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Differentiating among non-life,
life, human life, and human personhood:

How these differentiations are linked to abortion access:

Down through the years, there have been many moral conflicts in the U.S., UK, Canada, and many other countries. Some have been actively debated for decades or centuries. Some examples, more or less in historical order, are:

  • Whether it is OK for a slaveowner to beat his slave to death under certain circumstances. 1

  • Whether people should have the freedom to select or reject membership in an organized religion.

  • Whether people should have the freedom to adopt different individual religious beliefs.

  • Which crimes, if any, should call for the death penalty.

  • Whether human slavery should be banned.

  • Whether women should be able to vote in elections.

  • Whether racial segregation should be practiced.

  • Whether adult same-sex activity should be decriminalized.

  • Whether gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and those who have not yet determined their sexual orientation, should be able to marry same-sex partners.

  • Whether transgender persons' current gender identity should be recognized as different from their birth-identified sex.

  • Whether a pregnant woman should be free to decide whether to continue a pregnancy or to have an abortion.

Among the above conflicts, all of those that have been settled by now have been decided in favor of equal human rights.

Abortion access is still far from settled in most countries. It will probably remain so for the forseeable future, for two reasons:

There is no concensus over:

  • When a human life becomes a human person.

  • How the woman's right to have an abortion compares to a zygote's, embryo's, or fetus' right to continue living.

Unfortunately, although abortion access is strongly and frequently debated, there is little dialogue about these two matters.

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Are ova and spermatozoa alive?

According to's website on the "Characteristics of Life," 1 for something to be considered alive, it must have

  • Order: It contains complex structures contained in one or more cells.

  • Sensitivity or response to the environment: It can respond to stimulii from outside. For example, a plant can orient itself towards the sun in order to maximize incoming energy.

  • Reproduction: It must be able to divide and produce copies of itself, following its species' unique DNA.

  • Growth and development: The genes in its DNA program it to grow and change over time.

  • Regulation: It controls its internal functions, handles stressors from its environment, etc.

  • Homeostasis: In spite of changes to its environment, a living organism is capable of regulating its internal functions, typically within close limits.

  • Energy processing: Plants capture the sun's energy to power their metabolic functions. Other living creatures extract energy from food.

An ovum exhibits all of the above processes except for reproduction. One ovum cannot divide and become two ova.

A spermatozoom also lacks the ability to reproduce. One spermatozoon cannot divide and become two spermatozoa.

Thus, scientists consider neither ova nor spermatazoa to be forms of life. However, when a spermatozoon enters an ovum and the conception process is completed, the resulting zygote is a form of life. It sometimes divides into two zygotes, and may eventually produce identical twins.

A zygote contains human DNA. Thus it is a form of human life.

However, once a baby has emerged from the woman's birth canal and is breathing on her or his own, the baby is generally considered not only a form of human life, but also a human person. However, in some cultures, personhood is only granted after the baby has gone through a naming ceremony.

There exists no concensus on when during the pregnancy process the transition from human life to a human person happens. Some believe that it happens when the embryonic heartbeat can be detected. At the other extreme, others believe that it happens when the newborn takes her or his first breath. There are probably dozens of other times that people specify.

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References used:

  1. See the Hebrew Scriptures - Old Testament, Exodus 21:20-21
  2. "Biology for Majors I, The Characteristics of Life," Lumen Learning, at:

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Copyright © 2020 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2020-AUG-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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