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Religious Tolerance logo

When does human personhood begin?

Belief 1: It happens at conception.

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fovum.gif (6674 bytes) 1

What a newly formed zygote looks like:
(often referred to as a "just-fertilized ovum")

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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?

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Quotations:

  • "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)

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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.

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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 must be protected as such. They believe that she or he has rights including the right to not be deprived of its own life.

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. The concept 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.


  • The 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.

Sponsored link

Ten quotations favoring human personhood as starting at conception:

bulletJon 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'." 5

bulletJason 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

bulletFloare 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

bullet

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."

This is a definition of the word "zygote" from their book on embryology and birth defects. 8

bulletBruce 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

bulletJerome 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

bulletDianne 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

bulletDr. 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." 12

bullet 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 again." 13

bulletPope 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." 3

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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 said:

"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.

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Sponsored link:

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An example of a pro-life statement:

Eric Versluys, a senior in 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 surprised." 17

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  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: http://www.udel.edu/ We thank Dr. Wagner for allowing us to reproduce these microphotographs.
  2. "Life begins at conception," These Last Days Ministries, at: http://www.tldm.org/
  3. Pope John Paul II, "Evangelium Vitae," (1995), at: http://www.vatican.va/
  4. Tertullian  "Apologeticum" (IX. 8 PL. 1, 371-372: Corp. Christ. 1, p. 103, 1, 31-36).
  5. Jon E. Dougherty, "Life Begins at Conception," Catholic Educator's Resource Center, (2001) at: http://www.catholiceducation.org/
  6. Jason M. Steffens, "The 'Peculiar' Being: The Rights of an Unborn Child in Iowa," 88 IOWA L. REV. 217 (1988). Online at: http://www.june24.net/
  7. Floare Farcas, "Life begins at conception," "The Peak," Simon Fraser University. (1996) at: http://www.peak.sfu.ca/

  8. book cover 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.

  9. book cover Bruce M. Carlson, "Patten's Foundations of Embryology," 6th edition,: McGraw-Hill, (1996), Page 3

  10. book cover Jerome Lejeune, The Concentration Can, Ignatius Press, (1992).
  11. Dianne N. Irving, "When Do Human Beings Begin? 'Scientific' Myths and Scientific Facts," Libertarians for Life, (1999), at: http://www.l4l.org/
  12. Dr. Edwin Vieira, Jr., "A False Assumption," Libertarians for Life, (1999) at: http://www.l4l.org/
  13. Francis Beckwith, "Is the unborn human less than human?," ChristianAnswers.net, at: http://www.christiananswers.net/
  14. Eric Versluys, "South Dakota law is clear," The Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University, 2006-MAR-09, at: http://www.collegian.com/
  15. John-Henry Westen, "Abortion Ban Signed into Law by South Dakota Governor," 2006-MAR-06, at Life Site News, at: https://www.lifesitenews.com/
  16. Chet Brokaw, "S.D. Governor Signs Abortion Ban Into Law," Associated Press, 2006-MAR-06, at: http://my.earthlink.net/
  17. Eric Versluys, "South Dakota law is clear," The Rocky Mountain Collegina, 2006-MAR-09, at: http://www.collegian.com/
  18. "Abortion statistics in the United States," Wikipedia, as on 2017-FEB-24, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  19. "Life," Dictionary.com, at: http://www.dictionary.com/
  20. "Life," Mirriam-Webster.com, at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/
  21. "Person," Wikipedia, as on 2017-MAR-05, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/

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Copyright © 1995 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-MAR-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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