Forward Thinking: What Is Personhood?

It’s that time of the month once again! Or rather, its a week late, but there are five Mondays in July, so that’s okay! Head on over to Camels with Hammers to see Dan’s roundup of the posts written in response to his prompt on the ethics of challenging people’s belief systems two weeks ago, and with that said, it’s time to turn to our next Forward Thinking prompt.

With all of the talk of abortion regulations and personhood bills in the news lately, I want to turn this month’s Forward Thinking prompt to that issue—specifically, I want to invoke thought about “personhood.” Note that discussing personhood is not identical to discussing whether to ban abortion, because a person can technically embrace both fetal personhood and abortion rights on a bodily autonomy and/or self defends basis. So I want to bracket any discussion of the legality or even morality of abortion and instead focus solely on personhood itself:

What is personhood? When does it begin? When does it end? Is it gained and/or lost gradually or all at once?

I want to invite readers to discuss this question in the comment section and to invite bloggers to respond on their own blogs. At the end of two weeks I will post a round-up of links and excerpts to both blog posts elsewhere and especially insightful comments here. Bloggers should email their links to lovejoyfeminism (at) gmail (dot) com with “Forward Thinking” in the subject line if they want to be included in the round-up.

Happy thinking and discussing!


Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project is an invitation to both readers and fellow bloggers to participate in forming positive values and grappling with thorny questions. Click here to read the project introduction.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Katherine Hompes

    I think personhood is something incredibly difficult to define- although I would like to say that cognitive function plays a part, I believe that even severely intellectually disabled people are, well, people, with all of the rights that entails.

    My “line in the sand” tends to be- a human being that can survive outside the womb. That means that I don’t really support very late term abortions, although induced labour or c-section is ok. Note- I fully understand that this is my opinion only, and that viability is something incredibly difficult to pin down- so I guess my answer is:

    • Katherine Hompes

      (Gah, I hate disqus sometimes!)

      My answer is: that is an incredibly difficult question to answer, and I think that legal definitions should be left at “first breath”

    • victoria

      I struggle mightily with where exactly severe cognitive disability fits into certain human rights questions. (I think Niemand put it well when she discussed being ‘capable to take on the duties we demand of people’ above.) I agree that very severely intellectually disabled people are people, but certain basic human rights just don’t seem to make sense in that context.

      If my neighbor took steps to ensure that his eighteen-year-old daughter couldn’t walk down the street to the polling place on election day, I’d be horrified — unless the daughter had an IQ of, say, 20. I strongly support programs that provide occupational therapy and social support to people with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers, and I believe in education as a basic human right, but at the same I think that when you’re talking about someone who is literally incapable of learning basic activities of daily living, the right to an education as we think of it is just not relevant.

      And then consider something like the Ashley Treatment, which would be indisputably wrong in someone of normal intelligence but which has widespread (though not unanimous) acceptance by doctors and ethicists for someone with the mental development of an infant.

      My husband and I were discussing a thought experiment the other day. Consider four five-year-old children who are all diagnosed on the same day with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. ALL requires a long and difficult treatment regimen (two years or more, involving chemo and radiation), but the flip side is that a huge majority of children this age — 95%+ — who are treated for ALL will never have a remission. The only alternative to this treatment is palliative care, and people with ALL who are untreated will generally die within weeks.

      Of the four children, one has no comorbidities. The other three each have a major comorbidity: one has X-linked ALD and is already in rapid decline; one has an aggressive form of muscular dystrophy and his doctor has given him a prognosis of about four more years to live; and the fourth has major brain damage due to hypoxia at birth (she is responsive to major pain stimuli, but can neither communicate nor partake in basic activities unassisted — eating, walking, toileting, etc.)

      Clearly it is unethical to choose palliative care for the first child. I would submit that it is unethical to treat child #2 aggressively; you’re inflicting pain that the child will not be able to ask for help with or understand the meaning of for a future that he’ll never have. But I find it hard to say that I could morally condemn parent #4 if they chose palliative care instead of aggressive treatment, and if that moral intuition is correct than I wonder where to pinpoint the difference between child #4 and #1.

      This is something I’ve been thinking about lately and I haven’t really figured out good answers yet.

      • Niemand

        Treating child #1 is clearly right. S/he’s got a very good chance of cure and a long life after treatment. Treating children #2 is clearly wrong because, among other things, treatment for ALL is long and he’ll die during treatment if you go for aggressive care. Child #3 is interesting because his prognosis is long enough that he could benefit from treating the ALL but it’s going to be hard on him and riskier than average. Maybe go for first line therapy but don’t pursue further if he doesn’t respond. Or consider experimental therapy like the lentiviral based therapy at U Penn, if he’s a candidate. Child #4 it really depends. She may have quite a long life expectancy but would be put through a painful and distressing treatment that she couldn’t understand. It would be a bit like putting your cat through chemotherapy if you’ll forgive the analogy. I’d say no if she’s as badly damaged as you describe. But wouldn’t condemn a parent who said yes.

      • victoria

        Doing, I meant “recurrence” rather than “remission” in that fourth paragraph.

        My intuitions for #3 and #4 were about the same as yours — totally parents’ discretion for child #3 depending on how healthy the kid was at that moment, whether he was in distress due to the dystrophy, and what he seemed to want. And no real right answer for #4.

        What kind of gets at me is that if you say you must treat #1 and can ethically not treat #4, you’re really saying that cognitive abilities determine whether the kid should live or die in this (admittedly odd) circumstance. And maybe that’s right (after all, what you’d be taking away from #1 if you didn’t treat is a likely future of experiences and opportunity, and #4 will realistically have none of that) but it definitely feels weird to come down on that side.

      • Niemand

        Cognitive ability plus life expectancy. Child #2 is going to die soon because we don’t have any way to reverse his disease. Not giving him therapy for the ALL may not even decease his life expectancy given where his decline is neurologically.

        Child #4 is more ambiguous because she has a potentially long life expectancy. But little, if any, quality of life and a markedly reduced QOL with treatment.

        Again, I think we’ve got a situation where we’re trying to run a line through a gray zone. It’s obviously wrong to refuse to treat someone with an IQ of 98 because they’re “cognitively impaired” (i.e. less smart than average–or at least less able to complete standardized tests), but few people would argue that it’s wrong to take someone off the ventilator if their cortex and most of their brainstem are irrevocably gone but they don’t quite meet the definition of brain dead.

        So maybe you don’t draw a line but rather allow a graded response. Parents with healthy children can’t refuse to treat them because they’d rather pray and hope that god cures them. But parents of a 24 week old preemie who is doing poorly are allowed to end aggressive treatment and allow the child to died peacefully in their arms–but can’t actively euthanize the child. And so on. It’s not a very intellectually satisfying answer and implies (ok, outright states) that there are gradations to personhood, but maybe there are. And gradations allow you to include people who might otherwise be excluded because they don’t fit all the criteria (i.e. non-human animals).

      • Mogg

        Would the difference be that child #1 can already or will in the future be able to understand the pain of treatment and put it into the context of saving their life, whereas child #4 never will? Pain and suffering is more bearable if you can explain and contextualise it, which is why I suppose so many people look to religion for an explaination for why life includes such a lot of suffering.

        One of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen was an elderly woman with dementia being brought by her family for dialysis every second day, even though she could no longer understand why people were sticking needles in her arms and fought, screamed and cried every time. Sure, it was keeping her alive, but was it worth it to her?

  • Niemand

    I think it has to be mentation based. Anything else is too prone to misuse. A self-aware AI or an intelligent alien would be people IMHO. Non-human animals capable of passing the rouge test are an interesting gray area because they aren’t capable of taking on the duties that we demand of “people”, but I think that they need to have some level of protection including the right to not be killed (i.e. no more killing elephants for ivory, if you want to harvest tuna you’d better make absolutely sure that dolphins aren’t being directly or indirectly harmed, etc.)

    As to the infamous “where do you draw the line on fetuses and babies” question, I’d say that 30 weeks gestation in utero is an extremely conservative line to draw. There’s a good chance that a 30 week fetus does not have the level of cognition that a newborn baby of 30 weeks GA does because the baby is living in a high oxygen environment, the fetus in a low oxygen environment.

    Oh, and as for the “what about unconscious and sleeping people” thing, I don’t know about anyone else, but I have these things called “dreams” and in them I am self-aware, if sometimes a bit odd. (And yes I dream under anesthetic. Most people do: one of the horrors of the ICU is that under sedation people can have nasty nightmares they can’t wake from.)

    • Slow Learner

      I think this makes a lot of sense, and additionally that your framework has sufficient flexibility to fit in severely intellectually disabled people without special pleading or leaving space for their mistreatment. There are a few unfortunate people who are less intelligent than a dolphin, and I don’t think anything besides “they look more like me” makes them more a person than that dolphin.

      I have complete agreement with you that a self-aware AI and an alien would be people.

  • Contrarian

    It’s that thing that distinguishes me and my friends and family from the rest of the universe.

  • enuma

    When trying to define personhood, the question I ask myself is, “What is the one part of me that cannot be replaced?”

    Give me a new heart, lung, kidney, leg, eye, skin… and I’m still me. Replace all the joints in my body with artificial ones, I’m still me. Drain all my blood and replace it with donor blood, I’m still me. But, if you crack open my skull and swap out my cerebral cortex with a new one, you haven’t given me a new brain. You’ve given that brain a new body.

    So personhood is, for me, contingent upon brain activity. This would rule out first and second trimester fetuses. Brain development is gradual, but birth and its attendant changes in oxygen levels create about as hard a line in changes to brain activity as you’re going to get in something as fuzzy and variable as development. Since we need a hard line for legal purposes (mature 17 year old people can’t vote while immature 19 year old people can–that’s how rights work), I’ll stick with birth.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      That’s taking the brain as a discrete object. But what if you had a brain parasite that very slowly ate through your brain, drastically changing your personality over time. At what point would you have ceased to be you and started to be a different person? Or, for a real world example, was Phineas Gage the same man pre-accident as he was post-accident?

      It also doesn’t take into account all the radical effects of our various glands on our personality. Or, heck, maturity.

      • Niemand

        It’s an interesting point. I’ve also heard the sci-fi scenario of your brain being replaced, neuron by neuron, with artificial neurons. Still you?

        I’d say that it’s the same person if there is a continuous consciousness. My brain is extremely different than it was when I was 3 but I’ve thought of myself as the same person that whole time because the changes have been gradual and easily reconciled into the general me-ness of the situation. (Yeah, ugly sentence. Sorry.) So you’re always the same person as long as you identify as the same person, i.e. there’s a continuous consciousness or identity. IMHO.

        But I quite agree that there are gray zones here as well.

      • tsara

        I agree with you on the ‘continuous consciousness’. I mean, I’m a different person on antidepressants from who I am when I’m not on them, but both of those are still me.

      • enuma

        Heh. No point replying myself because you summed it up better than I could.

      • AnyBeth

        I have trouble with the “continuous consciousness” idea. For one, I haven’t had it. Brain disease (that’s, for now, well-controlled). Think waking up in the morning not know who you are, where you are, or what the heck’s going on, perhaps with some major changes from that person you were (or are) that you can’t remember. Think that lasting 2-14 days. Imagine not always remembering those times at all. Consider having reprieves of 2-8 weeks where you have significantly better access to memory — but not all, not like you think you used to, and you’re not sure how much you “remember” was just the stories you’ve been told. And, many times, significant differences remain — even to changes in religious belief. Imagine this happening for 2-3 years. It’s certainly not what many people would call “continuous memory”.

        To geek out a bit, I’m quite aware that most people’s lives are continuous functions and perfectly clear that mine is instead a discontinuous step-wise function. That is, most people have very small changes, their lives flow; mine, in contrast, has “jumps”, sudden leaps of change. I don’t take continuous consciousness (or memory/access to memory) as defining a person, probably because it’d mean I’d been several dozen people, which is absurd.

        Presuming current sentience, even without continuity of consciousness or memory or even identity, there remain large sections of the brain that contribute to what makes a person themselves. The brain has well-traveled roads and paths overgrown with brambles. If there is a wreck on a major thoroughfare, even the most naive traveler is much more likely to detour to a side street than to raise an ax and forge a way through the woods. I figure it’s the entire network of neural pathways that make up higher functions that make you yourself and whether or not you’re aware of it is immaterial.

        Btw, in the times when I couldn’t access my past memories, I’d face the existential question, “Who am I?” If I can’t remember anything about myself beyond the past hour, who am I? Eventually, I found an answer: I am me. I am myself. However I am at any time, that’s me. Simple.

      • Anat

        Indeed your situation challenges many common ideas (even among very thoughtful philosophers) about what it means to be a person.

        In what ways do you feel you are contiguous with your pre-illness self? Or your self (selves?) during your illness? What happens when you encounter information about events that took place in those times – do you feel like these are things that happened to you? Would you consider decisions you made during your illness or before it as binding for you now?

        The closest thing in my experience is my brief and limited experience with anesthesia. There were several minutes during which I was apparently conscious and active of which I have no memory. As far as I am concerned those minutes happened to someone else, because I have no access to them. But it would be nightmarish to live in doubt about extended periods of time of this sort of thing.

      • tsara

        For instance, with the brain parasite, consider Alzheimer’s and dementia.

      • Gillianren

        I’ve already made my wishes very clear–once I’m no longer me, I don’t want to live. I think there’s a correlation the other way; before brain development, there’s no me to be a person. (Or you, or whatever.) The heart may keep beating, but that doesn’t mean there’s anyone home, and it’s the anyone home part that’s most important to me.

      • Mogg

        How about Toxoplasmosis? It’s a parasite which lodges in the brain and is associated with changes in behaviour and incidences of various psychological disorders.

      • Sue Blue

        Or CJD, SSPE, herpes encephalitis, and other bugs with a predilection for neurons. And glioblastomas, astrocytomas…

      • Ann

        I think we’re constantly becoming different people with each day and experience, but our constant becoming is based on who we were before as a continuum, not as a full break. Dementia is a harder situation but it’s telling that family members of the afflicted often speak in terms of having lost their loved ones, despite the non-cognitive parts of them continuing to work quite well.

      • AnyBeth

        There was a time in my life when I’d classify as having (frontotemporal) dementia at least a quarter of the time. And, yes, some family members talked in terms of losing me and of me not being the same person. It was alienating on the order of people saying they’d rather die than be like me or that people like me should have fewer rights. That family members say such things is only telling in that it reveals ways those people think, not that that sort of thinking is valid.

        Sorry, it’s just that I remember being on the receiving end. You’re having a rough time and not quite sure what’s going on… and in this moment, your supposed loved talk about how “the real you” has died, is gone — and then they name you a stranger and treat you with suspicion. However hard it is on the family, that kind of thinking is a horrible thing to be subjected to. I figure not many people have been there and gotten better enough to say this, so I do.

      • Norm Donnan

        Your a truly unique person to have in this discussion,thanks for your imput.

      • AnyBeth

        Thanks. This is a rare time I’ve found mention of the sentiment in such a way that my response might be considered appropriate. Usually, the context is someone talking about a loved one. Times like that, it’s considered wholly inappropriate and unfeeling to suggest that perhaps their presumptions about dementia may be unfounded. (Talking mild to moderate dementia.) I figure illnesses, accidents, and substances that affect cognition (without utterly destroying the capacity) are basically equal in that it’s the same person, but it’s that person working within different constraints. No special cases there.

        It’d be good for people to understand one may morn loss of function while still recognizing the person as the same self and as a valid person. Heck, most anyone with acquired and/or progressive disability knows you can morn loss of capabilities and increased constraints while considering yourself still living! I think it’d be a very good thing if society in general understood the option and that occurred to them before they’d dare claim a living, breathing, even emotional and thinking person is dead.

        I’m glad to have had a place to say all this without being judged to be wholly inconsiderate and uncaring.

      • Sophie

        What you said in your second paragraph is very true. I became a wheelchair user last year after spending most of 2011 gradually losing my mobility which also lead to me losing my independence too. Eighteen months post first wheelchair, my partner and I have mostly accepted this change in our lives and are starting to build new dreams, on the other hand my mother is acting like my life is over. It is true that my two biggest dreams are no longer feasible and that means that my life will be different but I’m still living and still get enjoyment out of life.

        I also think that this scenario can apply to people with mental illness and their families. Any mental illness will change the person it’s affecting, but those changes are not so large that the person is no longer who they were. Still you hear families talking about their loved one being gone and I want to shout at them that it isn’t true, their loved one is still in there under the illness. It’s just a lot harder for them to express their true selves when their brain is lying to them. I know that’s true, my older brother has schizophrenia and he was very ill for ten years but once he got the right treatment he was himself again.

      • AnyBeth

        I’m told it’s common for it to be about two years for whatever change to become one’s normal. I think people with disabilities are much more aware of the human ability to adapt than able-bodied people are. So we get people going “I’d rather be dead than [$disability]!” And, from that, if one becomes (more) disabled, then obviously life is over because it’s better to be dead. But, really, we’re good at living and quite able to adapt to change. They’re (for now) playing catch and don’t understand that we’re caught up in a game of calvinball, rolling with the changing rules.

        (Aside: If it’s possible and the lack bothers you, I do hope you find ways to regain more independence. Disability forces creativity, huh?)

        As to mental illness, I mostly agree. But remember, your brother was still himself while he was ill as much as he was himself later. People act differently under different circumstances. While he was sick, he was reacting to all the lies his brain was telling him, all the misinformation, roadblocks, and detours. It was still him, it’s just that he was dealing with all that stuff that others couldn’t perceive. He was always himself… but with treatment, maybe he could be more the way he’d like to be — without all the stress of dealing with those lies his brain had told him. If you want to define “true self” as “how one is when relaxed and without stress”, then you’re probably right. But I have trouble with “true self”.

      • Sophie

        What I meant by ‘true self’ is the persona that we show to the world, our personality if you like. When my brother was ill his normal personality traits became exaggerated; passionate became aggressive, outgoing became exhibitionist etc. He wasn’t in control of what he showed to the world, he had too much else going on with the hallucinations, delusions and the other lies his brain was telling him. When he talks about the time he was ill, he talks about not being himself and about it feeling like he was watching someone who looked liked him. Once he got on a medication that worked he was able to separate himself from the psychosis, he was in control of what he said and did and how he presented himself to the world. He still has the auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations, but he has learned to tell the lies from what is real. Since my brother doesn’t think of the things he did or said whilst under his psychosis as part of who he is, I’ll follow his lead.

        I have my own experiences of being mentally ill, I first developed depression and anxiety when I was 10. The periods of my worst depression, when I wanted to kill myself and did try on several occasions, I didn’t feel like myself. I remember my suicide attempts but I have a similar recollection to that of my brother, in that I felt like I was watching someone who looked like me whilst it was happening. Whereas in my periods of milder depression, I still feel like me just sadder. I can only speak for my own experience and that of my loved ones, but in that experience when we were are our sickest we did not feel like the same people that we are when we are well.

      • Norm Donnan

        Its been very interesting to follow you two womens conversations.We really dont understand what another is going through unless we have been in their shoes so thank you both for your openness and honesty.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I don’t actually think that’s a very interesting question. We apply some rules to children and some rules to adults and some rules to people who lack the mental capacity to make judgements for themselves, yet all of these are “persons.” Also, using the language of personhood also neglects to address the rights of (and the responsibilities we have towards) non-human animals – particularly higher order ones such as apes.

    I am perfectly comfortable saying that personhood begins at conception, and that it never ends (which is why it’s considered a crime to desecrate a corpse). I just don’t think that actually says anything at all about the morality of abortion, euthanasia, or of telling my son that no, he is not allowed to have another ice cream.

    • Anat

      No, I disagree that all those are by necessity persons. And I don’t see any way in which a fetus or a patient in vegetative state (let alone a corpse) are anything like a person. If personhood starts at conception and never ends then it is a meaningless term. (The whole bit about desecrating corpses is an emotional hang-up to do with religious beliefs about the afterlife. I go along because I don’t want to hurt the feelings of real living people, but I think Belgium does things more rationally by making organ donations from the dead opt-out.)

      • MrPopularSentiment

        That’s my point, it *is* a meaningless term. It’s a meaningless term because we get so hung up on arguing about when and where personhood “happens” that it distracts us from the more important question of what types of rights are allotted to what kinds of person – I gave the examples of children and of people deemed mentally incompetent (which does not mean vegetative, by the way). These are undoubtedly persons, and yet the rights and responsibilities that they are given are different from those given to sound-minded adults.

        The fact is that we make special cases and special decisions all the time – we have to. That’s why the personhood argument is so irrelevant in the abortion debate.

        But okay, let’s say that we’re going to give a fetus the same rights and responsibilities as a child. Now let’s say that a mother causes harm to her child through negligence or abuse, resulting in, say, massive blood loss. Even though the mother is at fault, even though she’s the parent and thereby responsible for her child, she cannot be compelled to give her blood to save her child’s life. It’s temporary discomfort with no lasting damage (which is more than can be said for most pregnancies), and her “crime” was actually intended to harm her child rather than simply having sex with someone. And yet, we would not compel her to give blood.

        Until we live in a society that forces people to give blood in these sorts of situations (or, just for a start, makes organ donation from the dead opt-out, as you mentioned), we do not live in a society where the personhood debate is anything other than a red herring.

      • Norm Donnan

        So true,red herring sums up the whole concept of “what is a person really”.

      • Anat

        No, depending on what person means, children and people with diminished capacity are not necessarily persons. I don’t know why you think they are ‘undoubtedly persons’.

  • Sophie

    I am in agreement with most of the previous commenters that brain activity is what makes a person. Our brain is responsible for our thoughts, feelings, ability to learn – the things that make us individuals. When it comes to personhood of foetuses, that becomes more murky. A healthy foetus in the third trimester has brain activity, although it is minimal compared to a born baby, the foetus can react to stimuli and it is thought that a foetus in that stage can recognise the voices of it’s parents. Still I am inclined to say that a third trimester foetus is not a person because it is not yet a separate entity from it’s mother, it is still dependent on it’s mother’s body in a way that no born human can be dependent on another person. So I suppose my definition of personhood also involves being born as well as having brain activity. As for when we stop being a person, I think that line is more clear cut. The death of the brain stem is a good place to draw that line, the brain is no longer capable of supporting life and all that made the person who she/he was is gone.

  • tsara

    I’ll have to make a distinction between philosophical and legal personhood.
    Legal personhood begins at birth (or first breath, if preferred) where I am, and I am perfectly happy with that; fetuses and embryos are subordinate to and subsumed by the pregnant person whose body they are inside. The pregnant person can give philosophical personhood to the fetus or embryo inside of hir, but nobody except the pregnant person can do that, and the pregnant person can only give philosophical personhood (not legal) and only to the fetus/embryo inside of hir body (not those inside of other people’s bodies).
    For nonhumans (EDIT II: or, actually, for anyone), I believe that all self-aware (in the sense of being aware of their own awareness) beings are philosophically persons (such that if beetles were self-aware, the destruction of the Amazon rain forest would be a genocidal tragedy of greater magnitude than the Holocaust), but that legal personhood would need to be defined in a practical sense once the situation arises (or theoretically, by people who know more about the potential realities than I do).
    I also believe that we should treat other self-aware species the same way we treat humans in terms of personhood, so the very young and intellectually disabled among them would receive the same status as human children/babies and people with severe intellectual disabilities. (EDIT II: For AI, self-awareness is the line.)
    I also believe that great apes, dolphins, elephants, and maybe pigs and other intelligent animals should be entitled to a certain amount of legal protection, but I don’t know how much. (For anyone worried, scientists have been able to grow bacon from stem cells.)
    Zygotes aren’t even worth considering; I’d have no problem chucking a microtube of human zygotes in the biohazard bin.

    I haven’t thought much about the limits of personhood with death and loss of self-awareness, or other places where philosophical personhood exists (or can exist) but legal personhood shouldn’t.

    EDIT: I’m hesitant to say that personhood ends with brain death, because if I die, I’m hoping to have my head severed and preserved so that, in the event that we figure out how to reverse brain death, I’ll have a chance of coming back.
    EDIT II: I think that humans with severe developmental disabilities should fall under a legal definition personhood, even if they don’t quite meet the philosophical requirements for personhood, just because it can be really hard to tell the difference.

    • A Reader

      I love this comment. Very interesting & insightful. And not to detract from the seriousness of this topic, but just one quick question as a vegetarian – they can grow bacon from stem cells?? Do they sell it anywhere by chance? Because I miss bacon :)

      • tsara


        I don’t think they sell it yet. It’s probably got to go through some FDA certification, and then there’ll be a lot of (pointless) ‘stem cell research is evil!’ and ‘unnatural, non-organic food!’ histrionics.

        Plus, I only read it at a news source, not a scientific journal; I have no idea how accurate the article was.
        For a substitute, my sister likes to fry smoky maple tempeh. If there are people eating bacon in the vicinity (such that the whole place smells like bacon), it’ll trick your brain into tasting bacon when you eat it.

  • Ann

    It’s worth noting that there have been many personhood debates over the years regarding women, non-whites (and analogues where whites aren’t in power), non-Christians (ditto), children, and even corporations. These debates all seem to agree with the comments here — that it boils down to cognition, agency, awareness. It’s our experiences, and our ability to experience them, that makes us people (excepting corporations). The odd thing about the abortion debate is how it turns this whole notion on its head. Earlier movements held that all genders and races are people because we all feel, learn, and love regardless of our physical attributes. Meanwhile I drive past billboards and hear about laws that insist fingerprints, heartbeats, and physical attributes are what matters.

    • tsara

      The corporate personhood thing is so weird. I don’t get it.

      • Trollface McGee

        Corporations were initially made “persons” in order to make large scale investing possible. In legal documents, lawsuits, major decisions, a non-corporate business needs the involvement of the partners, co-owners, etc. The corporate “person” allowed a corporation to have investors that did not want the responsibility or liability of the day-to-day management of the business while still ensuring that the corporation can act, sue, be sued in an expeditious way.
        The recent decisions on corporate personhood, I agree, make no sense and I’m very disturbed by the trend they’re going in.

      • tsara

        I see. Thanks!

  • Trollface McGee

    I think that the idea of personhood isn’t a single idea. There’s the biological view, the moral view, the legal view etc. etc.

    Anti-choicers tend to focus on the biological view (about the only time they seem to like science) but even then – do you pick conception because that’s when you have the unique DNA? The formation of certain organs? Consciousness? I’m not a biologist but it doesn’t seem to be an issue that one can clearly answer from that point of view.

    Morally? Now that’s a nearly completely subjective measure and one anti-choicers really confuse with the legal issue. Morally, I might believe that a parent has the duty to donate blood to her sick child but I would vigorously oppose such a law. Morally, your personal or religious values might say conception or quickening or whatever your conscience and culture say.

    Legally – and I think this is where the debate really is, you need those clear bright lines or you have a mess. Imagine having to have an evidentiary hearing whenever someone applies for a driver’s permit to see if they are mature enough. So legally we need a clear line that makes sense. Given the importance of bodily integrity in the law, birth makes a lot of sense.

    But defining a “person” isn’t sufficient. Personhood, like all rights isn’t without limits nor is personhood a requirement for having rights. Dead bodies have the right to integrity even if their organs would save the lives of legal persons. Children are legal persons but are barred from many activities adult persons are allowed to do. A person in a coma is a legal person but s/he doesn’t have the ability to make decisions so they lose those rights (which is why living wills are so important). So regardless of where you put the personhood line, you don’t give that legal person unfettered rights, and no person has the right to violate the bodily integrity of another by using their body and organs, not even after death.

    • Semipermeable

      I just wanted to say that this is a spectacular comment. Thank you.

  • stanz2reason

    Personhood and it’s twin Consciousness are emergent phenomena that form gradually and lack a specific start moment. Asking when they begin is like asking when bricks become a wall. After the 1st brick? 50th? 1000th? I’m as comfortable saying it’s a wall prior to the last brick being laid (is that the right word?) as I am saying it is not wall immediately following the laying (?) of the first brick.

    When personhood ends is when we die, or perhaps we can even define death as the end of personhood. In any case, this might be dependent on mode of death. Something immediate, say like being caught in an explosion, I’d say personhood ends immediately. In terms of a prolonged illness, say like Alzheimer’s Disease, as the mind deteriorates the loss of personhood is a gradual process. Perhaps we could mark the final loss at a more precise moment such as a final heartbeat, but I feel the person is gone far before that.

    For the record, I do not think it follows that once a persons mind is fargone enough, but prior to physical death, we then have the right to decide to end their life without prior consent of the person or person left with the responsibility of making that call. I’m for euthanasia in general, but there is a logical progression here that casts a wider net that I actively oppose. Topic for another day.

  • Saraquill

    Personhood should be extended to all living humans. Far too many individuals and institutions believe that others are inferior than themselves by virtue of being female, being young, not being cisgendered, or other reasons that cannot be controlled. It peeves me to hear some call out for saving the unborn, but do nothing to help those already in the world.

    One commenter in a different post heavily implied that wanting social and economic justice for born children and their families made me a bad person. I”m still trying to wrap my head around that.

  • AcademicSkeptic

    I think one reason why discussions of personhood are confused is because we reify it. I don’t think that personhood is “out there” in the world, it’s not part of the way the world is made up. It’s a moral and legal category which we construct because it is useful in navigating social life. As such, it is inherently fuzzy, as a concept. I’m not sure a thoroughly consistent conception is even possible. To me, it seems there are central cases upon which we would likely all agree upon, but the further in conceptual space we get from that center, the more disagreement there will be, and I’m skeptical that there is one conception upon which all fully rational agents would be compelled by logic to accept.

    • Sue Blue

      Exactly. Personhood is a concept, a human construct. Humans need to categorize everything, and the point at which we become a “person” is about as definable as the point at which we become adults. Legally, we become adults at 18 (for everything but things like drinking), but is there a discrete “moment” when we actually become a physical and mental “adult”?

      I’ve always thought that viability is a good starting point, but here again, that point is fluid and has been rolled back quite a ways by medical technology. Maybe when a fetus can survive unassisted by medical technology? That, too, varies somewhat. And viability is only a partial answer that doesn’t take into account the various alterations in consciousness, cognition, and physical volition that people may experience after birth.

  • Anat

    I recommend the essay: When Is a Person? Pre-persons and former persons by James Leonard Park. There is also a link to a shorter and newer version at the top. Park considers consciousness, memory, language and autonomy essential elements of personhood. Thus he sees personhood emerging (for most people) over time in childhood and often declining, even ending, in old age (with some people never becoming persons). I think his definition of personhood is something along the lines of ‘someone capable of managing their own affairs’. For pre-persons and former persons decisions are made by others, including, in some cases the decision of whether they should continue to receive help necessary for them to remain alive.

    • Sophie

      That definition sounds like it excludes people with mental health problems or disabilities from being persons which I strongly disagree with.

      • AnyBeth

        Yup. So Henry Molaison wasn’t a person by his amnesia (if not by his seizures before that). Helen Keller wasn’t a person early in her life and a number of people might lose their personhood via aphasia (common in strokes). And I’m not going to read such offensive material to find out what Park judges to be required for “autonomy” and what helps might be allowed. We’re a technology-using interdependent social species. Which is to say, no man is an island, and we all need help with some things. Because of that, to judge personhood on ability to manage one’s own affairs means looking at all the grey area and draw a line at what capabilities you think are “good enough”, and call the bodies on one side people and on the other not.

        Not long after you say some aren’t really people, you start referring to them as vermin. And then it’s ok to do whatever you want to them. Ah, but I’m told I’m just a leech on society. Probably shouldn’t listen to a nothing such as myself. Real people get to do the important things… like decide I should be allowed medicine, food, a home, human rights. I’ve heard (non-)people like me shouldn’t get medicine, food, or a home and that they shouldn’t be allowed to breed, marry, or vote. Seriously. Those are some of the consequences of making lesser-persons. We’re still forcibly sterilizing women and girls. (My favorite argument for that is that profoundly disabled women/girls are more likely to be raped …so we should ensure the rapists privacy by making little risk of them creating obvious evidence.) How far are we from Action T4? The political and philosophical rhetoric is quite shocking when it’s your life they’re talking about.

      • Anat

        Park’s essay indeed has several instances of ‘if I lose my memory I will be a former person’ and the like. He is a medical ethicist. His main concern is who makes the decisions regarding the care of a patient and encouraging people to think of these issues while they can form an opinion and appoint proxies to carry their wishes out.

  • Norm Donnan

    The whole concept that a group of people can discuss and come to some sort of agreement on what a human being has to do,achieve,preform, complete or be, to be granted “personhood”,just reeks of secularization,exclusiveness,higher than thou bigotry. Hell,even spell check underlines it because its not even a word.This is just some coined up phrase by some intellectuals who dont want to acknowledge that all human beings are people,and its all right to kill them if they dont tick all MY boxes.

    • victoria

      I have no idea where you’re getting “secularization” out of this discussion. Personhood — “what does it mean to be human?” — is arguably the second-oldest question in Western philosophy after “what is the world and the things in it made of?” It predates Christianity, and pretty much every major religious philosopher has grappled with this question. And it can be an important question well beyond bioethics (abortion, euthanasia, etc.). (Similarly, you can make arguments both for and against abortion and euthanasia that do not engage with the question of personhood at all.)

      You’re answering the question “what is a person?” by saying “a person is a person.” To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “an answer would take the form ‘Necessarily, x is a person if and only if …x‘,” and ideally the answer should include all people and exclude all non-people. For example, the thing that follows ‘if and only if’ cannot be “it can feel pain” unless dogs are people. It can’t be “it has 46 chromosomes” unless you’re excluding people with Down Syndrome and including sable antelopes.

      So take a crack at it: Necessarily, something is a person if and only if ___________.

      • Norm Donnan

        That all sounds really smart except it is one of the major reasons used to justify abortion at a most basic level. This really isnt a philosophical question at all,it is simply a fundamentally basic premise dressed up to impress oneself. So heres my crack at it…. something is a person if and only if it is a human being.Da da. Deep eh.So howd I do???

      • Feminerd

        What is a human being?

        No, I’m not being snarky. I really mean that. To steal victoria’s formulation, something is a human being if and only if ______________?

      • Norm Donnan

        If I asked what is an elephant really,would you think,”wow good question”,no, well thats how I see person hood,sorry.

      • Feminerd

        No, I wouldn’t think that was a good question, because “elephant” describes several species of closely-related animals that share certain identifiers- they’re big, usually grey, have tusks, trunks, and so forth. That’s not a philosophical question, but a taxonomic (scientific) one.

        Just answer the question. What defines a person? If it’s a human being, what is a human being? Is it everything that can be counted as homo sapien? Are dead homo sapiens (who are unquestionably human) persons? What about homo sapiens in comas, or brain dead homo sapiens? It’s not easy; witness the discussion here. Some people are arguing that there is a continuum of personhood that people move along over the course of their lives. I disagree, but it’s a valid argument and a moderately convincing one for all that I wind up rejecting it. We invest a lot of moral and ethical weight into persons, so it’s only fair to define what a person is.

        So, something is a human being if and only if ______________?

      • Norm Donnan

        No,an elephant is only an elephant.Differant species or race if you like but only and always an elephant. 150 years ago they said black people wernt fully human either.A human is the same what ever state they are in,dead or alive,they wernt once human or a person,they are now a dead person.

      • Feminerd

        You didn’t make any sense. We’ve established that you think race isn’t a determining factor in humanity. I’m not sure what you’re saying about death. Are you saying that being dead means they used to be a person or are a special state called “dead person” that’s got some rights and privileges? I still don’t know what you consider to be a human being, though.

        Something is a human being if and only if ______________?

      • victoria

        “That all sounds really smart except it is one of the major reasons used to justify abortion at a most basic level.”

        But that sort of argument applies all sorts of areas of study. Genetics and public health have been used to justify eugenics programs. That doesn’t make it wrong to study genetics or public health.

        The fact that some people have applied personhood as a philosophical/legal/biological concept to their thinking about something you consider immoral doesn’t have anything to do with its validity as an area of investigation, or with the morality of discussing the concept.

      • Norm Donnan

        Yes thats true

  • Tempibones

    To survive birth is the definition of personhood in every country, and in every state until this year. Autonomy defines personhood. Women and girls are autonomous beings. They do not exist inside the bodies of other people. Preemies, comatose patients, disabled people, slaves, Holocaust victims were all born and survived to achieve personhood. It’s not complicated. The Religious Right just wants it to be complicated to confuse people. What I know to be most important is this: No other entity (non-human animal, AI, or corporate) should be obtaining personhood before women and girls. Our personhood is obviously not guaranteed if every pregnant person must relinquish her rights, against her will, to accommodate the state.

  • LizBert

    Personhood seems like a very murky concept. I’m not sure how it should be legally defined because I think many of the automatic answers that come to mind end up not including groups of disabled people who I believe are persons in spite of their conditions. I think being born and no longer dependent on another person’s body for survival is when it begins, but it’s really a process of developing consciousness. I would say that it ends at brain death. In between there are many shades of grey.

  • Nurse Bee

    (I will preface this comment with the fact that I’m pro-life). One of the many problems I see with the idea that personhood begins with the first breath is the children that are lost before they are born…the miscarriages, the stillbirths. It seems it would be a slap in the face to those that have lost a child before they are able to hold them to say that they were never people. If it’s not a person yet, no big deal if they are lost in the process, right?
    As for the cognitive/awareness….that would be calling the severely mentally disabled people not people….perhaps we should rethink giving them the same rights as others?
    I would say that personhood begins at implantation (which is different than other people…even other pro-life people)…..but it is a complex question.

    • victoria

      It is definitely tricky no matter how you slice it. Implantation would mean that hydatidiform moles, which can become cancer but can’t become babies, would be considered people.

      I agree (as discussed below) that cognitive disabilities are really problematic when you’re talking about personhood and human rights. (I say this as someone who thinks a cognitive definition for personhood is probably the best we can come up with.) In practice there are rights that people who are severely mentally disabled are denied — the right to sign certain contracts, the right to consent to be a research participant in some protocols, perhaps the right to consent to or refuse medical treatment — because they lack the ability to exercise those rights without putting themselves at risk of exploitation or harm.

      One of my first jobs out of college was working at a law firm, and we had a client whose sibling had their parent (who had stage 4 or 5 Alzheimer’s — so in the early stages of noticeable decline) sign over the deed to the parent’s paid-off house for the whopping sum of $1, at which point the sibling proceeded to try to evict the parent. The parent’s property, theoretically the parent’s absolute right to determine what they do with it, but a situation like that seems to me to be a clear-cut moral wrong.

    • Feminerd

      Of course grief is going to happen. The parents wanted a baby, they had expectations and dreams and hopes for this potential person of theirs. The fact that the fetus died before it ever lived doesn’t negate the parents’ grief over losing the potential person it could have been.

      Pets aren’t people, and people grieve their pets all the time. Since we don’t deny people their grief over losing not-people when they lose pets, we also extend the same respect and condolences for stillbirths and miscarriages.

  • A Reader

    Discussions like this are why I love this blog.

    I agree with a lot of other people on here – personhood means different things legally and morally. Morally it’s all gradual and fuzzy, but there need to be hard legal boundaries on things. I think legally, too, there are different types of personhood. There’s the personhood that means you get the protections of society but don’t have certain liabilities or expectations placed on you – children, severely mentally disabled people, etc, would fall into this category. Then there are different categories of additional rights and responsibilities that you earn, like being able to vote or be sued.

    And animals need some protections, even though they aren’t people. So I suppose the fact that they have consciousness and experience pain and joy gives them some element of “personhood”, even though they aren’t human. That would be an interesting discussion too.

  • Tracey

    I was reading the other day that human offspring are born far less developed than offspring of other primates. Human brains cannot get any bigger in the uterus because the baby’s head would get stuck coming out. They develop to a further degree outside the mother, and for the first year, are extremely dependent on another human watching out for them. At one year they are developmentally close to what other primate babies are at birth. Proper personhood might then begin at this one year mark. This supposes that personhood is not the mark by which we measure human rights.