Although I have already addressed many of the issues about personhood and human beings in part 2 there are a few lingering questions to be addressed. So here in Part 3, I will try to answer the question, “Is a human being automatically a person?”
Before any adequate answer to that question can be given we must first answer a more basic question: “What is a human being?”
The answer to this is by no means simple, and we are so far beyond the point of naïve dictionary definitions that a return to Oxford seems pointless. Yet we should give it a go just to see what we get. So thanks to my subscription to the Oxford English dictionary I know that a human is “Of the nature of the human race; that is a human, or consists of human beings; belonging to the species Homo sapiens or other (extinct) species of the genus Homo.” So it’s not exactly a bad definition, but it basically says that a human is a human. Tough, I know, but lets pay attention to what matters, we as humans are defined by our homo sapience, or to put it more pointedly what it means to be human is defined by SCIENCE! So how does science define humans?
Our genus and species is homo sapiens (sometimes even homo sapiens sapiens, but lets keep it simple). Even better we are defined as sexually reproducing (not asexual bacteria), multicelled (not amoebas), lacking cell walls, (not plants) carbon based (our basic molecular structure is different than other kinds of basic molecular structures such as we find in common chemical compounds), having a thoroughly unique and particular genome (the little biological fingerprint of DNA which distinguishes our kind from all the other kinds). If this were not enough we also have a fun list of facts which distinguish us from other hominids, both living and extinct. Yet to list off all of the exhaustive and unique connotations of the term human may take far longer than I like so let’s try to keep it simple.
Human: a sexually reproducing animal with a particular genome, which often displays the traits of personhood
Yes, often, but not always.
In some obvious and boring sense, a human is whatever has human DNA. This seems clear except that this would make dismembered arms, heads, or even shed skin and hair cells human beings. So we try to qualify that and say a human is whatever has human DNA and is capable of self-directed cellular activity. This way we cut out corpses, shed skin and hair cells, and include just about all living humans. We also like this definition since I am able to say that a still functioning human organ, divorced from a larger human body, is not a human being. This works because the divorced organ is not self-directed, rather it is merely functioning according to its biological instinctual programming, it will continue to function as long as it can but it lacks any true intentionality. A human is a self, and this much should be clear. Now humans, as we saw with candidates 1 and 2 (myself and my partner), make great persons. But we also saw with candidate 7 (the human fetus) that sometimes humans are very bad candidates for personhood. So in a preliminary way we can answer the question in part 3 by saying, no a human being is not automatically a person.
Now let’s ask this question: “Can the human lose their personhood?”
Consider the case of the human being who lapses into a coma. They obviously do not lose their human status, and they do not seem to lose their sentience, thanks to modern medicine we are now aware that comatose patients retain sentience. Yet the comatose patient seems to lose their ability to make deliberate choices, since indeed they make no choices at all. Furthermore they also lose their ability to indicate their intentionality, since they indicate nothing at all. Such humans still have value, but it would be wrong to call them persons since they no longer fit the essential criteria. We may call them potential persons, though, since if they wake up from the coma then they should almost immediately regain their personhood by deliberately choosing to communicate their intentions and feelings of sentience. So we might leave the human in a coma alone, but also we do not expect them to act like persons.
For instance I would think it was rude if a person completely ignored my honest request. Yet I do not think a comatose human is rude by refusing to move or talk to me. I do not think this because I do not expect non-persons to behave like persons. Yet I will still protect the patient since they could regain personhood, and I do not wish to be cruel to future persons.
I can also, possibly, forfeit my personhood by choice. This seems strange until you consider that this is exactly what a suicide does. A person chooses to die, and thus to forfeit being a person. Furthermore a suicide might not even technically be a human being, since the dead are no longer being human and they have no self-directed cellular activity. Yet barring suicide, I do not seem to be able to get rid of my sentience, even by greatly reducing my sensations. I might attempt to refrain from communication, but my silence and body language still communicate even if I speak no words. Finally I cannot, despite my best efforts, choose to stop making deliberate choices. The choice to not choose is itself a choice that must be continually chosen in the face of competing options. Ask someone who meditates and they will tell you that the present mind is a very intentional choice, and one that must be maintained despite all the distractions of the world.
One final question to be considered is this: “Should I ever give a being the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are a person?”
The answer to this is a clear and emphatic NO. I do not decide the personhood of a being based on its appearance. I could wait for a statue to move and indicate that it is a person, but just because an object has a human shape does not make it a person. I need to decide personhood based on interaction, since this is the only reliable test. I must engage with and involve myself in the existence of a being in order to determine its personhood. I need to observe it, but even more than mere observation I need to interact with it.
I find out that a statue is a statue since it never moves and never indicates anything to me about itself. The statue may be choosing to stay perfectly still, and the statue may be feeling everything that is happening to it. Yet unless that statue attempts some kind of communication or indicates its personhood in some way I have no reason to assume it is a person.
This does not mean it is on the being to prove its personhood, it means that personhood exists between 2 or more beings. Personhood is an exchange of ideas and information, and such exchanges need words, gestures, touches, smells, tastes, and looks. It is not on me to determine if something is or is not a person, and it is not on a being to indicate its personhood.
Personhood can only be established by engaging in and involving myself with another being. I cannot know if God is a person until I attempt to relate to it. I cannot know if a sponge is a person until I fail to relate to it as a person. I cannot know if a dolphin is a person merely by observing its behavior, I must attempt to interact with it.
The result of this thinking is that I never assign personhood to a being I can only observe. I certainly never assign personhood to a being with whom I cannot interact. This is why a fetus only begins to be a person once it starts to indicate its desires by moving around inside the amniotic sack within the uterus of its mother. Prior to the quickening I can only really observe the development of an embryo and fetus, but once the fetus moves I can initiate some kind of interaction with it.
Of course where this gets a bit blurry is in considering the effect that pregnancy has on a woman, prior to the event of fetal motion. There are hormone changes, weight gains, weight losses, morning sickness, and even full blown hyperemesis gravidarum (morning sickness turned potentially fatal.) Thanks to advanced medical technology we can use the subtle changes in hormones to determine the existence of an embryo as soon as 6 days after conception. This is important because at this stage of development there really only exists an embryo, since embryos do not implant and begin to develop into fetuses until about the 2nd – 3rd week after conception.
So the point of all this is to ask ourselves the question Do pregnancy symptoms constitute an embryo’s attempts at communication and are these symptoms indications of an embryo’s intentions?
The easy biological answer to this is no, since in the first few months of its existence the fetus does not have a nervous system such that it can have intentions.
Now even if I posit that the fetus has a mind because it has a soul I still might not claim that these symptoms are indications of its intentions. The fetus does not create the pregnancy effects of hormone change, weight change, or hyperemesis in order to communicate anything at all. How can I know this?
Consider the doctrine of original sin.
People who hold that a fetus has a mind, thanks to the existence of a soul, also hold that therefore the fetus is already a moral being. If the fetus is already a moral being, then the fetus can be held responsible for its actions. If the conditions of pregnancy are the results of intentional acts, and deliberate choices, on the part of the fetus then the fetus is indicating its intentionality by performing such actions. This would mean that a fetus does have personhood by having deliberate choice, and the indication of intentionality, though it seems to completely lack sentience.
If a fetus is a moral being then it knows that causing harm and pain to another moral being is evil, and if it knows that such actions are evil it should stop doing them. Clearly the effects of pregnancy are evil since the fetus never bothers to ask its mother whether or not the mother wishes to have an easy or difficult pregnancy. No fetuses even attempt such communication, they simply move in and act to carry out their own selfish intentions. In the simplest way possible, the fetus forces itself (since it does not in any way obtain consent) onto the mother’s body. Now if a fetus is a moral being because it has a soul and therefore a mind it should know that its actions are evil. That fetuses do not even attempt communication till the quickening is clear evidence that the fetus does not care or does not know it is causing harm.
If the fetus does not know that it is causing harm then it lacks sentience and therefore personhood. If the fetus knows that it is causing harm then the fetus is evil. If it is evil then we are justified in aborting it, unless the mother (through an act of charity and forbearance) decides that she will endure the evil little fetus and allow it to develop inside of her and become a person. If not then we must deal with this wicked and unrepentant person in the harshest terms possible, since they will not relent and refuse to communicate with us.
If the idea of a fetus being pure evil sounds at all insane it’s because you probably think that a fetus lacks sentience or awareness of how its direct actions are affecting its host, its mother. Or else because you think a fetus lacks deliberate choice and is simply developing in the same way that a seed grows into a plant. It is simply following natural biological processes that are the expressions of genetic possibilities rather than deliberate choices. Or else you might think that a fetus is not indicating its intent since it has no intent to indicate, as it lacks a complex nervous system and therefore has no mind, (at least not till about 23 weeks or so.)
To sum it all up our answer is NO, a human being does not automatically have the status of personhood.
In the final part of our discussion we will determine whether or not all persons have equal rights, and also try to figure out if non-persons have rights.