How Personhood Transcends Biology
In Georgia Right to Life's 5-hour training seminar, called “Pillars of Personhood,” the most difficult topics to teach and for students to absorb is the “Emerging Technology” section. That's because when we venture into the realm of cyborgism, cloning, artificial intelligence, and chimeras, black and white distinctions of right and wrong get cloudy. The introduction of complex biological and biotechnological scenarios demands the guidance of philosophy, theology, constitutionality, jurisprudence, and bioethics in the conversation. If the issue of personhood were a simple one, we wouldn't need 5 hours to simply lay the structural framework to consider the sanctity of human life, or ratification of constitutional amendments to provide for personhood legislation. That being said, it's probably problematic to grab one bioethical issue and argue that the entire personhood movement is nonsensical – which is exactly what Dr. Jane Maienschein of Arizona State University did at Slate.com.
In her very educated article, Dr. Maienschein presents the real-world issue of chimerism – where one organism possesses more than one distinct set of genetic cells – as the grounds for dismantling personhood legislation. Her case is simple: if personhood is granted at the moment of fertilization and one person contains the DNA of another person, then that one person is actually two people. This, of course, brings up all sorts of problematic issues (How many votes do these multi-persons get? Did an embryo absorbing its twin commit homicide? Is one conjoined twin more of a person than the other?). In fairness, Dr. Maienschein's perspective is 100% correct if personhood is based solely on the genetic makeup of an individual. Thankfully, the issue of personhood is broader than biology. In fact, in essence, it must be broader than pure biology in order to answer Dr. Maienschein's questions.
Personhood is not merely a description of your genetic makeup; it's a description of your standing in terms of legal rights and protections. A person is not just a human being; a person is a human being who is granted equal protections under the Constitution. A person is someone who is endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To limit personhood to biology is dangerous. Human nature is such that we historically and inevitably deny rights to other human beings regardless of their genetic makeup. We did it to the Native Americans, blacks, women, and Jews, and now we do it to the disabled, the elderly, and the preborn. We can't rely on humankind to respect the sanctity of human life simply because someone is human, because they haven't before. That's why we craft legislation like the Sanctity of Human Life Act which allows us to lay a foundation upon which we can pass laws to protect human beings based on the endowment of legal rights and protections – personhood – from the moment of fertilization.
The complex yet comprehensive nature of the personhood movement is what allows us to navigate through the murky waters of bioethics and policy regarding issues like chimerism. Dr. Maienschein brings up the scenario of an embryo that absorbs its twin, resulting in one living embryo containing two sets of genetic material. Her concern is whether homicide charges are merited for the surviving twin, or whether that individual is granted two votes since he or she came from two separate fertilizations. The loss of one twin through absorption is no more a homicidal act than the miscarriage for a pregnant mother. These events can be tragic, but are common and naturally occur in human development with innumerable variables involved in each. And what of the individual with multiple genetic cells? This brings us to the Principle of Wholes and Parts. A person who obtains genetic material from their mother or sibling during pregnancy is no more two people than a grown adult who receives a blood transfusion or organ transplant is two people. One person possessing parts of another person does not create a second whole person within the first.
The issue of personhood transcends biology so that we can consider these scenarios within the constructs of biology, ethics, law, history, and theology to understand the nature and value of mankind and create policy to protect it. That's also why the personhood movement is not just a guise to outlaw abortions. If human life begins at fertilization (which no credible embryologist will contend), and we have a moral duty to protect innocent human life, then the issue of personhood doesn't begin and end in the womb. Personhood begins at fertilization and ends with natural death. The elderly infirm, the disabled, and the preborn are all equal in value and should be protected equally.
Dr. Maienschein closes her article by stating that, “knowing biology will not tell us how to act or what is right and good.” And she's right. That's why it's important to understand the whole picture of the sanctity of human life and make the case for personhood – the paramount right to life.
In the interest of helping to educate others on the complex nature of human personhood, I'd like to personally invite not only Dr. Maienschein but anyone who is interested in the sanctity of human life and biopolicy to one of our personhood training seminars. We host them here in Georgia (but aren't afraid to travel), provide snacks and lunch, and leave you with an educational handbook to refer back to later. For more information on Pillars of Personhood, to schedule a training in your community, or to find an upcoming seminar in your area, please contact JoshuaEdmonds@grtl.org or visit www.grtl.org/pillars-of-personhood.
Joshua Edmonds is the Director of Education & Technology for Georgia Right to Life, an instructor for the Pillars of Personhood training seminar, and a published clinical/social psychology researcher.