On the consequences of personhood

Personhood is in the news. Mississippi is considering a ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as having personhood. This morning, the New York Times published an editorial on the matter, and the arguments were all framed in consequentialist terms:

“Besides outlawing all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, and banning any contraception that may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, including birth control pills, the amendment carries many implications, some quite serious.”

“It could curtail medical research involving embryos, shutter fertility clinics and put doctors in legal jeopardy for providing needed medical care that might endanger a pregnancy. Pregnant women also could become subject to criminal prosecution. A fertilized egg might be eligible to inherit money or be counted when drawing voting districts by population. Because a multitude of laws use the terms “person” or “people,” there would be no shortage of unintended consequences.”

It is a certainty that there would be consequences to such legislation, but what is interesting is that all of the parties involved in the debate skirt the fundamental issue: what do we mean by personhood anyway?

It is fairly simple to arrive at a reasonable conclusion over what constitutes the production of a new life form. When an egg is fertilized, being transformed from having a nucleus of single-stranded DNA to one with double-stranded DNA and thereby has full potentiality for developing into a complete human being, it is alive.

But personhood?  That is a rather more slippery issue. Can neurobiology tell us anything about personhood?

Martha Farah and Andrea Heberlein addressed this issue a few years ago in their paperPersonhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating?”  They attempt to naturalize the issue, and suggest that not that a certain degree of neural development defines a person, but rather that we may have a network in our brains that recognizes persons – that we naturally arrive at conclusions about personhood when confronted with a person who is obviously a person. They astutely point out that if the personhood network exists (a conclusion that is hardly a certainty), it “is an adaptation to an earlier world, which contained fewer ambiguous cases of personhood. Sonograms did not show us our fetuses; people did not live long enough to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and vegetative states were fatal.” This leads them to conclude that:

(P)ersonhood is a kind of illusion. Like visual illusions, it is the result of brain mechanisms that represent the world nonveridically under certain circumstances.

They go on to suggest that:

The result of this analysis could be considered nihilistic. It does undercut ethical systems based on personhood, and in particular suggests that difficult ethical issues should not be approached with the strategy of determining whether or not the parties involved are persons. If personhood is not really in the world, then there is no fact of the matter concerning the status of a given being as a person or not, and there is no point to the philosophical or bioethical program of seeking objective criteria for personhood more generally because there are none.

In a thoughtful commentary on their target article, Adina Roskies clarifies the issue by pointing out that:

(W)hat they mean to say, is that sometimes our intuitive judgments that something is or is not a person are mistaken; furthermore, our inclination to persist in our judgments about persons in the face of evidence to the contrary prompts us to call those judgments the effect of illusion rather than simply errors.

Moreover, I like how Adina interprets their argument:

(W)hat Farah and Heberlein’s (2007) analysis suggests to me is that we can become better judges of personhood by paying attention to the things that matter, which seem to be the more abstract criteria the first system is sensitive to. And while the things that matter may still be up for debate, continuing the debate may lead us to develop a richer notion of personhood, one that admits of degrees and kinds. That alone strikes me as a huge step forward. Furthermore, rather than unquestioningly accepting the deliverances of our biological systems for person-detection in our everyday life, knowing that one part of our biological system for identifying persons is automatically entrained and subject to error should make us more cognizant of its operation and more skeptical of its output as we engage in the countless moral decisions we make each day.

What I particularly find appealing about these papers are the myriad ways in which they remind us to bring a degree of humility to the issue. Given the consequences of improperly defining personhood, checking our hubris at the door is probably a good idea.