Say What? A Personhood Primer

Recently, a pro-life gentleman asked this question about the language of American Life League’s Federal Human Personhood Amendment (FHPA) and the 2010 Colorado Personhood Amendment (CPA):

I am wondering greatly at the wording of the personhood initiative[s]. Why these words “…from the beginning of their biological development” [FHPA], or “…[from the] beginning of the biological development of that human being” [CPA], which seem so confusing, uninformative and subject to perversion by the pro-aborts? What do they mean anyway?

Fortunately, the question went to Dr. Dianne Irving , who has been the chief scientific and philosophical consultant on not only our FHPA language, but the language for human personhood initiatives in California, Colorado, Florida, Montana and elsewhere. Dr. Irving has always warned that if you can’t accurately define the material aspect of when a human being begins to exist, then you can’t correctly define when the human person begins to exist.

Dr. Irving wrote the following response:

I am very grateful for your important question and will do my best to answer it – without getting too scientific or philosophical. However, please keep in mind that the fundamental problem with the issue of “personhood” today is and has been that false science and very problematic contemporary bioethics “philosophy” has confused a great many people in this country today.

The words “beginning of the biological development of that human being” specifically bypass all the falsehoods of the pro-abortion and pro-human embryo research propaganda just noted, and instead do guarantee the personhood of each and every human being, leaving no one out – legally.

Let me start with the “legal” concern – and this has to do with how unethical legal “loopholes” are purposefully created. Many people do not realize that in legal documents (as distinct from normal conversation or other literature), usually the words chosen as the language for those legal documents are understood in the law to be “exclusive.” That is, usually, those things that fall out of the formal definition used in the legal document are not covered by the document. For example, if a legal document were to define “bears” as being “brown,” then that legal document would not apply to those bears that are white or black. Here, the term “brown” is used in an “exclusionary” way, and the courts will later usually rule according to the exclusionary language found in the formal definitions in the legal document. Thus, in this example, the use of an exclusionary term in the formal definition can be used as a loophole – so that the legislation does not apply to white or black bears.

Legal loopholes can also be forged by means of misdefining something in a legal document. For example, if a legal document misdefines a bear as “a member of the species Homo sapiens ,” then that misdefinition could also be used as a legal loophole that would actually render the entire law concerning “bears” inapplicable, even unconstitutional, “due to vagueness,” etc.

I point to these legal problems, especially the formal definitions used in legal documents, because this is precisely how so many laws and regulations have been passed in this country for so long that are inherently unethical, and which especially leave many innocent living human beings out of legal protection.

For example, if you legally define “person” as “beginning at fertilization” (i.e., the use of sperm and oocyte), then you have legally left out of personhood all human beings who did not begin to exist by means of fertilization, e.g. those human beings asexually reproduced (i.e., without the immediate and direct use of sperm and oocyte). This would include one of every pair of naturally occurring human monozygotic twins reproduced within the body of the woman, as well as those human beings asexually reproduced in IVF [in vitro fertilization], ART [assisted reproductive technology] and other “fertility” laboratories and clinics. This constitutes a legal loophole that would then allow the abortion of one of two twins within the woman’s body, as well as all human beings reproduced asexually in laboratories and clinics, as well as human embryonic research, human cloning and other genetic engineering research.

If you legally define “person” as “beginning at fertilization in the woman’s womb,” then in addition to those innocent human beings asexually reproduced [that I] just mentioned, that would leave out of personhood even those human beings resulting from fertilization but still in the woman’s fallopian tube (that is, fertilization does not take place in the woman’s womb or uterus, but rather in her fallopian tube); the new human being then must travel for about 5-6 days down the fallopian tube before he/she enters the woman’s womb). This would constitute a legal loophole that would allow the use of abortifacients, prenatal genetic diagnosis, even “embryo flushing” in order to obtain embryos for all manner of destructive research purposes.

If you legally define “person” as “beginning at conception,” and if “conception” means “fertilization,” then the same consequences would follow as noted above. Even worse, the term “conception” is now formally legally defined in many state laws as “beginning at implantation.” This is, of course, scientifically absurd, but that is their law, and [this] would also constitute a legal loophole that would endanger many of the innocent human beings noted above and preclude them from personhood.

I would also note that, for years, the false definitions used at the beginning -of-life issues have been transferred to the end-of-life issues, and even issues throughout the life spectrum – especially the definition of “person.” Thus, many human adults who are elderly, mentally ill or retarded, comatose, disabled, etc., have been deemed “nonpersons” – legally providing for euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, organ removal and transplantation, used as research subjects, etc.

I would suggest you take a look at my article “Neither, Nor: Bryne’s [Byrne’s] and Willke’s Pseudo-Battle Over Human Embryonic Stem Cells” (June 19, 2008) at: .

In it, I provide several important references documenting what I have noted above.

Clearly, those who are anti-life have taken advantage of many legal loopholes over the years, rendering many laws essentially unethical and preventing true legal protection for all human beings as persons at both ends of the life spectrum (and in between). Usually, they get away with this by using false scientific definitions. Instead, the current Colorado personhood mission uses scientific language which is accurate, universally documented and accepted scientifically, which would apply to all human beings and which could not be used to create unethical legal loopholes. That is, all living human beings, whether sexually or asexually reproduced, whether in vivo or in vitro, would be legally protected as persons.

Dr. Irving’s focus on scientific accuracy has created many challenges to American Life League’s position, including the argument that we place too much emphasis on the scientific facts and far too little on the philosophical aspect of the human person, including his dignity and identity as a member of the human race.  This is incorrect. As Dr. Irving has written,

The issue of when a human being begins to exist is strictly a scientific one, and has been known scientifically internationally for over 125 years (Wilhelm His 1883-5). The scientific details of human embryonic development have been internationally systematized for almost 70 years now, as consistently and continuously documented in the Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development (see all 23 stages itemized at: )…

The issue of “personhood” is not a scientific question, but rather a philosophical one.

The two aspects of the human person are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary. However if the facts of human existence are confused on one level, then clearly human persons can be dismissed from existence as nonpersons. That is the point.

Most recently, the case of the Department of Veterans Affairs booklet Your Life, Your Choices made this painfully clear. There is no such thing as a life unworthy of living. Therefore, there must not be a flawed approach to human personhood. This is why American Life League demands the right mix of accurate scientific evidence and philosophical truth.

This is the only way to assure the respect proper to the dignity of the human person. And that, in turn, will ultimately result in a culture that will stop the senseless rush toward killing the helpless, the inconvenient, the aging and the preborn. Let’s get it right. Human beings’ lives depend on it.

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