When Does Personhood Begin? The Science and the Rhetoric

Renowned developmental biologist Scott Gilbert (Swarthmore) joins us to discuss the science and rhetoric of personhood from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The argument that a potential human adult should be given the status of "person" from the moment of conception is being frequently made by people who wish to make abortion and human stem cell research illegal. While "personhood" is a cultural and not a scientific category, biology is often being used to justify such claims. Biologists, however, have not reached consensus on this issue, and this talk will discuss some of the places where different groups of biologists have claimed "personhood" begins. These include fertilization, individuation/gastrulation (when the embryo can no longer form twins), the acquisition of the human-specific EEG pattern, and birth. The rhetoric surrounding the fertilization issue concerns the photographs of prenatal life and the cultural representation of DNA as our soul or essence.

Cosponsored by the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department

November 13, 2012 | 4:00-6:00 PM |Engineering 2, Room 599

Scott Gilbert, "When Does Personhood Begin?: The Science and the Rhetoric"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
13 November 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Scott Gilbert (Swarthmore) spoke to us about public misconceptions about the science of when
life begins. He adapted this talk from an invited presentation he gave at The Vatican in 2007. He
raised a number of erroneous “facts” that give people the impression that scientists support the
idea that life and therefore personhood begins at fertilization. For example, many people believe
that all the instructions for development and heredity are already present in a fertilized egg.
More broadly DNA is often presented as tantamount to a “soul” or “essence.” To illustrate this
point Gilbert showed us car ads that were predicated on a deterministic concept of DNA. A
Toyota, for example, was advertised as having “a great set of genes.” In order to counter this
myth, Gilbert described new research from epigenetics and microbiome biology that shows many
of our fundamental bodily and behavioral characterizes are determined by the environment, not
just by genes.

He also discussed the misconception that an embryo is an autonomous entity and fully protected
inside the womb, explaining that for every 20 eggs fertilized only 6.2 become a fetus (at 8
weeks). Furthermore teratogenic compounds threaten fetal development and viability (Gilbert
argued that reducing teratogenic compounds in the environment might be a common project for
people on both sides of the abortion debate). The popularity of Lennart Nilsson’s photographs of
fetuses (actually abortuses) contributes to the misconception that fetuses are autonomous entities
by showing them floating outside of a woman’s body. The final myth that Gilbert addressed is
that scientists agree when personhood begins; there is, in fact, no such consensus and, he argued
that the question of personhood may not be a scientific question at all. However, Gilbert felt that
science does have something important to say about embryo/fetus development, which should
not be misconstrued in public discourse.

During the Q&A period Jenny Reardon wondered how biologists can participate in debates
around abortion and embryo research without calling upon science as the authoritative discourse.
I.e. “Science says x, therefore x.” Martha Kenney followed up on this question by asking
Gilbert: “If you consider images that are contributing the public discourse about embryo research
and abortion to be scientifically misleading, what images do you feel better represents your
knowledge of embryos and fetuses that is grounded in your own experience as a developmental
biologist.” Gilbert described a “gorgeous” colored MRI image he used for the front cover of his
textbook Developmental Biology; he explained that he had to keep telling the publishers to zoom
out on the image so that the fetus would not appear to be floating in space. Listening to Gilbert’s
passion for this image offered us a way to think out of the “science says” dilemma and into a way
of doing a politics of representation from within our professional practices. Donna Haraway
commented that a central problem with the abortion debates was that both sides want to ensure
that persons were protected from death. She argued that death is not the greatest tragedy and that
we need to learn how to kill well (not just protect life). For Haraway, the politics were not (only)
in getting the science right, not only in the images and rhetoric we traffic in, but the ways that
entities are protected and made killable within these moral and scientific discourses. The Q&A
period opened up Gilbert’s talk beyond the question of what science has to say in the abortion
and embryo research debates, to wider questions of representation, ethics, and epistemic
authority in a complex social and scientific landscape.