The Alabama ruling dealt with embryos being stored in an In Vitro Fertility clinic in Alabama. This case is a direct result of the upturning of the Roe vs Wade decision by the Supreme Court last year. It deals with many of the same issues that are involved in abortion and stem cell research and treatments. The Alabama case cited Christian biblical passages in its decision, whereas the U.S. Supreme Court regarding abortion did not, though that may have been an unstated underlying factor.

If you are interested in the legal ruling and implications for Alabama and the United States there are plenty of good, objective, sites waiting for your perusal. I would like to address a specific issue that this case highlights.

When does an embryo, fetus, or neonate become a person. This is not to be confused with when does that in vitro entity become human? Once an egg is fertilized by sperm it is undoubtedly human from the moment of conception. Personhood on the other hand is a different concept. The word human defines a species, personhood is what makes Mary, Mary and Joe, Joe. It is the provisional self.

Let’s begin with some terminology that bears on this issue. An embryo is a collection of cells that develops from a fertilized egg, before all the major organs have developed. This occurs about eight weeks after conception. A fetus is a young organism before birth, after the organs have started to develop.

Previously I made a distinction between a human and a person. We can make a similar distinction between a child and prenatal development. A child implies a young human after birth. For the first month it is referred to as a neonate, up to a year an infant. Different terms are employed for the following stages of physical growth, psychological, and social, development.

Human biology can describe the physical growth and development of a human, but it does not address the issue of personhood. Inside the uterus the human organism grows physically, developing structure; bones, organs, circulatory system, neurological systems, and such. The organism will respond to stimuli, sounds, touch, and the endocrine system of the mother. But at what point does it become a person?

About 31% of pregnancies confirmed after implantation end in miscarriage. That translates to roughly one of every three pregnancies. (Wilcox AJ, Weinberg CR, O’Connor JF, et al. Incidence of early loss of pregnancy. N Engl J Med. 1988;319(4):189-94.) That does not include the 75% of fertilized eggs that fail to implant following intercourse.

Fredrick Wright, writing for the National Institute for Health, “postulates that human social order recognizes the personhood of human beings within two competing constructs—an existential construct that personhood is a state of being inherent and essential to the human species, and a relational construct that personhood is a conditional state of value defined by society.  (Personhood: An Essential Characteristic of the Human Species, National Library of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health. Https:// accessed 2/25/24)

After a thorough examination of the philosophic history of these two positions Wright concludes, “It is of profound importance to recognize that the relation of personhood to the status of the individual human being at any stage of life is essentially a metaphysical concern.”

While I will not deny the potential or possibility of a metaphysical definition, I am more inclined toward a definition which incorporates condition and causality. In other words, one based upon Buddhist teachings.

This does not necessarily lead to a definitive answer regarding abortion, IVF freezing of embryos, stem cell therapies, etc.. It does recognize that consciousness exists, and that does not imply personhood. A person becomes inviolate when the provisional self is more clearly delineated. Much like Jewish law, halakha, asserts that a fetus does not attain the status of personhood until birth.

The fetus is conscious, and responds to stimuli, it does not have the same causes and conditions which are personhood.

In this context personhood is a result of all the conditions with characteristics which lead one to develop into a functioning organism which perceives the provisional self in relation to the world around it. Furthermore, the prenatal organism is not independent of the mother, and one can argue, other members of the family, and thus this organism is not only dependent upon, but integrated into a larger context.

There are numerous controversial points to be made, and an individual develops their perspective based upon logical, metaphysical, moral, and practical considerations. These are highly personal decisions made using religious as well as other considerations. From a Buddhist perspective it is not the place of the state to determine what is and is not a person. It is the right of the mother, in consultation with her physician, and others, to make that decision for herself.

Religious leaders and members, of any faith have a right to their opinion, and a right to express it, but not a right to dictate what the mother can do. There is also the separation of religion and state, which was violated in the Alabama decision, and is foundational to a functioning democracy.

As a Buddhist leader I can share my opinion but, in the end, it is up to the mother to make her decision. Once that decision is made, I can best serve all the parties involved by supporting their decision and meeting their needs. This may be by doing a memorial for a terminated fetus, or a blessing for the child.

To be sure there are a number of interpretations about this from different forms of Buddhism. However, the opinion I have expressed comes from a Japanese Buddhist interpretation of what is a person, the role of the mother and family in the development of a human, and how to best serve the needs of all.

With Love and Gassho . . . Monshin