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?