Opinion: Views on the personhood of a fetus

Rakshak Adhikari

Staff writer

The debate over the personhood of afetus is one that has raged for centuries.However, the time spent pondering on this issue has not brought us any closerto a definitive conclusion.

This question still looms over ourhead and has engendered a contentious debate. The immense implication of this argument on the politics of abortion and stem cell research makes it more important than a mental exercise confined to a philosophy classroom.

Dr. Joungbin Lim, an assistant professor of philosophy at Troy, says that there are two major ideas that influence this debate – the Lockean idea that a person is a thinking, intelligent being because of which a fetus (at least early term fetus) is not a person and the contrasting “anti-Lockean” idea that a fetus is a person even though the fetus has not started showing signs of intelligence.

There are two extreme ideas that greatlyweigh in on this debate – personhood

begins at conception and that person-hood begins at birth. While other ideas of personhood beginning at the first detection of heartbeat or at the point which a fetus becomes viable exist, the two extreme positions seem to sway people towards “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps respectively.

Nepal and the Philippines are two examples of these extreme positions. Nepal is the only country in the world where the Supreme Court not only affirmed a woman’s right to abortion without exception for 12 weeks after conception, but also held the govern- ment responsible for failing to provide abortion at an affordable cost.

The Philippines, on the contrary, only allows legal abortion when the mother’s

life is in danger. The constitution of the Philippines states that “it shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception.”

According to Dr. Susan Sarapin, an associate professor of journalism, a fetus acquires personhood once it breathes outside the womb. She attributes her views regarding this debate to her Jewish up bringing and cites Genesis 2:7- “Then Adonai, God, formed a person from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life so that he became a living being.”

According to her, since murder is punishable by death (Leviticus 24:17) but the death of a fetus is punishable by a fine (Exodus 21: 22), the fetus cannot be considered a person while it is in the womb.

Al Baker, an early Church historian and the lead pastor of Troy Community Church, believes that while personhood might begin at some point during the development of a fetus, life begins at conception – an idea that serves as a premise for his objection to abortion.

According to him, federal laws for the protection of the bald eagle protect along with the bald eagle its eggs “because we all know that a fertilized left unmolested, will become a viable creature.”

“You cannot have it both ways, calling it a baby for the woman who wants the child, but referring to it as a fetus if the woman wants to end the life,” Bakersaid.

While the question of personhood may seem to invoke embryology and developmental biology, it is inherently a philosophical question because the very nature of personhood is a philosophical one. And centuries of biological research have only given us various points in the developmental process to choose from.

A moderate position that is slowly gaining ground is the view that there is not a specific moment in the development process where the fetus becomes a person, rather the process is a gradual one with the fetus becoming more and more like a person as the development continues.

But the debate rages on.


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