Key Facts – Personhood
Personhood is an important subject from a medical point of view because it impinges upon issues such as abortion, genetic screening of embryos, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, surrogacy, cloning, embryo-derived stem cell therapeutics and saviour siblings. Examining personhood is basically asking the question – What is the value of the tissue involved here? Is it merely a clump of cells or a human being?
Personhood is difficult to define
Legally – when does a person become fully human as far as society is concerned so as to be covered by the protection of the law.
Ethically personhood has been defined as a stage where a developing human is either endowed with moral or social characteristics defining an adult with full moral status, or importantly has the potential to develop those characteristics.
Theologically it can imply when an entity becomes fully recognised by God or as a new creation or a new ‘soul’, hence the term ensoulment.
Biologically, it can relate to a particular stage in embryo development when a new individual is created or when an entity has gained recognisable characteristics of a human being or a particular capacity for independent existence.
Personhood and the developing embryo
It takes approximately 40 weeks from conception to birth. The processes may be divided into arbitrary stages, but essentially foetal development is a continuum.
So on what basis do people consider personhood or ‘ensoulment’ or full moral status to be achieved? Are these three concepts the same?
Generally there are key points where people have suggested this special value in religious or societal terms occurs:
- Fertilisation (6 – 36 hours)
- Implantation (7 days)
- Formation of the primitive streak (14 days)
- Emergence of the heartbeat (22 days)
- Forty days – (no obvious physiological stage)
- Quickening – movement of the foetus detectable (120 days)
- Initiation of a discernable electroencephalogram (22 weeks)
- Potential survival outside the womb (28+ weeks)
- Birth (40 weeks)
Current UK legislation on the attainment of personhood is paradoxical in that it draws lines of moral status at 2 points:
- 14 days for embryo research (HFEA 1990)
- 24 weeks for abortion (Abortion Act 1967 amended by HFEA (1990)
UK public opinion
In a 2008 poll, 43% of UK adults thought the first heartbeat was the start of personhood. 13% thought at the time of fertilization.
However in USA, 24% thought heartbeat and 27% fertilization.
Religious Views Roman Catholicism:
The majority Roman Catholic view, expounded by Donum Vitae 1987 and reinforced by Dignitas Personae 2008 is that ensoulment or personhood begins at the moment of conception Protestant Christianity:
Generally speaking most believers would view the unique person being created by God within the first 2 weeks. The range of beliefs is normally either conception (often held by evangelicals or anglo-catholics), implantation – start of relationship with the mother or neurulation Islam:
Islamic scholars down through the centuries have consistently upheld the teaching of delayed ensoulment. The process of ensoulment reaching fruition at a point between 40 and 120 days gestation. Abortion after 120 days is not allowed. Hinduism:
The Vedas teach that all life is sacred. However, human life is the highest level of conciousness. The divine spark, or soul enters at 120 days (Artma). Hindus also perform a pre-birth ceremony at 7 months when personhood is fully achieved. Judaism:
Predominant Rabbinic thought is that full personhood is only obtained at birth and that the baby only has equivalent status with the mother when half in and half out of the womb. Buddhism:
Generally speaking, personhood is not an issue for Buddhists. Consciousness comes from conception – therefore if there is a critical stage then this is it.
It is a matter of huge and endless debate. Take your pick from 5 biologically tenable views (there are more!):
- Conception – fertilization of the ovum by the sperm.
- Sygamy and the creation of a new genome
- Individuation – the stage where one embryo cannot divide to form multiple embryos and vice versa. By 14 days this includes primitive streak formation and the emergence of primordial neural tissue
- Possession of a recognizable human EEG pattern – beginning of person defined in same terms as end of life.
- Birth – cutting of the umbilicus – independent existence from the mother.