A Philosopher's Blog

Should Zygotes be Considered People?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on November 14, 2011
Oocyte viewed with HMC

Image via Wikipedia

In the United States certain Republicans have been proposing legislation that would define a zygote as a legal person. The most recent instance occurred in Mississippi when voters were given the chance to approve or reject the following: “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The voters rejected this, but there are other similar attempts planned or actually in the works. There are, as far as I know, no serious attempts to push person hood back before fertilization (that is, to establish eggs and sperm as being persons).

Since this is a matter of law, whether or not a zygote is a legal person or not depends on whether such a law is passed and then passes legal muster. Given that corporations are legally persons, it does not seem all that odd to have zygotes as legal people. Or whales. Or forests. There is, after all, no requirement that legal personhood be established by considered philosophical argumentation.

From a philosophical perspective, I would be inclined to stick with what seems to be the general view: zygotes are not persons. I do accept the obvious: a zygote is alive (as is an amoeba or any cell in my body), a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning). However, these qualities of a zygote do not seem to be sufficient to establish it as a person. After all, the relevant  qualities of the zygote seem to be duplicated by some of the cells in our bodies and it would be absurd to regard each of us as a collective of persons.

But, as I noted, the legal matter is quite distinct from the philosophical-after all, zygotes (or anything) could become legal persons with the appropriate legislation. This leads to a point well worth considering, namely the consequences of such a law.

The most obvious would be that abortion and certain forms of birth control (such as IUDs and the “morning after” pill) would certainly seem to be legally murder. After all, they would involve the intentional (and possibly pre-meditated) murder of a legal person. This is, of course, one of the main intended consequences of such attempts. However, there would seem to be other consequences as well.

One rather odd consequence would be in regards to occupancy laws and regulations. These tend to be set by the number of persons present and unless laws are written to allow exemptions for zygotes, etc. then this would be a point of legal concern. This seems absurd, which is, of course, the point.

Another potential consequence is the matter of deductions for dependents. If a zygote is a person, then a frozen zygote is still a person and presumably the child of the parent(s). This would, unless specific laws are written to prevent this, seem to allow people to claim frozen zygotes as dependent children and thus take a tax deduction for each one. While the cost of creating and freezing zygotes would be a factor, the tax deductions would seem to be well worth it. Perhaps this is the secret agenda behind such legislation: people could avoid taxes by having enough zygotes in the freezer.

Of course a “zygotes are people” law might also entail that it would be illegal to freeze zygotes on the grounds that they would be confined or imprisoned without consent or due process. Naturally, laws would need to be written for this and they would also need to be worded so as to avoid making “imprisoning” a zygote in the womb a crime. There is also the matter of in vitro fertilization and whether or not certain processes would thus be outlawed by the “zygotes are people” law.  After all, some of the zygotes created do not survive. If these zygotes are people, IVF could be regarded as involving, if not murder, at least some sort  homicide or zygoteslaughter. Of course, outlawing such practices seems to be one of the intended consequences of these proposed laws.

Another point of concern is the matter of death certificates. After all, the death of a person requires a certificate and the usual legal proceedings. If a zygote were to be a legal person, then it would seem to follow that if a zygote died, then the death would need to be properly recorded and perhaps investigated to determine if a crime were committed. Naturally, specific laws could be written regarding various circumstances (for example, should women have to report every zygote that fails to implant-thus resulting in the death of a person). Perhaps the state would need to set up womb cameras or some other detector to monitor the creation of these new people so as to ensure that no death of a person goes unreported.

One rather interesting consequence is that such a law might set the precedent that any cell that could be cloned would count as a person (after all, as argued above, it would seem to share the relevant qualities of a zygote and the law in question mentioned cloning or any functional equivalent). This would have some rather bizarre consequences.

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 14, 2011 at 8:56 am

    “From a philosophical perspective, I would be inclined to stick with what seems to be the general view: zygotes are not persons. I do accept the obvious: a zygote is alive (as is an amoeba or any cell in my body), a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning). However, these qualities of a zygote do not seem to be sufficient to establish it as a person. After all, the relevant  qualities of the zygote seem to be duplicated by some of the cells in our bodies and it would be absurd to regard each of us as a collective of persons.”

    You can’t be serious.

    You see no difference in kind whatsoever between a newly fertilized, particular, unique, individual, growing human being and all other cells in your body in general?

    The zygote within a pregnant woman’s body DOES NOT have the same DNA as the various cells that belong to the mother’s body. The zygote has its own, unique, individual DNA in an individual human body that is different from the mother’s.

    This is an ontological question, one of being, which concerns our being, as humans, and the continuity of our being over time.

    I once was not; I was first a zygote; then a child, a teenager, a young man, a middle aged man, and, eventually, I will be no more (i.e., a dead man).

    I once watched Bill Moyers interview Dr. Leon Kass, MD on PBS. Dr. Kass is one of the brightest thinkers in America, and he’s also a distinguished bioethicist (whose books I’ve read). The following is an excerpt from this interview,

    BILL MOYERS: “You mean down when we were mere cells?”

    LEON KASS: “When we were–”

    BILL MOYERS: “Or a cell?”

    LEON KASS: “We were a very special kind of cell, Bill.”

    BILL MOYERS: “Potentially.”

    LEON KASS: “No, no. We were– when you– look, when– R.G. Edwards created the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, 1978, he said, and he sort of stumbled over the truth. He said, “She was beautiful then and she is beautiful now.” And by “then” he meant when she was a zygote, when she was a fertilized egg which he had fertilized.”

    Dr. Kass is a wise man who is in awe of life, especially human life, and he realizes the continuity, over time, of our being.

    We were all zygotes once.

    I, the person I now am – my body – was once as small as the period at the end of this sentence.

    “According to this elementary definition of life, life begins at fertilization, when a sperm unites with an oocyte.  From this moment, the being is highly organized, has the ability to acquire materials and energy, has the ability to respond to his or her environment, has the ability to adapt, and has the ability to reproduce (the cells divide, then divide again, etc., and barring pathology and pending reproductive maturity has the potential to reproduce other members of the species).  Non-living things do not do these things.

    Even before the mother is aware that she is pregnant, a distinct, unique life has begun his or her existence inside her.

    Furthermore, that life is unquestionably human.  A human being is a member of the species homo sapiens.  Human beings are products of conception, which is when a human male sperm unites with a human female oocyte (egg).  When humans procreate, they don’t make non-humans like slugs, monkeys, cactuses, bacteria, or any such thing.

    Emperically-verifiable proof is as close as your nearest abortion clinic: send a sample of an aborted fetus to a laboratory and have them test the DNA to see if its human or not.  Genetically, a new human being comes into existence from the earliest moment of conception.

    In Roe vs. Wade, Justice Harry Blackmun noted, “The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development.  If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the (Fourteenth) Amendment.”

    According to Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, a person is “a human being.”  Attempts to render an entire class of human beings as “non-persons” based upon arbitrary qualities such as age and place of residence in order to discriminate against them is immoral and unjust.

    As a matter of fact, the Supreme Court in 1857 ruled that Dred Scott, a black slave, was not a “person” with rights but the “property” of his master.  Was the Court wrong then?

    Of course!  The Supreme Court of 1973 that legalized abortion nationwide with its Roe v. Wade decision was just as immoral and unjust.  They dehumanized an entire class of human beings in order to legitimize wholesale discrimination against them.  Abortion may go down in history as the greatest human rights abuse of all time.

    As our nation’s founding documents make clear, the right to life is God-given and inalienable.  The right to live cannot be legitimately usurped by men.  No man, no government has the right to deprive one of life or liberty without a trial by jury, regardless of skin color, age, stage of development, level of dependence upon others for survival, or place of residence.

    Abortion results in the death of an innocent human being.  It is immoral and unjust when evaluated in the light of the law of the land (our founding documents) and the divine commandment that forbids taking the life of an innocent human being.”

    See: http://www.prolifephysicians.org/lifebegins.htm

    America – 19th Century:

    Person? or Property?

    “Though slavery had such a wide variety of faces, the underlying concepts were always the same. Slaves were considered property, and they were property because they were black. Their status as property was enforced by violence — actual or threatened. People, black and white, lived together within these parameters, and their lives together took many forms.

    Enslaved African Americans could never forget their status as property, no matter how well their owners treated them. But it would be too simplistic to say that all masters and slaves hated each other. Human beings who live and work together are bound to form relationships of some kind, and some masters and slaves genuinely cared for each other. But the caring was tempered and limited by the power imbalance under which it grew. Within the narrow confines of slavery, human relationships ran the gamut from compassionate to contemptuous. But the masters and slaves never approached equality.” Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2956.html

    America – 21st Century:

    “‘Personhood’ amendments are the notorious measures now being considered in states like Mississippi, Florida, and Ohio, that would elevate a fertilized human egg to the status of a legal person. They would ban IUDs, the morning-after pill, in-vitro fertilization, and all abortions — with no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or in cases where the life of a woman is at stake.

    In other words, a leading candidate for the GOP nomination for president is on the record in favor of a law that would classify literally all abortions — and even many forms of birth control — as murder.” Source: http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/157172/in-personhood-attacks-on-romney-democrats-want-it-all/

    Life begins at conception. People are not property, no matter how black or how small.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 15, 2011 at 7:14 pm

      I’m rarely serious-a serious character flaw, I’m afraid.

      The sperm and egg certainly also seem to be alive (they are, at least, living cells). However, being reproductive cells they would seem best described as “parts” of the producing human which then combine to blend the genetic material, thus creating a new one-celled organism. That organism is, I agree, alive and has the potential to be part of a causal chain that results in a person. The cell does have human DNA, but that does not seem to be a sufficient condition for person hood (after all, most human cells have a full set of human DNA).

      I am generally opposed to killing, so I am rather sympathetic to certain aspects of the pro-life position (specifically that it is generally good to avoid abortions). However, I do accept that killing can be morally acceptable and that the qualities of the victim are relevant to the assessment of the action. So, for example, killing a baby would be to kill what is almost certainly a person. Killing a zygote does kill a cell with the potential to be part of a causal chain leading to a person, but this seems to be a very different sort of thing in terms of its moral impact.

      But, I am willing to consider the possibility that the zygote has within it a full and complete person-provided that a coherent and plausible account of how this would be could be given.

  2. sexandwaffles said, on November 14, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    An incredible summary of several legal “ripple” effects that I’m certain many pro-lifers have never considered.

  3. Meadock said, on November 14, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I have a very simple idea that could solve all of this article’s problems: how about we make a zygote a zygote and not a person and simply redefine (or define) a zygote’s rights (or simply make laws, if we so choose, to protect zygotes given their potential to become people.)

    I think the author’s argument about how a zygote could be considered no different than any other cell in their body (which has the potential to be used for cloning) invalid. A zygote is vastly different than any of the cells in a person’s body and cloning is not a natural process (it’s artificial.) “Such zygotes contain DNA derived from both the parents, and this provides all the genetic information necessary to form a new individual.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zygote

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm

      Making zygote specific laws would address some of the complications. Of course, this would still be a matter of considerable moral and legal dispute (such as the basis on which the zygote gets such status and what implications this status and laws might have).

      I don’t claim the zygote is identical to any other clone potential cell. Rather, I claim that it seems to share the key properties (being a human cell, having the potential to become a person and so on). As you note, cloning is artificial, but the specific law does specify cloning as well-thus it would seem to make all human cells that could be cloned potential persons on par with a zygote (differing only in terms that creating a clone would generally require more technological intervention than it would for a zygote to be created and become a person).

      A clone of me would presumably be a new person. After all, twins are natural clones and they seem to be distinct people.

      • Meadock said, on November 15, 2011 at 9:20 pm

        I agree with most of what you’ve said. You mentioned though that a “cloned potential person [is] on par with a zygote (differing only in terms that creating a clone would generally require more technological intervention…”, but a zygote, when left to it’s natural course of development, requires no technological intervention. I would assume zygotes have been forming since a sperm could fertilize an egg (which is a really long time.) Cloning is something comparatively very recent and can only be done via technological intervention. My point is, the natural process of things shouldn’t be tampered with unless that tampering is helpful. Things shouldn’t be all mucked up with artificial processes if those processes are not helpful. Technology should be about building and improving things, not destroying them. Thanks to technology, the potential exists to clone people. Also thanks to technology, we are able to abort them too (and nuke them).

        I can see what you mean by clone potential cells sharing key properties with a zygote in that they have the potential to become a person, but one is initiated by a natural process absent of technological intervention. Once that natural process begins, to negatively intervene is a destructive act to a life form with the intent of eliminating it. Intent is important in this context because we as well as other forms of life take destructive acts against other forms of life, but often with the intent of benefiting from the result in a positive way. Negative intent is immoral in my opinion. What’s worse is that that destructive act with negative intent is against a person potential life form. There is no other natural organism that has the potential to become a person (other than what a zygote develops into). The preservation of life is socially and technologically progressive and should be embraced. We could evolve as a species if we could accomplish this.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Professor, considering your position, what is the ethic underlying this practice? Are you okay with this?

    LARGO, Florida, May 26, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Scores of prolife groups are calling for a public boycott of food giant, PepsiCo, due to its partnership with Senomyx, a biotech company that uses aborted fetal cells in the research and development of artificial flavor enhancers.

    LifeSiteNews previously reported on Senomyx’s partnership with major food corporations, most notably PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, and Nestlé.

    Pro-life watchdog group, Children of God for Life (CGL), is now joined by major pro-life organizations calling upon the public to target PepsiCo in a boycott.

    Pepsi is funding the research and development, and paying royalties to Senomyx, which uses HEK-293 (human embryonic kidney cells) to produce flavor enhancers for Pepsi beverages.

    “Using isolated human taste receptors we created proprietary taste receptor-based assay systems that provide a biochemical or electronic readout when a flavor ingredient interacts with the receptor,” says the Senomyx website.

    “What they do not tell the public is that they are using HEK 293 – human embryonic kidney cells taken from an electively aborted baby to produce those receptors,” stated Debi Vinnedge, President for CGL, the watch dog group that has been monitoring the use of aborted fetal material in medical products and cosmetics for years.

    The aborted fetal cells are not in the product itself. However, “there are many options PepsiCo could be using instead of aborted fetal cells,” noted Vinnedge.

    The revelation about Senomyx’s research techniques motivated Campbell Soup to sever all relations with Senomyx.

    However, PepsiCo continues their business relationship despite the abortion connection. They drew public ire earlier this year when they responded, saying, “our collaboration with Senomyx is strictly limited to creating lower-calorie, great-tasting beverages for consumers.”

    When pressed further, PepsiCo sent out a form letter response saying they had been accused of conducting aborted fetal tissue research.

    Bradley Mattes, executive director of Life Issues Institute, said, “While aborted fetal cells aren’t actually in the product itself, the close relationship is enough to repulse most consumers. To our knowledge, this is the first time a food product has been publicly associated with abortion.”

    The pro-life groups noted that additional companies collaborating with Senomyx will be targeted for boycott next.

    The pro-life organizations are asking the public to boycott all Pepsi drink products and encourage consumers to contact Pepsi management requesting that they sever all ties with Senomyx.

    For a list of Pepsi Beverages included in the boycott: http://pepsico.com/Brands/Pepsi_Cola-Brands.html

    Source: http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pro-life-groups-call-for-pepsi-boycott-over-aborted-fetal-cell-lines/

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 17, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Professor Peter Singer says babies are not people, or persons, until two years or age. What do you think professor? Doesn’t he have a good, philosophical point? Singer says they are not really self-aware until they are two years of age. Why are we arresting people who kill babies under two years of age for murder? What’s next? Cameras in the new parent’s homes?

    “Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self-conscious. So if we turn to consider the infants in themselves, independently of the attitudes of their parents, since their species is not relevant to their moral status, the principles that govern the wrongness of killing non-human animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here too. As we saw, the most plausible arguments for attributing a right to life to a being apply only if there is some awareness of oneself as a being existing over time, or as a continuing mental self. Nor can respect for autonomy apply where there is no capacity for autonomy.” ~ Peter Singer

    Source: see: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1993—-.htm

    See: Mom murders 13 month-old: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7BIUF395J4&feature=player_embedded

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2011 at 2:02 pm

      Singer is very good at saying things that will attract media attention. The mental abilities of a two year old do seem to enough to establish person hood. I’d be inclined to say that person hood predates birth.

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