When does personhood begin?

Gary Whittenberger has an article at Skeptic on discussing personhood and abortion:

The pro-person position, as I have outlined it in this essay, recognizes the late fetus and the host woman both as persons with human rights. When these rights come into conflict, as can occur during the last 15 weeks of pregnancy, then the state must intervene through a clear constitution, laws, and/or policies to resolve the conflict. The pro-person position provides a specific path for resolution. The prolife position has been mistaken from the start. It is indefensible to invoke a magical “ensoulment” and to thereby classify the zygote as a person. While more reasonable, the pro-choice position is also off the mark. It has relied on obsolete notions such as trimesters, viability, and privacy implied in or lifted from Roe v. Wade and the premise that a fully conscious fetus is not a person. On the other hand, the pro-person position corrects all these errors and is based on a solid philosophical and scientific foundation, which can still change as new evidence, reasons, and arguments are brought forth. In summary, the core idea of the pro-person position is that the human organism becomes a human person when it acquires the capacity for consciousness at approximately 25 weeks after conception.

Whittenberger’s mannerism in this article has an ongoing air of triumph which I find annoying, and it makes me want to find reasons to disagree with him.  However, I can’t say I disagree much.  He looks at the neuroscientific evidence as it currently stands, which holds that consciousness is a thalamo-cortical phenomenon, then looks at when the thalmo-corticol systems comes online around the 25 week milestone of a pregnancy.  It’s roughly around the time that the two cortical hemispheres start firing in synchrony.  He marks that as a point of personhood.  As a pragmatic line, it seems plausible enough.

Where I do disagree with him, and others, is that we can draw a sharp line at any point and say, “Here be consciousness.”  I don’t think it works like that.  Whittenberger notes that many see the onset of consciousness as more of a dimmer knob than a on-off light switch event, but then largely dismisses it.  I think hastily so.

On the other hand, I don’t know that it really weakens his thesis.  I doubt that there are any glimmers of consciousness before the point where he draws the line.  And at that line itself, we should remember that the cerebrum remains very immature.  It doesn’t even display discernible sleep-wake cycles until weeks 28-30.  And the fetus doesn’t display any indications that it plans its movements, a key indicator that there’s something more than reflexes at work, until the last few weeks of pregnancy.  So Whittenberger’s line should probably be regarded as one of an abundance of caution.

That said, the overall problem with arguments like this is that the abortion debate isn’t really about fetal welfare.  If it were, then these kinds of arguments might have some sway.  The real issue is people’s attitudes toward sexual promiscuity.  Those with a relaxed attitude toward promiscuity tend to be pro-choice, while those who condemn promiscuity tend to be pro-life.

This is borne out by the fact that most pro-life people have no real problem with the death penalty, which seems to be incompatible with the whole sanctity of life argument.  And they are usually willing to make exceptions for rape or incest, cases where the woman’s lifestyle choices presumably don’t lead to the situation she’s in.

And to be even handed, the pro-choice folks are often fine with laws that restrict people’s personal freedoms in other ways, such as seat-belt or drug laws, indicating that there’s more than just a libertarian impulse for reproductive freedom at work.  In both cases, attitudes toward sexual lifestyles seem more relevant.

In any case, it’s interesting to ponder when a developing human reaches various cognitive milestones.  Here our discussions about brainstem consciousness become relevant in a major way.   But however it’s enabled, what we call consciousness, to me, seems like something that comes on gradually throughout the fetal period and first two years of life.

In that sense, a newborn doesn’t strike me as being more than minimally conscious, although this changes rapidly in the first few months of life.  But they don’t seem to display the full range of metacognitive self awareness until around 18-24 months of age.  It may not be a coincidence that our earliest childhood memories only go back to the 2-4 year old mark.

What do you think?  When do you think personhood begins?  When does it end?

30 thoughts on “When does personhood begin?

  1. Yeah, I don’t think it would be possible, in principle, to pick a structural point at which consciousness begins.
    But that is also beside the point, because we never make legal or “moral” judgements on the basis of absolute and isolated attributes, but only on the basis of a suite of attributes in context. Personhood determinations won’t settle anything

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think using consciousness as a premise for any decision is specious, equally so, the notion of personhood. What about potential (for a full life, all things being equal), its denial or otherwise?

    A facile analogy: Mike Smith buys a lottery ticket and leaves it laying around as usual. His friend Hariod Brawn comes along, checks the numbers and sees it’s a winner, so pockets it. Mike Smith is denied a million dollars, yet is unaware of the fact. Is that okay?

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    1. On potential, my cousin, who is conservative and pro-life, actually uses that argument against me. His point is that, left alone, the zygote will grow into a human being, and it’s therefore immoral to do anything that interrupts its development. Miscarriages are fine if they occur naturally, but any kind of intentional abortion, in his view, is wrong.

      Sounds like Mike Smith got screwed (in my humble and utterly unbiased opinion).

      The question is, if someone who had the potential to live, never lives, have we harmed then in any way? If so, what about all the people who never live because we don’t have unprotected sex at every opportunity?

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      1. ‘The question is, if someone who had the potential to live, never lives, have we harmed then in any way?’

        It depends on what we mean by ‘live’, of course. (We would also need to remove the term ‘someone’ as I think you’re implying a developed and independent human being.) Your parameters (for life) appear to be the attainment of personhood and consciousness, yet both those terms are vague, or at least shadowy in their incipient phases, I think you might agree, Mike. As you yourself say, consciousness ‘comes on gradually throughout the fetal period’, and there may be precursors of crude subjectivity, sentience, perhaps?

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        1. P.S. As per your point about ‘unprotected sex’, then it seems the discussion reasonably has to be limited to events following conception, to what is extant at various stages thereafter and what the extant circumstances would (all things being equal) give rise to, or else it all becomes far too abstract — yes Mike?

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        2. “and there may be precursors of crude subjectivity, sentience, perhaps?”

          It depends on whether you consider crude subjectivity, sentience, to be consciousness. I think it’s a definitional matter with no strict fact of the matter. Myself, I think the ladder to full human consciousness has a several rungs.

          On keeping the discussion limited to after conception so it doesn’t become too abstract, and to your point about me using “someone”, I think the whole idea of harming an entity that isn’t formed yet is a hopelessly abstract one. To me, it only becomes concrete when that entity is formed enough to perceive its harm.

          Of course Hariod, we perceive harm all the time to things that can’t perceive the harm done to them. We might bemoan the senseless destruction of a flower, or chopping down of a tree, even though the flower or tree can’t perceive any harm done to them. (I know some people claim plants are conscious, but it’s always using a definition of conscious that would end up including vegetative humans.) I think the harm done to a pre-conscious fetus falls into this category, something that bothers us rather than the entity in question.

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          1. Oh, I think it’s entirely possible to harm (for example) a child without the child knowing it’s being harmed. The inability to conceptualise harm, and therefore to ascertain whether one is being harmed, is surely not a prerequisite for the infliction of the harm upon oneself by another? Anyway, I don’t think we’re going to find much agrement on this, my friend, and I suspect you had not intended to veer into arguments over moral philosophy.

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      2. “His point is that, left alone, the zygote will grow into a human being…”

        UH, no. Left alone, a zygote will die. It needs a womb in order to survive and thrive. Your cousin is taking the mother for granted.

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  3. At the end of life, we define “brain death” explicitly or implicitly by the end of the capacity for consciousness. And that would be simple consciousness (qualia), not self-consciousness. So it would make very good, symmetrical sense to define “brain life” = capacity for consciousness as the beginning of a person’s life. And that’s what I used to believe.

    Until I started studying personal identity. Derek Parfit wrote:

    When I believed [that personal identity is what matters], I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

    There is no tunnel. Consciousness matters, but the connections between moments of consciousness are not so simple as just looking at which organism contains them. Which is not to say that “which organism” becomes irrelevant – it just gets more complicated.

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      1. It’s about psychological connectedness and personal identity: the sort of concerns a mother (in particular) might quite naturally be overwhelmed by in having a miscarriage or stillborn baby, or, very often, after an abortion. But it’s also about erroneous self-conceptions in adults generally — the imagined point of centrality supposedly instantiated within the human form and which is conceived as having autonomy and agency, and which endures over time.

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        1. A lot of this seems very culturally specific. I’ve known two women who had an abortion, both in the earliest days of their pregnancy. One was utterly unfazed by it (at least to all outward appearance). The other was racked by guilt, but it was mostly related to her upbringing as a Jehovah Witness and her specific reason for terminating the pregnancy. I suspect the second woman would have been fine if she hadn’t been brought up believing that an embryo has a soul.

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          1. Well Mike, as you know, I certainly don’t believe in instantiated selves or souls, but when I witnessed firsthand a stillborn baby being born in the delivery room (I knew in advance the baby was dead), I can honestly say it was one of the profoundest experiences I have ever been party to.

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      2. It means that any experience can be looked forward to, regardless of whether it’s mine or yours. If it’s somebody else’s we call that “empathy”. If it’s your own we call it “prudence” or “self-care”. But they’re basically the same thing, and there are no rational constraints against empathizing with anyone. If you “live in the open air”, then when you die it’s not the end of the world, it’s just the end of you.

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  4. Interesting that you should think “The real issue is people’s attitudes toward sexual promiscuity.” Now if you could locate sex and sexual attitudes in a dimmer/brighter knob of consciousness in the brain stem you would really have something to take to Congress!


    1. I remember your post on this! I might have been a little too liberal with my use of “about”. He quotes a source that puts it at 26-27 weeks, and another that is vague on when it happens. But they all seem to cluster in the 26-28 week time frame.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a fair bracket. This is from the New England Journal of Medicine, Professors K.J.S. Anand, and P.R. Hickey, and it’s a low-ball timing:

        “electroencephalographic patterns…First, intermittent electroencephalograpic bursts in both cerebral hemispheres are first seen at 20 weeks gestation; they become sustained at 22 weeks and bilaterally synchronous at 26 to 27 weeks.”

        This from Prof. Christof Koch (2009), from Scientific American, baffles me a little as it seems to place it much, much later (unless I’m reading it wrong, which is a possibility):

        “But when does the magical journey of consciousness begin? Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.”



        1. Whittenberger has those quotes too. I don’t understand the Koch one either. It seems like maybe Koch jumbled the sequence since a straightforward reading seems like it puts synchrony at 32-36 weeks.

          I hadn’t read that Koch post in a long time. The point about the fetus being anesthesized and sedated in the womb seems crucial to any discussion along these lines. Thanks for linking to it!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. True, that got my attention, too. It’s not an argument I present (brain development is the critical element when discussing the ethics), but the metabolic rate of the foetus is also interesting. Until hours after birth, the foetus shares the metabolic rate of the mother, not a mammal it’s same size. In this sense, it behaves quite literally as an organ (a part of a larger whole) until birth when a switch is thrown and it’s metabolic rate goes through the roof.

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          2. That’s interesting on the metabolism thing. So I guess the fetus’ heart beats slower in the womb than after it’s born, which fits with it being sedated the entire time it’s there. I think Koch is right, the fetus has no conscious experience until the “massive surge of norepinephrine—more powerful than during any skydive or exposed climb the fetus may undertake in its adult life” at birth. It’s probably a good thing we can’t remember that.

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          3. It is an interesting little nugget. All mammals have a lifespan that equates to about 1 billion heartbeats. A shrews heart, for example beats at about 1,500 beats per minute, and correspondingly, it lives for 2 to 3 years. Humans have cheated a little, with medicines, diet etc. and we’ve pushed that out to close to 2 billion, but the fact remains, the metabolic rate is inseparable from aging, and whilst in the womb, the foetus is not ‘aging’ as an unique individual organism.

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  5. I do not think there is a scientific answer to this question. People want one only because it would support their position. Historically we have used birth and first breath as the sign of a person (this is the Old Testament rule by the way), but other cultures waited several days to give a name to the beastie because so many died shortly after birth.

    A pragmatic definition I offer is a person is a person when he/she/it can be claimed as a dependent on federal tax forms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whittenberger in his piece actually looks at traditional thoughts about when the soul begins. It actually doesn’t match up to contemporary religious belief. Aristotle apparently decided it was 40 days into pregnancy for males, but 90 days for females (a feminist Aristotle was not). A lot of historical law places it at the “quickening”, when the movement of the fetus could be felt (generally around 20 weeks), and medieval theologians thought it happened when the newborn took its first breath.

      Click to access Personhood-and-Abortion-Rights-Whittenberger-Skeptic-23.4.p35.pdf

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