March 14, 2012 | Chandler Marrs, PhD
What happens when we change the definition of a person to include everything from a corporation to a barely fertilized female egg? What happens when the corporate person and a collection of cells have more tacit and actual rights afforded than actual sentient beings? Though the loud and often offensive debates over a woman’s manifest right to make decisions about her health have led many to declare a ‘war on women,’ these same trends will serve to erode human rights in general- even for male humans.
Perhaps more of a philosophical question at this point, but when the definitions of words within a language dissociate so radically- person no longer means a human- it’s difficult not to wonder, what ramifications are before us; the law of unintended consequences will most certainly be at play here.
What is a person and why should this matter?
Language and by association conversation or discourse follow some very specific rules. At the most basic level, a sentence contains a subject, verb and object and, for the most part, words describe something about reality. (We’ve long since dissembled language and reality with mega marketing, political expediency and spin- but that is another topic altogether).
Subjects are usually, he, she, it, they etc., a person or thing. Although the definition of person has evolved over the course of history, it is generally allied with some underlying concept of sentience or thinking. Even though animals can think, we have never defined animals as persons (try as many dog lovers might) and there has always been a clear demarcation between human and everything else. Over the course of two years, however, cultural forces have rendered that definition virtually obsolete. And we have yet to settle on a new definition.
By law, corporations are now afforded some of the same (often more) rights than human persons. A corporation is comprised of human persons, but is essentially a contrived legal entity that allows business to transact. What does it mean when a legal contrivance becomes a person? Because corporate persons often have more power and money, there is the very real risk that their market goals will supersede basic human rights. (As a countervailing force, however, the millions of people within corporations connected socially online may overturn this overstep- see my last post).
Similarly, local anti-abortion supporters aligned with local government entities have pushed legislation across multiple regions of the US that grant a fertilized egg, person status; often affording the cell person more rights than the human person. Along with these trends, legislation that either force women to undergo unneeded medical procedures and/or prevent physicians from providing medical information to women supersede the rights of the human-sentient person in favor of cells. No matter what you believe about abortion, this is a fundamental shift in discourse with significant policy ramifications.
Aside from the potentially life-threatening position a woman can now be placed in legally, aside from ethical quandaries these laws place a physician in and the very real medical malpractice suits that these laws open the physician up to, this shift in language, motivated by narrow political goals, removes the notion of human rights, human persons, from policy discussions. And although, these policies currently target women specifically, they will ultimately erode rights for all humans. Who is to say other cells or other legal or object entities don’t indeed deserve to be protected over the rights of humans.
Sperm cells for example, are core constituents of human life and until we master asexual reproduction, why shouldn’t all sperm cells be considered sacred and merit the same protective caveats as the female egg? Or to its absurdity, the male penis, testicles and the like, containers of this life-giving force, why shouldn’t they be enshrined and protected until the moment of copulation- a chastity belt perhaps?
Laugh as we might, redefining personhood to include everything from non-human, legal entities to a collection of cells that may or may not evolve into a human being, dismisses the role and rights of actual humans. It’s a dangerous slope.