Perspectives on Personhood
Date: June 7, 2013
Howard W. Jones Jr. ’35, still mentally vigorous today at 102, says he didn’t think of gynecology as a controversy-studded road when he embarked on his career in it nearly 80 years ago, first working as an assistant in the private clinic of Howard W. Kelly, one of the Founding Four of Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“Oh, no. I really went into gynecology for a mundane reason, and that is that the subject matter always seemed easy to me, as opposed to some of the other subjects,” says Jones in a telephone conversation from his office at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk.
Even in the mid-1960s, when Jones made his first scientific forays into assisted reproductive technology (ART), there were no heated debates over the question of when embryos become persons. Not until much later did Jones and his late wife, endocrinologist Georgeanna Seegar Jones ’36, become embroiled in the controversies that still surround in vitro fertilization (IVF), ART, and the meaning of “personhood.”
In his latest book, Personhood Revisited: Reproductive Technology, Bioethics, Religion and the Law, Jones provides detailed but easily comprehensible analyses of these issues and recounts the roles that he and his wife played in addressing them.
For Howard Jones, the story started at Hopkins in 1965, when he oversaw what turned out to be the successful efforts of the late Robert Edwards (fellow, 1965) to achieve the first fertilization of a human egg in vitro. It was an accomplishment that Jones and Edwards, a future Nobel laureate, didn’t realize they’d achieved until years later.
After Jones’ mandatory retirement from Hopkins at the age of 65, he and his wife went to Norfolk and opened what now is among the nation’s premier assisted reproductive institutes. There the duo oversaw the 1981 birth of the first “test tube” baby in the U.S.
Howard Jones went on to participate in two mid-1980s Vatican-organized conferences on IVF; become the founding director of the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine; and provide expert testimony before Congress. Through such experiences, he has accumulated unequaled knowledge of reproductive technology and the associated bioethical conundrums that confront physicians, religious leaders, politicians, and the public.
In 10 brief chapters, Jones covers the entire gamut. He describes the astonishingly vehement public protests to his early IVF work at the Jones Institute, which has since gone on to help some 4,000 babies enter the world (about 400 or 500 of whom were cases handled personally by Jones and his wife); discourses on the religious issues raised by IVF and ART; provides a summary of the laws affecting these issues here and abroad; and faces the debate about when human life begins.
Jones starts with a broad overview of the issue through history, from the ideas prevailing in ancient Babylonia and Egypt, to Roe v. Wade. He believes the Supreme Court “probably got it right” in its 1973 decision that an embryo only is entitled to society’s protection once it becomes “viable,” or able to survive outside the mother’s womb, which is “very, very late in pregnancy.”
He notes that during the first few days after fertilization, it is difficult to know exactly what the developing fertilized egg will yield. It could become a benign—or a malignant—tumor; and “a measurable percent of early developing eggs” are abnormal due to “gross chromosomal difficulties” and will abort naturally.
Jones expresses frustration at those who oppose ART and IVF on the grounds that “procreation…[is] God’s work” and that anything physicians do to help childless couples have children is “unethical experimentation…on possible human beings.” He considers it “unjust to burden Catholic couples” with the Church’s doctrine that such procedures are immoral because they are “outside the bounds of conjugal love.” By declaring that reproduction is the only reason for a man and woman to have sex, the Church is “using animal, particularly mammalian, rather than human physiology in regard to intercourse.”
In Personhood Revisited, Jones quotes a 1987 open letter that his wife, Georgeanna, wrote to Pope John Paul II to protest the Vatican’s restrictive pronouncements in Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.
“[T]his is a world of reason that God in His mercy has provided for us. When we know the fact, we must sometimes change our definitions—even our minds.” Neil A. Grauer