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When does human personhood begin?

A brief overview of conflicting belief systems:

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fovum.gif (6674 bytes) 1

A newly formed zygote:
(commonly referred to as a "just-fertilized ovum")

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Two objects that need to be present to start a pregnancy -- an ovum and a single spermatozoon -- are usually considered to be of little value in themselves. In contrast, a near consensus exists that an infant is the most precious form of life on earth, and needs to be protected under law. [I write "near consensus" because in some religions and cultures, newborns who are female, or of a minority race or caste, are considered of low worth].

At conception, at birth, or at some time between, a new human person is present. After personhood is achieved, terminating life through an abortion is, by definition, a form of murder which some people believe can never be justified. Others feel that such an abortion is a moral act if it is needed to prevent the death of the woman, or perhaps if it will prevent her from becoming permanently disabled, or  prevent extremely serious injury to her health. Some would also allow an abortion in cases of rape or incest. Still others feel that an abortion can be a moral act for other reasons.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus of when human personhood starts. People have different beliefs' often they regard their own belief as absolutely true and obvious. Even if there were, there is no agreement on the conditions under which an abortion of that new person should be allowed.

Science can tell us, with increasing detail, the processes that start with a sperm and ovum and end up with a newborn baby. But it cannot tell us:

  • Does the fetus have a soul, however the concept of a soul is defined? 
  • When do the products of conception become a person? 
  • Should a zygote -- a just-fertilized ovum -- be given a full set of human rights? 
  • Abortion kills a human life. But is an abortion murder?

These are questions with philosophical, religious and political aspects. Science cannot contribute a great deal towards resolving them. Because these questions have a religious component, the diversity of faith groups in North America and the rest of the world assures that there will always be a wide variety of beliefs based on conflicting religious teachings.

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Some beliefs about the timing of the start of personhood:

A variety of conflicting beliefs is listed below, with links to more detailed essays:

  • At conception: Most people in the pro-life camp accept the view: that a human personhood comes into existence at conception. That is, a just-fertilized egg (as shown in the image above) is a full human being. Its rights, including the right to life should be protected. Conception is the process by which the DNA from the two parents combine to produce a new DNA which is unique to the individual. Some believers assert that this is when the soul enters the body. Of course, the existence of souls is a hotly debated topic about which no consensus exists.

  • At cell division: Others believe that personhood is attained a few hours after conception, at the first occurrence of cell splitting when two cells, called blastomeres, are formed from the original single-celled zygote. More details on personhood starting at or shortly after conception.

  • When blood is present: One interpretation of a theme found throughout the Bible links human personhood to the presence of human blood. That is believed to appear in the embryo circa 18 days after conception. More details on personhood starting when blood is first present.
  • Later in pregnancy: Most people in the pro-choice camp believe that human personhood happens at some developmental stage later in pregnancy. They base their beliefs on different reasons. More details on personhood starting later in pregnancy.

  • During childbirth: The traditional Jewish belief, also based on the Bible, is that full personhood is attained when the fetus is half-emerged from the mother's body. More details on personhood starting during childbirth.

  • At birth: A few pro-choicers believe that the fetus becomes a human person only after it has been delivered and is breathing on its own as a separate individual. There is some Biblical justification for this belief. Genesis 2:7 states that God made Adam's body from the dust of the ground. But it was only after God "breathed into it the breath of life" that "man became a living person."

Unfortunately, many people take the position that their personal belief is both absolutely true, Bible-based, and self-evident to any normal person. Opposing beliefs are often regarded as without merit.

Actual dialogue in which people attempt to learn each other's opinions in a non-confrontational environment is almost unheard of. Where discussions occur, they are generally in the form of very heated debates.

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  1. The color microphotograph of a just-fertilized ovum shown by permission from Dr. R. C. Wagner, Department of Biological Sciences, at the University of Delaware, Newark, DE. They have many other photographs at their Web page: We thank Dr. Wagner for allowing us to reproduce these microphotographs.


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Copyright 1995 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-APR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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