the morality of personhood, as influenced by science

Total Posts:  405
Joined  10-01-2007
14 November 2010 21:27

Dr. Harris suggests morality relates the well-being of conscious creatures.

A recent review* reports the following:

“The womb provides the first opportunity for touchy-feely social bonding, according to new research….Scientists tracked the motion of five pairs of twin fetuses using ultrasonography, an imaging technique that visualizes internal body structures. By the 14th week of gestation, the fetuses began reaching toward their partners, and just 4 weeks later, they spent more time touching their neighbors than themselves or the walls of the uterus. In all, almost 30% of their movements were directed toward their prenatal companions. These movements, such as stroking the head or back, last longer and are more accurate than self-directed movements, such as touching their own eyes or mouths. The findings suggest that twin fetuses are aware of their counterparts in the womb and prefer to interact with them.”


Another study** suggests:

“…newborns just a few days old may already be trying to imitate the prevailing intonation patterns of the language they heard while still in the womb.” (emphasis mine)

** See “Babies May Pick Up Language Cues In Womb”, by Nell Greenfieldboyce,

As an exercise in applying Dr. Harris’ standard, let’s assume these findings are correct, i.e. that a twin fetus is aware of its neighbor and interacts with it, and at some point, a fetus processes audible information originating outside the womb. 

How should these findings influence our understanding of personhood, the legal status which confers rights that must be protected, or at least represented, in the weighing of competing interests under the law?  That is, if a fetus is aware of its neighbor, or if it is learning sounds, is it “conscious” and therefore eligible for moral standing?  If so, how should the rights of a fetus be weighed against the rights of the mother, or against the rights of patients to the benefits of medical research involving fetal tissue harvested from the mother?

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Joined  24-02-2011
24 February 2011 10:11

These are good, big questions - not answerable in a forum post. I will only add that you should also be asking “How much of a person is this fetus compared to other non-human creatures (ants, squirrels, dogs etc.)”, “What is relevant to moral considerations? If it is pain, when can pain be felt?” and “What are the current laws around the world about abortion?”

Total Posts:  61
Joined  09-01-2011
24 February 2011 15:44

Or the question: What is a person?
A “person”, from my understanding, is only what we wish to perceive as so. Apparently “person” derives from “persona”. And “persona” originally meant the same thing as “a mask”. We attach personality (or give “person” to) much more than the human organism. We can perceive an animal (or pet) and a plant as having a personality. Our society-programmed brains apply personality to events. The human organism is an event. A person, therefore, is really only a mask covering what the human organism really is. And a human organism is actually billions of organisms organising (or disorganising) as a colony of organisms in intimate relationship with the environment of what we have merely conveniently labelled as “Earth” and “Universe”. Every individual brained human event causes what it experiences. This means that an individual brained human event called “you” or “me” causes (or brings into existence - attracts as experience) an other “you” or “me” event. And we “personalize” these events based on how we choose to relate with them.

Just more grist for the thought-mill.