Personhood: Subjectivism Versus Faith

Electa Draper’s article on in vitro fertilization illustrates perfectly the problem with the traditional debate, not only over personhood, but over ethics more broadly.

Draper notes that Kathleen McCann Gregor changed her mind after undergoing in vitro fertilization: she now considers the “tiny embryos produced outside her body and grown in a petri dish” to be people. She said, “They are our babies.”

What is the argument for the claim that a tiny clump of undifferentiated cells the the equivalent of a born baby? No argument is offered; Gregor feels it, and that is enough. This is a straightforward subjectivist view.

Next Draper presents the skeptical view. Deb Bennett-Woods, “director of the Center for Ethics and Leadership in the Health Professions at Regis University,” told Draper, “We haven’t yet answered the question of the moral status of the embryo. Is it a collection of living cells with human DNA or is it a person?”

The Christians will be more than happy to answer for such skeptics:

“We must recognize that it is God’s business as to precisely when He ensouls embryos,” writes Catholic neuroscientist and priest Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “The fundamental truth (is) that human embryos are inviolable and deserving of unconditional respect at every stage of their existence.”

People need not decide for themselves the status of a fertilized egg: this is God’s business, and God, through his chosen representatives, has told us that a fertilized egg is a person. QED.

Now we learn more about Gregor. She is Catholic, yet she rejects the Church’s view on in vitro fertilization even as she accepts the Church’s view of personhood: “I knew in my own conscience it was right. Having gone through the process, there is no way I could think of an embryo as anything but my baby.”

This illustrates the link between subjectivism and religious faith. Her “conscience” — her feelings — told her to accept Church dogma on some matters but not others. Treating the matter as “God’s business” ultimately reduces to subjectivism, because ultimately all we have are people Making Stuff Up about God’s alleged commands.

Finally we get another subjectivist view from Dr. William D. Schlaff, “head of advanced reproductive medicine at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine,” who said, “We live in a pluralistic society. We have to respect the autonomy of each American to make this decision for themselves.”

But that argument gets us nowhere. Do “we have to respect the autonomy of each American” to kill their children or abuse them? Obviously such a notion is horrific. If a fertilized egg is a person, then it must not be destroyed.

Draper presents four basic views: the subjective belief that a fertilized egg is a person, the subjective belief that it isn’t, the skeptical belief that no answer is possible, and the religious belief that God says a fertilized egg is a person.

Hmm… What’s missing here? What Draper steadfastly refuses to report is the view that the matter is to be decided by the evidence, by reference to the facts of reality. Diana Hsieh and I address the matter of in vitro fertilization in our paper on personhood. In that paper we demonstrate, through argument and evidence (as opposed to feelings or faith) that a fertilized egg is not a person. To date, nobody has seriously attempted to refute our case. But then, refutations are rather beside the point for those who rest their views on faith or emotions.