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Religious Tolerance logo

When does human personhood begin?

Is a consensus possible? Will it ever be possible?

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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 reasons:
    • A serious genetic defect in the fetus, which is often only detected in the second trimester.
    • 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.

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Public opinion:

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 almost unknown.

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.

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Opinion within the group providing this web site:

We are a multi-faith group. As of 2008-FEB, we are one Atheist, Agnostic, Christian, 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 life 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 beliefs:

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."

We responded:

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 inherent worth.

  • Spermatozoa is alive and contains human DNA. Thus it is a form of human life.

  • A newborn generally accepted as being a human person. A newborn is a form of human life that is also a human person.

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.

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Home > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Basic facts > Human personhood > here

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Copyright © 1995 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-APR-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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