Sunday, March 10, 2013

Are Corporations, Embryos and Aliens Persons?

What is a person?  Our debate defining ‘person’ is emotionally charged and rarely logical.  Words like ‘baby’, ‘corporation’, ‘human’, and ‘person’ are used interchangeably.  We all may have an opinion, but there is no common agreement on what is a person.
Is he a person?

Historically women and slaves have not been considered persons, even in my own country.  Others wish to consider animals as persons and wish to grant them moral and legal rights.  Science mixes it up with tradition, religion, and law to give us a mind-numbing view of what a ‘person’ is.

When we have an opinion and seek facts to prove it, we are not being honest with truth.  Only when we seek facts first and keep an open mind can we seek truth.  Let’s examine some facts then consider what we mean when we say ‘person’.


There is no legal definition of person agreed upon by states or nations. 

In most societies today adult humans are usually considered persons.

If you look-up dictionary definitions of human and person they are circular.  A human is a person and person is a human.

Frederick Douglass was not a
person until he bought it.
To many a ‘person’ can include non-human entities such as animals, artificial intelligence, or extraterrestrial life.

There are even legal definitions that include entities such as corporations, nations, or even estates in probate as ‘persons’.  In some legal definitions those with extreme mental impairment or lack of brain function have been declassified as ‘persons”.

Religious fundamentalists want to push the definition of person to the moment of conception.

Meanwhile science is struggling to find a clear definition of what constitutes a human. 

Some lawyers and politicians maintain that corporations are legally persons.

Legal Definitions

Initially, only white males over 21 years old who owned property were considered persons in the United States.  Individual states were allowed to determine how much property they must own to achieve personhood.  All others, including the young, poor, women, slaves, and indentured servants were legally considered less than people.

Are corporations persons?
There has been a long struggle across the world to expand the definition of what it is to be a person. In the United States, slaves became persons with the passing of the 13th Amendment. Women became persons with suffrage. 

Today, children are not considered full persons before the law, only partial persons.  Their rights are limited and controlled until they reach 18 or even 21 years of age.  Voting, driving, and even the freedom to be alone are controlled for children by law.

In 1819 Dartmouth College was granted an initial form of person status as a corporation with Dartmouth v. Woodward.  Later rulings have expanded the definition of corporations giving them many of the legal rights as persons. 

In our most recent election for President one candidate even declared “corporations are people, my friend.”  He meant that corporations are a means for people to enact their powers as persons.

Corporations are widely considered to be owned as property by people and therefore are an extension of the persons who own them.  With multi-national and stock owned companies, the line between what constitutes a person is legally blurred.


Conception occurs at the meeting of sperm and egg.  After cells begin dividing they are known medically as an embryo.  At conception a single cell has human genetic material.  If no replication errors occur, there is a potential that an embryo cell will develop into an adult human being.

Is an embryo a person?
Mississippi is attempting to define embryos as a persons.  The legislation says that:
“The right to life begins at conception. All human beings, at every stage of development, are unique, created in God’s image and shall have equal rights as persons under the law.”

Arkansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma have similar legislation in process.  

Recent attempts to define embryos as persons have run against In Vitro fertilization technology.  Couples who have difficulty reproducing may use In Vitro fertilization to generate 15 (or more) embryos. Two or three of those embryos are then implanted into a woman’s womb.  The remaining embryos are kept in storage or destroyed.  Defining an embryo as a person classifies this technology as murder.

Others are claiming that a distinction can be made between In Vitro and sex-based fertilization, by denying person-hood to what they call ‘pseudo-embryos’.

Stem cells are cells that can become any other cell.  Stem cells can theoretically be used to clone a human being.  Embryos created using cloning technology could also be granted person status.  Many nations are actively working on an international ban for cloning humans.

Another consideration about embryos as having life is an often unconsidered moral dilemma.  If a In Vitro fertilization clinic is burning and you only have time to save the technicians inside or the embryos in the freezer, which would you choose?  The most popular choice by far is the technicians, yet thousands of embryos would cease to exist.


At nine weeks, the embryo is redefined to be a fetus.  Human-like features only begin to appear after this point of development.  In the first trimester all mammals appear similar.  There are no uniquely human characteristics that can be observed until the second trimester begins.

Is a fetus a person?
The Catholic Church has legally argued for fetuses to be considered persons.  Lawyers representing the Catholic Church have also argued the opposite case that fetuses not to be considered persons. 

Often the debate about a fetus being a person struggles around the issue of when human thought starts.

Brain waves do not start until the 30th week of pregnancy. Brain waves are not a sign of humanity, rather of animal-like brain function.  Cats, mice, elephants and human fetuses are highly similar in brain function at this time.

Some have been pursuing a definition of a person that starts at independent viability, when a body can live outside of its mother.  These advocates claim that the fetus is a part of the mother until it separated from her body.

Some technologies have been developed that can substitute for a womb, however prior to nine months of development, death outside the womb without these tools is almost certain.  Fetuses are generally not able to live outside the mother until birth.

Most agree babies are persons

Medically, upon leaving the womb a fetus is redefined to be a baby.

It is scientifically inaccurate to use the word ‘baby’ when referring to an embryo or fetus.  While this may be emotionally satisfying or appeal to our paternal or maternal instincts, it is not a factual scientific or correct legal definition.  

Religion and Spirit

Some religions, like Sunni Islam and fundamentalist Christians, claim that souls are attached to bodies at conception and are therefore persons.

Jewish law defines the legal status of a person at birth, claiming that a fetus is not yet a person until the umbilical cord is cut.

Sunni Islam maintains
persons start at conception
There is no scientific evidence that a soul is attached to a developing human at any point in the development process, embryo, fetus or baby.  Only religious claims based upon faith use this terminology, not the law or science.

Attempts to use the religious doctrine of some to make law for everyone are the equivalent of trying to establish religious law.  In the United States this is expressly forbidden by the constitution which states: 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  

A Fourteenth Amendment was passed to say that rule is also applied to individual states.  

Since not all religions or even sects within a religion agree on person-hood, no one church can say what a person is for all persons, only their own.

The US Supreme Court has made it clear that until objective evidence can show a soul is attached to a body, declaring an embryo as a person will remain a matter of religious opinion and not law.


Are dolphins persons?
Some view animals as persons.  They advocate vegetarian diets and rights for animals.  Some even go as far as advocating non-violence on animals.  While it may seem extreme, their moral and logical arguments are worth considering in our quest for a definition of what is a person.

Gary Francione thinks we should go so far as to enact animal welfare laws.

Desiring protection for a special subset of non-human species, they wish to see rights defined for animals like chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins and even some birds.  They claim that if we would not do it to a human, we should not do it to these animals either.

If we were to make a genetic modification to an animal, like we do with engineered plants today, that allowed them to speak with us even in a limited way; would we start to see them as persons? 


The debate in science about defining person is not from over by a long shot.  Several definitions have been tried and each has failed in its turn.

Birds use tools, have language, and act morally
At one time, persons were those who used tools.  Evidence that birds, primates, and other species built and used tools took this definition away.

For many years language was seen as the division between person and animal.  Slowly dolphins, chimpanzees, crows, and even ants were seen to have language.  Language alone can not be used a definition for what is a person

Morality is often used as a way to separate humans as persons from other animals.  This definition is under serious threat as sharing, fairness, and even intentional self-sacrifice is documented in animals.

If we could create a clone from a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon would we consider them a person?

If we meet an alien life form that can think, communicate, and has morality would we give it rights as a person?

How much of a brain can be taken away before stop considering a human body to be a person?  If the brain mostly dies and the body is kept alive by machines, are they still a person?


We do not share a common definition of what a person is. 

Science provides no clear definition.  Religious views vary.  The law adds entities that disturb us.  New technologies will push the boundaries even further.

For any one of us to claim they have the one and only answer is only opinion.  There are no clear facts defining person-hood. 

Attempts, largely by religious fundamentalists, to enshrine their opinions into law, will fail.

Perhaps we should simply admit we are not sure?  Perhaps we should allow ourselves to be more open to others views?

We single persons do not have the right to pick for all other persons what a person is and what a person is not.

Extending compassion and understanding seems like minimal steps for persons to share.


  1. Well-researched and written but I have one problem with your final conclusion. Just because we have not agreed with the definition of a person or human life does not mean that everyone can just make that determination for themselves. If that were the case then parents could kill their kids and claim that their definition of a person did not begin until the age of 18.

  2. I think we are in agreement. Society must work together to define what our culture wants to define as 'person'. This must be a consensus majority for it to have valid meaning and be useful to the 'persons' involved.

    My fear is that a minority will try impose its will and define person in a way that does not work for us.

  3. When the Supreme Court ruled that corps.had the sane rights as human beings I think the decision was taken out of are hands.People put themselves at the top of the food chain,but
    I believe a few nights of climbing a tree to protest us from jungle predators would disabuse of that idea.Long story short,I believe every living thing is connected to the same power that caused our Being in the first place.whether it's by the hand someone greater then we,or calculations on a blackboard,or an enzyme in God's belly,who can say?Humans are the only animals who are arrogant enough to put themselves at the top of anything.We are the only animals besides lizards who foul their own nest and water.We are the only animals who kill for pleasure.
    In conclusion I say sincerely that I'd sooner be a worm than be connected to murderous cruel beast who claim to be made in the image of some God or crawled out the primordial soup,picked up a club and killed my fellow and ate him.