I view every human animal as a person. Throughout history this has been a minority point of view. At almost all times and places, most people have considered that there were human animals that were not people — women, slaves, children, prisoners of war, members of certain races, members of certain religions, criminals, and committers of certain moral offences have all been regarded as less-than-fully-people. To be a person required something more than just being human.
Today the most clear-cut class of human animals not normally regarded as people are the human embryos. Many things are permitted to be done to these human animals that would not normally be thought unproblematic as things done to people — killing them; conducting medical experiments upon them; using their organs; and so on — and there are complex policies developed to regulate these activities (including, for example, the judgement of the HFEA last week that hybrid embryos can be created). It does not follow from my belief that all human animals are people that no human animal should ever be killed or experimented upon or its organs used to help others — quite the reverse: we believe that, under certain circumstances all of these things can be done to people. But I do believe that the same kinds of principles that guide and limit when we kill adults, experiment upon them, or use them for organs should also guide and limit our treatment of embryos.
In a moment I shall ponder some potential add-on features that might be thought necessary before a human animal really becomes a person. But first I wish to dispel a certain confusion that some readers might have. When we discuss what extra might be needed for a human animal to become a person we shall be discussing issues of philosophy, ethics, politics. But some readers may wonder whether a human embryo really counts as a human animal at all. This is not a matter of ethical debate. It is simply a scientific fact, given only the following definition: a human animal is a working instance of a certain kind of creature with a certain DNA structure.
Animals vary enormously — some have only one or two cells, like the Myxozoa (having only a few cells does not disqualify a creature from being an animal); others such as pigs and cows are complex many-celled organisms that have a wide array of other creatures living inside them — including symbiotic bacteria and parasitic creatures such as tapeworms (living inside another creature does not disqualify one from being an animal).
Breeding strategies amongst animals vary. For example, some, e.g. chickens, produce external eggs with a hard protective barrier and internal food to sustain the growing infant. Others, such as certain toads, carry their eggs in the toad’s mouth or implanted in the mother’s back. Marsupial infants exit the mother’s body early in the lifecycle and are thereafter carried in a pouch. The true mammals, such as human beings, do not have their infants grow in solid eggs or in a pouch. Instead, the infant attaches itself to the inside of the mother, taking nourishment from its host rather like other parasitic lifeforms such as the tapeworm. But that feature of the mammalian lifecycle does not create some doubt that the human animal is then alive. Like other parasites, it needs its host for sustenance and can only survive in the environment for which it is designed — but what of that? How long would you, Dear Reader, survive in deep space or at the bottom of the Pacific ocean? Does the fact that you can survive only in the environments for which your body is designed create any doubt as to whether you are truly alive?
No. There is no doubt that an embryo is a human animal — and indeed even arch-pro-abortionists such as Richard Dawkins (whose “The God Delusion” was apparently a favourite of Labour MPs this summer) are straightforward on this point. And it should be just as clear that the human embryo is the same animal as its later adult — just as a caterpillar is the same animal as its butterfly.
So what must be added to animalhood before a human animal is a person? Probably the most common idea is this: only when the human animal is combined with a “soul” or “mind” does it become a person; it is hard to say precisely when in its development an embryo acquires a soul/mind, but it is probably something to do with when some part of the brain develops — whatever bit of the brain “connects” the animal to its soul/mind. Many members of many religions would hold such a view. I, however, am entirely unconvinced as to the truth or usefulness as a concept of the “soul” or “mind”, understood in this exotic other-worldly sense. I respect the beliefs of these religious people, but I don’t share their religion and I see no more reason to allow them to kill their infant animals because of this religious belief than I would if their beliefs extended to child sacrifice or widow-burning. Religious toleration has its limits — this is one of them.
A closely connected idea is that in order to be a person one must be capable of behaving closely enough to a normal adult. What, then, of someone in a completely “vegetative” state — incapable of talking, nodding, kissing, running? Would such a human animal cease to be a person? Well…if that state were permanent or sufficiently persistent, then perhaps we do think that personhood is lost. After all, such human animals are often left to die or even helped along the way. But suppose that such a vegetative state were only temporary, so that normal behaviour might be possible in the future. Would we say that a human being in a such a temporary vegetative state is not truly a person — is perhaps, at most, a “potential person”? I would not. Someone in a temporary vegetative state remains fully — not merely potentially — a person. Likewise, a working embryo is not a potential person. It is a person.
Perhaps you think that other behaviour is irrelevant, provided that there is sufficient mental function? Will you become only a potential person, then, if you fall into a temporary coma? How clever would you need to be to qualify as a person? How should we describe a human animal with an IQ of 50? Perhaps you think that to be a person you must look like a person? So is a severe burns victim not a person? or someone born without arms? If you are in an accident and your jaw and nose are lost, will you cease to be a person? Perhaps it matters whether the animal can feel pain or whether its death would be regretted (as Dawkins suggests)? So is a friendless tramp not a person if you could kill him painlessly?
I put it to you, Dear Reader, that you will struggle to find some principle that must be added to animalhood to produce the person that you would be able to apply consistently to anything other than the embryo. And if it is applicable only to the embryo, it should be clear that all your principle amounts to is the insistence that embryos don’t count as people — without any reason why not.
All I have tried to urge in this article is that all human animals are people — that there is no principle we would find attractive that would exclude some human animals from counting as people. As I mentioned above, it does not follow from this that we should never kill embryos, never experiment upon them, never use them to help cure or mend others. But I do urge the thought that when we decide policy on when to kill, experiment upon or otherwise use embryos, we should make our decisions understanding that we are discussing what happens to a person, just as much as you or I.