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  • Writer's pictureDoctors for Choice

Potentiality and Personhood

Starting from the premise that all human beings are automatically persons, philosophers have long debated what characteristics impart personhood, and when this state of personhood begins. Is it at conception, at viability or at birth?

Some view conception as the starting point, probably because the Aristotelian idea of potentiality, conveniently hijacked by their religious beliefs, seems to make sense from a biological point of view.

But does it really? Surely the unfertilised egg/sperm is also alive. Surely the multiplication and demise of cells with human genetic material happens in large quantities every day (think of shedding skin or hair). Surely the rapidly growing cancerous tumour also contains human genetic material.

Perhaps what is being claimed by those who, by espousing these views are essentially anti-choice, is that the new genetic material formed at conception will eventually become a human being and this is where I agree. As hair grows, it can only become hair. The embryo becomes a foetus which becomes a baby. Again, I agree. To become means to change into, to grow into, to develop. The new genetic material that forms at conception has the potential to develop in to a new organism that we call Homo sapiens.

But potentiality does not equate with actuality.

I had the potential to become a great artist, but sadly I did not.

The biological beginning of human life may well be at conception, but my personal belief is that the life of a human being is much, much more than just her DNA. The pre-born is called a foetus; it becomes a baby at birth, which is also unsurprisingly, when it derives its rights. Women who are happy to be pregnant will use the same term, but those who are not, do not. The colloquial use of the word “baby” in the context of pregnancy has no biological basis. The correct biological terms in sequence are fertilised oocyte, zygote, blastocyst, embryo and foetus. Babyhood begins at birth.

Returning now to the question of personhood, I am not entirely sure what makes a person. Is it the ability to form relationships or is it having a sense of one’s own identity? Is it being able to think or the capacity for emotional response? Even if were to agree on all of these and possibly others, is there any reason to believe that these characteristics all emerge at once?

What makes sense to me, is that being a person is a matter of degree. Yes, I view a newborn as more of a person than a six-month-old foetus, which in turn is more of a person than a six-week embryo and certainly more than the fusion of two gametes at conception.

However, in reality we do not know how the process of becoming a person begins, or how fast it changes.

In my view, and that of the giants whose shoulders I stand on, sharp boundaries are arbitrary and inadequate for such a loose concept as personhood. There is clearly very little difference between the foetus/baby just before and after birth, but there is a very large difference between an embryo at six weeks and a foetus at six months.

We all have freedom of conscience, which is why any discussion about the moral worth of the embryo/foetus is beyond the scope of biology. Once abortion becomes legal in Malta, and yes, that will happen, we will look back and wonder why we ever equated giving an embryo more rights than the living, sentient person whose body it depends on for survival till birth.

By Prof Isabel Stabile


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