When Does Personhood Begin?
When Aaron Barg was three months old, a hernia left him in almost constant pain. Finding a surgeon who could repair the hernia was easy, say his parents, Steve and Susan Barg. But finding an anesthesiologist was almost impossible.
With a rare genetic disorder called Trisomy 13, Aaron was born with a weakened heart and lungs and an undeveloped brain, and he was deaf and legally blind. Doctors told the Bargs that Aaron would most likely die within a year. If he survived beyond that time frame, his life would have little quality—he'd never speak, walk, or feed himself.
For most anesthesiologists, the risk was too high. They felt any operation could kill Aaron.
Getting the medical community to regard Aaron as a person worth saving was a challenge. Susan Barg remembers that doctors didn't refer to him by name, but only "baby Barg." Though doctors commonly refer to even healthy babies this way, she found it symbolic of their attitude toward Aaron.
"He has a name," she would insist. "Please use it."
During a medical visit, Barg asked an anesthesiologist if he would like to hold Aaron. He did so for a full hour, and only then did he agree to assist in an operation. Since then, the anesthesiologist has helped in several more operations for Aaron.
"He holds Aaron, and he becomes a human being," Barg says. "Not a statistic, not a piece of medical research on a piece of paper—but a human being with a name who responds to touch and cuddling and love."
Now 13, Aaron is a handsome boy with blond hair and a face that lights up when someone he knows comes by. Bend down by his wheelchair and he'll pull your face close to his, stare deeply into your eyes, and stroke your face. Though he can't speak, his eyes and hands tell you that he knows you are there. And he has far exceeded all expectations—he can move his wheelchair, feed himself, and even communicate using five hand signals.
To Be or Not To Be
Aaron's experience raises hard questions about personhood. There is no scientific agreement over when human life begins, much less when that life attains personhood—or moral standing, personal stature, or a soul.
But the question of personhood, with its incumbent legal and moral implications, is at the nub of all bioethics debates. Do our capabilities make us persons? If that's the case, then some, like bioethics professor Peter Singer of Princeton University, would argue that Aaron is not a person.
If Aaron is not regarded as a person, how much less so the 400,000 human embryos, each the size of the head of a pin, stored in cylinders filled with liquid nitrogen at more than 430 fertility clinics in the United States. What status do they have?
In a recent article on Salon.com, Michael West, ceo of Advanced Cell Technology, a private company working on stem cells, described an embryo as neither human life nor a person, "just an ordinary group of cells."
"It's not a developing human being," West told Salon.com. "There are no body cells of any kind. … There are not even any cells that have begun to become any body cells of any kind."
Few in the evangelical orbit would agree with such a statement, but a limited range of belief about personhood does exist among Christians.
Most evangelicals would agree that personhood begins at conception, says John Kilner, director of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. At least in theory, that is.
"If you asked about personhood," Kilner says, "people will say, in theory, they support full personhood at conception—few people would deny that." In practice, though, Kilner says many Christians also would "make some exceptions for abortion in the case of genetic deficiencies, or for the use of stem cells. And this is from people whom you'd expect to hold pro-life positions."