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What is a person?

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

A PPL blog by Patricia Lee June, M.D, PPL Board member.

“Personhood” is the status of being a person, but what is a “person”?

Intuitively the term is synonymous with an individual human being (no qualifiers), and this is how Webster’s Dictionary continues to define “person”.

Some atheist philosophers have argued that a child is not “a person” until they reach various developmental milestones: 3 days after birth, ability to communicate effectively, etc. Wikipedia defines person as “a being that has certain capacities or attributes such as reason, morality, consciousness or self-consciousness, and being a part of a culturally established form of social relations such as kinship, ownership of property, or legal responsibility”; it recognizes the controversy and mentions in their discussion excluding children, and including animals, artificial intelligence and extraterrestrial life in different cultures. Wikipedia’s definition would exclude infants (no obvious morality), children under 3-4 years old (no reason), humans during sleep and/or anesthesia, the comatose, hermits, and those with profound developmental delays.

Legally, under current court rulings, “person” is both expanded to include inanimate entities such as corporations yet exclude most humans prior to birth. Most, that is, because if a human is in-utero (or prior to that, in his or her mother’s Fallopian tubes) when his/her father dies, that human is legally considered a person in regards to inheritance but not in regards to legal protection from intentional killing (consent of the mother is required in some States). Courts have ruled that frozen embryos are property rather than persons and may be destroyed against their mother’s wishes.

Why is the definition of “person” important?

In the Bill of Rights, the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Thus, the constitutionality of intentional abortion depends upon the interpretation of the word “person”.

Science can recognize what is a human being, when his or her life begins and ends, but not philosophical definitions.

As Christians, we must search the Scriptures and ascertain what is the relationship of God to humans: are some, due to lack of development or loss of capabilities, subhuman - “untermenschen” is the label the Nazis used – not worthy to be considered persons?

Originally the word “person” came from the Greek word “prosopon” (Latin “persona”). It is derived from the mask actors used in plays – a role – and is often translated as “face” in the New Testament.

Though the definition of personhood is not found in Scripture, the early church did address it. The concept of the Trinity of God – one substance in three Persons – expands the definition of “person” beyond human to Divine but does not show us its limits. The time of “ensoulment” (when the soul enters the body) may be the closest correlate to “personhood” and has been controversial for millenia with some theologians proposing different times for males and females (certainly a concept with no Scriptural support). Development is a continuum from the first day as a one-celled zygote through birth, adolescence and young adulthood – and the Chinese hold that wisdom begins at age sixty. There is no biological marker that corresponds to ensoulment.

God created humans in His image.

Scripture does not tell us of Adam’s or Eve’s stage of development at creation though we generally picture them as young adults. As they never had a time in-utero, we cannot generalize their breath of life from God to the timing of the rest of humanity. In both the Old and New Testaments, the same Hebrew or Greek word is used for infants (or even youth) and for fetuses.

One of the most telling incidents occurred during the early lives of Jesus and John the Baptist. When Elizabeth was in her 6th month of pregnancy with John, the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary and announced that the power of the Most High will overshadow you and you will conceive and give birth to a son, Jesus. Mary then left to visit Elizabeth and stayed for three months then returned home. Then Scripture records John’s birth. Presumably Mary left before John was born (and in many cultures, unmarried girls or even married ones who had not yet given birth were excluded from witnessing births), thus she had to arrive at Elizabeth’s less than a month after the conception of Jesus – probably within a couple of weeks. So John’s gestational age would have been between 22-26 weeks and Jesus in the first month – anywhere from an unformed ball of 8 cells not yet implanted [if Mary left that same day and it was a 3 day trip] to having a beating heart, brain and spinal cord [if Elizabeth was at the beginning of the 6th month at the annunciation and Mary did not arrive until the end of the month]. At this time the Holy Spirit enabled John to recognize Jesus and respond with a leap for joy. Jesus was fully human as well as fully God – even as a one-cell zygote. And in His humanity, He was like us, except without sin. God interacted with John; the Father and Holy Spirit interacted with the Son.

Can we go further back in our search for the beginning of personhood?

Leviticus 17:11.

“For the life of a creature is in the blood…”

Genesis 9:6

“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”

When does God form blood in the human embryo? The first red blood cells appear on the 18thday after fertilization, when the mother’s menstrual period is 4 days late.

Jeremiah 1:5

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

While the cells that will develop into the body and those that will develop into membranes and placenta can be distinguished at around 5 days, the primitive streak that becomes the spinal cord and brain is evident at 14 days. God knew Jeremiah before his 14th day. And Psalm 139 that describes how thoroughly God knows us inside and out, states:

Psalm 139:16 “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Given this, how can we deny the relationship of God with each human being from the very beginning? How can we deny that he, that she, is a person? Likewise, how can we deny the personhood of the developmentally delayed, the comatose, the infirm, the mentally ill, and those nearly the end of their earthly lives? Indeed, does not personhood extend beyond the grave into eternal life?


Dr. June is a retired pediatrician and a member of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Moultrie Georgia. She is a long-time member of the PPL Board of Directors.

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