Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Embryonic Personhood

When Oklahoma state legislators were passing laws declaring every fertilized human egg a person, I spoke against it at the state capitol. The constitutionality of the law has subsequently been struck down in the courts. Here is my perspective on this issue:

I am here to voice opposition to SB1433 because it violates freedom of religion and liberty of conscience. Extending “all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this state” to every human fertilized egg, embryo and fetus imposes one theological construct of personhood on all society by force of law. Imposing such a theological construct violates the First Amendment of our federal Constitution which prohibits passing laws establishing religion.

The theological construct in SB1433 is easily refuted by a straightforward, literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. The law of Moses says, "When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him.” (Exodus 21:22 RSV)

In the law of Moses an unborn child is respected for its developing potential for personhood, but this potential did not make an unborn child a person with a legal and moral standing equal to that of the mother. If the mother was killed, the law stipulated “a life for a life.” Only a monetary fine was stipulated for the loss of an unborn child. The Hebrew respect for the unborn child’s developing potential was augmented by a rabbinic teaching that the fetus becomes a “nephesh” (soul, person) when the head emerges in the birthing process. (Sanhedrin 72b)

Under the influence of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, some early Christians adopted a modified version of the Pythagorean belief that souls pre-existed in a disembodied state and were infused into a body at the moment of conception. Their view of the afterlife differed from the Pythagoreans in that they believed in the resurrection of the body rather than in reincarnation and the further transmigration of souls.

Theologians of the medieval church were influenced by a different Greek philosophy that staked a middle ground between the rabbinic tradition and that of the Pythagoreans. Augustine and Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s doctrine of “delayed ensoulment” and believed that a developing fetus received its soul somewhere between the 40th and 90th day of gestation. (See Augustine’s, On Exodus and Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima)

The modern Catholic doctrine that personal life begins at fertilization was prompted by the Roman Church’s opposition to contraception and family planning as well as by a concern to protect the sanctity of human life in the face of advances in modern science and technology. Their commitment to preserving the sanctity of life is highly commendable, but there is wide disagreement among Christians (even within the Roman Church) over the timing for when a fetus has developed sufficiently to begin actualizing its potential for personhood.

Protestants share the concern for the sanctity of human life, but historically, Protestants have not viewed fertilized human eggs and embryos to be persons. Most Protestant denominations have long been on record as considering matters of contraception, family planning and reproductive health to be matters of personal conscience. Among most Protestants, these matters are perceived to be too personal and too sensitive to be predetermined by either ecclesiastical or government decree. Wise and prudent decisions on these matters can only be made under private consultation with licensed physicians, with the counsel of family members, and under the spiritual guidance of the family’s own ministers and clergy persons.

The government has no business inserting itself into these personal matters. In doing so it is infringing on one of the most basic and inalienable of human rights – the right of fully conscious and sentient persons to make vital decisions – life and death decisions -- regarding their own life and their own health under the liberty of a conscience formed by their own religious beliefs and convictions.