What is a ‘person’ – the thorny question at the heart of the abortion debate

The NI Department of Justice has recently begun a review of the abortion laws in N Ireland; this was limited to the place of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or pregnancy as a result of actions, such as rape and incest, which are criminalised.

The Human Rights Commission was recently granted leave to pursue a judicial review of the abortion laws in NI.

The leader of the SDLP, Dr Alasdair McDonnell has “unequivocally” rejected calls for abortion. According to the Belfast Telegraph, he said,

“The SDLP is unequivocally opposed to abortion, even in those particular circumstances because basically, the predictions in those circumstances are never accurate,” he said.

“Nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable, and that’s the problem, and as a GP, I’m fully aware.

“I have seen situations where termination or an abortion was recommended to somebody because a foetus that had this, that or the other thing, and that foetus grew up to be a perfectly normal child.”

Dr McDonnell is factually incorrect. Anencephaly, for example, is a malformation of the foetus that can be detected on ultrasound. It is a failure of development of the brain. It is always fatal.

Think of the brain as being like a mushroom, though the cap must be divided into two to represent the two cerebral hemispheres. The stalk of the mushroom is, in evolutionary terms, part of the ‘old’ or primitive brain, and is responsible for ‘vegetative’ functions, the control of heart rate and breathing, for example; those functions of which we aren’t normally aware, and can’t consciously control.

The ‘cap’ of the mushroom is the evolutionary ‘new brain’; it contains sight, hearing, thinking, the awareness of surroundings, emotions, thought, consciousness, the awareness of ‘self’, and the mind.

According to Wikipedia, only three infants have survived longer than a few days or hours after birth; one of these was the subject of legal proceedings in the US. All of these three died in early life.

Anencephaly raises difficult questions at the intersection of medicine, psychology, ethics, theology, and the law. All have differing interpretations about what a ‘person’ is. What is a ‘person’?

  • Ernekid

    ‘What is a person?’

    Beats me, better minds than mine have tried and failed to define it satisfactorily. It seems that ideas of personhood have changed throughout history. Romans viewed the people beyond the borders of the Empire as inhuman savages, in the early 19th century Europeans didn’t view The Australian Aborigines as human people.

    ‘What is a person?’ is a common trope in literature and Sci-fi. As we continue to make progress in science and we develop AI and genetic manipulation the idea of what is personhood will become more and more important. Maybe it’s a problem with language? The idea of a ‘person’ by its nature is hard to define.

  • Dan

    Seems to me the Human Rights Commission has finally been forced to address the cruel abortion laws here.
    Why has it ducked the issue for so many years……trying to justify it’s very existence now perhaps?

  • Mister_Joe

    Quite simply, a person is a human being who has been born. At least, that’s the view of the Canadian Supreme Court.

  • Barneyt

    The law at the end of the day forces a woman to carry to term. For me that is wrong, regardless of how she became pregnant.

    That is what we should face up to.

    An alignment with the wider UK 1967 law is the only answer in my view for NI. At 24 weeks there is no turning back I believe, for a pregnancy that is deemed healthy (but of course not on this island)…so that must surely represent the compromise.

    The SDLP are a disgrace in my view. For this matter alone, I hope they get wiped out completely in May. The decision regarding abortion needs to be taken out of the hands of religious fanatics like those in the SDLP and DUP.

    If I were a woman, I would like the right to say, I do not want to be a mother and I don’t want to have this child and to act upon it.

    As a father to be, I would also like to have the right to say, I do not want to be a father and I do not want to have a baby to a particular woman, even if she does.

    I would draw a line at a man’s right to become a father through forcing a partner to continue the pregnancy. A man’s rights do not extend that far in my view.

    A great deal of joy can be experienced through the birth and rearing of a child. It can also bring about much suffering and life-long distress for both mother and father and massive social problems for the resulting child.

    As course as abortion is (of course its brutal on some level), the impact of going to term, both biologically, psychologically and socially needs to be factored in for all involved. The decision to continue or not (within agreed limits) should be down to the woman carrying the child.

  • hovetwo

    Defining who is a person is simply a way of defining the legal rights and privileges they are entitled to.

    Corporations can be persons in the legal sense; able to make and enforce contracts and, according to the US Supreme Court, exercise the First Amendment right to free speech that allows Super PACs to dominate election campaigns. That same court decided that African-American slaves were not persons but property, in the Dred Scott decision that presaged the Civil War.

    The challenge with abortion is to balance the rights of a woman to bodily privacy against the rights of the unborn human being who depends on her for survival. There is no agreed time-frame across developed nations when the right to life of a person trumps the right to choose of her mother.

    We can decide an unborn human is not a person until birth. She is obviously a human being capable of independent life well before 40 weeks gestation – albeit we can’t see, feel, smell or hear her until after she is born.

    We can decide that the ability to sense pain is the determining factor. Some research puts this at 26 weeks, well after independent fetal viability. This seems a wonderful argument for the use of anaesthetic but an arbitrary criterion for the time limit on termination.

    We can use the independent viability yardstick for person-hood, although modern science has pushed that back from 28 weeks to closer to 20 weeks. Even then, why should inadequate fetal lung development, say, determine when a woman can have a termination? If viability is the yardstick then legal person-hood will occur earlier and earlier as technology progresses.

    We could establish 12 weeks gestation as the limit, when the fetus has a functional brain, body and nervous system. Ultra-sound scans have shown the fetus apparently kicking at this stage, which is plausible since kicking is a hard-wired reflex response. Abortion on demand is legal in France up until this point.

    We could set the limit when the fetal heartbeat starts, around 6 weeks gestation, or after 2 weeks 4 days gestation, with the appearance of the neural plate, which forms the basis of the brain.

    We could go back to 10 days after conception, at the end of the blastocyst stage, when any identical twins have undergone cleavage or fraternal twins may have fused together. This would still allow for stem cell research, emergency contraception and fertility treatment, but it would not allow for women in crisis pregnancies who are unaware they are pregnant until much later.

    The inconvenient truth is that at the end of the blastocyst stage we are undoubtedly dealing with unique, living human beings – a he or she – whose dna will have a profound impact on everything from adult height, weight, musculature and colouring to mental and emotional development. We may choose to confer person-hood at a later stage, but this will be based more on the weight of public opinion in a given jurisdiction than any rational, universally recognised scientific norm.

    If we did determine that human beings were entitled to person-hood 10 days after conception, that wouldn’t prevent abortion entirely. The right to life of the unborn person has to be balanced against any profound harm the pregnancy may cause the mother – in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality or substantially elevated risks to the life of health of the mother, then exceptions could be made.

    Whether we ever see abortion laws converging on this standard remains to be seen. The rate of terminations has been dropping very substantially in the last few years in the US and Ireland, and most terminations happen at a relatively early stage of pregnancy.

  • Croiteir

    I think that whoever wrote that wiki article must try harder as far more than three children survive more than three days, personally I know a child that lived for a number of years. this pleading to the hard case to justify the the barbaric and primitive act of abortion is ridiculous. The child in the womb is entitled to the full protection of the law in any civilised country which does not put self first. A person is a living human.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Let’s have another abortion debate where all the “points” from the past several decades of arguing the subject will be once again trotted out via a megaphone from a safe distance.

  • Korhomme

    The problem with pain is whether any reaction is an unconscious reflex action, or a conscious action, the understanding that something that is painful is present. This conscious realisation comes much later than the reflexes.

    Even at term, the newborn human is very immature, particularly in comparison to animal species. It takes a long time before the human infant can feed itself, for example; and that only when food is presented to it. (This human immaturity is said to be the result of our large heads, our large brains, and that our mothers would be unable to deliver us were we to develop to a later stage of maturity.)

    In the last few years, many US states have very significantly tightened their laws about abortion; what must be done beforehand, what any abortion clinic must provide. For example, the woman may be required to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound, and to have to listen to a description of these ultrasound findings, and then to wait 24 hours to ‘reflect’ upon her decision. Regulations about clinics have had the effect to close many of them. Many have seen this as political interference in the proper practice of medicine. How much effect this has had on US rates of abortion isn’t clear to me at present.

  • Starviking

    I think that a person has to be able to think, to have self-awareness. A baby with anencelphy cannot have self-awareness, and so cannot be a person.

  • hovetwo

    The declining trend in the US started in the 1980s and has been attributed to greater access to contraception and economic factors rather than punitive laws.

    Best way to measure the effect of legal change would probably be to check trends in states which haven’t tightened their laws and regulations. More here: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116458/us-abortion-statistics-show-decline-will-new-laws-change

    Obviously in southern Ireland Article 40:3:3 hasn’t changed but the incidence of travel for terminations seems to have gone down by around 45% since 2001, with termination rates much lower than the UK.

  • Mister_Joe

    About 40 years ago in N.I., one of my sisters-in-law was pregnant. At about 6 months into the pregnancy, the doctors determined that the foetus was dead. She asked for the pregnancy to be terminated. She was refused and had to carry the dead foetus for another 3 months. To me, that was cruelty.

  • Mister_Joe

    I may have misspoke. That s-i-l may have lived in the South.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    What is a person? Easy, a human life. Doesn’t matter where it is, what it looks like, or what size it is. When does human life start? When the cells begin to divide and increase in number starting a human life. It increases in size for a couple of decades, stays the same for a few more. Then shrinks a bit at the end before couping.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    The obvious criterion is “brain-birth”, the mirror image of brain death. Once a person is declared brain dead they are not a person, legally, and can be switched off without fear of the consequences. Therefore any fetus without a working brain cannot be a person.

    But equally, we withdraw medical treatment from people who are not yet brain dead but who have (in a doctor’s judgement) little chance of survival and whose suffering should not be prolonged. Again, this criterion should be true of a fetus. It is preposterous to say that we should do everything we can to save the life of a (doomed) unborn child but once it is born we can withdraw treatment and let it die with a clear conscience.

    In both cases, the law operates at one remove. Doctors and their patients’ next of kin make the decisions and the law only gets involved when malpractice is suspected. This should also be true of abortion.

  • Barneyt

    Cruelty does not seem strong enough. Many dont help the pro-choice cause, but there are plenty of cases where (to me) it is clear medically, socially, mentally etc…abortion is the lesser evil. Having to carry a dead baby is viscous, however I would hope that such a situation would not happen today on this island.

  • Mister_Joe

    You’re confusing life with personhood.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    personhood is a nonsense, there is no single description of it. it is used by people to exclude some humans from being considered people by means of not meeting a defined standard. the standard is defined according to what that human wants. you don’t want unborn humans to be considered people because you want to be able to get rid of unwanted people by means of abortion, or killing them. you support killing unborn humans because you want to get rid of unwanted people according to what suits your own life.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    totally disgusting. so a premature baby is not a person? you would be ok with someone in your family having a one month premature baby and killing it after 2 weeks. its not a person so doesn’t matter? catch yerself on….

  • New Yorker

    You ably document the receding boundary on when life begins, and it may recede further. Perhaps it is time to accept the beginning of growth as the absolute beginning which goes back to Aristotle and before. We know growth begins at conception by theory and observation.

  • carl marks

    I wonder does anybody else remember about 15 (maybe a bit more) years ago Anencephaly was the Anti choice condition of choice.
    the most amazing claims about the survivability of babies born with it, A American evangelist even claimed that a member of his church who was born with the condition had just graduated with a law degree, was married and had two healthy children.
    of course he never produced any actual proof but that didn’t stop a lot of people believing the drivel and quoting the case at every chance they had.

  • carl marks

    and causal cruelty at that,

  • carl marks

    you do realise that a one month premature baby would have actually been born ( clues is in the wording) and according to the Canadian high court would be a person.

  • Korhomme

    Many years ago, a relative in England contracted Rubella (German Measles) when she was pregnant. The foetus died. (Rubella in pregnancy is very bad news.)

    She had to carry her dead foetus for several months more. (And this state is potentially lethal.)