Voting on personhood

The issue of how we define personhood or how we define who has full moral status is one of the most fundamental issues in bioethics. It determines who is included in our considerations of ethical issues. The worldview of Christians who understand the Bible to be the foundation of our understanding of God’s moral truth and who hold to the traditional creeds of the church points to a biological definition of personhood. This biological definition would include every living human being from the time he or she became a separate biologic entity as a zygote following fertilization or its equivalent. This is in contrast to those who would define personhood functionally by the presence of what are considered human attributes.
Next week the people of Louisiana will vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would add the following statement, “Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”
For those of us with a Christian worldview the proposed amendment raises two questions. 1) Is this definition correct? We would answer that with an unequivocal yes. 2) Is it prudent to add this definition to a state constitution? The answer to that is less clear. If by adding this definition the lives of defenseless unborn human beings are spared then it is clearly a good thing. If this amendment leads to a reaction at a national level which more deeply establishes personal autonomy as the legal priority over the value of the lives of those who are unable to speak for themselves then more unborn lives may be lost than if it were not passed.
We must always be clear in expressing what we understand to be God’s moral truth. When we venture into public policy we need to understand that we are working in a fallen world where that truth may not be understood and a focus on the self may distort it. We need wisdom to decide how to proceed because what is most prudent may not be clear.

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Jon Holmlund, M.D.
Jon Holmlund, M.D.
8 years ago

I would add one point: the phrase “or the functional equivalent thereof” is a bit disconcerting. Sure, it may be necessary. But it seems to not just acknowledge but welcome some of the potential mischief that could eventually come from synthetic biology and bleeding edge embryology. I think we need to defend some form of human essentialism, challenging though that may be. But the “functional equivalent” phrase pushes that question into the arms of the biologic reductionists, it seems to me.

Otherwise, I agree that Dr. Phillips has cited the most important points here. Human life does indeed begin at conception, there is no defensible distinction between a human being and a human person, and consequently all humans, to put it in the language of clinical research (where I work), are entitled to the full range of human subject protections from conception. I also agree that whether the MS referendum is a wise tactical move is questionable. To the pro-choice people I converse with, we sound like scolds who are not active enough to support mothers and their children who might otherwise be aborted, and for that and other reasons there could be a backlash.

This comment is on 11/7–they vote tomorrow…