In case you haven't heard, legislators in the great state of Mississippi want to define "personhood" so that abortion is deemed illegal. I'm not particularly interested in discussing abortion - not today at least. What I want to discuss is the merits, or lack thereof, concerning this amendment.
The problem is that the legislators equate "person" and "life" and "human." Philosophically, I do not.
A strong case can be made that human life begins at the time of conception. Indeed, that is one of the strongest arguments made in support of the amendment. But so what? This doesn't mean that a fertilized egg is a person.
At that point, at conception, there is nothing near what we would call a human being. There is life. There is something that will - or at least has the potential to - develop into a human being. But there just is not a person.
To help clarify the issue, I propose that we distinguish between three terms. One, obviously, is "person." The other two are "human being" and "human life."
So, how will this help? Well, for a Mississippi legislature, it probably won't, because they'd have to start over. But for those of us who truly want to define the issue, it really will help.
Okay, so what are we talking about?
Let's start with "human life." As stated above, I actually think these Mississippians have a strong case when they argue that life begins at conception. Thus, I don't have a problem calling an embryo a "human life." But it doesn't make sense to me to call an embryo either a "human being" or a "person."
Next is "human being." The beginning point for this category can lie at several different places; it's a bit subjective, depending on what you consider to be a "human being." At the very latest, it begins with birth. However, I would push strongly for beginning this category no later than that point where a fetus can survive outside the womb - somewhere in the range of weeks 23-28 of pregnancy, toward the end of the 2nd trimester or the beginning of the 3rd trimester. I can accept this as a "human being." Still, though, I can't really call this a "person" yet.
The last category, then, is "person." Where this category starts is not entirely clear either. Some would say that it begins with birth, and I am okay with that. But, really, I would prefer to attach "personhood" to a certain level consciousness. To me, it is our level of consciousness, our level of awareness - this is the human characteristic that sets us apart from other animals.
Clearly, these categories overlap. "Person" is always added to "human being," which is always added to "human life," although the reverse is not true. Thus, all persons are human beings, but not all human beings are persons. And, all human beings are human life, but not all human life is a human being. And, all persons are human life, but not all human life is a person.
Now, "human life" obviously ends with death. Likewise, death is also the end of a "human being." However, while death may be the end of a "person," it is not necessarily so. Since "personhood" is attached to a certain level of consciousness, "personhood" can leave when that level of consciousness leaves, which may actually be before death.
I hope it is clear why we would want to make these distinctions. I think these categories make sense. And there are several ways they can be applied. However, for our current discussion - the Mississippi "Personhood Amendment" - you can see that "personhood" is the wrong category for their purposes. You can't abort a "person," according to these categories.