When did my son become a “person”?

My son has been alive all of two weeks now. Alive. It is the wrong word. Let me try again.

My son was born two weeks ago. In a sense he has been alive much longer, and I, as his father, have also been thinking about his existence for many months now. How long has he existed?

On the one hand, there are those who say that a child becomes a person at the moment of conception. On the other end of the spectrum are those who say that a person comes into existence at birth, or even some point weeks or months after birth, when the child is capable of autonomous survival. I’ve discovered that most of these arguments are positioned in order to demarcate when developing offspring have moral and legal rights: arguments put forth are predominantly post hoc edifices constructed by those who have entrenched viewpoints on the morality of abortion.

I will not get drawn into the quicksand of motives. As a father, what interests me most right now, is in knowing just how my little baby boy is developing into an individual.

In my son, the chain of life is still unbroken. In that sense, even the first cellular divisions of his embryonic form were not entirely new: however, by this rigid assertion, there has been no new life after the first forms were developed and we are stuck back in the speculative days of the primordial soup when life might have originated. Hardly helpful if you’re curious how your own baby developed.

Life is a game of probabilities. There will always be a relatively high chance than an embryo will never make it past the first few days: usually even mothers are unaware that these early embryos spontaneously cease to develop further. Even later, throughout the rest of the first trimester of pregnancy, as cells are dividing and the body systems are starting to develop, there is a possibility that the embryo will cease to develop naturally. Every day that the embryo grows, the chance of its survival increases. Still, there is a one in five chance of spontaneous termination of a pregnancy during those early months, and this is often thought to be a natural way to ensure that genetic defects are not passed on to living offspring. A fertilized egg or a developing embryo obviously possesses the possibility of developing into a person, but is it truly a person? If we consider it a person, then we must also come to terms with the fact that it has a 20% of not even passing to the next phase of its development and that this holocaust is predominantly natural and likely unpreventable. If it is incapable of survival on its own, does not have developed systems, and is considered predominantly parasitic on its mother, then it is formally possible to say that it is not a person. But we have to examine these criteria individually.

Just when did my son become a person? His mother felt his movements when his gestational age was approximately sixteen weeks. At the twenty-week ultrasonogram, the technician clearly pointed out attributes which remarkably turned out to be visible when he was born nearly twenty-weeks later. At twenty-weeks we were able to visualize his organs, see the blood pump through his heart, see his face, and notice him move his arms and legs. He responded to stimuli. By twenty-weeks many of his other organs were gearing up for primetime too. Was he a person then?

So much is made of time of birth and independent existence. When my son was born, a whole industrious coterie of hospital staff meticulously entered his vital statistics into the wired machines of society. Biologically, though, time of birth in humans is an evolutionary compromise to allow the large brainbox of the infant to pass through the narrow birth-canal of the mother. A newborn is not capable of taking care of itself. Does that make it not a person?

Only five percent of babies are born on their due dates. If a baby becomes a person when it emerges from the womb, shouldn’t we be better at predicting this event? On a tangential note, I’m curious how the pseudoscience, astrology, deals with “celestial” time-of-birth when it is predetermined by humans via elective or emergency Caesarian section.

Modern medicine has advanced to such a stage that premature babies born even twelve weeks before their due date can survive with a little help from neonatal specialists. In other words, a fetus is often viable at 28 weeks, something which was unheard of one-hundred years ago. With further advances, this early arrival stamp is likely to be pushed back even earlier. Do they become persons when they are delivered surgically by physicians, or when they are hooked up to artificial respirators, or, if and when they survive when they are taken off? Are lungs the organs that define life? And if they are, then are grownups who are temporarily put on respirators dead?

For adults either cessation of function of the heart or the brain is clinically considered death. Conversely, are fetuses whose hearts and brains functioning non-living? My son had not used his lungs yet, but his brain and nervous system were functioning exactly the same way ten minutes before he was born as they were at the time of birth; he was capable of dreaming, and his heart was pumping in the same manner that it will be for the rest of his life.

Even after two weeks of being an independent entity my son’s sense of coordination is very poor; it will take months for his hearing and eyesight to develop. His brain will continue to develop for decades to come.

The various vital organs of a human start to “boot up” many months before birth. Essential development continues unabated on a very long timeframe. Birth is the most important time-point during this process, but I am peeved: why do we take it for granted that existence and non-existence are binary and occur at the time someone looks up at a clock hanging on a wall in a delivery room?

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10 thoughts on “When did my son become a “person”?

  1. Very interesting post. Our baby is due in about two months, and I have pondered over similar philosophical questions as well.

    I think the conception has to be the key event – that’s the game changer. The chromosomes that make a person always existed. It’s the particular combination (with astronomical odds) of X’s and Y’s that marks a beginning of a new organism. After that, there’s a continuation of growth, senescence and death. An analogy of an old house might help. Consider an old house standing tall since many generations. Each and every part of the house may have been replaced over the years, but we still consider that house the same. There’s something intangible about the “wajood” of that house that makes us feel that it’s the same house. Now, alternatively, if the house was burned down one day, and even if an exact replica is built, we don’t feel like we’re looking at the same house any more. It’s a new house. In both cases, none of the original brick and window, etc. are the same. They both are new houses in that sense. But I think the sense of continuity makes us feel that it’s the same house in the former case, and a new house in the latter.

    Once the chromosomes combine, each cell in our body keeps developing, and dying, and is replaced with a new cell. But that’s like the old house that’s replaced brick-by-brick, until it burns down completely. The person who came out of the birth canal is the same as the one who lived in the uterus for 9 months — all the way back to that single-cell organism that was created at conception.

    ***

    All that philosophical (quasi-philosophical?) rambling aside, the legal civilian rights are different ball game. If I had to draw a line, I would put it at cognition. (Not sure if we can scientifically know precisely when cognition is achieved though.)

    • First of all, congratulations! It is a wonderful time.

      As you noted very eloquently, there are different parameters for personhood: legal, philosophical, biological, cultural, individual, and parental.

      Using your excellent house-analogy, the fact that the blueprint forms when the egg is fertilized makes it the starting point biologically. Quite differently from socially and legally.

      Food for thought. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Now let me play Devil’s Advocate a bit more. One can also argue that a fertilized egg is not a person, because it has not yet displayed the qualities of a person yet. It has all the potential to be a person, but isn’t one yet.

      To use another imperfect analogy, a student who is studying for engineering is not technically an engineer, though he may possibly be one.

      If we look at it it this way, the argument then focuses on the key question: what are the key attributes of a person?

      That is what we’ve been discussing all along.

      • Loaded question! I don’t have time for a detailed response now, but this topic reminds me so much of the Sorites (Greek word for heap) paradox. Consider a heap of sand. If you remove one particle after another, until you are left with only one particle – that’s definitely not a heap. But the question is, when did the heap stopped being a heap? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorites_paradox) As you mentioned in your post, the problem arises from trying to force a binary classification to a continuous process.

        Will have to think more about the ‘key attributes of a person’ question.

      • Very interesting analogy. For the sake of argument, let me extend the debate further.

        One can argue that the characteristics of a grain of sand in a heap of sand are, at least to the casual observer, the same as another grain of sand. The heap, therefore consists of indistinguishable individual grains. Therefore, though there is a difference is scale and a need to define the heap, the characteristics of the individual components are the same.

        When comparing a fertilized egg or an early-stage embryo for that matter, one can argue that it is not the same as a newborn child or an adult human (if one considers these to be persons). Think of carbon under pressure. It may form a diamond, but it may also become graphite. The molecular carbon has the potential to be a diamond but is not a diamond yet. It has a long way to go. Will it become a diamond? To answer that we need to define the properties of a diamond, just as in this case, we need to know what a person is.

        Similarly, embryonic stems cells under the proper developmental environment can differentiate to form various tissues and organs but are not yet there. Conversely, differentiated cells in adults such as heart muscle or blood don’t generally revert back to embryonic stage. They’ve reached maturity (or a dead-end if you will). There is a temporal order in development and the tiny fertilized egg is not quite there yet.

        For the longest time, before the advent of proper microscopes, it was widely believed that humans developed from homunculi – microscopic entities which looked exactly like grown humans but were tiny in dimension. It was easier to argue that these identical animalcules were persons, just very tiny. Now, we know that not to be true and that very early stage fetuses of humans are nearly indistinguishable from fetuses of other mammals. If we can’t tell them apart, we need to define their humanness. Of course, we can go down to the DNA, but even then more than 99% of our genome is identical to that of nearest primates.

  2. You can read the last chapter of Billions and Billions (Carl Sagan) if you are truly interested in personhood issues.

    • I own the book and had read the chapter which I think you’re referring to (Chapter 15 on abortion). In fact, I’ve read most of Sagan at some point or another.

      Reread after you mentioned it: Sagan also refers to biological evolution, breathing, cognition and the legal definition of viability in passing (since in many states in the United States, that is what defines when a woman cannot have an abortion). He (of course!) takes it to another level as he is discussing abortion, murder, and other animal species as well.

      Thanks for reading and for mentioning the complementary essay. :)

  3. There’s much to learn from your posts.
    What I knew about this? Nothing, until now. What I think – When he/she is able to make cognitive choices not dictated by basic biological processes. I know I’m not saying this well, but what I mean is – Not “I’m hungry” but consciously choose pasta over cereal.

    Does that make sense?

    • It does indeed make sense. You are talking about conscious decision making beyond innate reflexes. Compared to other other animals, we are born with very few reflexes: I guess that is what makes our naked, tiny newborns so helpless and childrearing a rewarding (and frustrating) multi-decade endeavor. We have to prime them until they are capable of making the right decisions.

  4. Interestingly I had another line of thought when we were going to have our daughter, and it was similar lines of a soul [was when I was still debating the idea of soul anyways]. So what point in pregnancy would one say that soul has entered the body… at conception, birth or somewhere in between. Find this post so similar to the questions I’ve had for a while.
    Quite frankly I think birth is the most important event. Its an culmination of so many things coming right together. Birth is basically saying, here’s the barebones foundation, now build upon it. Up till that point, brain / heart exist purely to be hold the barebones together. At birth, both the brain and heart are ready to start learning. Hopefully I made sense.

    Another beautiful post!

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