A Note From The Editor:
I distinctly remember the sweet, sweet feeling of getting my driver’s license. It was on my 16th birthday, and I’d been eagerly awaiting that moment. I celebrated by cruising down a long country road with the windows open and music blaring. For the first time, I could go wherever I wanted, with no parent in the passenger seat. It was awesome.
Now that I’m a parent myself, I have to admit that I’m shocked we let 16-year-olds drive themselves. I mean, kids that age aren’t exactly known for their stellar decision-making skills. (And recent evidence suggests the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs rational decision-making, isn’t fully formed until the mid- to late-20s, so… ). Then again, I do believe that having some freedom is an important part of being a teenager. So what is the right age to let kids drive?
And on that note, is 18 really the right age to let young people vote? Is 21 the right age to let them buy cigarettes and alcohol? How do we determine when people are “fully formed” enough to earn these privileges?
Thinking about this question got us thinking about the topic of personhood … and how we might know when someone is “really a person.” It’s a question that seems simple on the surface. But as you dig in, it's not as clear as you might think.
Let's Dive In
The Deep: Question for you: when do you think life begins?
Jane Doe: When the sperm and egg come together?
D: And is the resulting one-celled zygote (let’s call him Ziggy) technically a person?
JD: Uh … I mean, he doesn’t have nipples yet, but he could definitely turn into a person, right?
D: Interesting that your mind went right to nipples … .
JD: I’ve never met a person without nipples.
D: …. ok. Well. Even though he’s only one cell, Ziggy is genetically distinct from his parents. And assuming he’s genetically normal, it’s also true that he contains all the genetic material necessary to turn into a baby … with nipples.
D: So is having unique DNA enough to qualify Ziggy as a full-fledged person? Remember, he’s a single cell at this point.
JD: … I’m going to say yes.
D: We forgot to mention something. After he’s created, Ziggy has to travel down the fallopian tube and implant himself into the uterine wall, a process that takes about 6-10 days. During this time, Ziggy may decide to split in two and form identical twins: Ziggy 1 and Ziggy 2.
JD: I would have gone with “Ziggy and Zaggy” but … what’s your point?
D: If personhood begins at conception, then identical twins are a bit of a problem because at conception we had one person … and at implantation we now have two.
JD: Ok, so then maybe personhood begins at implantation.
D: That would certainly resolve the twin problem (implantation is also technically when pregnancy begins). Btw, implantation is also considered the beginning of life/personhood for people who believe in the “breath of life.”
JD: Ahh, yes. Breath of Life. I saw them back in ’98 at the Hollywood Bowl.
D: Uh, nope. The “breath of life” argument is the belief that, since Ziggy’s life technically ends when his body stops using oxygen, his life should begin when his body starts using oxygen (a.k.a., after he implants in the uterine wall and his mother’s body starts passing oxygen to him).
JD: That’s weirdly … technical. But I guess it also makes sense.
D: Then again, there’s the question of brain death.
JD: What do you mean?
D: If someone can be pronounced dead with insufficient brain activity, then some people argue that life technically begins when brain activity is first detected (~6-8 weeks into gestation).
JD: Why does this even matter?
D: Well, once Ziggy is declared a person, one might argue that he deserves all the same rights and protections as his more fully developed counterparts.
JD: I see. Like the right to life.
D: Yes. If you believe that a single-cell zygote is a person, then it would be unethical to “kill” that person at any point … meaning abortion would basically never be allowed.
JD: What about couples who do IVF and end up with extra embryos? Seems like that would become an issue.
D: Well, if you believe that embryos are people, you could argue that couples who undergo IVF should implant all of their embryos (or donate all their extra embryos to other couples). Discarding them would be the same as killing someone.
JD: Wow, ok. This is more complicated than I thought.
JD: So if you’re someone who believes that a zygote is a full-fledged person … does that mean you don’t believe in abortion under any circumstances whatsoever?
D: Not necessarily. Even the most restrictive states, for example, usually make exceptions if the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape/incest.
D: It’s also worth noting that we sacrifice people’s lives all the time in the name of convenience.
D: Well, every year we lose 40,000 lives to car accidents. We could probably save most of these lives by lowering speed limits, or by eliminating cars altogether. “But we don’t, because doing so would impose costs that probably outweigh 40,000 lost human lives.”
JD: Eliminate cars? What would the next Fast and Furious movie be about?!
D: The Slow and The Peaceful just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
The Take-Home Question
When do you become a person?