When does personhood begin?

This is a variation on the age-old question of when does life begin–at conception or at birth?  There was a recent bill passed in Utah that criminalizes  miscarriages as homicide if the woman engages in “intentional, knowing, or reckless act” that results in a miscarriage.   Potentially this means if the woman does not wear a seatbelt, or she drinks alcohol, smokes, falls down stairs, or remains in an abusive relationship and then miscarries she could be charged with homicide.   This bill had passed both houses of the state legislature and was sent to the Governor for signing.   The Governor wisely, after an uproar nationwide, sent the bill back for removal of the most offensive language, the word reckless.   It is expected that some miscarriages will still be considered homicide and carry a felony.

There is another bill , an amendment actually that will redefine for Mississippi what is the legal definition of personhood.  Personhood Mississippi is seeking to define personhood as beginning at conception.  The wording of the amendment is as follows:  Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hearby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. 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.”  The organization has received wide support and exceeded the number of signatures needed to place this on the 2011 ballot.   There are similar petitions being submitted in Florida, California, Montana, and Missouri. 

Obviously if this personhood amendment were to be pass it would strike down the women’s right to control her own body should she become pregnant even if that pregnancy were to threaten her life.  If she aborts the fetus because of the risk to her health, under this redefinition she could be charged with infanticide but if the birth of the child resulted in the death of the mother, does the newborn then get charged with matricide since the fetus is a person with rights and responsibilities?  A whole other question for debate. 

These are two bills that would alter how we define personhood. These bills are based in a theological and doctrinal belief that conception is the start of personhood or the start of life.  There are doctrinal beliefs that state that birth is the beginning of the person’s life. 

Two very popular verses in the Hebrew Scriptures are quoted to support the doctrine that life begins at conception:  Jeremiah 1:5 states, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  and Psalm 139: 13, 16 reads “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”   These verses point to more than simply when life begins but also suggests the doctrine of pre-destination. 

There are verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that support the doctrine that life begins at birth when the baby draws its first breath.  Genesis 2:7,   He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and it was then that the man became a living being”.   Although the man was fully formed by God in all respects, he was not a living being until after taking his first breath. In Job 33:4, it states:   “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Again, to quote Ezekiel 37:5;6,   “Thus says the Lord God to these bones:   Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.   And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live;   and you shall know that I am the Lord.”  [as found at http://joeschwartz.net/life.htm

These two very different and opposing doctrines are based in the Bible. These are doctrines held by various denominations of the Christian and Jewish faith.  So whose doctrine is correct?  And whose doctrine should reign supreme in a democracy that claims freedom of religion? 

To add to the confusion, science has its own varied theories of when human life begins.  Does it begin at fertilization?  Does it begin at gastrulation–the point at which the embryo can no longer subdivide and create twins or triplets.  Or  is it when an EEG can be discerned?  It is a definition of death, when the brain flatlines and an EEG no longer registers.  Or is it when the fetus has potential viability, or when there is lung function somewhere between weeks 25 and 28 of gestation.   Or is it when the cord is cut and the first breath has been drawn?   Science according to which area of speciality has multiple answers to when human life begins.  As Dr. Gilbert states in his lecture given in 2007 (see link here)  there is no one coherent view and no consensus in the answer.

The answer is not one that will be found easily.  And if we are going to pass laws based on a doctrinal belief rather than based on the unfolding science then the debate becomes whose religious doctrine is supreme.  That is a road towards theocracy.  A road that this democracy needs to ensure that humanity never travels down again as it thwarts the fullness of humanity in all of its creativity and expression.    Blessings,

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Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 11:55 am  Comments Off on When does personhood begin?  
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