Human at Conception: The 14th Amendment & the Acquisition of Personhood

By Horne, Benjamin D. | The Human Life Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Human at Conception: The 14th Amendment & the Acquisition of Personhood


Horne, Benjamin D., The Human Life Review


Long-established Constitutional law entitles each individual to human rights and the equal protection of the law. Ratified on July 9,1868, the Fourteenth Amendment states: ". .. nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Currently, however, the law protects an individual only after "viability": the point at which that individual, as a fetus, could survive outside the womb. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court declared: "Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."1

When Does Life Begin?

Since 1973, much effort has been expended to determine when life begins and personhood is gained. But a person's opinion about when life begins can vary based on his cultural heritage, religious background, and scientific understanding (see Table 1).2 Religious definitions of when life begins vary from conception to specific gestational milestones to birth, but usually depend on when the soul or spirit enters the new being.3 Philosophical and socio-cultural views of when life begins vary considerably.4

Scientific views of life's beginnings also spread across the spectrum of time from conception to after birth.5 Except for the ones that designate conception as the beginning of life, these designations involve "phenotypes"-characteristics that arise from the expression of the organism's DNA, and from the interaction of its DNA with its environment.6

A major difficulty in determining when life begins is the problem of what life is in the first place. It may be easy to identify life when we see it, but establishing a simple, concise definition is not easy.7 While some in the U.S. Congress and in South Dakota claim that life begins at conception, this is not clear. At conception, a sperm's single-stranded DNA and an ovum's single-stranded DNA unite within a single cell, creating a new and unique human.8 But whether this constitutes life is questionable, since life may be defined as, for example, "the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally"9-and whether these conditions exist at conception is debatable, since 1) it will be many months before the new human is able to adapt to the environment outside the womb, and 2) it will be years before the new human can reproduce.

As for the religious definition of life, it's difficult to prove: How, after all, does one measure whether the soul has united with the body? Amidst the many definitions of life, the assignment of one point at which a developing but unborn human becomes alive or gains life-and thus deserves legal protections-is difficult at best.

Human at Conception

But in the context of legal rights and protections for the unborn, the question of when life begins may be irrelevant: While the two issues are usually discussed interchangeably, the point when life begins and the event whereby personhood is obtained are not necessarily the same. Consider that the law recognizes that a dead body cannot be desecrated (this is a third-degree felony in Utah10). Furthermore, the legal tradition of using wills and trusts that are established prior to death, or probate court afterwards, to provide due process in the disposal of a decedent's property also recognizes that rights exist after death.

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