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Religious Tolerance logo


Federal Department of Health & Human Services
(HHS) declares that a zygote and embryo are
both a human life, and also a human person!

fetal ultrasound 1

Ultrasound image of a fetus at 3 to 4 weeks gestation.

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When does human life begin?

In the human reproduction process, an ovum and a spermatozoon are not considered forms of human life. That is difficult for some people to accept, particularly after they see a video of spermatozoon swinging its tail so energetically. But the generally accepted scientific definition of "life" requires that an object must meet four criteria:

  1. metabolism,
  2. growth,
  3. reaction to stimuli, and
  4. reproduction." 2

A ovum not a form of life because it is incapable of reproducing by dividing into two ova. Similarly, a spermatozoon is not alive because it cannot divide and produce two spermatozoon. However, when the ovum is fertilized by a spermatozoon, conception has occurred and the result is often called a "fertilized ovum." The proper medical term is "zygote." In some cases, the zygote will divide in two zygotes. This is the process that leads to the birth of identical twins. Thus, a zygote meets all four requirements of life. Since it contains human DNA, it is, by definition, a form of human life.

Most zygotes die at about this time and are expelled by the woman's body without her being aware that conception had occurred. A zygote has only about one chance in three of developing into pre-embryo, embryo, fetus, and finally a newborn over approximately the following 265 days.

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When does human personhood begins?

Although there is a near consensus among the medical profession, religious leaders, and pro-lifers and pro-choicers that a human life begins at conception in the form of a zygote, there is no consensus about what stage, during gestation, the human life is also a human person:

  • Most pro-lifers firmly believe that a zygote is not only a human life but is also a human person. They often use "life" and "person" interchangeably; this can be very confusing.

  • Some pro-choicers believe that a fetus becomes a human person when it achieves sentience. This is at about 24 to 28 weeks gestation, when her or his higher brain functions first turn on, and the fetus develops some degree of awareness of its environment.

  • The traditional Jewish belief has been that a fetus becomes a full human being only when she or he has half-emerged from the mother's body.

  • Some pro-choicers believe that a human life becomes a human person only when the umbilical cord is cut and the newborn becomes separated from its mother.

  • Some aboriginal groups believe that human life becomes a human person only during the newborn's naming ritual.

  • There are other people who regard the transition from human life to a living, human person as happening at a stage during the pregnancy process not mentioned above: perhaps when the embryo's heart starts beating; when the embryo loses its gill slits and tail and begins to look human; when the pregnant woman first senses movement by the embryo at about 12 weeks after conception; when it becomes viable and able to live independently of its mother, etc. 3

More details.

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The HHS Strategic Plan:

During 2017-SEP, Tom Price, headed the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He released a draft document titled: "HHS Strategic Plan, FY 2018-2022." 4 "FY" refers to Fiscal Year. Later that month, he was severely criticized for the excessive cost of his taxpayer-funded private jet airplane usage, and retired.

The Strategic Plan:

The Plan repeats four times that, at conception, both a form of human life and a human person or being starts simultaneously:

  • Under the heading "Advance global health security," it states:

    829: "Enhance international preparedness through medical countermeasures and community mitigation measures, respecting the inherent dignity of persons from conception to natural death."

  • Under the heading "Strategic Goal 1: Reform, Strengthen, and Modernize the Nation’s Health Care System" it states:

    114: While we may refer to the people we serve as beneficiaries, enrollees, patients, or consumers, our ultimate goal is to improve healthcare outcomes for all people, including the unborn, across healthcare settings.

  • Under the heading "Strategic Goal 3: "Strengthen the Economic and Social Well-Being of Americans across the Lifespan" it states:

    846: "A core component of the HHS mission is our dedication to serve all Americans from conception to natural death, but especially those individuals and populations facing or at high risk for economic and social well-being challenges, through effective human services."

  • Under the heading "Strategic Goal 4: Foster Sound, Sustained Advances in the Sciences" it states:

    1137: "The research pursued under this strategic goal is to be conducted consistent with the understanding that human subjects protection applies to all human beings from conception to natural death."

    1341: "Support a broad and diverse portfolio of biomedical research by supporting a range of scientific disciplines, including basic and translational research, to augment scientific opportunities and innovation for public health needs, consistent with human subject protections, which protect all persons from conception on, and bioethics."

(Emphasis not in the original).

Curiously, the HHS mentions the personhood of the embryo and fetus as an established fact, and doesn't even mention that alternate, other than pro-life, belief systems exist.

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Interpretation of the HHS Strategic Plan:

A key concept in the Plan is the promotion of the common pro-life belief that human life becomes an individual, person, human being, and American at conception.

Unfortunately, the Plan is somewhat ambiguous in places:

  • A minimal interpretation of the Plan and its four statements about protecting human beings from conception to natural death is that they imply that medical facilities must be available so that embryos, fetuses, newborns, children, youths, and adults should be protected from death or disability due to disease, organ failure, etc. through all of its stages until she or he dies. This would involve universal health care so that pregnant women would all receive adequate pre-natal care and medical assistance giving birth, children would receive proper inoculations, all would have access to hospital emergency rooms, diagnostic services, physicians, etc.

  • A broader interpretation of these same phrases might imply that the government should also protect human embryos, fetuses, newborns, children, youth and adults from death due to:
    • Abortions: Terminating a pregnancy would then be forbidden, except perhaps to save the life of the mother.

    • Physician assisted suicide: PAS would then be forbidden. Everyone would be required to live until their body gives out and they die from a natural cause.

Various readers of an article at Live Action 6 remarked in the comments section about some of the implications of personhood starting at conception:

  • Zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are described in the Plan as unborn Americans. They should be eligible to receive a Social Security Number.

  • A pregnant woman who consumes drugs and alcohol could be prosecuted for giving drugs to a minor -- criminal act which is a felony.

  • A woman asked: "So if I get pregnant before year's end, can I add another dependent to my 2017 tax return?"

  • Perhaps an embryo could inherit property.

  • Perhaps an embryo should be included in the federal census.

The full implications of declaring a zygote, pre-embryo, embryo, and fetus to be an American person could have widespread repercussions!

Father Mark Hodges is an Orthodox Priest at St. Stephen the First Martyr Church in Lima, OH. He has apparently interpreted the Plan broadly. 6,7 He wrote about other leaders in the pro-life movement who agree with his assessment:

  • Executive Director Dr. Donna J. Harrison of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG)said: "...applauds the recognition that human life begins at the 'moment of conception'..."

  • President Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life said that the plan was a "... positive step forward to that day when all unborn children are protected."

  • President Shawn Carney of 40 Days for Life said that it was "... very encouraging to see the new HHS effort to confirm what science has been telling us -- life begins at conception."

  • Senior Counsel Clarke Forsythe of Americans United for Life (AUL) said that the HHS addition of ... "beginning at conception" in reference to protecting lives "accurately reflects current state law. Thirty-eight states now have a fetal homicide law and thirty of them begin legal protection at conception. In addition, there are court cases and legal and legislative declarations in nearly all of the states stating that the life of a human being begins at conception. ... It's appropriate that HHS should bring its mission into line with the legal protection of human beings in current law."

  • Executive Director Jim Sedlak, of the American Life League, said that no one should be surprised that the HHS strategic plan under the administration of "... pro-life President Donald Trump" differs from the strategic plan put together by the "... administration of the most pro-abortion president in American history -- Barack Obama. ... It is incredible that, in 2017, there are still people who deny that every human being's life begins at Stage 1-A of the Carnegie Stages of Human Development. 8 ... The addition of the words 'beginning at conception' is not a radical departure but simply a clarifying phrase. The phrase is necessary because many abortion supporters want to deny that the term 'every stage of life' includes life stages that occur before birth." 7

  • President Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America, said that Trump’s HHS administration is stating: "the obvious. ... It’s a sign of the power of the abortion lobby that it’s big news for HHS to acknowledge the kind of science every kid learns K-12:  that a new human life is created at the moment of conception, growing, responding to stimuli, exhibiting all the signs of life that NASA keeps looking for on distant planets. At least our government now proclaims what we all learned at grade school: a new human life begins at conception, and we should treat those unique persons with the same respect we expect for ourselves."

Many of the above quotations reinforce the common belief within the pro-life community that "life" means the same thing as "personhood." That is, that a human life starts at conception and that all successive stages through pregnancy, childbirth, newborn, child, youth, and adult, human life is also a human person, a baby, an American.

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Some related essays and sections on this web site that may interest you:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Francis Beckwith, "Is the unborn human less than human?,", at:
  2. "First Fetal Movement: Quickening," American Pregnancy Association, 2017, at:
  3. Fr. Mark Hodges, "Trump admin makes protecting citizens 'from conception to natural death' top priority," Life Site News, 2017-OCT-17, at:
  4. Fr. Mark Hodges, " 'Protecting Citizens From Conception to Natural Death' is Declared TOP Priority in Trump Administration: Thank You, Thank You, Thank You," Breaking Christian News (BCN), 2017-OCT-17, at:
  5. "HHS DRAFT Strategic Plan FY 2018 - 2022," Health and Human Services, undated. Download at:
  6. Nancy Flanders, "HHS to define human life as 'beginning at conception'," Live Action, 2017-OCT-12, at:
  7. "Synoptic table of the Carnegie stages 1 - 6," Human Embryology, at:
  8. Ultrasound image of a 3 to 4 weeks old fetus. © Newpattern, Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

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Copyright 2017 © Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Originally posted on: 2017-OCT-18

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