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December 16, 2004

Steps Toward Making Us All Non-Persons

Not knowing what else to do with a comment from Stephen Gordon to a previous post of mine, I thought I'd just reprint it:

Chairm:
Does the "theoretical person" have some person-like aspects but lacks a key component?

The sole person-like aspect present at the moment of conception is a complete unique genetic code. Unlike the DNA in the gametes that came together to make the fertilized egg, it is not a direct copy of either the mother or the father. It is a new unique combination. It contains the complete instructions for making a new body.

One might argue that another aspect of this special cell is that it is human life. That it is alive, and human. Well, the gametes that came together to make the fertilized egg were alive and human too. Few pro-lifers would extend protection to those cells. The blood I have drawn for a physical is alive and human. I presume nobody here has a problem with testing blood.

I think the essential difference between the gametes before conception and the fertilized egg afterward is this new unique code.

There is another thing special about this cell. It is young. My child was born just as young as I was born. This is obviously very important. If age accumulated from generation to generation life wouldn't be around for long. But it doesn't.

This youth is one of the reasons that scientists are so excited about the possibility of embryonic stem cells. Let's say the day comes when we can grow replacement tissues with embroyonic stem cells. If the doctor used therapeutic cloning he could give the patient perfectly matching tissue that is youthful. I think that's pretty cool.

If a unique DNA code is sufficient to assign personhood status to this cell, then the debate is over. We agree that one person shouldn't be sacrificed to save another.

Mike S. said:

What criteria do you use to determine whether someone is or is not a person? When did you become a person?

I don't think that this cell amounts to a person because a fertilized egg is simply genetic code plus a small amount of raw material. We are more than genetic code. My genetic programming would prefer me to spend every waking moment seducing as many pretty young women as I can - wedding vows be damned. But I don't. Why not? Because I am a person capable of making decisions independent of whatever urges biology gives me. The same cannot be said of that fertilized egg.

Something happened that made me a person sometime between now and back when a certain fertilized egg began dividing in 1969. When? I'm getting to that.

The issue is (and I've tried to frame this as neutrally as possible) "theoretical person v. the suffering person in front of us."
No, the issue is, "is an embryo a theoretical person or is it a person?"

How about: "Is this fertilized egg a person or not?"

The fact that you have good intentions and are a nice person doesn't change the fact that you are wrong. I could be, too, but you'll have to try and persuade me of that.

Fair enough. I doubt I can. Not because I think you're too stubborn to see the light. I just recognize that it is very difficult to change minds on something a fundamental as when personhood begins. Reasoning through these things in a debate is a good way to understand our own positions too. So it's not a waste even if I fail to persuade you (or vice-versa).

By the way, that phrase "to see the light," refers to a point that societies have traditionally recognized personhood - birth. Seeing that first light or taking a first breath is still required in most places before a wrong that affects a baby is considered a wrong against the baby as a person.

For example, a drunk gets in his car and plows into a minivan carrying a pregnant mother. The mother lingers in a coma until she gives birth to her child and then she dies. If the child never takes its first breath, most states will not charge the drunk with two vehicular manslaughters.

That's a pretty arbitrary thing, isn't it? Let's say one man is driving at 0.1 blood-alcohol level. He has the accident I described, but isn't too drunk to hit his brake just prior to impact. Hitting his brake meant that less force was applied to the unborn child. The child was, therefore strong enough to take that one magic breath. The drunk gets charged with two manslaughters.

A second drunk has a 0.2 blood-alcohol level. He's passed out at the wheel when he hits the pregnant mom. The baby never takes a breath and so the drunk gets charged with one manslaughter.

Which drunk is guiltier?

It's partly in recognition of this sort of absurdity that states have begun passing laws that punish people who harm unborn children "as if" they had harmed a person. I think that's a good thing. In fact if it were up to me I would protect the embryo as a person all the way back to the point of differentiation.

Differentiation is a point about two weeks after fertilization where cells begin to be assigned specific duties. I mentioned in an earlier comment about how a fertilized cell can become one person, two people, part of a person, or no person. That commitment (to become 1, 2, half, or 0 people) is made at the point of differentiation.

Differentiation obviously occurs much earlier than Rowe v. Wade's first trimester. Most women don't even know they are pregnant at this early stage. Would I deny women who don't discover their pregnancy until later the right choose? Yes I would.

Mike, you are uncomfortable with the idea that society could decide whether a fertilized egg is a person. Who else is going to decide? God may have decided, but He's keeping it to Himself. Even if everyone in our country accepted the Bible as the inerrant word of God, there is no passage that specifically deals with this question. You seem to have decided there is some objective way to know that this cell is a person. Do you have some reason to believe it?

Both the difficulty of knowing what to do with this comment and the belief that it is worth addressing derive from my impression that Stephen has laid his weight on various arguments often made in the service of views with which I generally disagree. Like hopping from stone to stone across a stream, the various points skip over the currents of truth until they reach a headland adequate to declare the stream crossed.

The heart of the problem, it seems to me, comes at the end of Stephen's comment: "God may have decided, but He's keeping it to Himself." Is He? I'm feeling a little silly, so forgive my lapse into fiction:

Hedia tapped urgently on Simon's shoulder. Simon turned from his never-ending project and snapped, "What?" Hedia pointed to her throat and threw her mouth open as if taking a breathless gulp.

"Look, Hedia, if you've got something important to say, spit it out. I've got to get this project to the next stage soon, or I may have to change the whole idea. What is the matter?"

While Simon spoke, Hedia tugged relentlessly at her collar, almost stretching the fabric far enough that Simon thought the whole show bordering on indecent. But still she said nothing, merely clutching at her neck and whacking her palm on the bare skin above her breasts.

"Just tell me what is bothering you!" Simon demanded.

In attempting to discuss moral matters with Christians, and not just dismiss them using their own argot, one must understand their perspective. God is not silent on matters of moral weight. Rather, as St. Paul put it, His "invisible attributes" — from which we can derive morality — can be "understood and perceived in what he has made." The question, therefore, is not whether God has anything to say about a particular matter (despite popular belief, God and the Constitution do not function identically). The question is what He's already said via that which we can observe. And from that perspective, the gap between Stephen's logical stepping stones is conspicuous.

The effective equivalence of the fertilized egg and the gametes is a case in point. The fertilized egg is not unique merely in that it "contains the complete instructions for making a new body." It also sets about making that body. It is an organism that will, of its own volition, progress toward stages at which it is more recognizably a human being. Note Stephen's subsequent admission that "most women don't even know they are pregnant at this early stage." The young human being is not advancing according to the will of the mother, or the father. It advances on its own. The embryo, clearly, is "more than genetic code," as well.

I would suggest that this realization — this understanding of what God has made — is embedded in Stephen's privileging of differentiation. Since he's deprivileged the unique genetic code of the fertilized egg, then one could suggest that the egg and sperm are also differentiated cells of the same potential organism; Stephen knows something important happens at fertilization. Furthermore, since he's emphasized a grown person's ability to make "decisions independent of whatever urges biology gives" him, then differentiation is clearly no less arbitrary a milestone than the formation of unique DNA.

Stephen's more directed argument for aligning personhood with differentiation — that, before that point, the embryo "can become one person, two people, part of a person, or no person" — is an interesting one. In fact, I responded to the suggestion when he first made it, but apparently neglected to actually post the comment. Here, we return to the post by Phil Bowermaster with which this discussion began (emphasis in original):

Each time one of these procedures was done, this living human tissue would grow into a human being. Why would anyone insist that it has to grow into a different human being? Says who? My twin brother can't demand that he has a right to exist. I never have to create a clone in the first place. And if I do create one, I assert that I have the right (before it grows into a separate and distinct human being) to decide that it will be me, rather than him, when it grows up.

Bringing this notion back into the current context, it is clear that a human being's loss of his or her ability to split into multiple human beings at the stage where Stephen would begin personhood is merely a function of our limited technology. With cloning, even adults "can become one person, two people, part of a person, or no person." The cultural function of cloning, therefore, would appear not just to be the removal of the embryo's personhood, but the removal of everybody's personhood, unless that quality is simply made synonymous with the state of being a human being and begun at fertilization.

Especially when the air is filled with promises of miraculous drugs, arbitrary lines are simply not tenable. The conclusion that there's really no such thing as personhood, although obviously ridiculous, is one that atheists and postmodernists have come to for quite some time. As postmodernists understand, absent an absolute morality, the only measure becomes power, and the assertion of power is even less amenable to arbitrary restraints. Ultimately, there are two options: the one that God has left for us to see in what He has made, and the wrong one.

Posted by Justin Katz at December 16, 2004 10:04 PM
Culture
Comments

Justin said, at the bottom of the comments where this post orignated,

I apologize, Mike, for not making the leap before you commented. (I've been having a rough computer night.) Please feel free to transport your comment to the new post.

No need to apologize. ;^)

------

Here's my comment from that thread:

[Stephen said]"You seem to have decided there is some objective way to know that this cell is a person. Do you have some reason to believe it?"

You said it yourself - the fertilized egg is a unique human life. The difference between the zygote and the other cells you mentioned, like blood cells, is that it has the capacity to direct its own development towards an adult human being. The discussion on the later post from Justin about the teratomas gets at the significance of the molecular differences between a zygote, which has the capacity for self-directed development into a fetus, and a teratoma, which doesn't. But clearly simply having the same genetic code is not sufficient, since nobody thinks that somatic cells are individual people.

You use two main arguments to distinguish a zygote from a person.

Because I am a person capable of making decisions independent of whatever urges biology gives me. The same cannot be said of that fertilized egg.

The same also cannot be said of a newborn infant, or a 1 year old. It also cannot be said of a 6 month fetus, which you indicate later in your post that you would protect.

In fact if it were up to me I would protect the embryo as a person all the way back to the point of differentiation.

What is the basis for picking this point in the embryo's development? Does something magical happen to it at this point? How can its ontological status change simply because it reached a later stage of differentiation? In fact, the process of differentiation begins at the first cell division. They have done experiments with animal embryos that show that where the first cell division occurs is related to later body plan development. I claim that your choice of when to confer personhood is arbitrary, and personhood should not be conferred based upon arbitrary criteria. (You've already made the argument that the fertilized egg is indeed something different from a gamete, so I'm assuming we can agree that that particular delineation is not arbitrary.)

Posted by: Mike S. at December 17, 2004 12:55 PM

Justin:

The effective equivalence of the fertilized egg and the gametes is a case in point. The fertilized egg is not unique merely in that it "contains the complete instructions for making a new body." It also sets about making that body.

That's life. All animals begin this way - self-assembling following a genetic blueprint. It's no less miraculous when it happens in a chicken egg, but I take my eggs over-medium.

The issue is not the miracle of life, but whether or not this cell is a person.

The point of differentiation is not an arbitrary point to establish personhood. Two important things happen at that point. Cells begin specializing to form body systems and structures - the heart, the nervous system, the brain, etc. And the commitment to form 1, 2, half, or 0 people is made.

Obviously conception is also an important point - it's the first appearance of the DNA blueprint that may go on to build a person, people, half a person, whatever. Conception would not be an arbitrary point to recognize personhood.

The quickening (the point at which the mother feels the baby move for the first time) is a little more arbitrary because it differs from mother to mother, but even that is an important point.

The first breath following is important point that would not be arbitrary.

On the other hand, Rowe v. Wade's first trimester standard is clearly arbitrary.

The goal should be to recognize personhood at the point (preferably not an arbitrary point) that maximizes human dignity and respect for human life. You might say, "Aha! That's obviously conception." But don't forget those suffering patients.

Your objection to this research appears to go beyond any moral objection. You recently said,

http://dustinthelight.timshelarts.com/lint/001248.html

...this potential alternative to embryonic stem cell research, as described by Ramesh Ponnuru, can raise feelings that something must be immoral about it...

...there's much to be said for weighting gut feelings of repugnance...

...overcoming repugnance where there is no moral reason to object tends to decrease the healthy repugnance that accrues to similar instances in which there is a moral reason to object.

Correct me if my selective quoting changed your meaning, but what I'm getting out of that is that if something makes us go "Ewww," then we shouldn't do it, even if we have no moral objection to it.

You are completely discounting the good that could be done with this research. There is a danger that, out of an excess of reverence, you would be a poor steward. You would bury this talent in the ground rather than take a chance that might benefit mankind immensely.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at December 17, 2004 2:49 PM

Stephen,

Let me apologize in advance; I'm tired and not in a very good mood. While that might explain any snippiness in what follows, I don't think it's the reason I can't make any relevant sense out of this:

That's life. All animals begin this way - self-assembling following a genetic blueprint. It's no less miraculous when it happens in a chicken egg, but I take my eggs over-medium.

Well, I like light meat and drumsticks. We eat chickens. We eat eggs. There's no moral problem there, whether or not an egg can claim chickenhood. But your first sentence speaks directly to the point: it's life. Unique life. Life along its own continuum, with a right to that life, if it will have a right to that life later in the continuum. (I notice you didn't respond to my point about cloning undermining your differentiation argument.)

The goal should be to recognize personhood at the point (preferably not an arbitrary point) that maximizes human dignity and respect for human life. You might say, "Aha! That's obviously conception." But don't forget those suffering patients.

Two critical points arise here. First, there is a moral difference — a difference in the judgment of "respect for human life" — between killing and allowing to die. People get sick and hurt and die. That's life. A failure to find morally and scientifically feasible cures is not on the same level as deliberately killing human beings based on the mere hope that doing so will to save others. By your implied logic (bringing us to my second point), one can argue that it furthers "respect for human life" to kill babies, who aren't self aware, or to kill the elderly so that others might live longer or more comfortable lives.

Correct me if my selective quoting changed your meaning, but what I'm getting out of that is that if something makes us go "Ewww," then we shouldn't do it, even if we have no moral objection to it.

You've missed my meaning entirely, almost to the point of reversing it. Rereading may prove that I've actually made a point other than what you might expect from a religious zealot. It will hopefully also suggest to you that attributing the moral callousness of "completely discounting the good that could be done" to me is not only highly offensive, but also unjustifiably so.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 17, 2004 6:59 PM

Justin:

I've not taken offense at anything you or your commentors have written. I'm sorry if I've been offensive. I'm a blogger myself and I can't stand trolls. If I wear out my welcome, just let me know and I'll be gone.

My point with the chicken egg crack is that while life is miraculous, the capacity to self-assemble from DNA instructions is not a reason to revere the human fertilized egg. Other eggs do the same thing and we don't hesitate to exploit them any way we choose.

You might say, "But this is a human fertilized egg we are talking about."

True. This fertilized egg is a human cell. But we shed human cells everyday without thought, so we don't revere the fertilized egg because it is a human cell.

Perhaps it is the synthesis of all these characteristics we've been talking about that you're considering. It's a human cell, AND it has a unique DNA code, AND it has has the capacity to self-assemble into a complete human body. The sum of your arguments might be greater than its parts.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge gulf between that fertilized egg and you or I. There is no nervous system to transmit pain, no brain to feel pain or experience fear or regret. There are no organs or structures of any kind.

This is not like pulling the plug on a brain-dead patient. There isn't even a brain to be dead.

You argue that cloning undermines my differentiation argument because cells in my body could go on to become another person even now. That would not be a natural event. We were talking about how nature (or God through nature) gives us objective evidence of personhood through natural biological events. How does some unnatural event that might occur long after personhood is established to everyone's satisfaction have any bearing on that?

First, there is a moral difference — a difference in the judgment of "respect for human life" — between killing and allowing to die. People get sick and hurt and die. That's life.

This is cold comfort for those who are sick or hurt or dying. Set aside the embryonic stem cell issue - if your physician was treating you for double pneumonia, is this an attitude you would value in him?

A failure to find morally and scientifically feasible cures is not on the same level as deliberately killing human beings based on the mere hope that doing so will to save others.

You are presupposing that the fertilized egg is a person. You are also forgetting the obligation that physicians have. If a doctor watches a man choke to death without performing the Heimlich maneuver, it wouldn't excuse him that he didn't do anything to kill him.

If doctors think they have a way to help people, they should (and will) investigate the possibility.

one can argue that it furthers "respect for human life" to kill babies, who aren't self aware, or to kill the elderly so that others might live longer or more comfortable lives.

"One" could make all sorts of wrongheaded arguments that we would both shoot down, couldn't he?

Okay, I reread your repugnance post and I think I "get it."

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at December 18, 2004 2:05 AM

Stephen,

Trolls are characterized by their lack of substantive contributions. That clearly doesn't apply to you.

"One" could make all sorts of wrongheaded arguments that we would both shoot down, couldn't he?

I find it curious that you dismiss the further applications of your implied logic with a reference to the myriad arguments that we could both "shoot down" when you've just reduced a "failure to find morally and scientifically feasible cures" to watching "a man choke to death." The difference should be obvious between one individual's refusal to apply a developed and practiced technique in order to, within moments, save the life of another individual and a general decision not to destroy human lives in order to potentially discover a technique that will save the lives of others.

If it is not obvious, I'll elaborate; in the meantime, I'd suggest that it is incumbent upon you to "shoot down" the argument that killing babies and the elderly furthers the cause of "respect for human life" while still allowing your continued leveraging of suffering patients to argue that we pick a point for personhood that excludes human beings who can help those patients.

As for your suggestion that I'm "presupposing that the fertilized egg is a person" — well, yes and no. I'm drawing a rhetorical distinction between "human being" and "person," and suggesting that the existence of the former should be taken as adequate proof of the latter. Because (presumably) your side realizes that equating the two is natural and correct, you are being forced to trod through science to declare that human beings at an early stage of development are not human beings. Hence your reliance on the logical fallacy of equivocation to force "human cell" to cover both a cell who is a human being and a cell that belongs to a human being.

Turning to your distinction between differentiation as a "natural event" and cloning as an "unnatural event," I wonder what status you'd ascribe to an adult clone. Would he be a person? If so, I'm not sure what significance you attribute to acts of nature as opposed to acts of man. God works through man, after all, and this entire discussion began with Phil's assertion that cloning isn't "playing God" because twins are natural clones.

How does some unnatural event that might occur long after personhood is established to everyone's satisfaction have any bearing on that?

As you say in the sentence before your question, we are here attempting to establish the point of personhood as evident in natural markers of development. You suggested that the ability to become more than one person means that an embryo is not a person. I'd say that general acceptance that adult humans are "persons" that can potentially be split into two people amounts to experimental proof that the quality of cleavability is not an adequate marker of personhood. You're, ahem, presupposing that a fertilized egg is not a person.

Set aside the embryonic stem cell issue - if your physician was treating you for double pneumonia, is this an attitude you would value in him?

Yes, I would hope that my doctor understands the difference between killing somebody and allowing him to die. (There are reams of discussion about what "respect for life" allows us to do with terminal patients who are suffering.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 18, 2004 10:14 AM

Stephen said,

Perhaps it is the synthesis of all these characteristics we've been talking about that you're considering. It's a human cell, AND it has a unique DNA code, AND it has has the capacity to self-assemble into a complete human body. The sum of your arguments might be greater than its parts.

Exactly.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge gulf between that fertilized egg and you or I. There is no nervous system to transmit pain, no brain to feel pain or experience fear or regret. There are no organs or structures of any kind.

There is a large developmental gulf - the question is whether there is a gulf of ontological status so large that we can kill someone on one side but not someone on the other side. You are still arguing that a human being's moral status depends upon some particular set of characteristics that it has. Peter Singer does the same thing, and he arrives at the conclusion that killing 'severly' disabled infants is morally acceptable. Note that precisely this is being done in the Netherlands. You think that you have made some rational arguments in favor of your particular demarcation line. Yet you also list a series of events in the development of a human being that are also "non-arbitrary" - non-arbitrary with respect to what? You claim that quickening is a non-arbitrary demarcation line - what does this event signify, and how does that relate to the moral status of the fetus? And why does feeling pain confer moral standing? If a person is passed out from drinking too much alcohol, I may not kill him even though he will feel nothing.

Human beings have, from time immemorial, classified other human beings as inferior, or not having the same intrinsic rights, based upon various characteristics: gender, skin color, age, ethnicity, intellectual ability, disabilities and disease, religious beliefs, etc., etc., etc. There really is a binary classification with respect to the right to life - either all human beings have it, or none do.

Posted by: Mike S. at December 18, 2004 10:32 AM

True. This fertilized egg is a human cell. But we shed human cells everyday without thought, so we don't revere the fertilized egg because it is a human cell.

As others have pointed out, the human cells we shed (1) belong to us as parts of us, not as a direct whole self-directed unit and (2) the fetilized human egg is not "us" and is not shed as part of us, but is shed by us as part of someone else (as you yourself point out). We don't go around, normally, lopping off other people's heads so we may somehow benefit from their parts.

Posted by: c matt at December 21, 2004 5:11 PM