Monday, October 17, 2011

Defining a "person"

My previous post resulted in another (extended) family member de-friending me on Facebook.  Such is the price for questioning the role of authority, including religious authority.  The issue was the effort by Mississippi to use a ballot initiative to define a fertilized human egg as a person.  I have already noted the potential issues arising from that, but I didn't discuss the issue of what constitutes person-hood, which is the elephant in the room.

For many people the answer is obvious - if you are a human, you are a person.  Especially when you are physically present in this reality.  Are all humans persons?  Conventional wisdom assumes the answer is 'yes'.  Is being a human prerequisite to being a person?  The answer must be 'no' in view of what we know about the universe.  Planets abound and at some point we will encounter a planet with the potential to be a home to life, including complex life forms that can be defined as persons.  So how will we know we are dealing with life forms (even on this planet) that can be defined as persons?

For a long time the ability to make tools was a standard.  Homo habilis (handy man) is considered an ancient forebear of modern humans and fossil digs included primitive tools.  Then along came Jane Goodall, who observed the Gombe chimps using twigs and grass stalks to obtain termites. Looking further it appears that chimps indeed make tools, as well as teach their young how to use them.  Put away tool making as the criteria.

Language and culture are considerations as well.  Sperm whale communication includes recognizable dialects.  Some research suggests that the great whales do indeed have a language and a culture.  What if the researchers are correct?

Defining what it is that constitutes person-hood is the subject of much analysis.  This article uses a Star Trek episode about the very issue to explore the question, and incorporates analysis and thought done elsewhere.  The focus is on consciousness, intelligence, and self awareness.  Research again suggests that self awareness is not solely the province of humans.  Dolphins may possess self awareness.  Dolphins and chimpanzees are certainly intelligent, now it appears that they possess self awareness, does it then follow they possess consciousness?  Are they aware that they are aware (known as meta-awareness).  If it is shown that they are, then what does that do to the definition of person on this planet?  Will we expand the species that are identified as having person-hood?  There are definitely consequences to such a change, which we may be ill-prepared for.

Conversely, when we speak of the fertilized human ovum, or embryo, or fetus, are we then talking about a person?  The preferential option is to say yes.  The outcome of a human pregnancy is another human, who is a member of a species possessing the qualities of consciousness, intelligence, and self awareness.  However, anencephalic babies are quite possibly the ultimate example of a human that is born without hope of displaying such qualities.  The brain structures that make such display possible are not present.  Yet those that survive birth are treated with care for as long as they survive.  Fertilized ovum don't possess those structures, and the qualities are not immediately obvious in newborns.  There is a lot of teaching and learning that occurs between birth and adulthood.  But the presence of a living human in this reality is considered sufficient evidence of person-hood.

In the end, I think the definition of what constitutes person-hood will evolve as we learn more about fellow travelers on this planet.  It certainly will evolve if we ever get a visitor from another planet.  As far as human persons are concerned, I think viability remains the test for assigning person-hood prior to birth (whether natural or Caesarean).  As a matter of individual ethical or religious beliefs one may choose to assign person-hood to the moment of conception.  But as I have said before, imposing that viewpoint on everyone is not the function of the state.  Viability remains the test for me, but I would not require everyone else to subscribe to it.


Fargo said...

I think that viability seems to make most sense as a threshold. Defining personhood at the moment of conception creates too many traps for the mother. One of the examples - prosecution of a pregnant woman who seeks medical attention, either after a natural spontaneous miscarriage, or one that happens after an accident.

Kheris said...

That is precisely what Bobby Franklin of Georgia was proposing; prosecution if she could not show the miscarriage was not due to human intervention. He died in July of this year and his bill has not moved out of committee so presumably it will not go any further.