Introduction: When does personhood begin?
How do we proceed when we cannot agree?
We feel that this is the most important essay in this web site's entire section on abortion access. The above two questions represent the core problems that have fueled conflict between pro-lifers and pro-choicers for decades. This is a conflict that shows no real signs of resolution.
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 -- between the processes of conception and childbirth -- does a new human being exist
with full civil rights? Included among these rights is the most important right of all: the
right to live.
||From before biblical times to the 19th century, a man's sperm was believed to contain human persons who were so small that they could not be seen. The only role of the woman's body was to occasionally select one of these persons and nurture
her or him until birth, much like earth nurtures a seed until it produces a tree. The roles of a woman's ovaries, ova, and fertilization were unknown.|
||Today, some say that it begins at some time during the process of conception, perhaps the point when a unique DNA is formed;
||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;
||Traditional Jewish belief is that full personhood begins when the newborn has partly emerged from the birth canal.
||A few say it only begins when the newborn is separated from her/his
mother and breathing on its own.
||Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton University, believes that
personhood only comes weeks after birth.
He is almost unique in his belief.|
||Some Aboriginal cultures believe that personhood comes after birth when the newborn child is named.|
||Many others point to other times between conception and birth. For example, when the embryo'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.
||Some say that having an abortion is automatically immoral, even if it is needed to save the life of the woman.|
|Some say that having an abortion under a
specific set of circumstances is immoral.|
|Others 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.
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:
||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.|
||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:
||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.|
|An ovum is not considered a human person.|
||Similarly a spermatozoon is considered a form of human life by almost everyone.|
||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.|
||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 "...is biologically alive. It fulfills the four
strictest criteria needed to establish biological life:
- reaction to stimuli, and
- 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.
|An embryo is also a form of human life.|
|A fetus is still another, more developed, form of human life.|
||A newborn baby is both a form of human life. There is almost unanimous belief that a newborn is also a human person.|
|During the entire nine months between:|
human life has continuously existed.
|The meeting of an ovum and one very lucky spermatozoon at conception, and|
|The birth of a newborn baby,|
||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.|
||After human personhood is present, both sides generally agree that an abortion should not be allowed, except under very unusual circumstances, such as:|
|To save the life of the woman,|
|Perhaps to avoid serious long-term injury or permanent disability to the woman,|
|Perhaps if the pregnancy had been initiated by rape or incest.|
||Perhaps if the fetus is determined to suffer from a major genetic defect.|
This topic continues in the next essay with a discussion of the matters
over which people disagree and how to handle that disagreement.
- Francis Beckwith, "Is the unborn human less than human?,"
Copyright © 1995 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2015-OCT-24
Author: B.A. Robinson