Human Life, Personhood, and Rights
Earlier today, I wrote briefly about Senator Rand Paul’s fabulously stupid new personhood legislation. Some commenters who love Paul and everything he stands for took me to task for complaining that Paul doesn’t care a whit for the rights of women. All because I lampooned his push for “life begins at conception” legislation.
Human life does begin at conception, they screamed at me, and so only a cretin who hates science would claim that blastocysts don’t count as human.
Of course, these pro-Paul commenters aren’t winning any reading comprehension awards, as that wasn’t what I claimed at all:
Finally, someone has the courage of his convictions to ignore the fact that he’s bizarrely assigning civil rights to a ball of seventy cells while trampling on the rights of actual human persons.
My argument is that Paul and others like him make an enormous logical leap when they argue that because human life begins at conception, fetuses should be considered rights-bearing persons from conception.
My position is that the scientific fact that human life begins at conception tells us nothing at all about human personhood and rights.
What Rand Paul and others like him need to demonstrate is why human life, at this incredibly early stage of development, is so desperately important … by which I mean that he is willing to limit the choices of a rights-bearing person, the woman carrying the blastocyst, in order to protect that life. His answer, I presume, is either that the blastocyst is a person (which means that it possesses a right to life) or that it is on its way to becoming one.
This requires, of course, a definition of personhood; my own revolves around the fairly scientific (and measurable) concept of organized cortical brain activity, which means that blastocysts are not rights-bearing agents. I think I’m on pretty solid ground in arguing that, whatever definition you choose, it’s pretty obvious that the blastocyst is not a person. Unless you choose a religious argument, which might make a claim about ensoulment. But presumably my commenters, avowed men of science, can’t choose that one. And that’s also presumably true of libertarian Rand Paul, who shouldn’t think it’s a good idea for the government to legislate based on his own personal religious beliefs … especially when it comes to restricting individuals’ liberty.
So, again, the notion that human life begins at conception — which anti-choice folks claim is centrally important to the hot policy potato of abortion — doesn’t actually do any heavy lifting with regard to questions of personhood or rights, which is the language they actually employ in trying to restrict women’s reproductive righs.