What is a person? Philosophers, ethicists and moralists have debated it for centuries and each generation brings in newer arguments. A rather interesting debate has been going on in America

A rather interesting debate has been going on in America. Of the 50 states comprising the USA, several (particularly in the South) have strong religious lobbies that persuade or pressurize the state's policies on a variety of issues, particularly governing human evolution, abortion, research on stem cells and related matters.

In several states, abortion is illegal. Indeed the issue of a woman's right to abortion went all the way up to the nation's Supreme Court in the year 1973, and its landmark judgment gave a woman the right to terminate her pregnancy in the first trimester as a constitutional right.

Since then, there have been continuous attempts in various states to overturn this judgment, using a variety of arguments.

Crucial to the argument is the issue of whether the foetus is a “person”. The unborn child is not legally classified as a person; the U.S. Supreme Court also noted then that “if the “personhood” of the preborn is established, then the case for the right to abortion collapses, because the foetus's right to life is then guaranteed specifically in the constitution”.

The debate thus turns to the issue of “is a foetus a person”.

And if we hold the foetus to be a person, why not the embryo out of which the foetus is formed, or even earlier to it — the fertilized egg a person? If yes, then the Supreme Court's 1973 decision of right to abortion should be overturned.

It is this point that the elected representatives of the state of Colorado wanted to establish by law in the year 2008.

When this issue was put to vote, it failed to get a majority. A second attempt in 2010 also failed, by a 70-30 majority.

And now the State of Mississippi has raised this issue of definition of ‘person' and held a series of public hearings on the question: “should the term ‘person' be defined to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the equivalent thereof?”

After a series of such public hearings, the issue went into the state legislature for voting on November 8, 2011 and was rejected. Thus, as on today, in the U.S., a human foetus, embryo, fertilized egg or a clone is not a person.

Not yet, but for how long? It is likely that fresh attempts will be made and it may even turn out that one state or the other might vote to grant personhood to them — and thus make abortion illegal all through the U.S..

Recall how George W. Bush stopped the U.S. federal government funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells, on the ground that since it can give rise to a human, we should not be tinkering with it, since that would be equivalent to man playing God.

What then is a person? The question is not easy to answer. Philosophers, ethicists and moralists have debated it for centuries and each generation brings in newer arguments.

A quick look at the Encyclopaedia and Wikipedia offers several perspectives. The 17th century French thinker Rene Descartes insisted on thinking or cognition as a must, stating “je pense donc je suis” (or “cogito ergo sum” in Latin, or “I think, therefore I am” in English).

A century later, the British philosophers John Locke and David Hume argued that a person is one who possesses continuous consciousness over time, and should have interpersonal relationship with others. (Pause for a moment and think about the qualifier adjective “continuous”; if one loses consciousness continuously, as when happens after a severe brain injury, is he no longer a person?).

But the one that I think captures personhood better is proposed by the contemporary philosopher Thomas I. White, of the Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA, who wants the following attributes as necessary for personhood: be alive, be aware, feel positive and negative sensations, has emotions, has a sense of self, controls its own behaviour, recognizes other persons and has cognitive abilities.

White thus includes the ideas of Descartes, Locke and Hume, but note that in his case, personhood can actually extend to nonhumans such as higher primates, and perhaps even dolphins. (White has recently authored the book “In defense of dolphins: the new moral frontier”).

We thus have not heard the last word on ‘personhood' — either politically or philosophically.

Such serious issues are not without their satire. When The Economist reported on the Mississippi initiative, a reader Mr. Benjamin Twai from St. Louis, MO, USA wrote:

“My wife and I have been considering IVF. Mississippi's proposed amendment gives us even more reason to pursue this treatment. After the procedure, we will insist on taking custody of any extra embryos that result from IVF — it is our right as parents after all.

“Once safely in our home we plan to keep them in a freezer in our basement and list them as child dependents for tax deduction. In case of a power outage we will buy a backup generator. Anything less would be bad parenting.”


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