A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

How Do You Define a Person?

The vote in Mississippi misses the real issue

By Michael Mountain

Does a pair of microscopic cells constitute a person? That was basically the question before voters in Mississippi this week when they were asked at what specific point a human fetus deserves protection by the law as a “legal person.”

In case you weren’t following the debate, a “person” is a legal term, not a scientific one. Before you can have any legal rights or legal liability, you have to be considered a person. (When Mitt Romney remarked, a few weeks ago, that “corporations are people,” he was correct. Corporations have legal rights and liabilities.)

I’m not a legal, scientific or religious expert on when life begins, so I’m not going to try to say whether a pair of cells is a person, or, if not, whether it becomes a person when it has multiplied to four cells (about a day later) or to 100 cells (a week later) or enough hundreds of cells to start forming the basis for a brain.

It’s a bit like asking when do the ingredients for a cake become an actual cake. But those who argue for the personhood of the two cells from which a human being is conceived have a clear bottom line: they believe all human life is sacred.

I would agree that it is. I’d only add that all life is sacred. ALL life. Back to that in a moment.

Of course, as soon as you start trying to apply a general belief to real-life situations, it gets fuzzy. And that’s why we start drawing arbitrary lines and creating our own definitions of what exactly is a person and what isn’t. Hence the current debate in Mississippi.

These lines are always arbitrary, and no one ever agrees on them. Throughout most of Western history, people couldn’t even agree on which adult humans should be considered persons. Slaves, for example, weren’t considered persons, whether in Ancient Israel, Rome or the United States.
While a pair of cells may be deemed to be a person, a 40-year-old elephant or orca, who carries the wisdom and culture of her community, is no more considered a person than is a computer or a pile of garbage.
The most arbitrary line of all — and one that exists to this day — is the one that says that while a pair of human cells may be considered a sacred life form that qualifies for legal protection as a person, a 40-year-old elephant or orca, who carries the wisdom and culture of her community, has no such recognition. She is no more considered a person than is a computer or a pile of garbage. In legal terms, she is simply a “thing” — something that can be owned, used or exploited by a “real” person.

Meanwhile, as matriarch of her clan, that elephant or orca will continue to lead her extended family through the ocean or across the land to the same places that she was led to by her own mother, who taught her where to find food or water or rest when times might be difficult. In those terms, she is a person in any and every meaningful sense of the word. She is alive, she loves her life, her family and her friends, she mourns her dead, she plays, she grieves. She is a deeply complex, emotional, moral being.

But the law says she doesn’t even have a recognizable existence. Neither does a chimpanzee or a dolphin – both of whom can understand human language even better than their captors can understand chimp or dolphin language. Those animals, too, have no more legal personhood than does a computer or a pile of garbage.

For my part, I believe that an unborn human baby is indeed a life, that her life is sacred, and that she is a person. Exactly when she became a person is less certain, but we should give her the benefit of the doubt – not as part of a legal wrangle, but because we care about all life and want all living things to have the best life they possibly can.

I believe that the life of nonhumans is sacred, too. No one with an ounce of soul who has ever seen the photos and videos of Tarra the elephant playing with her best friend, Bella the dog, at the Elephant Sanctuary could imagine otherwise. No one who heard, last week, that Tarra had found Bella lying dead one morning in the grounds of the sanctuary and had picked her up with her trunk and carried her back to the barn where they would have their regular sleepovers could argue that Tarra is a dumb “thing.”

Hundreds of years ago, when theologians used to debate the nature of angels, they would argue over such questions as how many angels could dance on a single pinhead. I don’t know the answer to that. And I couldn’t have joined in the argument over whether angels should be admitted to the exclusive legal club of “persons.” Nor do I know how exactly how many human cells it takes to be a person.

What I do know is that Tarra is a real-life person and deserves the legal protection of personhood that would grant her and her kind the fundamental rights to bodily liberty (so she can’t, for example, be held captive against her will) and bodily integrity (so she can’t, for example, be used in biomedical research).

If you want to lay claim to being unique in the family of living creatures, I’d suggest that what makes you a real person is the ability to see that you’re not the only animal on Earth who deserves some of those same rights that you value as most precious.