Personhood -- defining a human being at the moment of

conception, deserving all the legal rights of air-breathing humans -- is a

current concept strongly advocated by the religious right and opposed by the

concept of a woman's right to choose whether to carry an embryo/fetus to term

and suffer nine months of attendant body discomfort when she didn't plan for or

desire it. It's an issue this country's been burdened with since the Supreme

Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973. Starting in 2009, with the proliferation of state

bills (and a federal one) pushing "personhood," we are once again jumping from

the frying pan into the fire. President Obama struck down the Bush

administration's ban on providing federal funding for international groups

performing abortions. Obama has also lifted the ban on federal funding for

embryonic stem cell research -- equally contentious. Both issues arise from the

destruction of embryos, and create a third one, which is when life begins.

The question, often propounded and

much discussed during our ongoing abortion and personhood imbroglios, continues

to be a relentless topic of our time, with rape recently -- and rapaciously --

adding fuel to the mixture. A well considered answer is of course crucial in

making proper legal, ethical and moral decisions as to how we perceive and deal

with new human beings emerging into our society. But more than that, it figures

absolutely into our view of life itself.

The genetics issue

First, does life actually begin at

conception? Answering yes to the question as stated appears to suggest that the

uniting sperm and egg (or ovum) were not alive when they were separate. (Both

of them are also called germ cells or "gametes.") We know this is

manifestly false: Any biologist can assert with proof that life springs only

from life; life is a continuum. Then, what has changed from the moment the

sperm's penetration of the egg is complete? Other than having a union of two

cells, now called a "zygote," nothing all that visibly dramatic has

occurred. But, when pressed, most addressing the question will clarify that

what they meant was "a new human life" has begun with a zygote's

creation -- in other words, at conception. That's currently defined as

"personhood," regardless of whether it was the product of a loving sexual union

or a rape. This would suggest a "yes" to the question of when life


Biologically, there is a strong case

for this view. Every human cell has 23 chromosome pairs -- 46 in all. Geneticists have

arbitrarily numbered each pair for its respective contribution to the complete

set of genes it contains -- the human genome. Each member of each pair contains

genes for the same traits, more or less arranged in the same linear order. As geneticists

have assigned them, the "23rd" pair determines the human being's sex:

X-X for a female and X-Y for a male. (They are not-too-surprisingly called the

"sex" chromosomes.) Let's look briefly at how the genetics work to

produce a new and unique human life:

First, special processes in the

testicles produce 23 single chromosomes in each of the father's sperm cells:

half the number he has in all the rest of his body cells, containing half his

DNA encoding. Thus each sperm cell or gamete gets one copy of the genes for

each trait. The sperm's number 23 chromosome is either an X or a Y, with a

(usually) close-to-50 percent distribution in the millions of them in each

semen ejaculate.

Second, special processes in the

ovaries produce 23 single chromosomes in the mother's egg cells--usually one a

month but occasionally more, again producing half her DNA coding and one

genetic copy of each trait, her number 23 always an X. As most of us are now

aware, the father's X will produce a girl (X-X) and the father's Y a boy (X-Y).

(Often with historically tumultuous consequences, European kings of old

mistakenly blamed their queen consorts for not delivering them a male heir when

the monarchs were entirely to "blame.")

So the zygote has its 23 chromosome

pairs once again, and -- because of a process called chromosome reshuffling

(which space precludes discussing here) -- its DNA coding is randomly drawn from

each parent in each zygote, resulting in a cell that is uniquely coded but

clearly drawing traits equally and only from the two parents.

This zygote, now programmed to divide

and grow into a uniquely coded individual, is certainly a potential human

being, obviously drawing all its characteristics from the mother and father.

But is it "human" right then and there? For those who lack

conditioned religious faith, arriving at the correct answer involves some

complicated reasoning. To start the process, let's look at some other genetic


Another sperm and egg union from the

same parents, regardless of when it occurs, will draw a different DNA

distribution -- thereby creating another unique individual. If two sperms from

the same ejaculate impregnate two present eggs (a process normally occurring in

the fallopian tubes and implanted in utero) -- a fairly common occurrence -- the

result will be fraternal twins, no more closely related than any pair of

siblings. (For example, they can be of the opposite sex.)

But . . . we know this uniqueness goes

a bit overboard. Every now and then, because of special genetic processes

(again too detailed to get into), the already formed zygote will split into two

duplicates (and quite rarely, even more): two zygotes, each with a genetic and

therefore DNA structure exactly the same as the other one. These become

identical twins (of course always the same sex).

Twinning, cloning and


So much for Genetics 101. But the fact

of identical twins' existence -- coupled with the possibility of future human

cloning -- creates a fantastic riddle or conundrum: How do we reconcile each of

us having an awareness of being "inside" our one body, containing our

special physical/emotional (i.e. body/brain) attributes? To state another way:

Why do we never "switch" bodies -- an attractive fictional theme often

played out in the movies and on TV? A thoughtful consideration of how to address

the question helps elaborate the issues mentioned in the first paragraph

involving embryos. These of course evolve from zygotes and, in turn, will

become fetuses and then newborn babies.

If you were asked the question: Who

are you? -- how would you answer? Though quite unlikely, you could respond as

follows and be utterly truthful: "I am [give your name]. I find myself

inside this body. I have inhabited it ever since I can remember. I am aware of

what goes on outside me by means of my five senses --and perhaps others I can't

yet define. This awareness has varied considerably at different times, such as

when I'm sleeping versus being wide awake. When I'm under general anesthesia or

otherwise completely unconscious (as in a coma), I'm completely unaware of

anything, including the passage of time. As far as I know, my entire

consciousness -- my awareness of being [give your name again] -- is absolutely

tied to the body I'm now residing in. I've never been aware of myself apart

from this body, though I've heard that some people claim they have."

Now supposing the person who just

delivered this admittedly offbeat response could be exactly replicated or

cloned (and it should be noted that we are presently a long way from having

that capability). Let's also assume that the "new" person would, at

the time of cloning, be an exact copy of the original person, cell for cell

throughout his or her body -- his or her brain.

Question: Where do you think the

original person's awareness-of-self will now reside? If the "self" is

tied inextricably to "its" body/brain-cell makeup -- if, in other

words, the "self" emanates solely from the physical body/brain

characteristics it exhibits, wouldn't it be logical that the original person's

awareness should now reside in both the old and new bodies at once?

Answer: not a chance. It's never been

seen in identical twins, whose bodies are the same age (the clone and his/her

"parent" clearly wouldn't be). Obviously, each of us inhabits only

one body for "its" lifetime. This also means that you will not

meaningfully "duplicate" a clone parent -- i.e. a cell-DNA donor -- by

cloning him or her (when or if the humongous obstacles to the procedure are

overcome); this has always been a mistaken presumption.

To complicate matters further, it is

known that throughout an individual's life, environment plays a strong role in

his or her body/brain's evolving structure: The brain cells reconnect and

reorient, in response to continuous environmental stimuli at least equally to

their original genetic programming. This is why identical twins don't think

exactly the same, don't look exactly the same. These differences become more

pronounced as their lives progress and their life situations progressively


This would suggest that the awareness

you have of being "inside" your one changing body is evidently not

dependent upon any one mass of your body's cells, tissues or organs remaining

constant as you age -- since detailed body/brain scans have never found such a

mass. There is no ultimate "you" in any physical sense. (Could it reside

in the recently discovered "God" gene? This is unlikely since all genes come

from either parent, including that


Skepticism and the role of the


It would then seem that the logical

answer to my original conundrum is that your self-recognition or

consciousness-of-self must be separate, in some way, from your

"corporeal" or physical self, with all its cells, tissues and organs.

As indicated above, identical twins starting from the same programming clearly

are two individuals with their two consciousnesses-of-self just as separate as

their two corporeal selves. One might logically presume the same for an

individual cloned from his or her "parent" individual.

A religious person will immediately

respond that we are merely speaking of the body versus its "soul" or

"spirit." Most skeptics/non-believers don't admit the existence of a

soul separate from the physical body simply because it hasn't been detected

scientifically; it hasn't been measured. A soul is not a scientific concept and

should not be thought of nor taught as one -- much as "intelligent

design" isn't and evolution is. Yet, from the above reasoning, one must

infer a soul's existence because unvarying consciousness-of-self can be

explained in no other way. Geneticists use the term "ensoulment" --

the combining of body and soul -- only as an acknowledgement of mass belief in


The foregoing and elaborate reasoning

process to justify a soul's existence must arise from those who are not persons

of faith. Anyone who inclines to either Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius or

other religious founders and are serene and "at peace" with the soul

concept and whatever destiny is proscribed for them do so from the driving

force of faith, usually taught at an early age within whatever cultural

background the person finds himself. The other driving forces are reason and

revelation. For those who have no faith and have undergone no life-changing

epiphany, "reason" itself can become a revelation.

This concept has been addressed

somewhat in the 2004 documentary movie, What

the @#%^& do we (K)now? -- starring

Marlee Matlin. It also challenges the

skeptic's view by stating that known properties of quantum physics somehow

postulates the spirit or soul as "the ultimate observer." Though that

view lacks any real clarification in the film, it does make the point that scientists

can find no mass of tissue anywhere in the body that can serve that purpose

(and they've looked).

Well, what about your brain's

receptors for its five senses, you say? Don't they all "observe"?

Once again, ask yourself: What is it about those receptors that make them

yours, rather than anyone else's? Answer: nothing detectable. Yet they remain

yours for as long as you have any brain function -- and despite that function's

gross changes over your lifetime.

The brain as a channel

We've identified various parts of the

brain as originating the functions they appear to govern. If, instead, we infer

some intangible, immeasurable (to date) spirit as both ultimate observer and

ultimate "actor," can we not just-as-readily infer that these brain

tissues act not as originators but rather operate as "channels"? You

sever the channel, or lose it by disease or old age; you disrupt the ability;

you break the link -- just the same as though the function had originated there.

We presume living brain tissue originates behavior and sensation only because

we (presently) are incapable of looking beyond that tissue.

From the early 19th century to the

present, the discoveries and corresponding advancements in understanding

genetics, embryology and the related sciences have been phenomenal. Yet, with

all the scientific tools we possess enabling the knowledge we've gained, one

can submit that we currently know far, far less than what is knowable. Also

that all phenomena we currently regard as supernatural or paranormal -- those

which actually occur and not the plentitude of fakery which accompanies them --

are simply future scientific truths: those yet undiscovered, unqualified,

unexplained. We've gone through this uncovering process gradually throughout

history. What logical right do we now have to think we've "arrived"?

Religions and their founders appear in

all human cultures to provide those explanations, to proscribe destinies

otherwise uncertain -- the latter determined-in-part by moral and ritual

behavior. No one disputes that destiny is certainly of overarching concern to

all human beings. Yet religious views over the last half millennium are

continually burdened with rationalizing what science has uncovered against

cherished dogmas, against Pavlovian-conditioned faith. Meanwhile, present-day

science is, itself, perhaps too quick to dismiss what is currently viewed as

supernatural. Science should keep a more open attitude, should be more willing

to explore lines of "non-material" inquiry.

Spirit plus flesh equals life

Accepting, however, the existence of a

unique soul inhabiting each of our unique bodies, we can intuitively grasp an

answer to our title question: We can project a specific human life as beginning

when spirit and flesh unite sufficiently to initiate human

consciousness-of-self. It is impossible to accept this as occurring when a

zygote is formed at the moment of sperm-and-egg union, i.e. at conception. The

physical channels aren't there.

Well then, when does it occur? It

would seem that we need well differentiated brain tissue to supply those

channels. The cerebral cortex enables the expression of human cognitive

function, and that's known to be among the last parts of the brain to develop,

continuing well after birth. (On the other hand, the pain reflex appears early

in developing brain tissue in all vertebrate species at the late embryonic or

early fetal stage; exactly when is under current dispute. This is hardly

equivalent to pain felt at a human-consciousness level, which can only happen

much later.) Ensoulment could therefore be argued to occur either in a

late-stage fetus or in a newborn, i.e. after its "physical" birth. It

makes further sense to postulate that it occurs gradually, through the

gathering of human cognitive function.

For each of us, evolving from a

babe-in-arms to a toddler to a pre-schooler, the remembering process certainly

seems gradual enough. Our long-term memory channels may evolve even later than

our highest cognitive functions, explaining our progressive inability to recall

events from our pre-school years on back. It doesn't necessarily preclude an

earlier cognitive ability not communicable to the rest of us -- one which may

have started during the interval of ensoulment -- or "true" birth

(after which babies may possibly know much more than they're able to share).

On the other hand, death should occur

at the instant (and this would appear not to be so gradual if the dying person has

retained most of his/her cognitive functions) of separation of our corporeal

from our spiritual selves, which we should logically call

"desoulment." This should happen at a point when the physical

channels, especially those controlling heart and respiration -- either through

injury, disease or old age -- become too shut-down to maintain the union. It's

also perhaps the moment when visions of a bright light, an intense feeling of

serenity and out-of-body experiences are often later described by those whose

spirit and body have only momentarily separated (possibly a somewhat rare

occurance): descriptions which have apparently occurred in all human cultures.

These events may be assumed to happen only among those with measured brain

activity having temporarily ceased completely, i.e. when they are pronounced

dead; a deep coma and a required ventilator are not, for example, sufficient.

Those dying folks returning to consciousness who say there is no bright light

have, most likely, remained alive.

Following its ensoulment, the new

human being must establish the physical (i.e. memory) channels for its spirit

to enmesh itself, to nest fully within this brand new body -- adapting to its

genetic profile, its limited "environmental" (mostly in the uterus)

experiences and whatever the spirit "brought" with it previously (see

next paragraph). This is what evidently takes several years, giving others the

false impression of the newborn's starting life with a blank slate, its

ensoulment a wholly non-observable -- and therefore non-scientific -- event.

A spiritual backdrop

Rational acceptance that all life

entities have material and non-material components affords, correspondingly, an

easier acceptance of believed and observed phenomena throughout history that

science either can't properly address or tends to dismiss out of hand as

fakery, delusion and charlatanism: life-after-death (reincarnation, heaven,

nirvana, ancestral reunions), previous life-before-birth (reincarnation),

recollection of a previous life by young children citing past events later

proved, prodigal -- i.e. astonishing -- talents manifested at an early age

without a demonstrated genetic basis, idiot savants' special abilities (e.g.

Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man), multiple

personalities residing in one individual (a spiritual-corporeal aberration),

the (rare) appearance of ghosts or spirits in all societies (which probably

can't be "summoned" at the whim of the living), the precise migration

of birds (for which brain "channels" have been discovered), the

ordered behaviors within colonies of insects -- or to generalize: any

instinctive behavior. A name could probably be assigned to the aggregate of all

these spiritual life forces and their collective manifestation of reality.

Nature would be one . . .

So what are we effectively doing when

we destroy an embryo either by its abortion or harvesting its stem cells? By

the above reasoning, we are preventing its future ensoulment by an existing

spirit. Will this spirit -- another person's "you" -- then find another

"suitable" developing body, either gestating or already born, to

ensoul? If we can accept that it had found one -- a justly-reasoned fact of our

observable existence -- then I suggest only a little conceptual stretch is

required for it to find another. Thus, all we are doing with an embryo's

destruction is stopping the growth of a highly organized mass of protoplasm. On

the other hand, separating an already joined spirit from a physical body (by

killing the body) at some later stage

would seem a far more serious issue. It resides at the core of moral behavior in

most human societies.

A woman's pregnancy, from conception

to delivery, causes her body to undergo unbelievably complex biochemical

processes either extremely difficult or impossible to achieve under the most

antisceptic conditions outside the womb. She should strongly desire to undergo

this often quite unpleasant process to gain the end result. If she doesn't,

science has now enabled the safe termination of her pregnancy, concomitant with

the widespread use of modern birth control methods to limit the need for a

post-conception termination -- the former always preferable. Those who consider

legislating against termination, using the "personhood" pronouncement as the

excuse (mostly men, who of course are spared the ordeal of pregnancies) ought

to examine for themselves the conundrum given above and at least consider the

logic in how it was addressed. Though science has not proven my speculative

thoughts (and could conceivably emerge with something entirely different) regarding

the soul's existence and how it manifests, it is surely far better to weigh the

issue with reasoning than to make a "personhood" pronouncement that, for

Christians, doesn't even have the support of the Holy Bible.


I am indebted to Garland E. Allen, Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences

at Washington U., St. Louis, for his most helpful input to my genetics



those interested in the evolution of genetics and its impact on how geneticists

view the whole question of bioethics, the 2002 book Whose View of Life? by Jane Maienschein is highly recommended.


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