Sex and Religion Abuse: Personhood?! You wouldn’t recognize a person if she kneed you in the groin.

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The sad news out of Mississippi, on this Carl Sagan Day, is that more than 40% of the voters there thought it made sense to give a fertilized human egg, a zygote, the status of a person.  Setting aside the incalculable medical, legal and personal chaos such a so-called “personhood” law would cause, what mental process suggests that a zygote is equivalent to an actual human being?

My mother will celebrate her 97th birthday in two days.  She was born just after the Guns of August sounded.  She has memories of the Roaring ’20s and the Great Depression.  She has loved and hated, been loved and hated, over almost all of the 20th Century and a growing part of the 21st.  In what way is she like a zygote, an invisible speck of tissue that may or may not become a blastocyst, which may or may not become an embryo?

A zygote is not a person.  It is a potential person.  And the odds against it reaching personhood are long indeed.  It is, of course, not easy to accurately determine how many zygotes fail to become persons.  A reasonable estimate seems to be about 4 out of every 5. [1]  That’s right.  Only about 20% of zygotes, fertilized eggs, reach full fetal development in the natural course of events.  So what is the zygote’s claim to personhood?

The above three paragraph-ending questions are not rhetorical.  Their answers are:  fantasy, the fantasy of an immortal soul.  If “ensoulment” is imagined to happen at the moment of fertilization, then indeed there is no essential difference between my mother and the millions of zygotes existing today that no one will ever be aware of.  All of them have souls, the important part; the container the soul comes in — whether a 97-year-old unique and unutterably complex consciousness or a single cell —  is incidental.  This is what you have to think to equate zygotes and people.  If thinking enters into it at all.

The sad irony is that the personhood voter does not know what a person is, misses the singular quality of each human being, substitutes a fuzzy, imaginary sameness for the edgy, dynamic, often-hidden character that is human-ness.  A zygote may, depending on its history, become a person, but so may any particular egg and any particular spermatozoon before they join, depending on their histories.  Where these histories cross the border of personhood is, like most things human, uncertain and arguable, but if personhood is to be a generally meaningful status, that border must be post-zygotic.  While the Catholic anti-birth-control position goes the other way and suggests a pre-zygotic border, it is simply no longer tenable to claim that, in the words of the old song, “Every sperm is sacred.” [2]   Children are fundamentally different from spermatozoa and eggs and zygotes.  Zygotes are not “pre-born children”.  Eggs and spermatozoa are not “pre-conceived children.”

If this confusion about personhood were limited to reproduction issues that would be harmful enough, but it isn’t.  Republican presidential candidates have demonstrated that their confusion is general.  Mitt Romney famously confused personhood with corporation-hood:  “Corporations are people, my friend.  Of course they are.” [3]  And, before the Mississippi vote, he indicated support for that personhood law. [4]  Not surprisingly, after the vote failed he claimed that he had not supported it. [5]   I can’t document that Cain, Santorum, Perry or Bachmann were pinned down on this issue before the vote, but given their strong life-begins-at-conception positions in the past and Romney’s pre-vote sense of the position of the Republican base, it seems unlikely that these four would have voiced actual opposition to the Mississippi personhood law.

During the past week and in last night’s Michigan debate, Herman Cain offered more evidence for the conclusion that he does not recognize what a person is.  His treatment of women, as alleged by the five who have raised harassment claims against him, indicates that he does not recognize females as persons, but rather as objects that may be available to gratify him.  Hey, might as well give it a shot.  I suspect that his alleged full-frontal approach works from time to time, but any resulting interlude is not a relationship between persons.  His lack of understanding of what a person is was underlined during the debate when, under the enhanced scrutiny of pending sexual harassment claims, he referred to the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives as “Princess Nancy.”  While the live, typically Roman-Coliseum crowd loved that jibe, the irrelevantly gender-specific, pampered-female connotation of “princess” was firmly consistent with a male who inappropriately imposes his status on females for his own gratification.

And just as that Michigan performance was ending, the Penn State one, also involving sexual misconduct, was ramping up with the firing of its president and head football coach.  At Penn State, young, often socio-economically vulnerable, boys were sexually exploited by one of the school’s football coaches over many years.  This sexual abuse ranged from unwanted touching and fondling to anal rape.  Numbers of school officials were aware of this abuse or should reasonably have been aware of it.

These three events — the Mississippi personhood vote, the Cain harassment claims and the Penn State child-sex-abuse charges — intersect at the point where the corrosive witches’ brew of sex and religion melts away the very possibility of personhood.  If you have the most rudimentary human sense of what a person is you do not claim, for whatever ideological gratification that gets you, that a zygote is a person.  You do not treat women as things that fate makes available to you to bolster your self-image of maleness.  You do not treat young boys as objects, as masturbatory facilitators, and you do not disregard their personhood when you learn of such treatment.

The Mississippi personhood voters utilized a religious fantasy, a thing, an “immortal soul”, to erase personhood and inject pain and danger into human sexual behavior.  Herman Cain, a preacher and avowed “man of God”, appears to find his sexual gratification in coercive encounters, encounters in which the female is not a person but a challenge, a test, an obstacle.  And the Penn State football culture — the oft-repeated cliche is “football as religion” — may be the most anti-person of the three.  As with the myriad recent Catholic priest child-sex abusers, head football coach Joe Paterno, a Catholic, allowed his child-raping assistant coach to be moved out of the spotlight, unpunished and unmonitored, to continue his destructive anti-person behavior, all for the protection and benefit of, not a person, but a thing, an organization, the Pennsylvania State University football program.

So, Mississippi and Herman and Joe, you’ve got it backwards.  Personhood means that humans come first, souls and gods and religions second.

ARC – 11/11/11


[1] The Good Egg, by Stephen S. Hall, Discover Magazine, May 29, 2004.

[2] Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

[3] Romney: ‘Corporations Are People, My Friend’ [VIDEO]   by Benjy Sarlin, TPMDC,  August 11, 2011.

[4] Lawmaker issues warning on ‘personhood’ amendment, by Cheryl Wetzstein, The Washington Times, November 3, 2011.

[5] Romney campaign: Personhood a state call, by Ben Smith, On Politics and Media, November 9, 2011.

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