The question of personhood

It's true that human life begins at conception.

Conception is when sperm fertilizes an egg. It is the moment when the genetic make-up of any human is determined. Few would dispute that conception is the defining process from which our lives spring.

The question isn't when human life begins. The question is when does human personhood begin?

Don’t confuse one with the other. Don't assume that life immediately confers personhood. Personhood doesn't begin at conception or even at implantation, when the blastocyte attaches to the endometrium and pregnancy really begins.

Personhood is more than just life. It is recognizing specific life as a person. It is acknowledging that life has human rights, and in our society, it is granting that life powerful legal rights.

Politicians use the phrase "life begins at conception" as if we remain unaware. If we were ignorant of the fact that conception leads to life, we would not try so hard to prevent it with contraception.

We understand that conception is the beginning of life. That doesn't mean that we recognize that such lives merit immediate personhood.

This is where the debate should begin.

Personhood is primarily a social and legal construct. There is no defining moment at which we can point to human life and identify personhood. Human development is a continual process with few crystal-clear benchmarks.

Whatever we decide concerning personhood, it will essentially be an arbitrary line in the sand.

A line still needs to be drawn. Do we really want to draw it without any further thought at conception?

Between 50 and 80 percent of fertilized eggs never implant. Even an estimated 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies in North America end in miscarriage.

If those lives were also legally recognized as persons, there could be legal repercussions for those women.

Laws to criminalize hormonal contraception (as it can prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs) and miscarriage have been proposed in the past. In 2011, Mississippi entertained an amendment that could have outlawed several types of contraception by defining conception as the beginning of personhood. The Georgia Legislature similarly considered a law that could have allowed for the death penalty in cases of miscarriage.

There is an admitted danger in conferring personhood to human life at conception.

When you discuss the personhood of a blastocyte, embryo or fetus, do not forget that you are also implicitly considering and evaluating the personhood of women.

Personhood bestows rights and agency over yourself and your body.

If a woman is forced to carry a fetus to term because he or she has legal rights, we are limiting her rights to bodily autonomy, and thereby diminishing her personhood.

In the end, recognize that the issue of personhood is not an issue of life. Life begins at conception.

Instead of considering when life begins, we should debate when personhood should begin. Is it when the first brain waves are recordable? When the fetus is first capable of neonatal perception or when a newborn baby first breathes? None of the above?

It's easy resort to slogans, but personhood is a multifaceted political, moral and philosophical issue.

To try and reduce the complexity of personhood to such stark simplicity as "life begins at conception" is to hinder the debate and progress on deciding when personhood should begin.

Is that what we really want?


Reach the columnist at or follow her at @jentrylanza


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