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Abortion access

Introduction: When does personhood begin?
How do we proceed when we cannot agree?

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We feel that this is the most important essay in this website's entire section on abortion access. The above two questions represent the core problems that fuel conflict between pro-lifers and pro-choicers.

Dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice supporters is almost non-existent. Even face-to-face debating is rare. As a result, there are many questions that have never been resolved. Of these, perhaps the most important is the precise timing of the beginning of human personhood. That is, when during pregnancy does a new human being exist with full civil rights -- including is the most important right of all: the right to live?

Concerning personhood:

bulletSome say that it begins at conception;

bullet Some say that it begins circa 25 weeks gestation when the fetus becomes sentient -- that is, its higher brain functions first turn on and the fetus becomes conscious, and at least partly aware of its surroundings;

bullet A few say it only begins when the newborn is separated from her/his mother and breathing on its own.

bullet Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton University, believes that personhood only comes weeks after birth. He is almost unique in his belief.

bullet Many others point to other times between conception and birth. For example, when the embro's heart can be heard, at quickening when the woman first feels the fetus move, at viability when the fetus has a good chance of living outside of its mother's body, etc.

Another reason for the lack of consensus is that supporters of the various belief systems assign different meanings to common words, such as life, human life, pregnancy, human personhood, baby, child, unborn, etc.

And so, the conflict continues. There is little hope of resolution because of the fundamental disagreements between the two sides.

bullet Some say that having an abortion is automatically immoral, even if it is needed to save the life of the woman.

bulletSome say that having an abortion under a specific set of circumstances is immoral.

bulletOthers say that preventing a woman from having an abortion under those identical circumstances is immoral.

Don't look for a consensus or near consensus any time soon.

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What the pro-life and pro-choice movements agree on:

The media, religious leaders, and others often emphasize uncompromising conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice groups. This is often reflected in their terminology:
bullet Many pro-life supporters refer to abortion as the murder of an unborn child or baby. Some equate abortion to the Nazi Holocaust. They associate abortion clinics with Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

bullet Many pro-choicers refer to a pre-embryo or embryo as "products of conception" or as a simple blob of tissue. Some feel that pro-lifers' main motivation is a desire to control women, and/or to punish single women for engaging in sexual behavior without first having married.

In reality, there exists many broad agreements by the two opposing sides:
bullet A common belief among pro-lifers and pro-choicers is that an ovum is alive. Thus, because it contains human DNA, they consider it to be a form of human life. According to some scientists' extremely restrictive definition of "life," an ovum is not actually alive. But the public almost universally agrees that they are a form of human life.

bulletAn ovum is not considered a human person.

bullet Similarly a spermatozoon is considered a form of human life by almost everyone.

bullet A spermatozoon is not viewed to be a human person. A man produces thousands every second between puberty and death. All but perhaps one or two die produced during his lifetime without fertilizing an ovum. We have never found anyone who worries about that.

bullet There is a near consensus that at, or shortly after conception, a zygote or pre-embryo -- popularly called a fertilized ovum -- is a form of human life. The zygote is  " biologically alive. It fulfills the four strictest criteria needed to establish biological life:
  1. metabolism,
  2. growth,
  3. reaction to stimuli, and
  4. reproduction." 1

Its reproductive ability is only demonstrated in about one in 60 births, when it reproduces itself through twinning. This can happen at any time up to about 14 days after conception. This is how mono-zygotic (identical) twins are caused.

bulletAn embryo is also a form of human life.

bulletA fetus is still another, more developed, form of human life.

bulletA newborn baby is both a form of human life and a human person.

bulletDuring the entire nine months between:

bulletThe meeting of an ovum and one very lucky spermatozoon at conception, and

bulletThe birth of a newborn baby,

human life has continuously existed.

bullet Pro-choicers and pro-lifers generally believe that at some time between conception and birth human life becomes a human person. The new person has rights including the right to continue to live.

bulletAfter human personhood is present, both sides agree that an abortion should not be allowed, except under very unusual circumstances, such as:

bulletTo save the life of the woman,

bulletPerhaps to avoid serious long-term injury or permanent disability to the woman,

bulletPerhaps if the pregnancy had been initiated by rape or incest.

bullet Perhaps if the fetus is determined to suffer from a major genetic defect.

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What the pro-life and pro-choice movements disagree on:

The major differences between pro-lifers and pro-choicers can be expressed as three questions:

1. "When does human personhood begin?"

bulletMost pro-lifers believe it happens at conception because that is when a unique DNA first appears.

bulletSome believe it happens very shortly after conception when the ovum first divides and becomes a pair of cells. This is the first evidence that the pre-embryo is truly alive.

bullet A case has been made, based on a Genesis 9:4 that personhood begins when blood first appears in the pre-embryo at perhaps 18 days after conception.

bulletMost pro-choicers say that personhood happens later in pregnancy. Some say that it happens:

bulletWhen the embryo loses its tail and looks vaguely human;

bulletWhen the fetus' face begins to look fully human;

bullet After 20 or 21 weeks gestation (measured from the time of the start of the woman's last period), a limit imposed by many state & provincial medical associations;

bulletWhen the fetus is viable -- able to survive outside its mother's body with current medical technology;

bullet At about 25 weeks, when the fetal brain's higher functions are first activated and the fetus attains consciousness;

bulletWhen the fetus half-emerges from is/her mother's body. This is a Jewish teaching.

bulletAt birth, when the fetus becomes apart from her/his mother -- a newborn.

bulletWhen the newborn's umbilical cord is cut and she or he is breathing as an independent, separate person;.


bulletSome Aboriginal people worldwide believe that the newborn only becomes a human person when he or she is named.

bulletAs noted above, Peter Singer believes that personhood is only established weeks after birth.

2. "After personhood has begun, under which conditions is an abortion a moral choice?"

bulletThe Roman Catholic church teaches that an abortion at any stage of pregnancy can never be a moral choice, unless it happens as an unintended side-effect of a medical procedure that is required to save the life of a pregnant woman -- e.g. removal of uterine cancer or termination of an ectopic pregnancy.

bullet A small minority believe that an abortion is never a moral choice, even to save the life of the woman. Continuing pregnancy should be enforced by the state even if it results in the death of the woman and child. This is a teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
bullet Some would limit abortions to cases where it was needed to avoid a significant threat to the woman's life.

bulletSome would also allow abortions in cases where the woman's health was very seriously at risk and/or the risk of permanent disability was high.

bulletSome would allow abortions in cases where conception occurred after a rape or as a result of an incestuous relationship.

bullet Some assert that a woman has the right to an abortion, even though the fetus she is carrying is perceived to be a human person.

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3. "How do we proceed if we cannot agree about when personhood begins?"

It appears impossible for religious leaders, philosophers, the medical profession and the rest of the public to reach a consensus about when personhood begins. How then should we proceed? What limitations, if any, should the state place on a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy? If a woman, after consultation with her physician and perhaps with her spiritual adviser, decides that her least worse option is to have an abortion, then under what conditions should the state intrude and deny her that option?


Most pro-lifers would probably agree that if we are unsure, we should err on the side of life. A visitor to this web site wrote:

"If we are killing 3,000 fetuses a day that at least have the possibility of being human persons, shouldn’t we protect them just to be sure? If a hunter sees something moving in a bush, he just doesn’t shoot it because it sounds like it could be a deer. He makes absolutely sure it is a deer before he kills it. Just like we should be absolutely sure that human fetuses are not human persons deserving all rights in society before we kill them. Since we probably will never be absolutely sure, we should not allow any fetuses to be killed. What if society is wrong and they are in fact human persons deserving all rights in society. Then we would have to accept that we have killed off over 43 million people."

In reality, 90% of all abortions are performed during the first three months of gestation. An embryo becomes a fetus only after about the 3rd month of gestation. Thus a large percentage of the 3,000 abortions terminate the life of an embryo, not a fetus.

bullet Most pro-choicers might agree that the alternative to abortion access is enforced childbirth for every pregnant woman. They would argue that forcing her to continue an unwanted pregnancy to childbirth is an unwarranted intrusion into the private life of a woman, particularly for those who believe that they are carrying only a potential human life and not an actual human life.

bullet Some would suggest that since no consensus exists about abortion access that we should allow women to make up their own minds about whether to terminate their pregnancy or not, after having been fully informed about the nature of the embryo or fetus. They might argue that a woman's right to control her body and her fertility trumps any consideration of the continued life of the fetus.

bulletOthers suggest that even small embryos have souls and are thus full human beings. Abortion is thus murder and should be totally banned or at least severely restricted.

bullet Many persons who are theists -- they believe in a personal God -- would suggest that we simply assess the will of God through prayer. Unfortunately, pro-lifers and pro-choicers have attempted this and have opposing beliefs about God's response. From a pilot study that we have completed, assessing the will of God through prayer does not seem to be a reliable option.

As more countries in the world allow women to have at least early abortions if they wish, and as the cost of inter-state and international travel drops, the question is becoming less important for many women. A local law forbidding elective abortions can be overcome if the woman simply adds the cost of an airfare to a state or country with more liberal abortion laws -- or none as in the case of Canada.

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What is the most effective use of effort to reduce the number of abortions?

This is still another matter over which pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ in opinion:

  • Many pro-lifers have invested their effort mainly to pass state and federal laws that discourage women from seeking abortions either through restricting access or placing hurdles in their way. Examples are:
    • Laws prohibiting women under the age of 18 from having an abortion unless a parent has been notified or given permission.
    • Stricter inspection controls on abortion clinics.
    • Criminalizing the transportation of a minor across state lines to have an abortion.
    • Creating crisis pregnancy centers masquerading as counseling centers to disseminate invalid information about abortion.
    • Requiring that a woman be given an ultrasound in the hopes that it might maker her bond with the embryo or fetus and decide to not have an abortion.
    • Requiring that a woman be given information about the process of pregnancy and what is involved in an abortion -- information that is often criticized for its lack of accuracy.
    • Hoping and praying for an increase in the number of strict constructionist justices on the Supreme Court in the hope that the court will overturn Roe v. Wade. That case resulted in the 1973 court ruling that legalized all early abortions across the U.S. If that decision were overturned, it would probably give each state the power to decide whether to give women access to early abortions.

These efforts have not been notably successful in that the number of abortions has not notibly decreased in the U.S.

  • Many pro-choicers would also like to reduce the number of abortions. They note that about half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and that about half of all intended pregnancies are terminated by abortion. They reason that an effective method of reducing the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies through better sex-education, greater awareness and use of contraceptives, including emergency contraception, etc. More information

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  1. Francis Beckwith, "Is the unborn human less than human?,", at:

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Home > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Basic facts > Human personhood > here

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Copyright © 1995 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-APR-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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