Dec 11, 2009

Humanity & Conception Considered [personhood pt. 1]

Is the human fetus a person with the appropriate rights that follow or is the human fetus something less – a nonperson – and therefore not entitled to the inherent rights due a person? I argue for the former and against the latter to defend the position that the unborn human embryo is a full person at the moment of conception and should be afforded the full rights due human beings by their very essence.

The following is my "intro" discussion. The next post will dive further into the arguments for and against the personhood of the human fetus. First, I will wait for Jim Lippard to review today's post. You can read his intro post and see his take on our upcoming conversation here Here goes ...


One problem we run into as we discuss abortion is the age-old question of what does it mean to be human. Generally speaking, to be human is to possess characteristics we associate with the word “man.” This sounds like a tautology so perhaps it is better to ask what constitutes the essence of humanity? One classic definition from Aristotle and the Greek philosophical tradition is man is a “rational animal.” A closely related concept is the capacity for self-objectification is the chief human characteristic. Others see the human ability to be in relationship as the overriding characteristic.

It is helpful to look at all of these together but here is something to consider: there are a whole range of activities in which any of these human characteristics may not be displayed even if they are potentialities. Sometimes we are alone and not in relationship; sometimes we are asleep or drugged and are not thinking. A word of caution is in order, then; following Daniel Callahan, we must realize “any answer to the question [of when human life begins] which rests on one human characteristic alone is to be suspect.” [1]

Even if it could be shown somehow certain humans are not persons, this does not necessarily equate to abortion rights as a given. Philosopher Francis Beckwith (following Jane English) makes this great point to help us put this issue in its proper context:

It does not seem to follow from the intermediate conclusion (that an unborn human is not a person) that abortion is always morally justified. Jane English has pointed out that ʺnon‐persons do get some consideration in our moral code, though of course they do not have the same rights as persons have (and in general they do not have moral responsibilities), and though their interests may be overridden by the interests of persons. Still, we cannot just treat them in any way at all.ʺ [2] English goes on to write that we consider it morally wrong to torture beings that are nonpersons, such as dogs or birds, although we do not say these beings have the same rights as persons. [3]

It is beneficial to remember what this argument for abortion can and cannot show. Most abortion advocates who utilize the person/human distinction try to gain more from the argument than it can give. The question is this: is it successful or does it fail? As we will soon see – it fails. Before we get into the argument proper, though, first we must talk about what is conception - fertilization or implantation?

Conception is the point at which a new and genetically distinct human comes into being. At conception, every human is complete and alive. Some may ask whether conception takes place at fertilization or at implantation. To answer this question, it is useful to review what the embryo does before implantation.

First, we should recognize that at fertilization, the embryo is already “fully programmed” (to use computer language). This means the pre-implanted embryo needs no more information input at any further point in its development. Let me reiterate: at fertilization, the information content “loaded” into the embryo is enough to carry it through from implantation to birth and all subsequent growth until death (save disease or abortion).

What then does the embryo do with this information in the first few days of its existence? It uses this info to direct its own growth and survival. The embryo has “its own plans” from the moment fertilization occurs and then carries out those plans without any direct guidance from the mother. Like most young children, the pre-implantation embryo wants to go its own way (if you have toddlers, this probably resonates with you). What is that way? Towards implantation.

When the sperm fertilizes the egg, a zygote is formed (zygote is simply the name for a single-celled embryo). The zygote soon embarks on a trip – a journey to the uterus. Why does the zygote need to get to the uterus? To eat, of course. The journey may take up to a week and during that time, the zygote does not get any bigger. If a living thing does not eat, it cannot grow and the same goes for the zygote. The zygote is still busy its first week, though, doing cell divisions and other fun stuff like hatching out of the zona membrane (the zona is a temporary protective shield around the young embryo).

Implantation usually begins at about 6 days and once this process begins, the embryo begins taking in nourishment and oxygen. At about 12 days in, the embryonic human is attached to mom’s uterine wall and begins to grow at a rapid rate.

All this embryonic activity is self-directed and has a specific goal in mind: to implant. It is obvious the pre-implanted embryo is acting as a solitary unit. This means it is not merely a collection of cells lumped together but an actual individual. Otherwise, how could it operate in concert in the same manner our bodies function – as a single entity? This fact is one more proof the human life begins at conception and conception begins at fertilization.

When scientists first learned the basics of conception, the word was synonymous with the word fertilization. This was the standard medical definition until the 60’s when the FDA “redefined” conception to mean implantation instead of fertilization. [4] What was the reason behind this change? So IUD’s could be labeled as contraceptives when in fact they were abortifacients (an abortifacient is a chemical substance used to induce an abortion).

If Jim disagrees that human life does not begin at fertilization but rather at implantation, I would like to ask him this: what internal changes occur in the embryo once it implants itself? If the only change is now the embryo has a source of energy and can therefore survive, how is that any different from you or I needing food? If there is no internal change in the embryo's basic substance, then how does the embryo's new location – on the uterine wall – now change the essence of what it is – a member of the species homo sapiens?

A simple way to think about conception is this: when did my life begin? Did I begin to exist at fertilization or at implantation? Both Jim and I began our existence as individuals the moment of fertilization, not a week or two later when we were implanted on the uterine wall. Recall the whole reason Jim and I needed to get to the uterine wall in the first place was for lunch – we were alive, we needed to grow and therefore, we needed to “eat”. Non-living things don’t need lunch and they sure can’t "drive" themselves to the diner – yet Jim and I did both! [6]

However, I have a feeling not everyone will be convinced, so I pulled a few quotes from some prominent embryologists and developmental biologists for good measure. The following quotes are cited on page 59 of Robert P. George’s book EMBRYO but I will list the individual citations in the notes. Please note the quotes are from the standard textbooks in the field of embryology:

Moore and Persuad: “fertilization marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual”

William Larsen: gametes “unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual”

Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Muller: “a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte”.

This should make it clear that to define conception at any other time beside fertilization is incorrect.


[1] The general flow of this discussion loosely follows the pattern of “The Meaning and Use of ‘Human’” in Daniel Callahan, Abortion: Law, Choice & Morality (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), 356-368.

[2] Jane English, “Abortion and the Concept of a Person,” Biomedical Ethics, ed. Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembatty (New York: McGraw‐Hill, 1981), 429.

[3] Francis J. Beckwith, “Answering the Arguments For Abortion Rights: When Does a Human Become a Person,” Christian Research Institute, Statement DA020‐4.

[4] During US Senate hearings conducted by Sen. John East in 1981/82 on Senate Bill 158, conception was strictly used to denote fertilization – the time when the sperm and ovum unite.

[5] Embryonic cleavage does not count, of course, as cell division takes place in a human being all the way up until adulthood.

[6] Another way to phrase this “is when did I have a body?” Of course, my body began when I was single-celled human immediately after the moment of fertilization. New human body means new human person.

[7] Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human, 7th ed. (NY: W.B. Saunders, 2003), 16.

[8]Human Embryology 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone, 2001), 1.

[9]Human Embryology and Teratology, (NY: Wiley Liss, 2001), 8.

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