Next month, Mississippi voters will be asked to redefine the word “person” in the state constitution as including “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” Supporters say this new “personhood” language defends the constitutional right to life for all persons, including a baby in the womb. Opponents say the new language not only will criminalize all abortions, but could also ban birth control and in-vitro fertilization.
What’s your view? Is this a political issue, a legal issue, a medical issue and/or a faith issue? Can/should government define a ‘person’ or ‘personhood’?
Since the legislation in question has human embryos in view, the fundamental question to answer here—the question we usher to the front of the line before answering any other—is this: What is a human embryo? This is forthrightly a question for science to answer, for science tells us what an embryo is. Philosophy then reasons what can or cannot be done with the embryo based on what it actually is. For those who want to explore this matter, I commend a 2008 book, coauthored by professors Robert P. George (Princeton Univ. and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics) and Christopher Tollefsen (Univ. of South Carolina), entitled Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. The book readably presents the science, ethics, and politics of embryology.
“Here, then, is the bottom line: A human embryo is not something different in kind from a human being, like a rock, or a potato, or a rhinoceros. A human embryo is a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development. Unless severely damaged or denied or deprived of a suitable environment, an embryonic human being will, by directing its own integral organic functioning, develop himself or herself to the next more mature developmental stage, i.e., the fetal stage. The embryonic, fetal, child, and adolescent stages are just that—stages in the development of a determinate and enduring entity—a human being—who comes into existence as a single-celled organism (a zygote) and develops, if all goes well, into adulthood many years later” (George and Tollefsen, pp. 50-51).
The authors go on to address the human identity and dignity of embryos produced via human cloning and in vitro fertilization as well. If the human embryo is a human being, albeit developmentally immature, then human rights and protections should be afforded him or her. If the human embryo is something other than a human being, then personhood is not an inherent possession at fertilization but has more to do with developmental maturity and functionality.
In our society, we are awed by our own technological innovations and super-capacities. But capacity can turn to rapacity without moral reflection. Too many believe that moral reflection needlessly slows the pace of technological advancement, in particular in the possibilities of biotechnology. This is not new. As Harry Bruinius shows in Better for All the World, the social disaster that was the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century was trumpeted initially as biotechnology at its most cutting edge. But states eventually scoured from their books their old eugenically-influenced sterilization laws. Moral reflection revealed (and repealed) the “promise of” eugenics to be a threat to the most vulnerable of society and fundamentally dehumanizing.
And so, with that in our history, I’m thankful state governments like Mississippi and Ohio are being proactive in recognizing and protecting the full humanity/personhood of embryonic human beings. A vital role of government is to protect its citizenry (this is even a biblically prescribed role; see Rom. 13), especially the most vulnerable members of society. We consider governments that don’t or won’t—governments which neglect or exploit or turn on their own people—unjust. Valuing human life at its earliest stages for its own intrinsic humanness is problematic to those who value that stage of human development more for its therapeutic potential in the treatment of disease and/or the interests of bioengineering (“designer kids”).
G. K. Chesterton warned that we shouldn’t take down fences until we first know why the fence was put there. The same goes for fence-building—don’t erect one until you first know why it is needed. Because human beings at their embryonic stage of development are particularly vulnerable to disposable utilitarianism, government is right to protect their personhood with this fence of legislation.