personhood1How do we determine when a person is, well… a person? This question has been around in one form or another for a long time, but it has developed a new level of urgency over the past few decades as it has become a key question in the debate over the moral legitimacy of abortion (and thus whether abortion should be legal). Life, defined scientifically, unquestionably begins at conception. This is true for all creatures that reproduce through sexual relations of any form. Thus, human life (again, defined scientifically) also begins as conception when a new living organism exists and begins to grow through cellular division.

However, many have raised the question as to when human personhood (or human life where life is non-scientifically defined) begins at the same time as human life. This has a strong relation to questions about human death as well. For instance, a brain-dead body can be kept alive for a time (sometimes an extended period of time) through advances in medical technology. However, does this mean that the person is still actually alive? A simple biological definition of life doesn’t really seem to account for what we normally mean by human life, and certainly if we define life so simply then we seem to have a moral responsibility to go to every possible length to keep a body a live even when the brain is clearly dead (or even mostly removed).

This has led many scholars to present and defend a wide variety of arguments about when human personhood begins. The most common placements are at conception, either because personhood and biological life are seen as synonymous or because the natural potential of future personhood is seen as equivalent to actual personhood (i.e. it is wrong to abort an embryo because it will one day be a fully functioning person, but it is not morally required to keep an ancephalic baby [i.e. a baby born without or with only minimal brain matter] alive through mechanical intervention because there is no possibility that it will every be a person); at the first sign of brain activity (as brain activity is seen to indicate internal life and personality); at birth (as the baby is no-longer dependent upon its mother and is clearly a living, conscious, independent organism); or at the achievement of certain designated criteria (i.e. speech, cognizance, social usefulness, etc). There are arguments for and against each of these positions. For instance, some have pointed out that the argument from human potential is flawed because we don’t treat an acorn like an oak tree, or a dog embryo like a beloved pet. Others have pointed out that the argument from designated criteria is flawed because it is easily possible to define personhood in such a way that most living humans today are not human persons. The argument for personhood at birth has been attacked by pointing out that the baby is actually still dependent upon its mother in a great many ways, and by pointing out the the baby has significant aspects of humanness (i.e. human appearance, brain waves, heart beat, physical behavior, communication, etc) long before it is actually born.

Further, some Christian scholars have rejected all of the above arguments as naturalistic and argued that the only significant criteria for human personhood is ensoulment (i.e. when a body becomes a living soul). Three major views have been presented along these lines: pre-existentism argues that human beings exist as souls long before they are born (some argue from eternity past) and that God implants these already existing souls into bodies at some point in the gestation process (normally some point between the first appearance of brain-waves and the birth of the child); creationism argues that every soul is specially and individually created by God and implanted in the body at some point during gestation (historically between 40 days after conception and 30 days after birth, but most modern creationists will argue that souls are created and implanted immediately at the moment of conception); Traducianism argues that the soul is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the souls of the parents just as the body is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the DNA of the parents, and that these are distinct but conjoined spiritual and physical processes such that the soul is not physical in nature, but that it necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception just as the body necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception. Each of these concepts of ensoulment has been attacked and defended on both biblical and theological grounds. It has been pointed out the creationism has little biblical support and that it presents problems for a clear understanding of how sin is transmitted from parent to child unless one resorts to a Manichean division of flesh as evil and sinful but spirit as good and pure. Pre-existentism has been attacked as having little biblical support and that it raises questions about the actual connection between soul and body such that murder seems to be wrong simply because of divine fiat and not because any part of the image of God is harmed (as scripture seems to indicate). Traducianism has been attacked as having little biblical support (let’s be honest, the bible doesn’t say a whole lot about ensoulment in the first place, so this criticism is universal) and as being prone to a physicalist reduction that denies the spiritual nature of man.

So, here is your challenge for today. Given everything presented above, what do you think a human person is? When does personhood begin and how can we tell?

As always, write a story of 1000 words or more that presents your response to the question.

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