When do life & personhood begin?
Laws restricting/allowing abortion
access, etc. in U.S., Canada, and
rest of the world:
Conflicts concerning personal access and freedom:
Back in the early 2010's, there were two very active religiously-motivated conflicts. Both involved personal access and equality. They were:
Marriage equality: Whether loving, committed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
This conflict had been resolved in Canada in favor of access during late 2005 by a federal government law.
It was resolved throughout the U.S. during mid-2015 by a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was also in favor of access. An exception has been The Territory of American Samoa, where High Court rulings do not necessarily apply because most people who live there are regarded as American residents, not American citizens.
Once the court ruling was issued, most of the U.S. groups who had been fighting against equality immediately switched to promote restrictions on transgender persons and transsexuals. That conflict continues today.
Abortion access: Under what conditions, if any, should a state or federal government veto a woman's personal decision to have an abortion. This conflict continues today with little or no evidence of resolution.
One feature that all similar conflicts have in common is the almost complete lack of dialogue. This is sad, because dialogue is often the fastest method of resolving conflict.
When does human life begin?
The abortion access conflict is tightly linked to the concept of when "human life" and "human personhood" begin:
One commonly accepted scientific definition of life requires that for an organism to be considered alive it must:
- maintain homeostasis -- have the ability to maintain an internal balance in spite of changes in its external environment,
- be composed of cells,
- undergo metabolism -- internal processes that maintain life,
- be able to grow,
- adapt to their environment,
- respond to stimuli, and
This means that, according to this definition:
- A human ovum is not considered a form of life because it cannot reproduce: it cannot divide and produce two ova.
- Similarly, a single spermatozoon is not considered a form of human life because it cannot divide and produce two spermatozoa.
- But at conception, when an ovum and spermatozoon merge and produce a human zygote -- a.k.a. a just-fertilized egg -- it meets all of these criteria and is generally considered a form of life. Its ability to reproduce is seen in about one half of one percent of all pregnancies. This is when a single zygote splits into two zygotes. This is the method by which monozygotic (identical) twins are produced.
Since a zygote is alive and contains human DNA, it is recognized as a form of human life by the scientific, pro-life, and most of the pro-choice communities. For the same reasons, human embryos, fetuses, newborns, children, youths and adults are also viewed as forms of human life.
- A newborn human baby is not only a form of human life, but is almost universally recognized as a human person. From birth to death, they remain a human person. A rare exception to this rule is among some aborigional groups. They only recognize a newborn as a human person after she or he is given an name in a native ritual.
When does human personhood begin?
Unfortunately, there is no consensus on when human life becomes a human person:
- Most pro-lifers believe that it happens at conception. That is, when the process of conception is complete, and a zygote is formed, it is both a form of human life and a human person. Pro-lifers generally use the term "baby,""child," "human life," "person," etc. to refer to a zygote (the product of conception), as well as an embryo, fetus, and newborn at all stages of development.
Most pro-choicers have different beliefs about when personhood is first attained. Very rare beliefs are:
- When the embryo's heart starts to beat at about 6 weeks.
- When the embryo's heart beat can be heard and seen during an ultrasound exam, at about eight weeks.
More common beliefs are:
- When an embryo loses its gill slits and tail, and begins to resemble a human in shape.
- About 23 weeks gestation, when fetuses are viable because they have a chance of surviving outside her or his mother's body. At the current level of the best medical expertise, 20 to 35% of fetuses born at this age will survive.
- About 24 weeks gestation, when the fetus' higher brain functions first turn on and the fetus becomes sentient -- able to sense its environment.
- When the fetus is half-emerged from her or his mother's body. (This is the traditional Jewish belief).
- When the fetus has fully emerged from her or his mother's body.
- When the newborn takes its first breath.
- When the umbilical cord is cut and the baby is separated from his or her mother and breathing on its own.
- Some aboriginal groups believe that a human life becomes a human person only during a special ritual after birth when the newborn is given a name.
About the battle over abortion access:
One near consensus does exist: when a person believes that personhood has been attained, they generally feel that abortions become unethical unless the mother's life is threatened, or her health is very seriously threatened. That concensus offers hope, because if more people agree on when human personhood begins, then a compromise over women's access to abortion may be possible.
Battles over abortion are typically caused when a woman -- after consultation with friends, family, her physician, perhaps her spiritual advisor, etc. decides that to have an abortion is the least worse option for her, but the government has vetoed her decision by making an abortion unavailable to her.
There is one positive aspect to the abortion conflict. Both pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates agree that they would like to see the number of abortions and the abortion rate reduced. There are two main ways to do this:
- By making abortions unavailable: Pro-life groups have concentrated essentially all of their effort in this area. Pro-choice groups have concentrated essentially all of their effort to keeping abortions available, and safe. Unfortunately, in those countries where abortions are severely restricted, many women obtain an abortion from other than a trained physician, and risk their own life.
By noting that the vast majority of abortions are not caused by medical necessity; they are caused by an unwanted, unplanned for, and unexpected pregnancies: In excess of 40% of such pregnancies end in intentional abortions. A study of over 9,200 women of childbearing age in St,, Louis between 2007 and 2011 has shown that if women are supplied with free contraceptives and educated in their proper use, then their abortion rate was drastically reduced by from 62% to 78%. 2 Giving all employed women access to free contraceptives through their health insurance would go a long way to reducing the abortion rate to a small percentage of its current rate. Unfortunately, many employers are resisting this mandate for cost, ethical, and/or religious reasons.
- By making contraception also available to all unemployed women of childbearing age: However, many conservative Christian denominations -- notably the Roman Catholic Church -- oppose contraception.
The logical groups to press for such a change are the pro-life and pro-choice organizations. Unfortunately, that would require cooperation and dialogue. Very little of either is happening.
According to the Washinton Post during 2019-MAY, since 2001, states have imposed 660 abortion limits or bans and 33 efforts to improve access to abortion. 3
Abortion access in North America:
Laws affecting abortion access elsewhere in the world:
The following information source was used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
"Life," Wikipedia, as on 2017-NOV-13, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
Diane Duke Williams, "Access to free birth control reduces abortion rates,"
Washington University Schoool of Medicine,
2012-OCT-12, at: https://medicine.wustl.edu/
Dan Keating et al., "Which states are blocking abortion â~ez_euro~"Â and which are enacting protections?," The Washington Post, 2019-MAY-15, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/
Copyright © 1996 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on
Originally published: 1996-DEC-20
Last updated 2019-MAY-28
Author: B.A. Robinson