When does human personhood begin?
Is a consensus possible? Will it ever be possible?
Is a compromise on abortion possible?
There is one belief upon which almost all pro-choicers and pro-lifers agree:
that once human life in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon become a human
person, then that person's life should be protected. Further consensus
depends upon agreement on when human personhood is achieved. No consensus
appears possible. Thus, no agreement on the morality of abortion is likely:
- To a person who believes that a human person is created at conception, abortion
is a technique to murder babies. Some pro-life individuals and organizations have
suggested that an abortion clinic is the ethical
equivalent to a Nazi death
camp. They have suggested that embryo research is the equivalent of the
fabrication of lampshades made from human skin in one of those same death camps. Some
pro-lifers suggest that delaying the start of personhood beyond conception is
analogous to the thought processes of slave owners. African-American slaves
were once recognized as forms of human life, but not regarded as full
persons. Similarly, during the Shoah -- the Nazi Holocaust -- Jews, Roma (a.k.a.
Gypsies), homosexuals, and others were
considered as sub-human.
- To a person who believes that human personhood begins at the start
of the second trimester or later, an first trimester abortion is a regrettable
option, but often the most ethical choice for a pregnant woman who does not wish
to continue pregnancy for emotional, mental, physical, or economic reasons.
- Some believe that a late-term abortion can be justified for a variety of
- A serious genetic defect in the fetus, which is often only detected in the
- A developmental problem in the fetus that will cause it to die within
minutes or hours of delivery.
- In cases where the woman would otherwise suffer permanent disability, a
very serious health problem, or risk death.
The medical profession appears to follow the viability criteria. Medical societies
enforce regulations prohibiting essentially all abortions after (typically) 20 or 21 weeks of pregnancy.
The US Supreme Court also seems to have used fetal viability as a significant event
in its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade; it allows
states relative freedom to prohibit abortions after viability for a wide range of reasons.
Public opinion surveys give conflicting results, depending upon the
precise wording of the questions
asked and the nature of the relationship between the subject and pollster. It would appear that a significant majority of adults in the US and Canada agree
that a woman should have free access to a safe abortion in at least the first trimester.
In Canada and many countries of Europe, an uneasy peace exists. Abortion is
legal and widely available. It is funded by universal government health care
plans in many jurisdictions. Abortion is generally accepted as a woman's right.
However, many religious followers are pro-life and strongly believe that women
should choose to continue their pregnancies. Their opposition only rarely
includes demonstrations against abortion access. Clinic blockades, bombings, shootings are
The future status of abortion access in the U.S. is unclear, and
depends largely on the choice of new justices to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court,
perhaps by the president to be elected in 2008-NOV. In the fall of 2008, there
is a group of four justices on the court who are strict
constructionists and tend to vote as a unified block. If one more strict
constructionist is installed, they may well overturn Roe v. Wade and restore decisions on abortion access
to the states. It is even possible that they could define human personhood as
starting at conception, and eliminate essentially all abortion access in the
U.S. The president who serves from 2009 to 2012 is expected to nominate two
justices to the court.
Opinion within the group providing this web site:
We are a multi-faith group. As of 2008-FEB, we are one
Wiccan and Zen Buddhist. Thus, the OCRT staff lack
agreement on almost all theological matters, such as belief in a supreme being, the
nature of God, interpretation of the Bible and other holy texts, whether
after death exists, what form the afterlife may take, etc.
A visitor to this website
sent us an Email that quoted part of our statement of
We do believe:
In the inherent worth of every person. People are
worthy of respect, support, and caring simply because they are
human. Unfortunately, we have not reached a consensus on when human
life, in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon, becomes a human
person. On this matter, our lack of agreement mirrors that of
society at large.
Referring to the pre-embryo, embryo and fetus, the visitor asked whether we
agree on when in gestation "a person becomes a human with inherent worth."
All five of us agree that a major transition happens
somewhere between the spermatozoon/ovum stage and the newborn stage. I think
that all five agree that it is not between a person and a human with
Thus, we feel that the critical transition is between a form
of human life and a human person.
Like the rest of society, our group disagrees on when that
transition happens. The two extreme beliefs in our group are:
Personhood occurs at conception. This
belief is often based on the observation that this is when a unique DNA is
formed (or is created by God). A logical result of this belief is that all
pregnant women should be required to continue pregnancy and give birth,
except for very unusual situations.
Personhood occurs circa 26 weeks gestation
when the higher brain functions first become activated. The supporting
argument here is that the end of personhood, i.e. death, is defined
as occurring when higher brain functions cease. Thus it seems appropriate to
define the start of personhood as happening when the higher
functions first start up. A logical result of this belief is that informed
pregnant women should have free access to abortion during the first and
second trimesters. What she chooses to abort is a potential human person,
not an actual human person.
The visitor asked whether inherent worth, occurs simply because the
pre-embryo, embryo or fetus is a person, or whether it is a value
granted by society.
We responded that it is both:
- Inherent worth is definitely granted by societies, governments,
religious organizations, individuals, or groups of individuals.
- It is also inherent. Most people believe that when human life
becomes a human person, the latter automatically has great value and their
life should be preserved. I qualify the previous statement as applying to "most
people," not all people. Sadly, in various areas of the world, persons
who are female, members of racial minorities, members of various religious
groups, etc. are held in low esteem and often given a sub-human status.
There is little doubt but that if a genetic test could pre-determine which
fetuses would become homosexuals in adulthood, then those fetuses would be
considered as sub-human by some people.
Finally, the visitor asked whether we have to accept that all beliefs by
people within our group and outside our group are equally valid?
Each person or group justifies their beliefs on some basis that appears
logical to them. Each regards their own belief as valid. Each regards any
contrasting beliefs as invalid. No consensus is currently possible. None may
ever be possible. We agree that no absolute truth now exists concerning the
morality of abortion.
Copyright © 1995 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2012-APR-12
Author: B.A. Robinson