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When does human personhood begin?

Beliefs expressed in U.S. law &
among different faith groups

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fovum.gif (6674 bytes)1

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

Lack of agreement in U.S. law:

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its (in)famous Roe v. Wade decision. This was the ruling that gave women the right to choose to have a legalized abortion, early in gestation, for any reason. 2 Justice Blackmun noted that there was no consensus in law when life (i.e. human personhood) begins.

bullet He cited a number of references to "person" in the U.S. Constitution.  But he found that:
" nearly all these instances, the use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally. None indicates, with any assurance, that it has any possible pre-natal application."
bullet He later wrote that the State of:
"... Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate."  2
bullet He concluded: "In short, the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense."
bullet Editor Joel Feinberg commented on the Roe v. Wade ruling, writing:
"Hence, the state should not take one theory of life and force those who do not agree with that theory to subscribe to it, which is the reason why Blackmun writes in Roe, 'In view of all this, we do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake'." 3
bullet In the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a Missouri law which said that life begins at conception. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stevens wrote:

"...the intensely divisive character of much of the national debate over the abortion issue reflects the deeply held religious convictions of many participants in the debate....The Missouri Legislature may not inject its endorsement of a particular religious tradition into this debate, for '[t]he Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution] does not allow public bodies to foment such disagreement'." 4

The abortion debate has heated up since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973-JAN. However, few if any new scientific or medical findings have surfaced that might define precisely when personhood starts.

Diversity of belief among faith groups:

Justice Blackmun noted that there is a wide diversity of belief among different religions:

bullet In ancient times, the Greek Stoics believed that human personhood did not begin until live birth.
bullet At the present time, most Jews believe that full human personhood is attained only during delivery when the fetus is half delivered from its mother's body.
bullet Justice Blackmun referred to the Aristotelian theory of "mediate animation," which was the predominant belief among Roman Catholic Christians throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote in one of his biological treatises 5 that the male embryo develops a human soul -- and thus becomes a human person -- about 40 days after conception, whereas a female fetus acquires its soul at about 90 days. For much of its history, the Christian religion believed in this delayed-ensoulment principle and allowed abortions up to 90 days into pregnancy.
bullet Justice Blackmun noted that those Protestant denominations which had made formal statements on abortion generally regarded abortion to be "a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family." Since Roe v. Wade, Protestant denominations have been divided along liberal/conservative lines with the latter strongly opposing abortion access.
bullet According to the historical record, the Roman Catholic Church used to define personhood as having been achieved at quickening -- when the woman first feels fetal movement. Since the 19th century, has consistently regarded personhood as beginning at conception. More recently, it has maintained that it has always held this position.

A few pro-choicers believe that the fetus becomes a human person only after it has been delivered and is breathing on its own as a separate individual. This belief may be based on Biblical passages. For example, Genesis 2:7 states that God made Adam's body from the dust of the ground. But it was only after God "breathed into it the breath of life" that Adam "became a living person."

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: We thank Dr. Wagner for allowing us to reproduce these microphotographs.
  2. "U.S. Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)," at:
  3. Joel Feinberg, Ed., "The Problem of Abortion," 2nd edition, Wadsworth, (1984), Page 195.
  4. "U.S. Supreme Court, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989)," at:
  5. Aristotle "History of Animals, Book VII, Chapter 3, 583b.

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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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