Personhood and Human Rights

Edd Doerr

On November 8, 2011, Mississippians voted 58 percent to 42 percent to reject a proposed state constitutional amendment intended to establish legal “personhood” at the moment of fertilization or implantation. The amendment, supported by leaders of both political parties in this most religious of all states, was aimed at outlawing all abortions and several types of contraception. It would, of course, have run afoul of Roe v. Wade, although misogynist antichoice activists are hoping the 2012 elections will give them a president who might fill the Supreme Court with antichoice justices.

Personhood activists are not deterred by this trouncing or two similar defeats in Colorado. They are pushing for personhood amendments in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin and also pushing GOP presidential aspirants to support a national personhood constitutional amendment.

We need to explore what is meant by “personhood.” This question arises in three contexts: When does personhood end legally and/or medically? When does personhood arise historically? And the really hot question today: when does the personhood of individuals begin?

Although cessation of breathing and blood circulation was long regarded as the death or the end of personhood (immortality and reincarnation are beyond the scope of this column), modern science has been able to keep people alive on heart/lung machines. The legal end of personhood today means brain death or a persistent vegetative state.

When did human personhood begin historically? The answer is obscured by the mists of evolutionary history and the fog of semantics. Carl Sagan explored this matter in his 1977 book, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, and came to the tentative conclusion that what we call human personhood is related to brain development and size. Our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, the great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), have brains in the 400 to 500 cc range, about one-third the size in our species. They have been found, to a degree, capable of learning human sign language and computer language, using tools, demonstrating altruism, and doing many of the things we can do. Humanist ethicist Peter Singer and a number of scientists founded the Great Ape Project (see his 1993 book of that title) to promote the idea that these animals are enough like us that they should be extended some of the human rights we claim for ourselves.

Now we come to the matter of human fertilized eggs, blastocysts, embryos and fetuses. The idea of the antichoicers that these are persons is fairly novel. It is not found in the Bible, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, or much of anywhere else until the nineteenth century. Indeed, the idea that pre-viable fetuses are persons clashes with the Judeo-Christian notion that persons are “created in the image of God,” which has to do not with flesh and blood and DNA but rather with the capacity for consciousness and “will,” however defined. The Old Testament word for person is nefesh, which has to do with breathing. Jewish tradition has it that personhood begins at birth.

The antichoice movement is all about the subordination of women to men (something almost universal among religious conservatives); the subordination of science and medicine to theology; the consolidation of political power in the hands of conservatives opposed to church-state separation; and obliviousness to the deleterious effects of overpopulation on the future of civilization.

Let’s look at what science has to say about personhood. Isaac Asimov summed up the obvious when he noted that we can either replace or do without just about anything in our bodies—arms, legs, hearts, lungs, kidneys, eyes, hearing, speech—anything but the cerebral cortex. When it goes, personhood goes.

The bottom line is that women are persons. Their lives, their health, their values, their perceptions are paramount. To deny or inhibit the right of each and every woman (of whatever age) to follow her own conscience in deciding what to do about a problem pregnancy, however defined, is to violate her most precious and fundamental rights. No woman should be forced by any level of government to continue a pregnancy to term or to abort one.

In this crucial election year, the leaders of one of our political parties want to impose their misogynistic views on our whole society. We, men and women, must not let this happen.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


On November 8, 2011, Mississippians voted 58 percent to 42 percent to reject a proposed state constitutional amendment intended to establish legal “personhood” at the moment of fertilization or implantation. The amendment, supported by leaders of both political parties in this most religious of all states, was aimed at outlawing all abortions and several types …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.