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Religious Tolerance logo

When does human personhood begin?

About Spermatozoa, Ova, Conception,
Zygotes, Human Life and Personhood.

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Terminology about life, human life, & human personhood:

There is an enormous amount of poorly defined terminology and fuzzy thinking used in both pro-choice and pro-life writings.

bulletSometimes the words "life" or "unborn" are used as a type of code word to refer to a human person.

bullet Sometime "life" refers simply to a form of "human life" -- any kind of living entity which contains human DNA, including cells from skin scraping, to a cancer cell, to an adult human person.

bulletSometimes "life" is used -- sometimes intentionally -- in such a way that its meaning meaning is unclear.

bulletUsually, "human being" means a "human person."

bulletA "human person" is a human life who has been given the full rights enjoyed by infants, children and adults.

bulletThe term "Baby" has been applied to zygotes, pre-embryos, embryos, fetuses, newborns, infants and/or children.

bullet"Viability," as applied to a fetus, means that it has a good chance to survive outside the womb, even if a high level of sophisticated medical care is required.


For example:

bullet Senator J.F. Kerry, during his campaign for the presidency in 2004 said: "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe [that] life does begin at conception." 1

bulletFrom the web site: "We have become the holocaust-deniers of the Holocaust of the Unborn." 2

bullet An old book approved by Planned Parenthood and the Sex Information & Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) stated: "... at least one [sperm] will reach the egg, fertilize it, and conception will take place. A new life will begin." 3,4

bulletCybercast News Service reported: "Following an emotional debate, the South Dakota House passed a bill saying that life begins at conception -- something that would outlaw abortions in the state....It passed 54-14." 5

bullet These Last Days Ministries' web site states: "At the moment of his conception life is within the womb, and at the moment of conception a life is forming, regardless of what the agents of Hell now pollute the minds of mankind with, creating murders of the young!" 6


The Danish Parliament passed a law in 1988 stating: "the work of the council shall build on the basis that human life takes its beginning at the time of conception." 7 The term "time" or "instant" of conception are frequently used, even though conception actually is an hours-long process.

bulletPope 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." 6

bulletWilliam E. May wrote: "...the individual personal human life of most people begins at conception/fertilization." 8

bullet "Personhood amendments" were submitted to the voters in Colorado during 2008 and in Mississippi during 2011. They would have defined human personhood as starting with conception. However, they were so generally worded that voters were concerned that women would be investigated for criminal acts when they miscarried, that in-vitro fertilization might be banned, that all abortions might be prohibited, etc. even those required to preserve the life of the mother. Other similar amendments have been proposed in 11 states, but none have been passed. 10

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A well written statement in the Free Dictionary:

"The slogan 'human life begins at conception' embodies pro-life advocates' position that a new human being comes into existence at the moment an ovum is fertilized. The unstated assumption behind the slogan is that 'personhood' begins at the same time as 'human life', and therefore the fertilized egg is a person with a right to life from the very moment of [the completion of] conception."

"Pro-choice advocates argue that the slogan 'human life begins at conception' is potentially confusing or misleading. They agree that it may be technically true in one sense, but charge that it deliberately uses ambiguous language to gloss over the crucial issue of the time 'personhood' begins at -- an issue on which there is a wide scale of opinion. They attribute any force the slogan has to the exploitation of this confusion."

"Pro-choice advocates, while acknowledging that the living biological tissue of an early fetus is human -- just as body parts such as a white blood cell, sperm cell, or a finger are 'human' -- do not consider the early fetus to be a person. Most do concede, however, that as the fetus develops and approaches birth, its claim to be considered a person increases." 9

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On this web site....:

We will attempt to use the terms "life," "human life," and "human personhood" in a precise manner with the following meanings:

bullet Life refers to anything that is alive: animal, vegetable, and (at least for some followers of Aboriginal, Earth-centered, and other religions) perhaps even mineral.

bulletHuman life is anything that is alive and contains human DNA.

bullet Human person is a form of human life that is has civil rights -- of which the prime right is to not be murdered, or deprived of the essentials for life.

bullet We may occasionally use the popular, non-scientific, definition of "life" and refer to human spermatozoa and ova as being alive. Most scientists do not consider them alive because they lack the ability to reproduce. That is, one spermatozoon cannot divide and become two spermatoza; one ovum cannot become two ova.

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A further discussion of spermatozoa and ova:

Most of the public has seen movies of sperm under a microscope where they appear to be energetic swimmers, moving with intent towards an ovum. Most people assume that both are alive. But, appearances can be deceptive.

From the point of view of most medical and scientific specialists, neither a spermatozoon nor an ovum are actually living entities. One knowledgeable visitor to this site wrote:

"A human ovum is little more than an inert globule of organic matter....Much like the unfertilized egg of a chicken, the unfertilized egg of a human is nothing more than a packet of organic matter - not truly 'alive'."

This also applies:

" spermatozoa. Their apparent 'living' movement is a result of a chemical process, and energy released by it mitochondria.  A similar effect is produced when one puts a battery into a toy car. If the sperm were 'living' it would seek out 'food' with it's movement. The movement only has some sense of direction because of environmental factors within the uterus. Sperm are considered less 'alive' than a virus module."

Strictly speaking, sperm and ova are not human life. They do contain human DNA, but they are not actually alive; they do not grow; they do not reproduce by themselves.

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What a an ovum, spermatozoon and the resultant zygote (pre-embryo) look like:

The human ovum (egg) enters the fallopian tubes many hours or days before it has the opportunity to be fertilized. It is is almost a perfect sphere in shape with a diameter of about 120 microns (a.k.a. micrometers). This is equivalent to 0.12 mm or 0.005 inches. Although it is one of the largest cells in a human body, it is still only about the size of a grain of sand. 11 It is barely visible to the naked eye. Women release a one about each month between puberty and menopause -- totaling a few hundred in a lifetime. About once a year, a typical woman will release two ova instead of one. This can later result in fraternal twins being born.

Almost all ova are destined to not be fertilized; they end up being ejected from her body. Unless a couple is having difficulty conceiving, very little thought is given to the loss. Although the ovum does contain human DNA, there is a consensus that it is not a human person. They only have the potential to join with a spermatozoon, becoming human life, and -- depending on one's beliefs -- either immediately or eventually becoming a human person.

A healthy male liberates from 40 to 150 million sperm during a typical sexual encounter. Some contain a Y sex chromosome which may lead to the birth of a male; others do not and may lead to a female newborn. Each is only about 50 microns or micrometers (equivalent to 0.05 millimeters or 0.002 inches) long from head to tail. A few week's worth of ejaculations from a single male would theoretically provide sufficient sperm to double the earth's human population, if a method could be found so that each spermatozoon could successfully fertilize a separate ovum.

Viewing spermatozoa under a microscope reveals them to be energetic swimmers. Essentially all of these will fail to fertilize an ovum. Again, unless infertility is a problem, little attention is given to their fate. An average man produces thousands of sperm a second. At most, a microscopic percentage during his lifetime will reach an ovum and contribute to the formation of a newborn. Few men are consciously aware of the loss. Although sperm contain human DNA, there is a consensus that they are not human persons.

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Conception and gestation processes:

fovum.gif (6674 bytes) The meeting of sperm and ovum often initiates the conception process. When the first spermatozoon penetrates the wall of the ovum, a barrier is set up which almost always prevents additional spermatozoa from entering. Many references are seen on the Internet about "the instant" or "the moment" of conception." However, in reality, it is a process that takes hours.

Shown above is a microphotograph of a typical, fertilized ovum, called a zygote. It has formed a new and unique DNA sequence of 46 chromosomes out of the DNA which was contained in the original sperm and ovum. The latter two contain 23 chromosomes each.

If all goes well, the single cell divides in two identical cells. This process of division continues.

About 72 hours after the conception process has finished, the embryo may have reached the 7 cell-stage, shown here. (The embryo is the oval structure in the center of the microphotograph, being held between two micro-pipettes.) 

John Shook, writing for the Center for Inquiry, stated:

"... the odds of a fertilized egg making it to a live birth are less than 1 in 5."

Some of the rest are quickly expelled naturally by the body for a variety of reasons. Others, because of genetic imperfections or other reasons, are lost later by a miscarriage.

Many pro-lifers believe that a zygote is not only a form of human life, but is a human person at this point. In fact, many pro-lifers use the terms human life and human person as synonyms.

However, others believe that the zygote will only become a human person later in gestation, perhaps:

  • when the zygote's first cell division occurs;
  • at implantation in the wall of the uterus; (this is the start of pregnancy as defined by physicians);
  • when the embryo's heart starts beating;
  • at quickening when the mother first feels the fetus move;
  • when the fetus becomes viable and able to exist outside of the womb, with medical support;
  • when the fetus' higher brain functions first start up, the fetus becomes sentient, and is aware -- a some level -- of its environment;
  • when the fetus has half-emerged from its mother's body;
  • at birth, when the newborn is functioning independently of her or his mother; or
  • (in some aboriginal groups) after birth when the newborn is named in a naming ritual.

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on which definition is the 'correct" one. Many individuals hold tenaciously to their definition as the only true one, and regard all others as false. Little dialog is occurring to promote a consensus.

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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:

The black and white microphotograph which shows an embryo at the seven-cell stage is shown by permission of Dr. Malpani of the Malpani Infertility Clinic, Bombay, India.

We thank these physicians for allowing us to reproduce these microphotographs.

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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. Jonathan Finer, "Kerry Says He Believes Life Starts at Conception," Washington Post, 2004-JUL-5, Page A06. Online at:
  2. "Stem Cell Hypocrisy," Covenant News, 2004-NOV-10, at:
  3. Diane S. Dew, "Parenthood, SIECUS admit: Life begins at conception," (1998), at:
  4. "Conception, Birth and Contraception, McGraw-Hill," (1969), Page 15. Long out of print.
  5. Susan Jones, "South Dakota House Passes Bill Criminalizing Abortions," CNSNews, 2004-FEB-11, at:
  6. "Life begins at conception," These Last Days Ministries, at:
  7. S. Holm, "New Danish law: human life begins at conception," National Library of Medicine, (1988), at:
  8. William E. May, "Personal Human Life: When Does It Start?," from his book "Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life," OSV, (2000), Page 156-158. Online at Culture of LIfe Foundation Institute, at:
  9. "Human life begins at conception," The Free Dictionary, at:
  10. "Personhood," Legislative Tracker, 2017-JAN-06, at:
  11. Ella Davies, "The largest, and smallest, sex cells on the planet," BBC News, 2017-APR-20, t:
  12. "Life," Wikipedia, as on 2017-MAY-11, at:
  13. John Shook, "God is the Greatest Abortionist," Center for Inquiry, 2011-APR-27, at:

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Copyright © 1995 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-APR-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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