ruse

In "Science Can't Settle Personhood Debate," Jeffrey Weiss takes shots not only at the "Personhood" measure that failed Tuesday in Mississippi but at the very idea that human beings could be considered "persons" at the first moment of their life.

He writes: "If a zygote is a person...simply as a matter of biology, of the possession of homo sap DNA," then "your finger is a person" and "egg and sperm are persons" -- to which the reader is meant to respond: Preposterous!

But there's more to the story.

At the moment when a human sperm penetrates a human ovum, or egg, a new entity comes into existence. Weiss notes correctly that this new entity, the zygote, is composed of human DNA; its nature is undeniably human and not some other species.

He doesn't argue that it is not yet alive, and indeed, it fulfills the four criteria of biological life: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.

Where he errs is in failing to address the question of whether the human zygote is merely a new kind of cell or a human organism, which would distinguish it entirely from reproductive cells like egg and sperm.

Scientists define an organism as a complex structure of interdependent elements constituted to carry on the activities of life by separately-functioning but mutually dependant organs (to paraphrase from the National Institutes of Health). The human zygote meets this definition with ease.

Once formed, it initiates a complex sequence of events to ready it for continued development and growth which will continue, absent intervention or disease, through childhood, adolescence, maturity, until death (see "When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective").

By contrast, a mere collection of human cells may carry on the activities of cellular life but will never exhibit coordinated interactions directed towards a higher level of organization.

I agree with Weiss that the personhood question is not dictated by science, but neither does science foreclose it. If science shows that this new entity is distinctly human, alive, and an individual organism (not a finger), why couldn't it be called "human person?"

It's not preposterous in the least.

Look at the question from the other direction. We can all agree that a child is a person, as is a newborn baby. But, logically, birth can't be the deciding line.

My daughter Gigi was born by scheduled Cesarean section at high noon; was she a nonperson at 11:59? None should dare suggest it. And if she was a person just before birth, at what exact moment in her development did she not merit the descriptive?

The real question, of course, is not about terms but about rights.

But terms matter, because the more children in the womb are seen and spoken of as "people," the harder it will be to deny them legal acknowledgment and protection.

Cathy Ruse, Esq. is Senior Fellow for Legal Studies at the Family Research Council.

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