Personhood begins with brain waves, not heartbeat

Columnist and Columnist

Abortion, in the form of the question of when human life begins, has taken center stage in the Republican primary.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, “[Candidates Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich] have all signed a [personhood] pledge that they would work to advance federal and state laws that recognize that life begins at conception and that they would only appoint judges and other officials that agree with that statement.”

If such a policy of personhood were to take effect it would have far reaching implications, including, but not limited to, making Plan B or Morning After pills, and certain birth control pills (which you, dear reader, may be taking at this time) illegal.

But, does personhood begin at conception?

Surely the organism that results after a sperm meets an egg is alive, but is it legally alive in the way that would confer personhood to it?

To answer that, I think it would be best to start at the end, as in, “When is one legally dead, when does one’s personhood end?”

In Ohio, as it is in most states, one can be legally dead after brain activity ceases, even if the heart and lungs are still operating.

This seems to be a perfectly rational benchmark for the end of personhood, as I hope the following thought experiment shows:

If the heart and lungs of another person were transplanted into me, I would still be me.

I would also retain my own personhood if all my limbs were somehow replaced by another person’s limbs.

However, upon the moment another person’s brain was somehow transplanted into my skull, I would cease to be me; my body would be the domain of that other person.

The same would be true of the reverse.

If my heart, lungs, etc. were transplanted to another person, I would not become that person.

But, if my brain was transported into the skull of the other person I would then become that person.

To me, the above scenarios seem to be perfectly reasonable.

The brain is, after all, the organ that holds all our memories, hopes, fears, values, passions and personalities.

We are our brains.

And speaking for myself, I would consider any one of my loved ones dead after their brain activity ends, even if their kidneys and such were being kept alive by medical technology.

As such, I fully support the current laws that end personhood to bodies devoid of brain activity, and implore you to do likewise.

This brings us back to the issue of the beginnings of personhood.

Just as personhood ends when brain activity ends, personhood should then logically begin when brain activity begins.

Without brain function, the grouping of cells that result from a fertilized egg should not be considered a person, and neither should it derive personhood after the beginnings of other organs appear.

It is only after brain activity begins that we should then say that the organism is a human.

In this way I see no ethical or moral problems with ending a pregnancy before such a benchmark, which takes place several weeks after conception.

I would also ask those who strongly believe that human life begins at conception to reconsider. Also, if you do not believe brain function to be the benchmark of personhood then you should work to change the current laws on death as you seek to change the laws on birth control.

And to the pro-choice side, I do not mean to say that ending a pregnancy after brain activity begins would then always be wrong. But, I would say that the ethical and moral implications become more complex, and the rights of the pregnant woman would have to be weighed with the rights of the fetus.

And while that discussion on abortion later on in the pregnancy is an important one to have, as I have taken up the room allotted for this column with criticism of the concept that personhood begins at conception, that is a discussion that will have to take place elsewhere.

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