Becoming a person

It’s now less than three weeks until the expected arrival of our baby. The physical symptoms are real enough – Deena started feeling baby move months ago, and I first felt movements shortly after. But there is still an abstract quality to the knowledge that these symptoms come from a human – a little person almost ready to come into the world.

Technically, baby could probably survive being born today. Our baby is already capable (with a great deal of help) of making that first, momentous step into independence. And yet, in another sense, this fledgling human isn’t even a whole person yet. It has no name. It hasn’t been held by our arms. It hasn’t yet taken the uncensored atmosphere into its tiny lungs, drawing its own sustenance directly from the world.

I have a mind that yearns for quantum distinctions. Yes or no; right or wrong; child or adults; eggshell or off-white. Yet some of the most important milestones along my path as I’ve grown into the wise and seasoned almost-thirty-year-old I am now have involved seeing through the clear boundaries I’ve erected, seeing into the subtle, gradual shadings that separate one thing from its neighbour.

So now, as I tumble toward the terrifying, compelling, humbling brink of fatherhood, I contemplate this question: What is the boundary of personhood? When does a collection of atoms, molecules, cells, become a person?

There are the biologist’s answers. A person begins at conception, when a unique genetic fingerprint comes into being that will (if circumstances permit) develop into a unique, autonomous individual. Is she a person when she is capable of surviving outside her mother’s womb? Or is he not a person until he can function without his parents’ help and support?

There are the philosopher’s answers. A person begins when self-awareness dawns in the developing brain. Or is it when the capacity to experience physical sensations begins? Or when the young child is capable of exercising free will (rather than being driven exclusively by instinctual drives)?

Or the social anthropologist’s answers. A person begins when the community begins addressing an individual as a member of the group (whether this occurs before, at, or after birth). A person begins after a particular social ritual welcoming the new being into the world and the community.

And, for all of us, there is of course the most obvious moment: the birth itself. The person is born the moment the baby emerges from his mother, and becomes physically a separate object in space. Given that so much of our language, custom, and law are built around this moment, above all others, I suspect that this very literal emergence, this clear boundary between in and out, is the one programmed into us biologically as the start of a new life, a new person.

But I can’t ignore the fact that, for at least the past four years, Deena and I have had this person in mind. We have been shifting and shaping our lives subtly towards this new person we are about to meet. My mom sent us a quilt for the baby a year or two ago. And since we’ve known Deena was pregnant, we have addressed the baby (embryo/zygote/fetus/…) by a variety of nicknames; we have picked out actual names (not to be revealed to anyone else until baby is here); we have talked to baby, referred to baby’s will (“Baby wants ice cream!”), to baby’s moods.

So what does it mean for someone to be a person? If it involves others’ attitudes, can a person begin to exist before sperm meets egg? If it involves the social embrace of the community, is someone not fully a person between birth and that welcoming ceremony?

I feel that our baby is almost, but not quite, a whole person now. I love this being already, but it’s still a love partway between the abstract if fervent love of a longed-for lover and the love of a dear relative I talk with on the phone. I suspect that birth will seal it, complete the personhood of this already-loved being who come so far toward becoming a full human.

How do you feel about these questions? Have you experienced parenthood? Witnessed births? Mourned people who were never born? Is there a clear boundary in your mind between not-yet-person and person? Why is that boundary where it is? Why is it important?



One Response to “Becoming a person”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    For me, personally, I put the boundry at birth. This is mostly for abortion reasons- I think society likes to think you have a baby from conception on, and I think that is a harmful attitude towards women seeking abortions. Now, I am not suggesting that women go get elective 8 month abortions- it just doesn’t happen, no matter how much George W would like us to think it does, because 8 month abortions are for all intents and purposes impossible to get in the USA. But I would still support the right of this strawwoman that the pro-lifers like to bring up, because ultimately, I don’t think a person should be allowed legal personhood until birth. Its the clearest definition; otherwise, miscarriage, abortion, and the like become crime scenes. And while I don’t like the idea of men killing pregnant women, I don’t think they should get more time than men who kill the non-pregnant. There was a recent case where a man was put in jail for killing a pregnant woman, and he recieved more time in the slammer for the fetus than the woman. That is a damn insult, frankly. That said, I think you and your wife have the right to refer to your own fetus as a baby, and to be happy about it.

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