A batch of candidates running for the Republican party’s nomination for President of the United States have signed the Personhood Pledge. The sponsor of that pledge -- ‘Personhood USA” -- describes itself as “a movement working to respect the God-given right to life by recognizing all human beings as persons who are “created in the image of God” from the beginning of their biological development, without exceptions." (See: www.personhoodusa.com.) The effort is, therefore, inherently rooted in religious beliefs.
But the group’s standard of personhood is not obviously religious. It says that “Personhood is the cultural and legal recognition of the equal and unalienable rights of human beings.”
This may be the effect of being a person, but it is not what personhood is. Personhood has to be – and can only be – the possession of certain traits and capacities. It is in the name of respecting and protecting those traits and capacities that we confer moral and legal protection on persons.
The “Personhood Republican Presidential Candidate Pledge” asserts that: I believe that in order to properly protect the right to life of the vulnerable among us, every human being at every stage of development must be recognized as a person possessing the right to life in federal and state laws without exception and without compromise.” The moment of conception is the threshold at which personhood is reached.
This approach may make sense according to some theologians, but it is neither good moral philosophy nor law. Conception is a process, and it fails probably more often than it succeeds in producing a child. Zygotes and embryos do not have either the property of persons. This is to say that all zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are human organisms, but not all human organisms are persons. We can lose our personhood. We do it – for example – when we become brain dead. Most people do not think of brain-dead people as brain-disabled people, and I mean really brain-disabled. We think of the loss of certain properties as the loss of the life of a person. And if we can think that way at the end of life, we can think that way at the beginning of life. Persons emerge over time, and both morality and the law confer rights and duties on human beings according to their traits and capacities, not just because they were once conceived. The idea that conception is both necessary and sufficient to bring persons into existence is a moral and legal mistake. But that’s apparently not enough to keep it from being used as political football.