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When does human personhood begin?

Belief 5: At either 15 or 22 weeks gestation

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Belief 5A: Personhood is attained at about 22 weeks gestation:

This argument is based on the definition of death.

Ethicist D.A. Jones has written:

"Death is not just another disease that can be specified, analyzed, and catalogued as viral or bacterial, infectious or auto-immune. Death is the final cessation of life. Thus defining death requires more than medical and technical expertise: It requires also some agreed understanding of what is constitutive of human life, and what it is that must be absent before the person can be said to be dead."

"Sometimes it will be obvious to any reasonable observer that someone is dead, or alternatively, that someone is still alive. Someone who is breathing  [without a respirator] and talking and walking around is obviously alive. Someone whose body is rotting away and hanging off the bones is obviously dead. However there are some cases, perhaps many cases, where it will not be obvious to an unqualified layman whether someone is alive or dead. In these cases it is the decision of competent physicians that decides the issue." 1

Prior to about 1960, a person would be declared dead if both their heartbeat and breathing had ceased and could not be re-started. But newer technological developments made this definition invalid. Heart pacemakers can keep the heart beating indefinitely long after all other internal systems have wound down. Respirators can keep the person apparently breathing forever.

Death is generally defined in most U.S. states as a situation in which the brain "flat-lines." That is, there is no major central nervous system activity and there is no detectable electrical activity in the brain's cerebral cortex. At this point, the person may be declared dead in many jurisdictions. The patient may appear to be breathing, as a result of the action of a respirator. Her/his heart may still be beating, either on its own or as a result of a heart pacemaker. But he/she is judged to be dead. Unplugging the patient from life support systems at this point will not actually kill the patient; she/he is already considered to be dead. 

Transplant medicine has advanced because of organ harvesting from so called 'beating-heart cadavers', that is, patients who are determined to be dead on the basis of brain death criteria. 1 But their hearts continue to beat (sometimes with external help), to keep the body's organs fresh for transplanting.

If the point of death is defined as a lack of electrical activity in the brain's cerebral cortex one might use the same criteria to define the start of human life. i.e. that fetal life becomes human person when electrical activity commences in the cerebral cortex. Human personhood, would then start when consciousness occurs for the first time, and ends when consciousness irrevocably terminates with no possibility of resumption. One could then argue that a fully-informed woman should have access to abortion at any point before the point that human personhood begins.

According to author Richard Carrier:

"...the fetus does not become truly neurologically active until the fifth month (an event we call 'quickening.' This activity might only be a generative one, i.e. the spontaneous nerve pulses could merely be autonomous or spontaneous reflexes aimed at stimulating and developing muscle and organ tissue. Nevertheless, it is in this month that a complex cerebral cortex, the one unique feature of human -- in contrast with animal -- brains, begins to develop, and is typically complete, though still growing, by the sixth month. What is actually going on mentally at that point is unknown, but the hardware is in place for a human mind to exist in at least a primitive state." 

When medical ethicist Bonnie Steinbock was interviewed by Newsweek and asked the question "So when does life begin?," she answered:

"If we’re talking about life in the biological sense, eggs are alive, sperm are alive."

Webmaster's comment:

The most common scientific definition of "life" is that it must meet seven different criteria, including that it be composed of cells, respond to stimuli, able to reproduce, etc. Neither ova nor spermatozoa are able to reproduce. That is, one ovum cannot become two ova; one spermatozoon cannot become two spermatozoa. So many specialists would claim that neither eggs nor sperm are actually alive.

Ms. Steinbock continued:

"Cancer tumors are alive. For me, what matters is this: When does it have the moral status of a human being? When does it have some kind of awareness of its surroundings? When it can feel pain, for example, because that’s one of the most brute kinds of awareness there could be. And that happens, interestingly enough, just around the time of viability. It certainly doesn’t happen with an embryo." 8

Under this argument, some primitive neurological activity in the cerebral cortex begins during the fifth month, conceivably as early as the 22nd week of pregnancy. If we allow a two week safety factor, then society might set the gestation time limit at which abortions should not be freely available at 20 weeks. Abortions could then be requested up to the start of the 20th week for normal pregnancies, or at a later time if unusual conditions existed. Many state and provincial medical associations in North America have actually adopted this limit, probably after having used a different rationale.

Note: The gestation time of a pregnancy is normally measured relative to the start of the last menstrual period (LMP). 

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Belief 5B: Personhood is attained at about 15 weeks gestation:

Almost all spontaneous abortions, (a.k.a. miscarriages), occur fairly early during pregnancy -- typically before the 15th week of gestation. For reasons that are not entirely clear, "nature" realizes that the embryo or fetus is defective for genetic or other reasons. It is expelled from the woman's body and pregnancy ceases. Author Ruth Colker argues that:

"One might argue that the fetus is not potential life until nature has determined the true potentiality of that life by deciding whether to abort the fetus spontaneously. At a minimum, I would argue that a woman should have control over this period of spontaneous abortion (usually lasting until week 13 or 15 of the pregnancy) by deciding whether she wants to choose an elective abortion." 4

It is interesting to note that the Roman Catholic Church has had beliefs similar to this in the past:

  • Early in the 13th century, Pope Innocent III stated that the soul enters the body of the fetus at the time of "quickening" - when the woman first feels movement of the fetus. After ensoulment, abortion was equated with murder; before that time, it was a less serious sin, because it terminated only potential human personhood, not actual human personhood.

  • Later in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) agreed with this assessment.

  • That belief was reversed by Pope Sixtus V late in the 15th century who issued a Papal bull "Effraenatam" which threatened those who carried out abortions at any stage of gestation with excommunication and the death penalty.

  • However, Pope Gregory XIV revoked the Papal bull shortly after taking office in 1591. He reinstated the "quickening" test, which he determined happened 116 days (about 16.6 weeks) into pregnancy.

  • Current Church teaching remains based on the ensoulment concept. However, since the Church is unaware of exactly when the soul enters the body of the embryo or fetus, it takes the most conservative position and assumes that ensoulment occurs during the process of conception. This could change at any time if the Pope were able to assess the will of God on this matter.

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  1. David A Jones, "The UK Definition of death," at: 
  2. Stuart J Youngner, et al. eds., "The Definition of Death: Contemporary Controversies," Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0 8018 5985 9
  3. Richard C. Carrier, "Abortion is not immoral and should not be illegal," at: 
  4. Ruth Colker, "Abortion & Dialogue: Pro-choice, pro-life and American law," Indiana Univ. Press, (1992), Note 9, Page 126.
  5. Debra Rosenberg, "' When Can It Feel Pain?' For this philosopher, 'viability' makes the moral difference," Newsweek, 2003-JUN-9, at:

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Copyright © 2000 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAY-16
Latest update: 2018-OCT-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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