When Is a Human Being Not a Legal Person: Lethal Ramifications at the Beginning of Life

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When does a human being acquire legal personality? I would like to stand on the shoulders of giants in order to address the rights of the tiniest human beings, for what is at issue is nothing less than the very notion of human rights. Human embryos and fetuses, however small and vulnerable, are unquestionably living human beings of the species Homo sapiens. If we possess any human rights, it is purely and simply because we are human. I was once a living human embryo and am still a living human being, last I checked. If I have human rights, I had them when I began to be a living human being. Perhaps Dr. Seuss’s Horton the Elephant, throwing his massive weight around, said it most succinctly, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” But in a law school setting, I do not suppose that qualifies as legal authority. Too bad. How about William Blackstone, then? And for this, I must acknowledge the magisterial work of a University of St. Thomas School of Law professor, Michael Stokes Paulsen, who wrote an article last year titled, “The Plausibility of Personhood,” where he draws attention to the importance of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in ascertaining the meaning of personhood in the U.S. Constitution. It is Blackstone, for example, who indicates why corporations are persons within the meaning of the Constitution.


Originally published by The University of St. Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy in 2013.

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