The Problem with the Personhood Debate

Whose beliefs should guide public policy when it comes to defining at what point personhood begins?

Arthur Caplan is the nation’s most quoted medical ethicist for a couple of reasons: He knows his stuff. And he’s unusually accessible. But even Homer nods.

In an essay in the upcoming issue of Free Inquiry magazine about the contraception and abortion debate, Caplan makes what the philosophers call a “category error.” In it, he tries to bring science into the argument about personhood. As Caplan frames the issue:

“When does human life begin? For those in the ‘personhood’ movement in the United States, there is no doubt about when that happens — it is at conception, when the sperm meets the egg. The personhood movement has gained a foothold among antiabortion activists who are looking to pass laws that define embryos as people with full rights.”

Caplan then offers a perfectly reasonable explanation of current knowledge about the biology of conception. At least half of fertilized eggs, he points out, never develop into a child. Sometimes conception results in multiple zygotes — and one or more get absorbed into the body of another. He suggests that brain development is a better marker for personhood.

“Conception is the start of something, but it is more the start of the possible rather than the actual. It is not until a being emerges that has the traits necessary for individual existence that we can and should say that a person has begun.”

Caplan is the founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. So he has the credentials to offer his case. But I suggest he’s missing the mark.

What’s a category error? Here’s an example: The letter “A” tastes like chocolate. Unless you have the rare condition known as synesthesia, that statement makes no sense. Flavor is a category that can’t be applied to letters of the alphabet.

Similarly, science is all but useless in arguments about personhood. Because almost everyone who takes a position does so on the basis of religious belief.

There was a time when the most sophisticated understandings about conception weren’t particularly sophisticated. Maybe there were tiny people inside each sperm cell? No kidding, it was a popular theory in the 17th and 18th centuries. But spermists are about as common these days as flat-earthers.

If you believe as a matter of faith that the Creator of the Universe has established that persons are created the moment a sperm joins with an egg, what possible effect can Caplan’s argument have?

Is the idea that it would be God’s will that most of those persons never be born be any harder (or easier) to accept than the idea of a soul per se? For most people, God’s plan is never considered to be particularly transparent to humans.

Of course, Caplan is not the only one to make a category error in the abortion debate. The other side makes the same mistake. Every time an opponent of abortion or contraception talks about a heartbeat or shows gruesome photos of aborted fetuses, or even an amazing image of a well-developed fetus, that’s a category error.

For personhood proponents, neither the sound of the heart nor the appearance of the fetus is relevant to their argument. They believe a human zygote that looks like a sea urchin is just as much a person. So what’s the point of the imagery and sound effects? Emotional theater. It’s a lot easier to evoke empathy for something that looks and sounds like a baby than it is for a four-cell embryo.

Caplan is working the other side of the emotional argument. It’s more difficult to have empathy for something that has less than a coin-flip chance of becoming a baby.

But proof-texting one religious belief against another — even if the opponents share some of the same texts — is another category error.  Exodus 21:22, for example, has been understood by millennia of Jewish sages to make it clear that a fetus has value but is not considered a baby. (The passage sets a financial penalty against a man who accidentally injures a woman and triggers a miscarriage.)

And that’s why this debate is and will continue to be so intractable. Whose beliefs should guide public policy?

Image via Anna Levinzon.

  • Carstonio

    Personhood is a legal concept, not a religious one. Framing it in religious terms is misleading, because the question of abortion’s legality has nothing to do with its morality. There’s no way to assign legal personhood to a fetus without effectively denying it to women. Plenty of people oppose abortion while believing it should remain legal. Bans on abortion do nothing to actually reduce abortions, and neither do mandatory ultrasounds. Both shame women who don’t want to become mothers. Government does has an interest in reducing abortions, but the best and most humane strategy is to address unwanted pregnancies – better economic opportunities, better access to sex education and contraception, and better support for mothers. That strategy doesn’t require any moral position on when life begins, something that’s impossible to define legally anyway.

  • Samuel Lee

    For Christians, a good question to ask is, did Jesus have human personhood from the moment of his conception, when the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her (Luke 1:34-38)? It seems clear from Scripture that Jesus was a human person from his conception, since just a short time later (Mary “went with haste” to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth (verse 39)), when Mary entered Elizabeth’s home, Elizabeth cried out: “blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (verses 42-43). Since Jesus was a person from the moment of his conception, and since Christians believe that Jesus, the Son of God, was “like us in all things but sin” (the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451), then it follows that for all humans, their personhood began at conception.

  • Thos Cochrane

    There is an assumption in this article (and among most who debate the issue) that an answer to the question “when does personhood begin?” will also provide the answer to the question “when (if ever) is abortion morally permissible?”

    But the debate over “personhood” will always be as intractable as the debate over the permissibility of abortion as long as we fail to understand what is meant by “personhood”. It mostly seems to beg the question–those who think abortion is never defensible will define personhood so that anything that could be aborted is a person, and those who think choice is permissible will define it so that personhood begins after a point at which they judge abortion to be permissible.

    So what to do? (1) recognize that “personhood” is useless as a concept when it comes to “un-abortability”. (2) search for other reasons why abortion should be avoided or prohibited.

    I submit that there are reasons to prohibit abortion after a certain point in gestation: after a point at which fetuses can be said to have _interests_, we should avoid or prohibit abortion. This criterion would require further definition (and debate), but at least we’d all have access to the debate–no reliance on “ensoulment” or similar nonsense.

  • Jamie R. Karn

    “Personhood” is a concept, like personality, not a reality-based or measurable definition. The debate about personhood is really a red herring used to pretend that we can measure when life becomes something more valuable than an electric charge. I have to admit to being unable to find a reality-based measure for the value of life – though I think and feel that all life is highly valuable. If we set aside all of the myth-based arguments for the specialness of humans, we are left with either a purely evolution-based argument that because humans have evolved more highly (by our own standards) than other species, we are more special and therefore more deserving to live, or an even more brutal self-preservation argument that humans are entitled to life because we don’t want to kill off our own species (this is a primitive “us vs. them” tribal position). We are now so conditioned to believing that human life is on a level so much superior to all other living beings that fanatics allow themselves become obsessed with anti-abortion and personhood arguments – they refuse to believe that we live in a highly diverse biological universe and that we are just one species among a many, many, many complex and special species. This bias now allows us to blithely excuse the killing off of entire species (thousands of them and accelerating) while devoting our myopic energies to protecting every 1 day old human cell (but not the living starving children). This is species-narcissism – often rationalized by religion, greed or comfort. I recommend that as a species, and as societies, nations, communities, families and individuals, we put aside these fanatical obsessions with abortion and look at the big picture: how do we insure that no more species are killed off, and that we develop lifestyles that allow a reasonable quantity of humans (max 10 billion?) to thrive while allowing healthy habitats for all the other “creature” species to thrive as well?

  • Martin Hughes

    Caplan is arguing, rightly or wrongly, from the difference between possible and actual, which is matter of logic rather than science in the factual sense. To my mind it makes complete sense to ask whether an embryo is actually or only possibly a person – there’s no category mistake. I would see a category mistake in arguing that matters of logic can be settled by appeal to the will of God. We do not say “2 + 2 = 5 if God wills” since the laws of logic are, to believers, an expression of God’s nature not a result of his will or decision.