When Is Personhood?

The following is a transcript of the February 11, 1990 telecast of The John

Ankerberg Show. This transcript was taken from audio tape, so misspellings of

individuals' names may occur. For that, I sincerely apologize.

JOHN: Science tells us that your life began the same way everyone

else's did. When your father's sperm united with the egg from

your mother, your life began, and your development proceeded

quite rapidly.

Today, the abortion debate centers around that period of time

during which you were growing and developing in the womb.

There is no question that you were alive, or that you were

true human life. But that is not enough for some. THEY say at

THAT point, you were still not a person, entitled to protection

under the Constitution. They argue that you were missing

something, and more development must take place BEFORE you

could arrive at that special moment they call "personhood."

But at what point is personhood reached, and who decides? And

why is THAT point special? Listen to Janet Benshuff, the

director of the ACLU's program on abortion, and Gloria Alred, a

prominent feminist attorney, explain this ProChoice point of


JANET: Well, first of all, uh, I agree with the Supreme Court in

Roe versus Wade which stated that the fetus is not a PERSON,

um, under our American Constitution. So that the fetus does

not have the protections of law that you and I have.

GLORIA: As to the abortion issue, the fetus is not considered a

person under the Constitution of the United States, and

therefore, ah, has no rights whatsoever, because only a PERSON

has rights under the United States Constitution. And that

person is the mother.

INTERVIEWER: If the fetus could be scientifically PROVEN to be a

person, um, a human being, would the ACLU step in to defend

its rights?

JANET: Well, we KNOW what the fetus is biologically and

scientifically. I don't think anything has changed in the last

twenty years. We know that the fetus IS a potential human

being, we know that the fetus is alive; we're not denigrating

the status of the fetus. But you must remember that the fetus

is part of a woman, and that the ... the woman is the ... the

person that is directly affected by the pregnancy and by the

childbearing. So, there isn't going to be any scientific

advance that's going to make the American Civil Liberties Union

change their position at all. In fact, I think, you know, we

we become... yearly ... very ... much more strongly committed

to knowing that ... in order for women's equality to go

forward, women must be able to control their own bodies.

JOHN: Those who are ProChoice, usually say that the following

characteristics must be present before a growing child

reaches "personhood": first, the child must be viable. That

is, the unborn child must be able to exist and live on its own

outside of the mother's womb. Second, the child must have a

regular heartbeat. Third, the brain of the child should be

emitting brainwaves. Fourth, there must be movement. And,

fifth, the child must be able to feel pain.

In our last program, we saw that if THESE criteria for

personhood are used, children in the womb arrive at this stage

AT LEAST by twenty weeks of time. But then, why is it we do

not protect children in the womb who have reached this stage

of development? Both ProChoice and ProLife people should

realize this is common ground, and AGREE that abortion is wrong

AFTER twenty weeks, since ALL the criteria for "personhood"

have been reached.

But let us go one step further. There are two problems for

those who argue the ProChoice position and want to define

"personhood" using these criteria.

The first is: Do we really want the State in our society to

define "personhood" by what a person does? Or do we want the

State to define people by what they are, inherently? That is,

living, human beings. Listen to Dr. John Warrick Montgomery,

an attorney and practicing trial lawyer in both America and


DR. MONTGOMERY: Ah, you know, if you DON'T define the beginning

of human life at the moment of conception, you will

necessarily define it functionally at some other juncture; it

will be defined in terms of WHAT the kid or the adult is able

to DO. It won't be in terms of what the person IS, but what

the person is able to PRODUCE. Ah, for example, once his

brainwaves start operating, then he's a person; or once his

heart beats, he's a person; or once he can ACCOMPLISH this

that or the other thing, he is a valuable member of society.

Now, the necessary consequence of this is, that, ah, the

minute that the society no longer values what YOU do or what

I do, then that same society may want to get rid of US.

JOHN: Why is it that it's not acceptable to use human functions

as a measurement to determine when "personhood" exists and

when life should be protected? Well, if we define personhood

by what someone DOES -- that is, by their brainwaves or

heartbeat, CONSCIOUSNESS, feeling of pain, movement, or any

OTHER function -- we must remember that sometimes, even full

grown ADULTS do not exhibit these characteristics.

Why? Well, because such functions may be absent in adults as

a result of illness or accident. If so, let me ask you this:

During such times, would anyone argue that adults are not full

"persons"? Of course not. And if PERSONHOOD is defined by

one's ability to communicate, then think about this: would

that mean that before children learn to speak, they should not

be considered "persons"? As an adult, if you experience a

stroke, or you lose consciousness and you are unable to talk,

will that mean that the State no longer needs to consider you

a person? What if someone defines "personhood" on the basis

of how well one reasons, or on a certain level of IQ score?

These levels of human function could open up the door for the

State to exclude many thousands of adults from the category of

"personhood"--- including the nonliterate, the comotose, the

senile, and the retarded.

Again, the MAJOR problem with using any of these criteria as a

benchmark for defining true "personhood" is that there will

always be times later on in our adult lives when such criteria

can be absent... and at those times we KNOW human life clearly


This is just one of many reasons why the Supreme Court was

wrong in Roe versus Wade. They made the DANGEROUS statement

that a human being is of --- quote --- a COMPELLING interest

to the State --- endquote, ONLY when it has the capability of

--- quote --- MEANINGFUL life --- endquote.

Now philosophers have always warned us to watch out when

somebody else defines what is SUPPOSED to be "meaningful" for

US. It is a very subjective thing. The Court should have

ruled that a human being is ALWAYS of compelling interest to

the State, WHENEVER human life exists. But in Roe versus

Wade, they did not. Instead, they defined "personhood" by

what a person DOES, not by what he IS. The Supreme Court

ruled that a child in the womb will NOT be considered a

"person" until it can first DO certain things; namely, PROVE

that it can live on its own outside of its mother's womb. And

until that point, even though the child is alive and clearly

human, his life can be snuffed out. Why?

Because the Court chose an arbitrary benchmark -- a functional

definition that they insisted that the child must first do

before they would recognize him as a person. I'd like you to

listen right now to Mr. Pat Truman, the former legal counsel

for Americans United for Life, who during a debate argued this

point with Doctor [unintelligible] Cussar [sp], who was at

that time performing abortions at the KU med center in Kansas


TRUMAN: Well, let me ask you this then: BEFORE that time that

you define it is at --- whatever you're defining it --- is it

alright to have an abortion?

CUSSAR: Yes, before that ---

TRUMAN: --- and, at how many weeks do you as a doctor, will you

do abortions? Do you do them -- up unto what stage of


CUSSAR: Okay, for ME, and, up to the Supreme Court or whatever

it is, for me when it could obtain the stage of viability...

TRUMAN: How many weeks?

CUSSAR: The stage of viability is set now at twenty-four weeks.

TRUMAN: So, when you saw the picture there of the eighteen week

child that had the arms, the leg, the head, et cetera, ah,

sucking his thumb, would you destroy that life in any ---

CUSSAR: [unintelligible interruption]

TRUMAN: --- well, I won't use those terms --- would you abort

that child?

CUSSAR: It's not viable yet, it cannot survive outside.

TRUMAN: So, your criteria is ... is really whether or not it can

survive outside the womb, and prior to that time, uh, if it

cannot, you will allow an abortion, and perform it yourself.

CUSSAR: Sure, I would.

TRUMAN: The point I wanted to make with respect to viability is

this: that your ... ah, um, criteria to determine whether that

life -- or whatever you want to call it --- will live or die

is whether it can live outside the mother... whether it is,

quote, viable. Now that child is PERFECTLY viable inside the

mother. It can live until the time of natural birth and be

born --- it's perfectly viable in its natural environment.

You want to take it out of it's natural environment and say,

"Will you live or not? If you can live on your own, you're

not, uh, you're viable and you can live; and if not, you can

die." Now, if you took me out of MY natural environment...

you put me in a lake under water, I'm not viable. Out of my

natural environment, I'll die.

JOHN: I believe it is far better to define personhood -- not in

FUNCTIONAL terms, but in inherent terms. Not by what you and

I can DO, but by what you and I are. As soon as human life

exists, human life should be protected. And science tells us,

human life begins at fertilization.

Now, the second problem with defining "personhood" according

to a functional criteria, has to do with the definition of

viability itself.

Viability was defined by the Supreme Court in Roe versus Wade,

as that period of time when the child could live on its own,

outside of its mother's womb. In 1973, the Court placed

viability at 28 weeks to 24 weeks. Until the baby reached

viability, the Court stated that it did not consider the child

to be a "person." Today, science tells us that the Court's

arbitrary placement of viability at 28 weeks to 24 weeks is

wrong. Thanks to the new technology, viability is now placed

at between 19 to 20 weeks. In the future, as technology

progresses, the time of viability will eventually be pushed

back to 12 weeks. And finally, with the help of artificial

wombs, to the point of conception itself.

I'd like you to listen to Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a

practicing obstetrician in New York City, who was a founder of

the National Abortion Rights Action League, and formerly the

director of the world's largest abortion clinic.

NATHANSON: ... the problem with that, of course, is that

viability is a very slippery concept. Uh, viability in New

York, for example, is different than it is in Zaire. Um,

viability is changing almost daily now, with new advances in

neonatal technology, and technology in the nurseries. So, in

the last 15 years since Roe v. Wade, we've pushed viability

back ah, at least 6 weeks; and there's every reason to believe

that that pace will continue -- or even quicken, so that

viability will be back to 12 weeks, ah, or so.

So, viability is not a reliable indicator for us as to when to

protect the unborn child. SOME believe that that time

should be when there are identifiable, human-type brain waves,

and that time is variously estimated at 26 or so weeks. Um,

but again, you run into the problem of apparatus and

technology. If we had more precise instrumentation, there's

every reason to believe that we could pick up brain waves, ah,

earlier --- and, in fact, some Japanese investigators have

picked them up at 8 weeks. So, you know, I think to make a

judgment as sweeping as "What is human?" ah, based upon, ah,

these rather nebulous and essentially unreliable standards,

um, is fruitless and ah, false.

JOHN: Maybe you're wondering what criteria SHOULD be used to

determine when full "personhood" begins? At what point should

a child be accorded all the rights and protection guaranteed

under the Constitution? Well, I believe science gives us the


Science tells us that life begins at fertilization. And when

human life is present, personhood is also present. This is

the only definition that safeguards life through all the

stages of our existence. That is, from fertilization to

birth, from toddler to teenager, from middle age to old age.

But are scientists convinced that life DOES begin at

conception? Listen to Dr. John Wilke, the president of the

National Right to Life Committee; Dr. C. Everett Koop,

formerly the Surgeon General of the United States; and,

finally, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, whom we've already met:

WILKE: Is this being human? Yes, from the single cell stage.

How do we know? You get a microscope. Forty-six human

chromosomes. This is not a carrot, this is not a rabbit, and

this is a living human member of homosapiens --- this being is

human. Is this being sexed? Yes, boy or girl from the single

cell stage. Is this being alive? Well, of course this being

is alive. And growing. Is this being unique? Yes! Never

before in the history of the world, never again in the history

of the world, will an individual be created who is exactly

like this tiny, little male or female human.

KOOP: I think that, uh, we have a very interesting phenomenon in

this country, and that is the tremendous interest and

enthusiasm about test tube babies. And anybody who knows about

the birth of the first one, Louise Brown, uh, has to recognize

that, ah, life begins at conception. If you can put a sperm

and an egg in a petri dish, and get a human being nine

months later, with nothing being added to it except to put

that fertilized egg back in its mother's uterus, you KNOW

that life begins at conception.

INTERVIEWER: But once they combine, the fertilized egg, it

cannot exist in that test tube for more than three days.

NATHANSON: Well, that's only a limitation of our technology; I

can assure you that within five years, the sperm and the egg

will be combined to form a human being in the test tube, and

that person will be placed, not into someone's uterus, but

into a life-support system, or another culture medium if you

wish. And it may very well be that within five or ten years

the person in prenatal existence -- the unborn human -- will

never know the inside of a mother's uterus.

Ah, technology never stops. It is moving forward inexorably

ALL the time. And so, for us to put artificial restraints and

artificial limits on what we consider "life" -- at the

beginning or at the end --- ah, is absurd and dangerous. Ah,

when one is talking about the beginning of life, one must talk

about conception -- fertilization.

KOOP: I think the world has known -- its biologists,

anyway, that life begins at conception. Ah, if you are a

babboon, or a dove, or a fox --- it's only when you talk about

the ah, most complicated of animals -- ah, the human being --

that people get into this controversy about when life begins.

Life begins, to biologists, at conception.

WILKE: Yes, this tiny being is alive and growing.

What is the opposite of alive? Dead.

What does abortion do? Kill.

This is human, alive, complete, and growing.


You ... once ... *WERE* ... a ... single, fertilized ovum.

All you've done is grow up.

INTERVIEWER: At what point do you feel the fetus should be

considered a human being?

NATHANSON: Well, we can't have points, you see; we've

discovered that with the use of real-time ultrasound, we've

been able to see the infant breathing in the uterus, ah, its

heart beating, its thumb going into its mouth, and, as I say,

um, participating in all the activities which we commonly

associate with the human infant.

JOHN: But what about those doctors who disagree? Why is it that

the American Medical Association supports the ProChoice

position? Listen to Doctor Bernard Towers, who's Professor of

Anatomy, Psychiatry, and Pediatrics at UCLA, and an ADVOCATE

of abortion "rights." Doctor Bernard Nathanson will also

comment on the time when SCIENCE says life begins.

INTERVIEWER: Doctor Towers, when DOES human life begin?

TOWERS: Well, that's a very strange question. You see, it is

quite clear that every cell in our bodies is alive. Well, not

every cell -- there are cells that are dying all the time, of

course, but, ah, certainly the cells which provide the basis

for the... for ... the newly developing ah, fertilized egg,

THOSE cells, the egg itself and the sperm are living, human


NATHANSON: Ah, the sperm has only 23 chromosomes, and the egg

has only 23 chromosomes; whereas every human being, including

the human being that is formed at conception, has 46

chromosomes. So, in that sense, the sperm and the egg are not

complete human beings.

TOWERS: When they unite together, the product of that union is

itself a living cell. The whole question is whether from a

scientific biological point of view one can say that a cell is

a human being. Or is a fellow citizen. I personally think it

is inappropriate.

NATHANSON: Life in the uterus before birth is a smooth

continuum; and, ah, in that sense, one cannot designate at

some point when life begins. There is no bar-mitzvah in the

uterus. It is merely life beginning when it really begins.

Now, we've created it in the test tube; we've watched it

start. We have SEEN the spark struck in invitro

fertilization, when the sperm meets the egg. So that the

question of when life begins is no longer metaphysical,

theological, legal, moral, religious ... it is absolutely

scientific now, and it has been established to begin at


JOHN: Now, I'd like you to listen to Mr. Patrick A. Truman,

formerly the general counsel for Americans United for Life,

who during a debate concerning abortion on our program (The

John Ankerberg Show), told of how the state of Illinois was

FORCED to deal with the scientific evidence in TRYING to pass

their abortion regulations.

TRUMAN: In 1975, Illinois passed a very lengthy abortion

statute, regulating abortion as best they could within the

confines of that Supreme Court decision of 1973. The first

section of the Illinois law passed by the almost unanimous

general assembly of the state of Illinois, was a declaration

that it recognized that human life begins at conception; and

that in Illinois, the unborn child from the moment of

conception was a legal person and a human being.

Now, it was the American Civil Liberties Union that challenged

that entire law, and our organization was involved in

defending it. And, the ACLU said you have nothing but a

religious belief to back up that statement that "life begins

at conception." And, we introduced an affidavit from a, ah,

professor of medicine, detailing NINETEEN text books on the

subject of embryology, USED in medical schools today, which

universally agreed that human life begins at conception.

Because that's what those textbooks AGREE, ah, that's when the

textbooks agree that human life begins.

And the court didn't strike that down. The court COULDN'T

strike that down because there was a logical, biological, ah,

BASIS for that law. So what we're talking about here is not

this doctor's belief that it is not human -- and so, he

permits himself to do abortions up to 22 weeks --- it's not

the basis of one's INDIVIDUAL beliefs upon which laws, in this

respect, are made; these laws prohibiting abortion have a very

clear scientific basis.

JOHN: Let me ask you: Wouldn't you agree that the only

definition of when life begins is the scientific definition:

that life begins at conception? And wouldn't you agree, that

the only definition of when life begins that safeguards human

life during ALL the stages of our existence is the one that is

based on what we ARE, not what we DO?

The moment human life exists, personhood exists, and SHOULD be

protected. I hope that you agree.

Maybe you are wondering if we will deal with the question:

Doesn't the woman have the right to control her own body?

Well, in our next program, we will answer this and other

questions surrounding this sensitive issue....

The John Ankerberg Show

P.O. Box 8977

Chattanooga, TN 37411

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