Is a fertilized human egg a person?

Stat, a magazine that reports on the frontiers of heath and medicine, recently ran a scary article, "Trump win could boost movement to confer ‘personhood’ on fertilized eggs."

It's the other side of the coin, paralleling the belief of extreme anti-lifers*, that a fetus has no rights and no personhood until a moment after birth.

This article outlines the implications of legally conferring personhood at the moment of conception. There are many consequences, so many in fact that many pro-lifers shy away from such a monumental redefinition, say, under the 14th amendment, of personhood. Those who support the idea  argue that science is on their side because at conception a separate individual is created, complete with his or her unique DNA. Opponents of the movement argue that it would outlaw all abortions, even in the case of rape and incest or to save the woman's life.

In my view, it's a distraction from the more relevant and immediate issue: When does a fetus gain the rights of an individual (or of a person) during pregnancy. When it does, abortion then becomes a matter of balancing the new person's rights against the mother's. A balancing of rights does not mean that abortion would necessarily be prohibited, but it would require an acknowledgement that, in compassion and under the law, the person in the womb deserves at least some consideration. The this person's life cannot be taken willy-nilly.

For some people, that time comes when the fetus is capable of living outside of the womb--viability. In Ohio, legislators acted on the belief that the time comes when the heart starts beating. I have suggested--to the opprobrium of both sides--that it should reflect the contemporary definition of death: When brain function ceases. In other words, personhood would become actualized when organized brain function begins. Below is my 1990 column that makes this argument.

Human-life definition could lead to abortion compromise

Chicago Sun-Times , November 29, 1990
By Dennis Byrne
The extreme answers to that question have been the biggest roadblocks to a national consensus on abortion regulation. One side absolutely opposes any abortions because it insists human life begins at the instant of conception. Regulation of such early abortions would, of course, turn America into a police state. The other side insists that the "mass of cells" growing in the womb isn't a human being until the umbilical cord is cut. The consequences of such logic are chilling. Most Americans, as public opinion polls repeatedly show, are somewhere in the middle. They believe some abortions are permissible and others aren't, based on the commonsense view that sometime during pregnancy a real human being is growing in the womb, a person who has rights that must be balanced with the mother's. But when?
Enter Sass, who believes it happens about 70 days after conception, when fetal brain cells begin organizing themselves in a way that makes it possible for a human being to do what a human being does - reason, feel, be self-conscious and the rest. Before then, there is no brain tissue, only unconnected, migrating brain cells. After then, the cells begin to interconnect and rapidly form what Sass told me is the brain's "hard and soft wiring," creating something that is more than the sum of individual cells, something that's "very special." The learning of reasoning, feeling, self-consciousness and the rest proceeds from that point and continues even after birth; it does not begin with birth.

Sass argues that pegging the beginning of human life to the formation of these connections, called synapses, and the resulting brain wave activity creates a "symmetry" with the emerging definition of death - the cessation of certain brainwaves or functions. Moreover, Sass argues that his definition can satisfy both humanist or Judeo-Christian concepts of human life. Even the Catholic Church, he says, taught for centuries that abortions prior to the 80th day were not homicide because it wasn't until then that the fetus became "ensouled."

The idea of tying the beginnings of human personhood to brain activity has been knocking around for two decades, but Sass takes it further, by not just focusing on a precise and easily detectable (by ultrasound) time, but by proposing a political vehicle - what he calls a Uniform Determination of Life Protection Act. It simply states that an individual having these brainfunctions (whether at the start or end of life) "has the right to moral recognition and legal protection."

I haven't done the professor's proposal justice in such a short space. But I'd like to add this: Professors, especially philosophy types, are often criticized for operating in another world. Not Sass, though. Not in years have I seen a proposal that has as much potential for ending the mean-spirited and destructive abortion fight. Now, if everyone would only listen.

P.S. Let's take Trump out of the discussion. It only muddles the debate.

*I use the term guardedly, paralleling the terminology of, say Planned Parenthood, that calls anyone opposed to their extreme view "anti-choicers" instead of the self-identified "pro-lifers."

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