Human PersonhoodWhen does human personhood begin?

What is meant by personhood?

Personhood is rather difficult to define. The answer depends on the onus of the question. It can have a legal implication – 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.

How is personhood relevant to the medical practitioner?

This diagram attempts to highlight the complexity of the personhood debate. The medical practitioner needs to recognise that although issues of embryo research, diagnostics, therapeutics and assisted reproduction relies upon an understanding of biological and pathological processes, there is a critical domain within which UK legislation, ethical codes of practice and religious perspectives of both physician and patient interact.

How important is the embryo to you?

One famous scenario will help you gauge your own response to this question. Imagine you are visiting a reproductive clinic / maternity unit and there is a serious fire.  On evacuating the building you pass two rooms.  In one room there is a liquid nitrogen freezer on wheels containing 100 frozen human embryos.  In the next room is an incubator on wheels containing a new born baby.  You have to make a split second decision and only have time to enter one room.  Do you rescue the embryos or the baby? The personal viewpoint that runs counter to this quite emotive response is “I was an embryo once.”  Also, people of religious faiths such as Christians or Muslims might extend that further to say either “God (Jesus) was an embryo once” or The Prophet – may Allah bless him and give him peace – was an embryo once”.

How important is the embryo to God?

What percentage of human embryos created naturally as a result of sexual relations actually go on to produce crosses-in-a-fieldbabies?  The exact figure is not known but it is estimated to be in the range 50 – 80%.  Sex is not an efficient way to make babies.  Ethicist John Harris takes the position to the extreme by arguing that if embryos are morally valuable entities then natural sex should be outlawed in favour of in vitro fertilisation which has a greater success rate in terms of embryo survival. Ethicist Ron Green argues that if early embryos are people then huge resources of governmental health agencies such as NIH should be directed towards saving as many as possible. Some theologians have argued that a God who valued the early embryo to the same extent as a baby or adult would essentially be condemning half the people he created to never experience human existence.

Should we err on the side of caution?

Perhaps early embryos are people – we can never be certain one way or the other.  Should our policy on embryo question-markresearch err on the side of caution?  Perhaps we should not allow IVF or embryo stem cell research just in case we are actually killing people.  Germain Grisez puts it this way “.. to be willing to kill what for all one knows is a person is to be willing to kill a person”. Where does the burden of proof lie?   Others would argue that in a risk-laden world we have to assess the risk in every situation but be prepared to act when the benefit of  moving forward is greater than the risk. Imagine the government of an arid country which decided not to build a vital dam in case workmen were killed or injured during its construction.  In other words, for embryo research and treatment,  the potential health benefits to people already alive outweigh the potential risks to the embryos which would otherwise be discarded.  These are consequentialist (utilitarian) arguments.

If we are going to draw a line – where do we draw it?

There can be few people on this planet who would consider gametes (sperm and eggs) to be have the moral and religious status as ‘person’ (except perhaps the Monty Python Team – who in the movie “The Meaning of Life” parody the musical Oliver! with the song “Every sperm is sacred, Every sperm is great. If a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.”) line-in-the-sand Most people would draw a line on the embryonic developmental pathway somewhere between conception and birth.  Where would you draw that line? The following powerpoint tutorial charts the major milestones in embryo development – clicking on each slide will summarise the main biological and religious perspectives  for and against drawing the line at that particular point in the development of the foetus.  As you access other parts of this website you will encounter additional material relevant to this important debate.  Try to weigh up the arguments and come to your own conclusion.  If you had a position before, does it still stack up?  Remember that your future patients might draw the line at any one of these places and just as important, may not have thought about the implications of drawing the line where they do.

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