Friday, February 10, 2006


Person or Property?

Senator Sam Brownback, interviewed on NPR, said recently that legally, everything is either a person or property. He believes, in his heart of hearts, that a human embryo is a person. He said the courts have treated "the unborn" as property.

As I listened to the man who would be president, I reflected on how wonderful, how easy, simple and clear life is for people who can neatly divide the cosmos into two well defined categories. Up and down, north and south, property or person, on or off, us and them, right and wrong - neat and tidy. Binary views such as Brownback's have great appeal; answers to questions that seemed hard become quite apparent; even young children can understand you when you explain your views; and your message carries through the news media quite well. This kind of off and on logic serves as the conceptual basis of computer programming. Alas, it does have limitations.

Brownback then went on to compare the status of "the unborn" with the status of slaves before the civil war. In his view, before the war, slaves were property; after the war, they became people. He wants to "emancipate" the "unborn." What could be more noble, or more wrong?

I'm no lawyer, so I can't say for sure that his concept of the law is oversimplified. It does seem to me that the law creates entities that are persons for some purposes and property for other purposes. We call these creations "corporations." And I hate to confuse the issue with facts, but the Constitution of the United States originally provided that slaves were counted as "three-fifths of a person." Clearly, not completely human but not purely property either. Further, it also seems to me there are whole classes of objects the law does not address. For example, does the moon belong to the United States? It would seem so, if we applied 16th Century concepts of international law. After all, we are the only power to actually set foot there, and we planted our flag there. But who owns the sun? Since it's not a person, it must be property. I guess it's just unclaimed as of yet.

Here's a binary idea to chew on: there are properties (or attributes) of objects that emerge only with time and use; and there are properties that are inherent in the composition of objects. (These are logical, not legal uses of the word "property.") That is, some aspects of what a thing is can only be seen as the result of action, while other aspects of a thing belong to it no matter what happens. The former might be called "emergent" properties and the latter "inherent" properties. An example might help.

Suppose you are examining a computer. You take apart the machine. You find wires and microchips, magnets and lasers, motors and whatnot. You do this with several computers. From your analysis, you can make a list of the inherent properties of computers: they are mostly plastic; they contain metals; the internal construction follows an orderly pattern; etc, etc. But based on this kind of dissection, you would never know that computers are word processors. The attribute of "word processing" is an emergent property, not an inherent property. It is based on what the device can do, not how it is made. No matter how skilled your dissection, you would never know that the computer was used to write an essay.

In my view, the attribute of being a "human being" is an emergent property. That is, what makes us human is more than the accidents of genetics and biology. The fact that a group of cells has human DNA is not enough.

I want to ask Senator Brownback, "How about a lock of hair, Sam? Is it a person or property?" After all, it has all the DNA needed to make a complete human being? And what about a tumor? Is my friend's cancer "sacred" human life and in need of legal protections? Any given tumor cell contains all the same DNA as an egg cell from the same person.

Of course, a human embryo is not a cancer or a lock of hair. Neither is it a human life, at least in the early stages of development. It is potentially a human life. As such, it must be treated with respect. However, its destruction is not murder.

Of course, if you believe the human soul enters the egg cell along with the sperm, you will have a different view. That's the subject of another essay.

NPR's write up of the interview is here: it includes a link labelled "listen."

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