When does personhood begin?

David at The Debate Link sticks a cautious toe into the abortion debate, asks when personhood begins. (Actually, he asked the question a few different ways, but one of them was when personhood begins.)

Here’s what “personhood” means to me: the ability to subjectively experience consciousness; to have thoughts and feel emotions; to have a personality. This ability, in humans, is located in the cortex of the brain, where all our thoughts and emotions take place.

Why am I so focused on the brain as the center of what we are? Because the brain is the only part of a person’s body that cannot be destroyed while leaving the person still alive.

To see what I mean, imagine that you get an emergency call: Someone close to you has been in a terrible accident. You rush to the hospital, and are told that your friend’s heart has been destroyed. However, a tourist from Belgium happened to die the same day, in the same hospital, and luckily is a tissue match for your friend. (Luckily for your friend, not so luckily for the dead Belgian).

Repeat the same thought exercise, except this time imagine different body parts being replaced with a part from the unfortunate Belgian. A hand transplant. A kidney. Ears. Hair. Lungs. No matter which part is replaced, it’s still your friend. You’re not mistaken to feel you have an ongoing relationship with this person, despite the new heart/hand/kidney/ear/hair/whatever.

Now imagine that the doctors say your friend’s brain was utterly destroyed in the accident. But not to worry – they have put in the Belgian’s brain. The doctors tell you that your friend now remembers an entirely different life, speaks a different native language, and has a completely new personality; but other than that, she’s still the same person you know.

Does that make any sense? Is this the same person you considered your friend? Most people would say no. The survivor of that operation wasn’t your friend; it was the Belgian tourist.

In science fiction movies like The Man With Two Brains, some people can be reduced to brains in jar, but they’re still themselves, and audiences have no trouble accepting that notion. Why does that ring true with us? Because it gets at a core truth. Our brains – and in particular, the personality imprinted in the cortex – is the one part of a person that cannot be destroyed and still leave the person in any sense intact. But as long as that part is retained, we are still, in a meaningful sense, the same person.

So when does personhood begin? I don’t know. But I know that it can’t possibly happen before the fetus has a fully functioning cerebral cortex, capable of supporting thought.

In particular, it’s not possible for there to be any thought or awareness before the emergence of pyramidal cell dendritic spines on neurons,1 which happens relatively abruptly at about the 28th week. Pre-dendritic spines, the cerebral cortex might as well be a pile of gray slush, in terms of how well it can actually function.

Once the dendritic spines are in place, does the fetus become a person that instant? I doubt it. I think a working cerebral cortex is a necessary condition of personhood (in human beings, anyhow – maybe Vulcans are different), but I don’t think it’s sufficient. Once a fetus has a fully working cerebral cortex, to some extent that’s like having a blank hard drive; the hardware is all in place, but the data is still to come.

Nonetheless, as far as abortion is concerned, I find the scientific facts reassuring. Personhood, as I understand it, can’t even begin to exist until at least the 28th week – and probably doesn’t exist in any meaningful form until well after that point. But virtually all abortions – even those abortions usually referred to as “late term” abortions – take place well before the 28th week of pregnancy.

* * *

David writes:

If the objection is based on “moral personhood”, then when does one receive moral personhood–and will that definition also sanction killing newborns and/or the severely disabled (or even the elderly)?

Is a newborn baby a person? I think so, although its personhood is perhaps in a developmental stage.

Both the elderly and the disabled are people, as I’ve defined personhood above. The exception is when someone’s cortex is so extremely disabled that it basically stops existing at all, as in the case of Terri Schiavo. I am, however, prepared to defend the proposition that someone in the same shape Terri Schiavo was in two years ago, is for all moral purposes dead, despite the fact that their body lives on.

* * *

So if a fetus might be a person beginning sometime after the 28th week, do I think that post-28th week abortions should be banned?


First of all, I’m not certain that there are any post-28th week abortions of viable fetuses performed in the US. (As it’s usually used, the term “late term abortion” refers to abortions that take place at week 18 and thereafter.)

But insofar as any do take place, it’s likely most take place in order to protect the life or health of the mother. I’m not prepared to legally force mothers to sacrifice their bodies to save a fetus’ life, any more than I’m prepared to advocate for laws forcing fathers to donate their kidneys against their will should their children ever require them.

Besides, it ultimately comes down to trusting women. I think pregnant women are the people who are best able to judge when a very-late-term abortion is necessary (in consultation with their doctors). I’m not convinced that the Senate is in a good position to make that judgment call.

  1. The original supporting link has died, alas. For more references, see Dr. Michael Flower’s article on fetal brain development. From the conclusion: “Thus, if we return to those neocortical capacities most likely to engage our moral attention as we prepare to ascribe a protected status of fetal personhood (i.e. possible awareness and/or a discrete and sustainable bodily existence regularly achieved through birth), we might be led to conclude that it is probably not until after 28 weeks of gestation that the fetal human attains a level of neocortex-mediated complexity sufficient to enable those sentient capacities the presence of which might lead us to predicate personhood of a sort we attribute to full-term newborns.” For easier reading, see this article from the LA Times: “Starting about 28 weeks, there is a burst of connections made between the neurons in all parts of the neocortex by cells appropriately called interneurons. “The bulk of what we do with our brains,” Marin-Padilla said, “is done by these interneurons. These little guys allow you to write, play tennis and carry out a variety of complex functions.” Studies seem to support the notion that 28 weeks marks a dramatic turning point in the fetus’s brain development and is more important than birth itself.” []
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33 Responses to When does personhood begin?

  1. Pingback: feminist blogs

  2. 2
    Doctor Science says:

    Brain death is our definition of death, so it makes symmetrical sense for “Brain Life” to be our definition of human life. If people are logical (not a given), any definition of “when life begins” that is pre-Brain Life is likely to make organ transplantation problematic.

    As for late abortions, reasons for them besides direct threat to the woman are: the fetus has no or grossly defective brain (or other organs, e.g. no kidneys); the fetus is dying and threatening the life of the other twin.

    The other reason, of course, is that the woman was prevented by direct force or legal rigamarole from obtaining an abortion at an earlier stage.

  3. 3
    Robert says:

    Belgian, not Belgium.

    [Thanks for the correction! Fixed in the post! –Amp]

    Since you don’t believe in any legal restriction on abortion whatsoever (that I know of – correct me if I’m wrong) – what difference does your thinking on personhood make? Not to be snippy, but it’s quite clear that even if the little squirmer has a completely developed personality on day two of the pregnancy, you’re still in favor of unrestricted abortion rights because you feel the pregnant woman is the appropriate locus for all decisions about the pregnancy, rather than the legislature.

    So why’s this needed to make your case? Your basic argument is quintessentially Hayekian libertarianism (local knowledge in the pregnant woman is better than a distant articulation of theory by an elite in the legislature) – why drag personhood into the mix? It just muddies the waters by creating an obvious hole in the Hayekian logic – if an objector believes personhood is imbued spiritually rather than materially (as many do), then they can blow off all your argument on the ground that you’re a heartless materialist wanker.

    OK, they probably wouldn’t say “wanker”.

  4. 4
    Polymath says:


    i see your point, but i don’t think amp is justifying his own belief system about abortion by defining some kind of medical personhood. rather, i suspect he is providing an argument for his position that is different from previous arguments in the hopes that at some point, one or another of his arguments might convince someone of that position.

    much like providing a second mathematical proof of a theorem, which mathematicians do all the time. it’s true after the first one, but you get more insight into the idea by looking at the second one too.

    also, (on a separate note) i think that the importance of a pregnant woman’s decision can be translated into a moral argument: a fetus attains moral personhood not by virtue of a decision by a god or by the mere fact of its existence. it becomes a moral person when its mother freely decides to carry the fetus to term and makes a moral commitment of her own to love and care for the future child. true, there are cases on the edges where a pregnant woman might not be able to make that decision (a comatose or very severely retarded woman, for example). but in general, i propose that criterion for moral personhood. that leaves a legal right to abortion in place, since a woman who decides to have an abortion is, by definition, not aborting someone who has attained moral personhood.

  5. 5
    Robert says:

    it becomes a moral person when its mother freely decides to carry the fetus to term and makes a moral commitment of her own to love and care for the future child

    If she changes her mind two months later, does the personhood disappear?

  6. 6
    PDXNAG says:

    Toss a clone into the mix.

    There are some folks that seem to have actually thought that a clone would not have their own distinct personhood. I suppose that the parts would thus be presumed to be harvestable, ick. I offer this only to illuminate how a non-spiritual assessment, as with your post, could be fully compatible with recognition of a clone as just one of us.

    Social customs as to assignment of daddy and mommy are rigid, or shall I say fragile and the clone thingie shatters it like humpty dumpty.

    Still, could a mad scientist clone themselves and play with the material until the 28th week, and then discard the material as a routine practice? Perhaps testing the physical affects of alcohol consumption?


    “[T]he mere fact of its existence” is quite satisfactory to me.


    Could society’s spiritual advisers deny a clone the recognition of personhood?

  7. 7
    Brandon Berg says:

    If a fetus is a person, then abortion is a complicated issue with room for legitimate differences of opinion. Does the fetus’s right to life trump the woman’s right to control her own body? Does rape change anything? And things like that. I can’t speak for Ampersand (there’s an understatement!), but if I had reason to believe that a fetuses were persons, I would probably oppose abortion, or would at least be far less enthusiastic in my support for it than I actually am.

    But if a fetus isn’t a person, then it’s a very simple issue with one obvious answer: The fetus has no rights, so the mother can kill it if she chooses to do so, and it’s no one’s business but hers.

  8. 8
    Robert says:

    PDXNAG –

    Of course we could deny the recognition of personhood. Wouldn’t be the first time a group has had that denied to them.

    If you believe personhood is spiritual, however, then it would seem clear that it’s the spiritual reality which determines personhood, not the pronouncements of humans. Except for maybe the Pope, with that whole keys-to-heaven thing. I haven’t checked Catholic doctrine, but I think we think that a clone would be a person with its own unique soul.

  9. 9
    cicely says:

    Besides, it ultimately comes down to trusting women.

    I’ve taken this out of the context of your post Ampersand because it stood out to me and I wanted to highlight the point on it’s own. Quite apart from the arguement about what constitutes personhood in the first stages of life, I want to insert this reminder that all available evidence points to the assertion that women all over the world would vote by a very large majority in favour of pro-choice legislation about abortion. (The exceptions being those women informed by patriarchal and fundamentalist religious beliefs.) We trust each other and grant each other full personhood. Anti-abortion laws are patriarchal laws reflecting the fact that, under patriarchy, women don’t have any full personhood status of our own. When will that begin?

    I know this is a diversion and I apologise. Just think of it as an ‘aside’ in the conversation.

  10. 10
    PDXNAG says:

    If I deny the existence of God am I not a person entitled to personhood?

    I do believe in a God gene that predisposes humans to have a desire for spirituality, or at least a desire to build and maintain a position of honor in their community.

    Beliefs have their origin in mere humans so it is not unreasonable to assume that if all written words vanished and all current adults lost the ability to write and speak that some sort of belief system would, due to evolution, reemerge.

    I would certainly not deny myself the right of having personhood, whatever it is defined as and by whom. I surely would not care who might disagree, for they would, by definition, be wrong.

  11. 11
    hf says:

    Robert: if an objector believes personhood is imbued spiritually rather than materially (as many do), then they can blow off all your argument on the ground that you’re a heartless materialist wanker.

    Those grounds do not lead to the desired consclusion. It would take further assumptions that Protestants do not officially have. (Assumptions that most American Catholics don’t have in practice.)

    Take it step by step. Do you accept Amp’s definition of personhood? Because the definition itself says nothing about spiritual or material origins:
    the ability to subjectively experience consciousness; to have thoughts and feel emotions; to have a personality.

    Now, abundant evidence says (to put it in neutral terms) that the brain and only the brain links these phenomena to the body. (We’ll get to the issue of what to do with scientific conclusions in a second. Don’t give me any philosophical backtalk about what the evidence says, unless you actually want to claim that you don’t use sensory evidence to infer consciousness in daily life.) A mountain of data, from the most unusual neural case studies to the daily evidence of sleep, leads us to this conclusion. According to Amp, the evidence also points to dentritic spines in the cerebral cortex as a requirement for bodily consciousness.

    Now as far as I can tell, literalist Christians have no reason to reject these conclusions. In principle, according to the rules of their game, the burden of proof lies with people who say that Christian dogma contradicts the plain evidence of nature. Nobody’s ever shown me biblical proof of a second, prior and independent connection between personhood and the body. Catholics theoretically don’t need biblical evidence, since they can claim divine revelation through the modern Church hierarchy. But American Catholics do not in fact make this assumption, at least not consistently. Also, you still haven’t answered the initial question.

  12. 12
    Stanford Law 1L says:

    Amp – your point about the near or total absence of abortions after a certain period is well taken, but it still doesn’t tell us what’s morally right or the right policy is. Suppose a woman were to decide to have an elective abortion at week 30 for the sole purpose of birth control. She thought she wanted a baby earlier, but for one reason or another she’s changed her mind. Do you think this is a morally legitimate choice, an act equivalent to murder, or something in between?

  13. 13
    Kim (basement variety!) says:

    Why hello strawwoman, welcome to the party!

    All sarcasm aside, I’m really tired of seeing the hypothetical woman making a choice that doesn’t ever seem to appear as happening in real life. Where is the hypothetical doctor willing to perform the abortion at that point?

    I find it a really insulting and hurtful argument tactic, considering the vast majority of women (in fact I’m not aware of any woman that this isn’t the case with) that would have to go through the procedure, go through it due to something being wrong with either them or the fetus, and are not only having to deal with the abortion, but also the fact that they are losing a pregnancy they want.

    Why don’t examples like this appear as… Suppose a woman were to have an elective abortion at week 30 for the sole purpose of maintaining her health because she was diagnosed with cancer during gestation, and the doctors told her that she could either begin chemo or risk it and wait for 10 weeks, in the process weakening and further traumatizing her already ill body through childbirth. Do you think this is a morally legitimate choice, an act equivalent to murder, or something in between?

    Why must the sordid example that is more myth than anything realistic be the example that people have to make their moral stands on, rather than the real situations which are far less ‘easy’ for a person on either side of the fence?

  14. 14
    Doctor Science says:

    Human clones occur naturally. We call them “identical twins”. AFAIK no-one believes that their personhood is suspect, even though their personhood directly refutes the idea that personhood or ensoulment dates from very early in development (identical twins form up to about 2 weeks after fertilization).

    I have never seen an argument that artificial full clones would be anything other than persons, presumably the legal siblings of the person cloned. The moral dilemmas occur if the artificial clone has no brain, in which case by Amp’s standards and my own it would not be a person. It couldn’t walk around or breathe on its own, either.

  15. Whether or not personhood begins while a fetus is still in its mother’s womb does not change the fact that it is still in its mother’s womb, entirely dependent on her for its life and therefore incapable of being treated by the law as an individual without pitting its ostensible rights against those of its mother. I don’t mean by this that it’s not worth talking about when personhood begins, but that is a very different question from asking about when someone becomes a person under the law, when laws meant to protect and/or constrain people as individuals can be applied to them.

    It’s not that I think that these two questions are necessarily unrelated, but to talk about fetal personhood, especially in the at least implied context of anti-abortion laws like South Dakota’s, without making it explicit that simply entertaining the possibility of fetal personhood creates a context that puts the fetus in direct conflict with its mother is, frankly, already to concede a great deal to the anti-choice position.

    I have said this in other discussions, but it is for this reason that I have always appreciated the Jewish approach to this question, which is to say that until the baby has emerged a certain distance from the woman’s body–and I don’t remember what that distance is–it is not considered an individuated person and so it cannot ever be legally assigned the same rights as the mother.

    This does not mean, however, that Jewish law does not recognize the fetus as a living thing that possesses a kind of “right to life,” a term which makes me cringe, but I do think it is accurate in this case. You are, for example, required to violate the Sabbath–an infraction that, in Biblical times, was punishable by death–in order to save a fetus that would otherwise die, but because it does not exist physically as an individual, its “right to life” can never trump the mother’s.

    If you are interested, I wrote about this in a little bit more detail on my blog.

  16. 16
    Doctor Science says:

    the Jewish approach to this question, which is to say that until the baby has emerged a certain distance from the woman’s body”“and I don’t remember what that distance is

    The head has to be all the way out. IMO (as someone who’s done a lot of work in the history of medicine) this is because getting the baby’s head out is the tricky bit. In the Bad Olde Dayes, before reliable Caesarians, if the head was too large to come out or was inextricably “hung up” the doctor/midwife sometimes had to either break the mother’s pelvis (which didn’t even always work), kill her, or take the baby out in bits.

    (and having seen the instruments used and read textbooks explaining how to use them, even the most distorted, sensation-mongering accounts of “partial birth abortion” have not fazed me.)

    The fact of the matter was that by the time it came to this — usually after several days of labor — they weren’t going to save the baby, it would be all they could do to give the mother a fair chance at life. The legal/moral guidelines were a way to help people (the woman, her family, and the medical people) through a horrible experience. I never heard of any particular theological uproar about it, either, which I suspect is because by the time it came down to such choices the woman would have suffered a *lot*, and no-one could say she was getting off easy or doing it for convenience.

  17. 17
    PDXNAG says:

    Roe involves arbitrary line drawing, on dates, between the interests of a potential child and the mother that is carrying it. The balance, or legal test, between the two already assumes some state interest in protecting the potential child prior to delivery. One need not dismiss the child altogether prior to delivery, as a pre-condition of being pro-Roe or pro-choice. The intellectually interesting thing about the post was that it offers an alternative dividing line that is different than the arbitrary Roe trimester scheme. Or rather a refinement. The pre-28th week non-personhood thing would roughly correspond under Roe’s split at the transition from the first trimester to the second trimester. That is, bluntly, the state would not have a secular based interest to restrain the woman from having an abortion in the interest of a child as the child is not yet reached a point of development to be given legal recognition.

    In a test-tube and artificial womb thing, from a legal perspective, there would be absolutely no concern as to the health or free-will over a woman. The balance in Roe would be wholly inapplicable. I pose it not for the likelihood of the resort to clones or artificial wombs but as an analytical tool. Consider that the interest of a test tube baby at the 30th week, whatever it is, would not have to be balanced against the interest of a woman but against the financial concerns of the folks who have created the artificial womb thing. The test tube is really the analytical notion of isolating out the weight a court would give to a woman’s rights in the whole debate over a potential child.

    I am much less concerned with the spiritual aspects, endless debates about deities and whatnot, of an abortion prior to the 28th week than I am with the empirical and physically measurable effects of alcohol consumption during the first 28 weeks, where the child is carried past the 28th week. The intention of the mother during the first 28 weeks to ultimately give birth to the child, I would believe, does come with a duty not to consume alcohol and likewise gives the state an interest, a purely secular-based-interest, during this period from conception through the 28th week to restrain alcohol consumption. The interest of such a mother is that of a desire to drink, which is a far cry from the spiritual and/versus secular debates about a woman’s desire to end a pregnancy during the first 28 weeks, or later.

    To recap, Roe does not dismiss in total all concern for the child just because it is in a womb. Think of religion as an alternative, and perhaps mutually exclusive, legal system to define the rights and responsibility of individuals in their private and public lives. If the Pope had his way and prohibited contraceptives with the force of law it would be so dismissive of a individual liberty as to render them void, far more expansively than just within the abortion debates. The consideration of spiritual beliefs, and sexual activity regulation, are thus a poison to the simple challenge of examining a secular resolution that is compatible with individual liberty. Secular law is filled too with arcane phraseology and formulations, Roe included, that can be as odd as any that any religion leader can dream up in the name of their religion. The absurdity is illustrated most clearly with the disregard for government restraint upon drinking by a mother that plans to carry a child full term, for which secular analysis is sufficient all by itself. Roe is not a religion, at least it should not be. It is just a momentary line drawing that is preferable to choosing between the moment of birth versus the moment of conception based on spiritual beliefs.

  18. 18
    Dianne says:

    if an objector believes personhood is imbued spiritually rather than materially (as many do), then they can blow off all your argument on the ground that you’re a heartless materialist wanker.

    Ok, so I’m a heartless materialist wanker. Nonetheless, if you can prove to my satisfaction that 1) there is a spiritually imbued personhood (ie a soul) and 2) that it is inserted in the fetus (or embyo or zygote) sometime before birth, I’ll agree with you that abortion should be at least severely restricted if not outright forbidden after the personhood gets added in. However, I’m very unclear on how you know whether spiritual personhood is there or not. You might argue that since you don’t know it’s better to be safe and assume it’s there. But then why limit the assumption to people? Why not also assume that cows, frogs, amoeba, and E coli have spiritually imbued personhood (bacteriahood?) as well and are equally entitled to protection?

  19. 19
    Dianne says:

    I don’t speak for amp or the “pro-choice side” or anyone else except myself, but FWIW, here’s my opinion on the hypothetical woman who wants an abortion for purely elective reasons at week 30. I feel that it’s reasonable to forbid her from having it provided several conditions are met. First, that the law does not forbid abortions that are medically necessary either for fetal or maternal reasons. Second, that first trimester abortion is cheap and readily available. If she has failed to obtain an abortion for 30 weeks, then, IMO, she has given the fetus implicit permission to use her body as long as it needs to–unless she was forced into doing so. I also think that such a law would prevent about one abortion every three years or so: although I won’t say that such a person could not exist (there’s lots of people and they do lots of weird things), I do think that she would be extremely uncommon.

  20. 20
    emily1 says:

    Suppose a woman were to decide to have an elective abortion at week 30 for the sole purpose of birth control. She thought she wanted a baby earlier, but for one reason or another she’s changed her mind. Do you think this is a morally legitimate choice, an act equivalent to murder, or something in between?

    this actually raises a point i’ve been meaning to address. what do we mean by a ‘right to abortion’? i understand it as a right to *end a pregnancy*. i don’t interpret it as a right to *require* that the fetus die. i think a woman who is 30 weeks along should have be able to end the pregnancy in the sense that she choose to have the fetus removed from her body, but i don’t think she has a right to have it killed in the process of ending the pregnancy. personally, i can’t argue in good conscious that a 30 week old fetus is not a human being.

    i also think it would be impossible to find a doctor willing to perform an elective abortion (resulting in the death of the fetus) at 30 weeks of development.

  21. 21
    PDXNAG says:


    Suppose that the rare 30th week abortion does not pose some verifiable health risk above normal. If the child has attained some recognition as a person could an alternative to abortion be crafted. First, in the interest of the mother, could the person or entity that may have caused delay against the mother’s wishes be held civilly liable for monetary damages for the burden of carrying the child through the balance of the pregnancy. The measure of damages could be reduction in life expectancy, pain and suffering, and the inherent risk associated with normal child birth, etc. It could be a rather big dollar amount, and be measured subjectively. Second, in the interest of the child, any entity that may have restrained early termination of the pregnancy should have to post a bond that covers the entire cost of raising the child, inclusive of costs that can continue through the age of 25 rather than a cut off of 18 years.

    The folks that wish to restrain the woman’s choice want to do it on the cheap by characterization of the matter as criminal, but that need not be the sole inquiry. The folks that wish to restrain the woman’s choice want to do it on the cheap at less than the cost of a condom.

  22. 22
    Dianne says:

    PDXNAG: Sounds good to me.

  23. 23
    nobody.really says:

    it becomes a moral person when its mother freely decides to carry the fetus to term and makes a moral commitment of her own to love and care for the future child

    If she changes her mind two months later, does the personhood disappear?

    Basically, yes. I favor recognizing and defending a sphere of personal autonomy. I believe that the woman should have autonomy over the use of her body, because the use of her body affects her more than it affects anyone else.

    Until she decides to reproduce. While she intends to bring her child to term, then the interests of a future person must be considered. In the lexicon of the current discussion, then the fetus “becomes a person” or “achieves personhood” or whatever. A fetus’s interests might exceed the woman’s interest in her own autonomy when a given course of conduct would have greater impact on the fetus than on the woman. As I have noted elsewhere, my private choice to have a child will likely have social consequences far beyond my sphere of autonomy, or even my lifetime, so society at large is entitled to have a say in the matter. I see potential merit in regulating both a man’s and a woman’s behavior that would produce long-term health problems for a fetus. For example, maybe would could say that no one may buy a pack of cigarettes without signing an affidavit saying that he did not intend to procreate.

    Admittedly, these laws would be virtually unenforceable against women because, as a matter of bodily integrity, a woman would retain a right to disavow her intention to bring any given fetus to term until the moment of birth. But the laws might be enforceable against men because the man wouldn’t have the woman’s discretion to disavow a desire to bring the fetus to term.

  24. 24
    Brandon Berg says:

    On what do you base the supposition that women would vote overwhelmingly to support abortion rights and that anti-abortion laws are patriarchal laws? The surveys I’ve seen suggest that men are at least as likely to support abortion on demand as women are, and maybe even slightly more likely.

  25. 25
    Barbara says:

    The idea that for the good of society one surrenders one’s autonomy at the time one decides to reproduce is obnoxious. People do not have children in service to the state. There are few things that I agree with the rightwing on, but autonomy over one’s children is one of them. Of course I draw the line sooner than they probably would in cases of physical and emotional abuse, but whether it’s smoking and drinking or skiing or horseback riding (Heavens! Arrest me! I went horseback riding and sat in a Jacuzzi while pregnant!) or lots of other things that are perfectly legal, children get what their parents dole out. For better, sometimes for worse, but I stand with the presumption that most parents want what’s best for their children and have the ability and desire to weigh their actions and act accordingly. There are lots of actions that peoople take that heighten the possibility of adverse consequences to society, and the idea that we should zero in on those adverse consequences caused by pregnant women is just another wolf in sheep’s clothing when it comes to protecting women and children: somehow it always involves taking away women’s rights. Are you going to prohibit fathers from riding motorcycles or scuba diving because of the enhanced possibility they will be leaving behind orphans?

    And oh by the way, there is a strong argument that smoking is probably more harmful after your child is born than before.

  26. 26
    Barbara says:

    Re the overall post: Nice summary of the relationship between identity, personhood and cerebral functioning.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the reason why the survival odds of premature babies goes way up between weeks 25 and 27 is increased neural development (which means that baby’s brain can contribute much more to survival by permitting self-regulation of organs). At week 22/23, premature babies cannot survive. The odds increase by about 2-3% for each day after week 23 has been reached, and by week 27 it’s about 80% odds of surviving. Of course, this survival requires extraordinary medical intervention, it’s not by any means a natural survival rate. 32 weeks is really the earliest that you could expect a premature baby to reliably survive even without the possibility of such intervention.

  27. 27
    gengwall says:

    Time to jump in, heh? First, I have no problem with Amp’s definition. I think it is reasonable and is a good possible benchmark. The fact that I view personhood from a different perspective doesn’t make his perspective any less sound.

    But, I look at personhood from a more strick biological standpoint. (Although Richard Newman has attributed to me great capacity for metaphorical thinking, I am still ignorant of such thinking within my own thoughts.) What is, it seems to me, indisputable from a biological standpoint is that the thing in the womb is a unique human organism. Now does that make it a person. Amp would say no. I would say yes. And never the twain shall meet. (In reality, as I posted over on Richard’s blog, even I am a little wishy washy about pre-implantation.)

    I do think that Richard makes a very important point:

    but to talk about fetal personhood, especially in the at least implied context of anti-abortion laws like South Dakota’s, without making it explicit that simply entertaining the possibility of fetal personhood creates a context that puts the fetus in direct conflict with its mother is, frankly, already to concede a great deal to the anti-choice position.

    It is exactly that kind of concession I would entertain as being a good move toward common ground in the grander debate. And I don’t think such a concession is quite the disasterous thing pro-choicers think it would be. Of course, I also don’t think that supporting contraception education is quite the disasterous thing that my pro-life friends think it is. But that is another topic.

  28. 28
    cicely says:

    Brandon Berg wrote:

    On what do you base the supposition that women would vote overwhelmingly to support abortion rights and that anti-abortion laws are patriarchal laws? The surveys I’ve seen suggest that men are at least as likely to support abortion on demand as women are, and maybe even slightly more likely.

    I’ll offer one very specific case to answer your question, Brandon. I posted this in another thread here on February 9th.

    ‘Yesterday, in a conscience vote (meaning government members are permitted to vote according to their conscience and not along party lines), the Australian Senate voted on a private member’s bill to take the decision about whether the RU486 ‘morning after’ abortion pill should be made available to women in Australia out of the hands of the conservative Health Minister and put into the hands of the Therapeutic Goods Authority. This would allow the decision to rest on issues of safety rather than religiously informed morality. (Incidentally, Australia’s Health Minister once seriously considered entering a Catholic Seminary and becoming a priest…)

    The bill passed (hooray!) by 45 votes to 28. Female Senators from *all* parties co-sponsored the bill and of the 26 women who voted, 23 supported it. Being such a sensitive issue, there was no whooping and hollering etc, but a quiet ‘Well done, girls, well done’, was heard after the result was announced…I offer this in support of my arguement that if only women were permitted to vote on the abortion issue, there would virtually be no issue.’

    The key here Brandon is that if ‘only’ women voted. I know there are many, many men who are pro-choice and I don’t mean to dismiss that happy fact at all. Another fact though is that women have had to fight for the right to safe, legal abortions in most places in the world because in most places in the world, under patriarchy, women have not had and do not have control over our own reproduction rights. Issues of sexuality and reproduction are a cornerstone of patriarchal control over women. You have to be able to imagine a different world – one in which women have always been and are still today not only ‘trusted’ to be responsible, but ‘are’ in fact ‘solely’ responsible for making decisions about whether or not to terminate pregnancies, because those decisions are about us.

  29. 29
    Lee says:

    Overall, I think this might be workable definition of personhood. I’m still working my way through some of the implications of using this definition, though, because I think it’s not exactly a “bright line”.

    I do have a problem with the 28 weeks marker. As Barbara points out, the survival rate of premature babies in the 23-27 week range is very low, yet my next-door neighbor’s granddaughter was born at 23 weeks and is now 8 years old. Was she a person at the time of her premature birth, because at 23 weeks she didn’t have a fully developed brain?

    If personhood begins in the third trimester with a working cerebral cortex, does that mean that doctors are obliged to do their utmost to save the lives of the fetuses that are being aborted at that time in order to save the lives of the women carrying them (e.g., surgery, life-support, etc.)? I know many late-term abortions of live fetuses are of fetuses with enormous problems, which is why I ask that question. If these third-trimester fetuses have working cerebral cortexes, I don’t think it’s logical to say they can’t or shouldn’t get full-out medical treatment just because they are being aborted instead of born prematurely. Would the woman then have to sign paperwork that would hand custody over to the state in the event that she doesn’t want to keep the baby?

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  32. 30
    Julie, Herder of Cats says:

    On the subject of viability, I see a lot being said about week 23. The current state of the art is down around week 20. Remember — that’s “state of the art”, not “walk i the park”. Birth weights below a pound are also not unheard of. The old limiting factor was the lungs, as I recall, with the new limiting factor being the brain and cerebral hemorrhaging. If that problem is solved, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t, the next limitation will be some other system’s development at an earlier date.

    This has been the boogie man hiding behind the abortion woodshed ever since Roe. I don’t think “My body, my choice” is an effective attitude for post-viability abortions. I think that looking at projected viability (“would this child survive if delivered at term”) is a far more effective strategy. “Rights” aren’t absolute in the sense that someone who can’t afford a printing press gets a free printing press — in many ways they are relative. And the right to an abortion after some “typical” viability date shouldn’t be related to the case of an abortion where the viability date is “never”.

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