Origins of Personhood: The moral precedent of conception, religion and the law

The question of when life begins is an incredibly complex one with enormous legal and ethical ramifications for contraception, abortion, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research and the very definition of our humanity.

Colorado voters will decide this thorny question in November.

On Thursday, the Colorado Secretary of State confirmed that proponents of a controversial measure to confer constitutional rights on fertilized human eggs exceeded the number of valid petition signatures required to place the question on the general election ballot.

The ballot question will read:

Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Colorado:

SECTION 1.  Article II of the constitution of the state of Colorado is amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION to read:

Section 31.  Person defined.  As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the terms "person" or "persons" shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization.

Before voters are inundated with months of campaigning, we put the measure, now known as Proposed Amendment 48, to a very different test.

We asked a cross-section of religious scholars, clergy and spiritual leaders — what moral precedent could this potential amendment set? — to determine if there is uniformity on the theological definition of personhood.

Rev. Dr. Phil Campbell, a member of The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado Board of Directors, United Church of Christ minister and Director of Ministry Studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver

The ethical obligation and theological worldview that is dominant in most religious traditions is caring for persons on this side of birth.

The moral imperative is to commit ourselves to the care of the born rather than divert our attention to a category of life that is scantily attested to historically in any religious tradition. The moral issue this amendment raises is the shift away from the concern regarding the enormity of need of the born and the common ground that could be found among various religious traditions to address those needs.

I do not know of a religious community that would support this amendment — the view that life begins at fertilization — and supports its proposed goal in their own religious practice. For instance, adherents to the idea that life begins at fertilization (or conception) do not expect a fetus to be named. Nor do they support invitro baptismal ceremonies, naming ceremonies, or conduct burials for a miscarried fetus according to their religious tradition as they would for a person who has died. I believe there is a disconnect between what proponents of this measure proclaim and what they actually practice. This is a moral concern, as well as an ethical concern.

An amendment is not needed for religious communities to treat fetuses as human beings.

Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, president of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council

Coloradans seeking to place the proposition on the ballot that life begins at the moment of fertilization must of necessity claim to have God on their side because they are seeking to play God through their efforts.

Naming conception as the starting point for life is not a purely arbitrary act. A fertilized egg may reach term and be born. There is much that can happen along the way, not involving abortion, that can negate this possibility.

For perhaps this very reason Rabbinic Judaism held that life begins only at birth. That is the law within Jewish life to this day. The rabbis had every bit as much claim to God in their decision as these anti-abortion forces have the right to attempt to bring a plebiscite in this state to say otherwise.

Without the question of abortion rights, however, this clearly wouldn’t be a ballot issue, and we could all interpret God’s word in and for our own lives without submitting it to a popular vote.

Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, a member of The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado Board of Directors and Chair of TIA-CO’s Public Policy Commission. He is also Minister of Social Responsibility at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden

One moral precedent I think this initiative would set is that it would devalue all aspects of human life and moral choices beyond genetics.

Defining a fertilized egg as a person essentially says that nothing else counts about what we may think of as the essence of personhood — not consciousness, thoughts, feelings, autonomy, capacity to love and form relationships, creative imagination, a unique life history and experience, or anything else.

A fertilized egg has none of these qualitlies — the only thing it has in common with a person is human DNA. So in essence, this initiative says that human beings are nothing more than DNA — nothing else matters for a definition of personhood. By consequence, the existence of human DNA overrides all other moral considerations of personhood.

Pastor Brent Cunningham, Spiritual Formation, Timberline Church in Fort Collins

We support the full and inherent dignity of human beings across the lifespan.  This is wholly consonant with the biblical worldview; one does not suddenly gain or acquire moral status at some stage in development. Human dignity or moral worth is inherent or intrinsic, and is not “assigned” by someone external to us when we reach their arbitrarily defined “state” of development/maturity/functional capacity.

Here is the danger. If moral status (dignity) is tied to an arbitrary definition of “personhood” (usually having to do with specific functional capacities), as opposed to simply being human, then we head down a road where we can just as easily “take it away” (moral worth).

We should wonder at the moral precedent have we set by “creating” the concept of a “Human non-person” (i.e., that one can be a member of the human species but not yet a person with full moral worth). This rather nonsensical (as well as dangerous) concept is the issue that this amendment seeks to rectify. And it does so by articulating a concept that has a long tradition in Western moral philosophy.

Jann Halloran, minister of the Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church of Parker, maternity unit counselor and member of the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

It feels like there is one religious perspective but there’s not. It seems so monolithic to say that from the second an egg is fertilized that this is now a person. And the woman that is carrying that person is now enslaved to whatever happens next.

There is a lot of guilt with miscarriage. Every woman wonders, ‘What did I do wrong?’ And now you’re saying it was a murder. It’s so cruel and it’s so harsh.

To simply say that this is when life begins the second an egg is fertilized is dancing on the head of a pin. None of us really knows and we have to make the most complicated moral decisions we can make in the best interest of our health, our families and the potential new life.

This issue is so rife with sexism. Religion and men telling women how to live their lives, how to control their sexuality and how to control their reproductive systems. They don’t give women the ethical agency that we were born with to make these decisions.

It’s very scary. There are so many ramifications around birth control, fertility and how women have to deal with these issues in their real lives.

I don’t think there are grounds for this in the Christian or Jewish tradition. Until a baby is born, you don’t know what you have. That doesn’t mean that anything that happens before birth isn’t worthy of tears or anger or celebration or fear. But until the incredible gift of life is given and it comes out of the womb, that’s as reasonable and moral a position of when life begins as when an egg is fertilized.

I also respect the passion of the religious right to hold very different positions and that’s why I don’t want one particular position in our constitution.

Rev. Patrick Hurley, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado and retired pastor Presbyterian Church, Pueblo

The measure, proposed by Colorado for Equal Rights, is a full-throttle attack on the religious and civil liberties of all Coloradans.

We believe this measure would limit religious freedom by enshrining a particular religious definition of life in the Colorado Constitution. There is not a singular religious definition of life, despite what the proponents of this measure would have Coloradans believe. This measure is more than an attack on religious freedom, however. It is also a serious threat to women’s health and women’s civil rights.

The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado believes the personhood amendment sets a dangerous moral precedent as well.

Our moral imperative is to commit ourselves to the care of the born.  This amendment shifts our attention away from the enormity of need of poor and marginalized Coloradans and the common ground that could be found among various religious traditions, political parties, and people of goodwill across the state. We should create laws that promote the common good and not narrow, extreme political and religious ideologies.

The Archdiocese of Denver, Islamic Center of Boulder and Thubten Shedrup Ling/Buddhist Center did not return calls for comment. No one was available to respond from the Assemblies of God Rocky Mountain District Council which recently endorsed the ballot measure.

Read part one of this continuing series — Origins of Personhood: Using ‘States Rights’ to Restrict Abortion and our ongoing reporting on the issue.

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Wendy Norris

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