Abstract painting of a person by Paul Klee

I’ve been thinking about the idea of personhood a lot lately. Last summer, there was some election-year debate about whether corporations are people. This summer, the issue is abortion, where people of good will can’t agree on when personhood–and the rights that go with it–begins.

There are different ways to define a person–theologically, morally, legally–and it is possible to hold multiple views depending on your purpose. For instance, you can hold on theological grounds that a person is a single, natural human being created by God and, at the same time, believe on legal grounds that a social group or corporation is a person that can sue and be sued. Science is even opening the discussion of how much a person can be changed by artificial parts and technology and still be considered a person. If you have an artificial brain with human memories, are you a person?

Regardless of where you start and what decisions you make, the determination of personhood is philosophical, not scientific. Science can tell us if a being is human or alive, but it cannot tell us under what circumstances it is a person. There is a difference between the two. To be overly general, “human” is what you are, the DNA you have, and “person” is what you are capable of, the rights and responsibilities you hold. Attributes like agency, self-awareness, and emotion are considerations when conferring personhood. In the U.S., persons are recognized by law according to their possession of rights and duties.

I believe my children are human persons (even if they don’t believe it about each other)  but they don’t have the same rights I do as a legal person–they cannot vote or have free assembly or engage in a host of other civil activities. On the other hand, they can inherit money and property and have a right to due process if they ever get in big trouble. So, even among persons, there are differences.

And that is just right now, here in the U.S. during the 21st Century. The idea of personhood varies across cultures and history. My own forebears believed that personhood was only granted to white, male, property owners. There are cultures in which moral and legal personhood can be ascribed to animals and other non-human beings.

So all of these thoughts have been swirling through my mind as the women and men in Texas and around the country have been shouting back and forth about the rights of women and the rights of fetuses, about medical procedures and murder, about responsibility and privacy. Is it possible to determine a standard by which a fetus is a legal person? And whatever the answer, how do the rights of a pregnant women–a person–fit with the rights of a fetus she carries? What happens when the rights conflict?

Of course, the law can be guided by not based on theological standards of personhood–not least because our nation includes a vast array of religious traditions with differing points of view. We can be informed by science and ethics, tradition and other areas of law. Does personhood begin when a human ovum is fertilized? or when a being has the ability to feel pain? or the ability to survive outside the womb? or draws its first breath?

It would seem important that whatever standard we use be consistent across the range of personhood rights. Are there different stages of personhood–just as we now withhold the right to vote until adulthood? Should the standards used to determine personhood for a fetus be the same as those for born human beings? If so, do they have access to all the legal rights of a born human being, or just some of them? At what point does a person gain rights to health care and nutrition? (In my state, access to both have recently been significantly cut for pregnant women.) What happens when the rights of two human persons conflict? How should the law arbitrate between them? There are some people who think pregnant women should not be allowed to eat raw fish or raw milk cheese. Japanese and French women think that’s going too far.

Perhaps, since a pregnant woman can be considered by some as two united human persons, they are the ultimate corporate person. What would the law say about that?


1 thought on “Personhood

  1. michael slattery on said:

    Personally, I find your handling of this topic nicely thought-provoking and entertaining. Mary and her musings never lack personality.

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