Friday, June 18, 2004
When Does Personhood Begin?
...In a recent article on Salon.com, Michael West, ceo of Advanced Cell Technology, a private company working on stem cells, described an embryo as neither human life nor a person, "just an ordinary group of cells."
"It's not a developing human being," West told Salon.com. "There are no body cells of any kind. … There are not even any cells that have begun to become any body cells of any kind."
Few in the evangelical orbit would agree with such a statement, but a limited range of belief about personhood does exist among Christians.
Most evangelicals would agree that personhood begins at conception, says John Kilner, director of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. At least in theory, that is.
"If you asked about personhood," Kilner says, "people will say, in theory, they support full personhood at conception-few people would deny that." In practice, though, Kilner says many Christians also would "make some exceptions for abortion in the case of genetic deficiencies, or for the use of stem cells. And this is from people whom you'd expect to hold pro-life positions."
To make that distinction, he says, is to bestow personhood at a later stage in development.
One complicating factor for conferring personhood at conception is that a large number of fertilized eggs do not implant, says Hessel Bouma III, professor of biology at Calvin College and chairman of the bioethics commission of the American Scientific Affiliation. Estimates of the number of fertilized eggs that fail to implant run as high as 70 percent.
Conservative Christians have been reluctant to face this fact, Bouma says.
"It's something we've only become aware of in the last 30 years-the majority of fertilized eggs fail to develop," he says. "If we consider the fertilized egg as a person, then take all of the other causes of death and multiply them by three-that's the number of so-called persons who are dying before developing."
Bouma says that personhood should be conferred during the second trimester of pregnancy. Before that point, he says, too many things can go wrong. But most evangelicals, such as Robert D. Orr, director of ethics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, tie personhood closer to conception....
...Most Christian ethicists that Christianity Today interviewed hold that personhood begins at conception. Like Kilner, though, many of them note that the practices of evangelicals don't always reflect that view.
For example, during the in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, embryos are frozen, rated for their quality, discarded if they hold genetic defects, or thawed and dumped in the trash if they are no longer needed. None of these practices would be acceptable in the case of fully developed persons. But most are accepted by evangelicals undergoing IVF treatments. ...
..."We think that abortion is something that bad women do … or something that irresponsible teenagers do. On the other hand, IVF is something that good, respectable Christian couples do to grow their families," she says. "They are willing to go to great expense, to scrimp and to save, for the procedures that will give them children. Is it possible that what's going on with ivf is very subtly evil?"...
Posted by JLT at 9:44 AM