When does human personhood begin?
Belief 1: It happens at conception.
What a newly formed zygote looks like:
(often referred to as a "just-fertilized ovum")
Scope of this essay: personhood
This essay is part of the www.religioustolerance.org web site that examines the question: "When does human personhood begin." This and the other essays on this section are linked to a menu at www.religioustolerance.org/abo_when.htm
It attempts to delve into a fundamental difference between the pro-life and pro-choice movements and the morality of abortion. These two groups largely agree on the meaning of "human life," but they differ greatly on the meaning of "human personhood" -- that is: when in the process of gestation does a human person exist?
Dictionary.com gives a formal, scientific definition of life:
"The condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally." 19
The Merriam-Webster dictionary adds an additional parameter that must be present: "reaction to stimuli." 20
A zygote, which is a single ovum that has been fertilized by one very lucky spermatozoon in a process called conception, exhibits all of these properties. Essentially everyone would agree that a zygote is a form of life. However, before conception, spermatozoa and ova both lack the the ability to reproduce. One spermatozoon cannot divide and produce two spermatozoa; one ovum cannot divide and produce two ova. So, strictly speaking, neither spermatozoa nor ova are alive.
But is a zygote a person -- a human person? That is where most pro-lifers and pro-choicers part company.
Wikipedia says that:
"A person is a being, such as a human, that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood, which in turn is defined differently by different authors in different disciplines, and by different cultures in different times and places." 21
This essay explores the question: When does human personhood begin?
- "To prevent birth is anticipated murder; it makes little difference
whether one destroys a life already born or does away with it in its nascent
stage. The one who will be a man is already one." Tertullian (160 - 220 CE) 4
- Pope John Paul II said in the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., on 1979-OCT-07: "...all human life
-- from the moment of conception and
through all subsequent stages -- is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God." Pope John Paul II 2 (1979)
- "An embryo is an individual, no matter how small. While the embryo
receives cells from the mother and the father, it is neither the mother nor
the father." Pope John Paul II 3 (1995)
Common beliefs by medical specialists and other scientists about exactly what "life" is and when it begins:
Most medical specialists and many other scientists believe that neither a spermatozoon nor an ovum are actually alive! That is difficult for many people to accept because they have seen movies of rapidly swimming spermatozoa apparently desperate to find an ova to fertilize. However, one factor that most scientists require for the existence of life is that it must be able to directly reproduce. Now, a single spermatozoon cannot produce two spermatozoa; an ovum cannot divide and produce two ova. Thus, most scientists do not formally regard them as a form of life. Most don't consider viruses alive either, because they cannot reproduce without the aid of a host cell.
However, a young zygote -- commonly called a fertilized ovum -- sometimes divides into two separate zygotes, which can result in identical twins being born about nine months later. Thus, a zygote fills all the requirements to be formally declared a form of life. Also, since a zygote contains human DNA, it is considered a form of human life. However, there is disagreement about whether a zygote is not only a form of human life but is also a human person. This is the core disagreement that is the basis of conflicts between pro-lifers and pro-choicers about womens' abortion access.
Common beliefs by pro-lifers:
Most pro-lifers believe that both human life and human personhood begin simultaneously at conception. That is, a
newly formed zygote (popularly called a "just-fertilized ovum"), as shown in the image above, is a human life. But they feel that it is also more: It is a full human person who
protected as such. They believe that she or he has rights including the right to not be deprived of its
There are many reasons for the pro-life belief that personhood starts at conception:
- Some base their belief on their religious faith. Their denomination and/or religion
may teach that God injects a soul into the zygote, and that this may happen at the instant of
conception or shortly afterwards. Then, even though it is composed of only one cell, it would become a human person at that time due the presence of the soul.
of a soul is unique to certain religions and is not taught by all world faiths.
- Others point out that shortly after conception, a unique DNA code is
formed which will remain unchanged through the life of the fetus, and after
birth. Many scientists define this event as the start of a human organism -- of
human life. Many
pro-lifers assert that the presence of a unique human DNA code also signals the
start of a human person.
- Almost everyone agrees that a newborn child is a human person. To our knowledge, it is only a few aboriginal cultures that believe that personhood only occurs after birth when the newborn is given a name during a tribal ritual.
One can work
backwards in time through the birth process, fetal development,
embryo growth, pre-embryo stage, and finally end up at the zygote: the
start of a living human organism.
Prior to that point,
there was no human life according to the formal scientific definition of life. There was just an ovum and one very
lucky sperm, neither of which meets all the requirements to be considered life. Conception is the first point where a single, living
organism with complete human DNA exists that has a good chance to grow and become a newborn.
zygote is simply the earliest stage of human development; it is what human
persons look like about 9 months before we are born.
- Some pro-lifers are reluctant to define the advent of
personhood at a later point than conception, because this might lead to a
"slippery slope" situation: The public might reach a consensus
that abortions should be legal and freely available at progressively
later times in gestation.
In contrast, many of those who favor women's access to abortion believe that a zygote is a form of human life but is not yet a human person. Some believe that personhood is attained later in gestation:
- At "quickening" when the mother first feel movement by their fetus; in ancient times, this was often considered the time when the soul entered the body of the fetus, or
- As an embryo when it first loses it gill slit structures and tail, and begins to look human, or
- At "sentience" when the higher functions of the fetal brain first turn on and the fetus becomes sentient: aware, at some level, of its environment, or
- When the fetus has emerged from her or his mother's birth canal at childbirth and takes its first breath, or
- When the umbilical cord is cut, and the newborn is functioning independent of her or his mother.
Ten quotations favoring human personhood as starting at conception:
|Jon E. Dougherty of WorldNetDaily.com writes that humans
are never "...'fully-developed.' We're not born 'complete.' We grow,
change, mature and age constantly, which means we're always 'developing,'
and we develop though the first nine months of our lives attached to a
'host' — our mothers. So, the fact that the first nine months of our
developmental life is in utero is of no consequence to our
overall lifespan; it is just the first stage. There are many developmental
stages — early, middle and late. But life has to begin somewhere. We don't
go from 'nothing' to adulthood....It begins when it begins —
at the moment a human being is biologically 'under construction'."
|Jason M. Steffens writes: "There is, in
fact, no doubt from a scientific standpoint that an unborn
child is a life from the moment of conception. Not only is
it a life, but, 'by its intrinsic biological nature,' it is a human
life from the moment of conception, for 'it can be nothing else.' This is
because 'to be a human being is decided for an organism at the moment of
fertilization of the ovum.' By the end of the eighth week of its existence,
an unborn child 'has features that are distinctly human,' confirming
the child’s humanness. French geneticist Dr. Jerome L. LeJeune testified
before a United States Senate subcommittee in 1981: 'To accept the fact that
after fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being is
no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being
from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain
experimental evidence'." 6|
|Floare Farcas wrote: "Each
of us has a very precise staring moment. This is when all the necessary and
sufficient genetic information is gathered inside one cell, the fertilized
egg. This is the moment of conception. There is no difference between the
early person that you were at conception and the late person which you are
now! You were and are a human being! Consequently, unborn babies must be
protected and guaranteed their 'right to life'." 7|
Kieth Moore & T.V. Persaud
wrote: "Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm
(Gr. zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being.
The common expression 'fertilized ovum' refers to the zygote."
definition of the word "zygote" from their book on
and birth defects. 8
|Bruce M. Carlson wrote: "Almost all higher animals start their lives
from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)... The time of
fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or
ontogeny, of the individual." 9|
|Jerome Lejeune wrote: "...each of us has a
unique beginning, the moment of conception...when the information carried by
the sperm and by the ovum have encountered each other, then a new human
being is defined because its own personal and human constitution is entirely
spelled out. The information which is inside the first cell obviously tells
this cell all the tricks of the trade to build himself as the individual
this cell is already....to build that particular individual which we will
call later Margaret or Paul or Peter, it's already there, but it's so small
we cannot see it ...It’s what life is, the formula is there; ....if you
allow the formula to be expanded by itself, just giving shelter and nurture,
then you have the development of the full person." 10|
|Dianne Irving writes: "To begin with,
scientifically something very radical occurs between the processes of
gametogenesis and fertilization — the change from a simple part of one human
being (i.e., a sperm) and a simple part of another human being (i.e., an
oocyte — usually referred to as an 'ovum' or 'egg'), which simply possess
'human life', to a new, genetically unique, newly existing, individual,
whole living human being (an embryonic single-cell human zygote). That is,
upon fertilization, parts of human beings have actually been transformed
into something very different from what they were before; they have been
changed into a single, whole human being. During the process of
fertilization, the sperm and the oocyte cease to exist as such, and a new
human being is produced." 11|
|Dr. Edwin Vieira, Jr. writes: "The underlying premise in the arguments
pro-abortionists give against fetal personhood is that non-persons can
change into persons. They are saying that a living being can undergo a
radical, essential change in its nature during its lifetime. But there is a
logical problem here. If the change was biologically inevitable from
conception, given time, then this change is not a change in essential
nature. This is because if the being naturally initiates the change, it must
be in its nature from the beginning to do so. If it is in its nature to do
so, then despite any changes in such characteristics as independence, place
of residence, physical development, or demonstration of mental ability, what
the being is in later life is what the being is from the beginning of its
life. This means that if we are persons with the right to be free from
aggression later in life, we are persons even at conception."
||Francis Beckwith writes: "...not only is the conceptus human insofar as
being caused by humans, it is a unique human individual, just as each of us is.
...It has its own unique genetic code ([typically] with forty-six chromosomes),
which is neither the mother's nor the father's. From this point
until death, no new genetic information is needed to make the unborn
entity a unique individual human.....Although sharing the same nature with all human beings, the
unborn individual, like each one of us, is unlike any that has
been conceived before and unlike any that will ever be conceived
|Pope John Paul II wrote" "Some try to justify abortion by claiming that
the product of conception, at least until a certain number of days, cannot yet
be considered a personal human life....In reality from the moment in which the
ovum is fertilized, a new life begins which is not that of the father or of the
mother but of a new human being which develops of its own accord. It would never
be made human if it were not human already....This has always been clear, and
modern genetic science offers clear confirmation."
Implications of the belief that human personhood starts at conception:
It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the belief that human
personhood starts at conception. If a zygote, embryo, and fetus are all human persons, then an abortion involves a murder. It makes every abortion clinic the moral
equivalent of small-scale Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps.
2006-MAR-06, Governor Mike Rounds (R) of South Dakota signed
bill HB1215 into law. Effective 2006-JUL-01, it caused the state to recognize almost all
abortions in the state to be criminal acts. Any doctor performing any
abortion at any time between conception and childbirth ran the risk of a heavy
fine and lengthy jail sentence, unless she/he could prove that the procedure was
necessary to save the life of the woman. When signing the bill, Rounds implied
his belief that human personhood starts at conception. At the bill signing, Governor Rounds
"In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well
people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society. The
sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because
unborn children are the most vulnerable and most helpless persons in our
society. I agree with them." 15,16
This law was, of course, unconstitutional. During 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Roe v. Wade that
- a woman may choose to have an early abortion for any reason.
- a late termination of pregnancy -- a.k.a. post-viability abortion -- is allowed only if a continued pregnancy threatened a woman's life, physical health, or mental health.
An example of a pro-life statement:
Eric Versluys, a
mechanical engineering at Colorado State University implied his belief that
personhood starts at conception. He wrote an eloquent letter to the editor of the Rocky
Mountain Collegian, saying:
"The world has been in the dark about a terrible breach of human rights that has
been going on for more than 30 years.[Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Roe v. Wade during 1973] ... about 48.6 million
people have been brutally murdered. Still going on today, approximately 3,500
people lose their lives every day at the hands of trained killers. It isn't
going on in the bush of Africa or the sands of the Middle East, but down the
block from where you live."
"South Dakota did not ban abortion to begin "full-scale warfare on women's
rights." That a woman has a right to choose is a basic inalienable right. South
Dakota merely defined the fetus as a member of our species. It legislatively
made a baby a person, making abortion akin to murder. A woman does not have the
right to murder her children. If the editorial staff had read the news, perhaps
they would have come across the South Dakota bill, HB 1215. I quote:"
'The guarantee of due process of law under the Constitution of South
Dakota applies equally to born and unborn human beings, and that under
the Constitution of South Dakota, a pregnant mother and her unborn
child, each possess a natural and inalienable right to life.'
"The fact is, too many people are afraid to stand up for the most vulnerable and
most helpless members of our society or even acknowledge their existence. At
least South Dakota has everyone's best interests in mind. If you do too, go out
and get educated on the horrors going on behind closed doors. You may be
His estimate of 3,500 lives lost per day refers to the number of surgical abortions in the U.S. It was probably valid in 2006. Since then, the abortion rate has been declining. In 2013, the latest year for which statistics have been reported -- at the time this essay was updated -- to the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] there were 664.435 "legal induced abortions" reported, or 1,819 a day. 18
However, in recent years there have been two developments that have changed the nature of pregnancy termination and prevention which impact on the above data:
- Emergency contraception [a.k.a. EC and morning after pill]:
Many pro-lifers consider use of EC to be equivalent tot having an abortion. This is because, shortly after EC was first developed, the mechanism by which it prevented pregnancy was not precisely known. Further research showed that it normally works by inhibiting ovulation. If ovulation has already occurred, then it will inhibit fertilization. If fertilization has occurred, it has no further action. it does not inhibit the implantation of the zygote in the uterus, as some developers had originally suspected.
However, most pro-life groups do not accept these findings. They teach that EC can inhibit implantation. Since pro-lifers generally believe that pregnancy starts with conception, they consider EC to sometimes be an abortifacient. Some groups teach that EC always works as an abortifacient drug. Since they generally regard personhood to be attained at conception, then most regard EC as equivalent to an abortion. They view the medication as a drug that terminates the life of a human person.
- Mifepristone, also known as RU-486, is an abortifacient drug that terminates a pregnancy up to about 49 days of pregnancy. It is a progesterone blocker medication that prevents a pregnancy from continuing. It has been available in the U.S. since the year 2000. It theoretically became available in Canada during 2017-JAN. However it can be very difficult for a woman to obtain, particularly if she lives in a rural area.
Thus they would increase the number of surgical abortions reported by the CDC by the number of medically induced abortions to reach a much larger number.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- 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: http://www.udel.edu/
We thank Dr. Wagner for allowing us to reproduce these microphotographs.
- "Life begins at conception," These Last Days Ministries, at:
- Pope John Paul II, "Evangelium Vitae," (1995), at:
- Tertullian "Apologeticum" (IX. 8 PL. 1, 371-372: Corp.
Christ. 1, p. 103, 1, 31-36).
- Jon E. Dougherty, "Life Begins at Conception," Catholic Educator's
Resource Center, (2001) at:
- Jason M. Steffens, "The 'Peculiar' Being: The Rights of an Unborn
Child in Iowa," 88 IOWA L. REV. 217 (1988). Online at:
- Floare Farcas, "Life begins at conception," "The Peak," Simon
Fraser University. (1996) at:
- T.V. Persaud & Mark G. Torchia, "Before We Are Born: Essentials of
Embryology and Birth Defects." 4th edition, W.B. Saunders Company,
(1993), Page 1.
- Bruce M. Carlson, "Patten's Foundations of Embryology," 6th
edition,: McGraw-Hill, (1996), Page 3
- Jerome Lejeune, The Concentration Can, Ignatius Press, (1992).
- Dianne N. Irving, "When Do Human Beings Begin? 'Scientific' Myths and
Scientific Facts," Libertarians for Life, (1999), at:
- Dr. Edwin Vieira, Jr., "A False Assumption," Libertarians for
Life, (1999) at:
- Francis Beckwith, "Is the unborn human less than human?,"
- Eric Versluys, "South Dakota law is clear," The Rocky Mountain
Collegian, Colorado State University, 2006-MAR-09, at:
- John-Henry Westen, "Abortion Ban Signed into Law by South Dakota Governor,"
2006-MAR-06, at Life Site News, at: https://www.lifesitenews.com/
- Chet Brokaw, "S.D. Governor Signs Abortion Ban Into Law," Associated
Press, 2006-MAR-06, at:
- Eric Versluys, "South Dakota law is clear," The Rocky Mountain
Collegina, 2006-MAR-09, at:
- "Abortion statistics in the United States," Wikipedia, as on 2017-FEB-24, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
- "Life," Dictionary.com, at: http://www.dictionary.com/
- "Life," Mirriam-Webster.com, at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/
- "Person," Wikipedia, as on 2017-MAR-05, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
Copyright © 1995 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2017-MAR-11
Author: B.A. Robinson