The Personhood Amendment: protecting the sentience of all mammals on earth, except embryos.


The Personhood Amendment: protecting the sentience of all mammals on earth, except embryos.

 Nathan Daley, MD

Sorry to sound a bit political, but this is mostly an exercise in amusement.  Of course, an “exercise in amusement” might actually be an apt definition of politics.  Anyway…

So called “Personhood Amendments” are being pushed all over the country and have caught my attention.  On the surface it seems clear that the effort has one intention, to oppose a woman’s freedom to choose abortion.

However, in trying to see the logic behind these amendments, I’ve was quite surprised to realize that they are, in fact, not opposing abortion at all but rather declaring that all mammals on earth, excluding embryos, should be considered “persons” under the law.

The “Personhood” movement, therefore, appears to be a radical movement toward legally recognizing the sentience of all adult mammals, but not embryos!

Well, I certainly did not expect THAT!

Let’s explore the logic behind these amendments.  On the PersonhoodUSA.com website, they state the following as the basis of the amendment:

“If you look up the word “person” in your average dictionary (we’ll use Webster’s), you’ll find something like this: “Person n. A human being.””

“A person, simply put, is a human being. This fact should be enough. The intrinsic humanity of unborn children, by definition, makes them persons, and should, therefore, guarantee their protection under the law.”

So, they define a “person” as a “human being” and suggest that a “human being” possesses “intrinsic humanity.”  Clearly a definition of “human being” or “intrinsic humanity” is necessary to understand what is to be protected by these laws.

Using their preferred source of definitions, Webster’s, we find the definition of “human” as:

-of, relating to, or characteristic of humans

-having human form or attributes

“Human being” directs us back to “human,” and “humanity” is defined as:

-the quality or state of being humane

-the quality or state of being human

Finally, “humane” is defined as:

-marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals

So, they want to guarantee legal protection for entities which relate to or demonstrate characteristics and attributes of humans and/or are marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.

Oh boy, we need a few more definitions here.  Human attributes, compassion, sympathy.

Human attributes: many exist but commonly listed attributes include culture, language, emotions, humor, tool use, memory, and self-awareness.

 Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.  Most literally it means “to suffer with.”

Sympathy:  an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.  Unity or harmony in action or effect.

Well, I could take an enormous amount of time and space to review the scientific literature which very conclusively suggests that nearly all mammals possess many, and sometimes all, of these characteristics.  But I won’t.  Feel free to investigate as needed, but my assertion is true. Furthermore, “sympathy” can be observed in a number of different life forms, especially social insects and many plants. However, the relative lack of evidence to support the presence of “human attributes” (excepting memory, culture, and language in some cases) in these non-mammalian life forms seems to exclude them from “personhood.”

Similarly, bacterial colonies, slim molds, fungi, and similar multi-cellular units like blastocysts (an embryonic stage before organogenesis) would seem to be excluded from the definition of “personhood” as well.  Exactly when a fetus begins to exhibit “human attributes” is difficult to say, but it is rather easy to argue that it is not as an embryo.

However, PersonhoodUSA.com states:

“…a living, fully human, and unique individual exists at the moment of fertilization and continues to grow through various stages of development in a continuum until death.”

So it appears that their agenda IS to argue that a zygote has human attributes, compassion, and sympathy!  Well, it should be a very interesting argument to hear, as they would also be arguing that bacterial colonies, slim molds, fungi, trees, and, in fact, all life on earth are “persons.”  Not only would this suggest that abortions are inhumane and unethical (unless a concern for maternal safety and wellbeing allows for exception)  but it would also argue that most of our sociocultural activity is inhumane and unethical.  Everything would need to come to a halt, be deconstructed, and rethought.  It would be a radically different world indeed!

Interestingly, if we were to generate a lengthy list of attributes and behaviors that seem to be “human” through the careful observation of humans in the “wild”, just as we would attempt to identify attributes of, say, bears by observing them in the wild, we would realize that seeing the environment and all of its participants as “persons” is a universal.  This often includes entities our science would label as “inanimate” as well.  “Person’s” are defined relationally as they are perceived by the perceiver and this relationship is manifested by movement.  There is much here to explore, which I will not do here, but I am certainly aligned with such a view.

As Colin Scott writes:

human persons are not set over and against a material context of inert nature, but rather are one species of persons in a network of reciprocating persons.

It is also interesting to note that on that long list of attributes and behaviors that seem to be “human” we would find none other than the practice of abortion.

Abortion, of course, is not taken lightly in hunter-gatherer populations and there are significant emotional and sociocultural strings attached to the practice.  It is used sparingly, when the possibility of provisioning for the expected person seems dire.  The health of already born persons is spared, rather than allow severe hardship to fall upon all of these persons +1.  It is usually a decision made privately by the mother alone.

So, isn’t the logical conclusion of the Personhood Amendment that all lifeforms are “persons” and should be recognized as such by the law?

And that, as persons, all lifeforms and organisms (like ecosystems) may have their voice represented in a court of law?

And that, as persons which are allowed human attributes, the law should protect their ability to express the attributes and behaviors which are associated with humaness?

And do these human-like attributes and behaviors that should be protected by law not include abortion?

About Nathan Daley

"The needs of the person are those of the planet, and the needs of the planet are those of the person. There is only one health, without which there is infinite disease."
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