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When does human personhood begin?

Belief 3: It happens between
conception and childbirth

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fovum.gif (6674 bytes)1

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

The process of conception:

There is a general consensus that an ovum and spermatozoon are forms of human life. People also agree that neither forms a human person.

People have different beliefs about the relationship between conception and human personhood.

bullet Most pro-lifers believe that human personhood begins during the fertilization process.
bullet Most pro-choice advocates believe that personhood is attained later at some stage of pregnancy, or even at childbirth.

At conception, a spermatozoon and ovum join to produce what is commonly called a "just-fertilized ovum." The proper medical term is zygote.

About zygotes:

A near consensus exists that:

bullet A zygote is definitely alive: There is a general consensus that a zygote is:  "...biologically alive. It fulfills the four criteria needed to establish biological life:
  1. metabolism,
  2. growth,
  3. reaction to stimuli, and
  4. reproduction." 2

The fourth criteria may appear strange. Zygotes can reproduce themselves through twinning during the first 14 days after conception. That is how mono-zygotic (identical) twins develop. After 14 days, a yellow streak appears that will eventually develop into the spinal column. Twinning cannot occur after that point.

bullet A zygote has human DNA: In almost all cases, at the time of conception, the 23 chromosomes from the ovum and the 23 chromosomes from the spermatozoon combined to form a 46 chromosome DNA structure. The DNA is new, unique and definitely human.
bullet A zygote is a form of human life: A zygote is alive and carries human DNA. Thus, it is a form of human life.

However, many pro-choicers believe that a zygote is not a human person. They view it as only a potential human person. They believe that personhood develops at a later stage of pregnancy.

Resolving the conflict over abortion access:

Debates about abortion will never be settled until the precise status of a human zygote is agreed upon:

bullet Is it, or is it not, a human person?
bullet If it is not a human person, there needs to be agreement on the stage of pregnancy or delivery that the embryo or fetus attains personhood.

An agreement on these questions would go a long way towards resolving the abortion conflict. However there would still be disagreements:

bullet If a zygote is considered a person, then abortion is an act of murder.
bullet A case can be made for the criminalization of all abortions.
bullet Most ethical systems, except for that adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, would say that an abortion would be ethical when a continued pregnancy threatens the woman's life.
bullet Some would argue that an abortion would be acceptable if continued pregnancy would very seriously disable the woman.
bullet If a zygote is not a person, then at least an early abortion involves the killing of a non-person which has the possibility of someday developing into a person. A good case could be made to allow women to choose freely whether to have an abortion up to a time when personhood is attained.

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Related essays in this section:

bullet Beliefs expressed in U.S. law and among different faith groups
bullet Secularly-based beliefs
bullet Personhood happens at 14 or 22 weeks gestation
bullet Personhood happens during childbirth


  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.
  2. Carl Sagan, "Billions and Billions", Random House, New York NY (1997), Pages 163-179.

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Copyright 1995 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-SEP-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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