fetus as person

Stephen Black sblack at UBISHOPS.CA
Tue Feb 18 09:17:05 EST 1997


(Sorry, don't have the contributor's name for the following post:)
> > 
> > Neurobiologically, a fetus becomes a person at about 9 months
> > post-natal, or 18 months after conception.  This is because the need
> > for the woman to be capable of efficient locomotion precludes
> > enlargement of the cervix to a large enough diameter to permit
> > complete maturation of the child's brain in the uterus; among
> > placental mammals this species-wide premature birth situation is
> > unique, I believe.

This issue is, of course, explosive in relation to the
abortion/anti-abortion debate. The distinguished biologist Garrett Hardin,
among others, advocated a point of view in which (if I follow him
correctly) there is no point at which one can say the human organism
becomes a person. In an essay in Psychology Today (Hardin, 1974) he argues
that instead there is a continuum in which the fertilized egg is first
only a _potentiality_ to become a person (become human in his 
terminology), and gradually acquires more and more qualities of 
personhood. He says:

"The farther along a living organism is in the developmental process--the
more nearly that potential has become actual--the more valuable that
organism is, by any rational standard of value...the early stages of
existence have much less actual value than later ones". 

He supports his argument with the interesting analogy of a woman crying for
the loss of her child six months earlier. You inquire how old the child 
was at the time. He asks you to consider your reaction if you are told:
a) ten years old, and b) a six-week embryo.

Another interesting point of view was presented in the letters column of
Science where the issue was debated (dusting off an old file here). 
Boving (1981) pointed out that the word _individual_ means one who is 
indivisible. He therefore proposes this as the basic criterion for 
determining personhood--when the organism can no longer be divided.

This might lead to the conclusion that the fetus becomes a person after
monozygotic twinning is impossible (after day 16 or so).  However, he
suggests a more unusual logical consequence of this view. He argues: 

"A conceptus...is a fertilized egg and everything that develops from it
until it is born. A conceptus early develops two major components; 
embryoblast (most of which becomes fetus) and trophoblast (which becomes
extraembryonic membranes, placenta, and umbilical cord). The
fetus...becomes a newborn...when it has come out of the mother; it becomes
an individual when it has been divided from the trophoblastic part of the
conceptus, usually by cutting the umbilical cord." 

I initially thought this a rather far-fetched and strained argument until 
I read his next point, which was:

"The trophoblastic parts of the conceptus are alive, are human, and the 
cells have the same genetic composition as the zygote, fetus, and baby. 
If any or all of these criteria were used to define personhood in 
constructing the argument for a legislated assertion that the zygote and 
its derivates are a person, then the practice of cutting the cord, 
interrupting blood supply to the placenta, and letting the expelled 
placenta die would become murder in the eyes of the law".

As it turns out, his definition corresponds to the current legal
definition in Canada. A fetus becomes a person at the moment of birth (or
shortly afterwards, when separated from the umbilical cord, in Boving's
view). A bizarre case of attempted murder was recently dismissed in Canada
for that very reason. In the case, a woman was accused because she shot
her fetus in the head through her vagina (the baby survived). The court
(in a split decision, I believe) declined to consider this attempted
murder because the fetus is not yet a person. A different decision would
have had enormous consequences for law in Canada. 

-Stephen

References

Hardin, G. (1974). The evil of mandatory motherhood. Psychology Today,
  November, p. 42--

Boving, B. (1981). [Letters: "Human Life" Testimony] Science, 213, p. 154.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Stephen Black, Ph.D.                      tel: (819) 822-9600 ext 2470
Department of Psychology                  fax: (819) 822-9661
Bishop's University                    e-mail: sblack at ubishops.ca
Lennoxville, Quebec               
J1M 1Z7                                                                 
Canada                                        
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