Myth: Personhood begins at conception.
Fact: A potential person is not an actual person; an undeveloped fetus is the former.
If A has the potential to become B, it follows that A is not B. Likewise, a
potential person is not an actual person. The reason why a zygote at conception is a potential
rather than an actual person is because it has none of the organs, limbs or other
traits recognized of a person. It is simply a genetic blueprint, and aborting it is
not the same as killing an actual person.
One of the most common pro-life claims is that "life begins
at conception." Beyond the obvious controversy of this statement, there
is actually a second and more subtle error here. And that is that
human life began only once: at
the dawn of humanity, with the rise of the first human beings. Since then,
there has been a continuum of human life: every sperm, every egg and every
zygote have been full-fledged signs of human life, complete with all the
characteristics of normal cellular activity, and all 46 human chromosomes.
(Half of these chromosomes go unused in the case of sperm and eggs, but
all 46 are there nonetheless.) The correct question is not "When does
human life begin?" but "When does personhood begin?"
Pro-life advocates claim that personhood begins when the sperm and
egg join to form a zygote. The zygote is genetically unique and complete
and will be the grandparent of every other cell this person will ever have.
The fact that the zygote is the first entity to have all 46 chromosomes
of a future person seems -- at first -- to be good evidence of personhood.
But consider the counter-examples.
There are many entities which are genetically complete, which contain
all 46 human chromosomes, which we nonetheless do not recognize as persons:
ancient fossils, blood samples, hair cuttings, fingernail clippings, even
skin cultures grown in burn centers. This is proof that genetic completeness,
in and of itself, does not constitute personhood.
The pro-lifer would then object -- entirely correctly -- that none
of the above examples have the potential to grow into a person. Left alone,
the zygote will naturally become a person. Please note that this is a switch
of argument: the pro-life advocate is no longer claiming that genetic completeness
is a sign of personhood, but that the potential to become a person is a
sign of personhood.
The zygote, of course, has a long way to go before becoming a functional
person; it has none of the limbs, none of the organs, none of the central
nervous system, none of the circulatory or respiratory systems; it is a
single cell that contains the genetic blueprint of a future person.
The pro-choice argument continues that a potential person is
not an actual person. In other words, if A has the potential to
become B, then it follows that A is not B. An acorn is not an oak tree.
You cannot climb the limbs of an acorn, build a tree-house in an acorn,
or rest in the shade of an acorn. And you certainly are not chopping down
a mighty oak tree by removing an acorn from the ground.
Pro-life advocates attack this argument in three ways. The first is
to publicize how quickly the embryo reaches its potential of a recognizably
human form. Photographs of 8 to 12-week fetuses are crucial to their demonstrations.
They emphasize -- with great exaggeration -- that the central nervous system
begins working at 20 days, the heart at 24 days, and brainwaves at 43 days.
What they don't tell you is that these are simply the first cells to maneuver
themselves into place, and it will take months to construct these organs.
Normally it takes until the 5th month of pregnancy before all the organs
(except the brain and central nervous system) are completed, and by this
time 99% of all abortions have already been performed. The brain and central
nervous system are the fetus' most complex and longest running construction
job, and will not be completed until the 7th or 8th month of pregnancy.
Interestingly, it is not until the 7th or 8th month of pregnancy that construction
is complete enough for a fetus to survive premature birth. Although pro-life
literature leaves the impression that the 8-week old fetus is marvelously
complete, the fact is that it would die immediately upon premature birth,
precisely due to its lack of completeness.
Pro-life advocates also exaggerate the point at which a fetus becomes
conscious, sentient and aware of pain. Films showing fetuses reacting to
abortion instruments are important to this pro-life argument. Pro-choice
advocates have countered, however, that the reactions are automatic neurological
reflexes, and that fetuses cannot feel pain because their brain construction
is incomplete. Eventually, two pro-life scientists, K.J. Anand and P.R. Hickey, undertook
extensive research to prove once and for all that aborted fetuses feel
pain. But their results pointed to the opposite conclusion: that it was
unlikely that fetuses could feel pain until the beginning of the 7th month,
when the lobes of their growing brains had drawn together and established
synaptic contact. (1) From all the scientific evidence gathered so far, the
pro-life effort to turn the 8-week old fetus into a functional person is
The second attack on the pro-choice argument that potential people
are not actual people is through the harm principle. For example, suppose a couple
planning to have an abortion decides at the last moment to have the baby
instead. They raise their daughter Susan, and she has a relatively happy,
normal life. Both parents agree, upon watching Susan get married, that
aborting her would have been the ultimate violation of her human rights.
Pro-life advocates often use a more direct way of making this point.
They ask: "What if this aborted baby had been you?"
This is indeed a sensational point, but, truth be told, it's actually
a non sequitur. The fact is, if you had never been born, you would
not be around to mourn your potential non-existence. In other words, once
Susan had reached an adult age, taking all her experiences from her would
be an obvious crime, because there would be a tangible victim involved:
the 30-year old Susan. But robbing a future person of these experiences,
a person who will never exist, is impossible: it's like trying to
loot a store that will never be built. (Here we should make a clarification:
it is indeed possible to harm future people who will exist, such
as those future generations who must clean up our pollution and pay our
deficits. But it is impossible to harm a person who will never exist.
Try to imagine doing this.)
Pro-life advocates accept this argument more than they realize. This
can be seen in their response to a rare but sometimes seen pro-choice argument.
This argument claims that because a man's ejaculate contains nearly 300
million sperm, natural abortion must occur, because all but one of them
will die upon failing to fertilize the egg. Pro-life advocates correctly
point out that the sperm is not a person, so no harm is done. Killing the
potential of that sperm to become a 30-year old adult with a full-fledged
life is not a tragedy, because that potential was never actualized; you
can't harm a potential person. The same logic drives the pro-choice argument
about the fetus and abortion. If the fetus is not yet a person, abortion
cannot harm the future person it will never become. The fact that the fetus
has the natural inevitability of becoming a person, whereas a sperm does
not, is a separate issue that we shall explore in a moment. But the basic
point remains: potentiality is not personhood.
It also follows that we cannot assign the rights of personhood to an
entity that has not yet become a person. Sperm does not have the right
to personhood (or what pro-life advocates misdescribe as the "right
to life"), because it is only a potential person. If the fetus can
be proven to be a potential person, then it, too, cannot possess the right
An analogy might best conclude this point. In the marketplace, customers
expect certain rights: quick and courteous service, product guarantees,
a reasonable return policy, etc. We praise store managers who observe these
rights, and condemn those who don't. Yet if a manager decides not to build
a store in the first place, then we cannot condemn him or her for all the
customers who are missing the good service that store would have provided.
Whatever "harm" done is moot.
The third attack on the pro-choice argument that potential people are
not actual people is to insist that natural inevitability go forward. In
other words, it is naturally inevitable that a zygote become a person,
so it is a sin to interfere with that process. Pro-life advocates give
the example of a brick-layer building a house. Even if he has laid down
only a few bricks, it would be wrong to demolish whatever he has constructed.
Actually, this analogy is inaccurate. The brick-layer is a full-fledged
person, who is fully conscious, fully sentient, and is endowed with inarguable
human rights. Tearing down his wall is an obvious crime. But let's alter
this example to make it more accurate for abortion. Suppose the brick-layer,
at least initially, were a robot. For the first two-thirds of the project,
it would do all the work, and then hang out a sign that said, "This
house is free to any humans willing to finish the job." When the humans
arrived (inevitably so, for the house is free), the robot would gradually
phase itself out, showing the humans where the materials were, what paint
was available, etc. But eventually it would phase itself out completely.
Now suppose that, during the first two-thirds of construction, the
mayor of the city came along and discovered that the robot was building
a house in the middle of the road. The mayor, of course, has only the highest
praise for free housing. Nonetheless, he stops the robot and directs it
to a better location.
Has the mayor violated the rights of the robot? Of course not.
Has the mayor violated the rights of the future tenants? Of course
not. They do not even know who they were.
And it would certainly be strange if a protest group argued to the
mayor that free housing is such a sacred right that houses should be allowed
to go up wherever they start, even in the middle of roads. If anything,
it is the mayor who is more caring and concerned, and not this bizarre
This third attack -- that natural inevitability should be allowed to
go forward -- is one that not even pro-life advocates believe. Let's look
at a naturally inevitable process that even pro-lifers consider negative:
cancer. Cancer has the natural inevitability of spreading through and killing
its victim. Yet no one defends cancer's right to proceed inevitably. This
brings yet another refinement to the pro-lifer's definition of personhood:
that the zygote is a person not only because it will naturally and inevitably
become one, but also because the result of this process is evaluated
as a positive thing.
Is all human life positive? Consider the Christian's own beliefs: all
humans are born sinners, and the majority of them will be lost in hell
at the end of time. Jesus himself said:
"For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that
leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13,14)
By insisting that all human life is precious and should be allowed
to go forward, pro-lifers are inadvertently filling the rosters of hell.
Certainly, a much kinder philosophy would be to increase the percentage
of those who find salvation, rather than increase the sheer number of those
who find both heaven and hell. This writer has never heard a pro-life explanation
of this discrepancy.
We might anticipate the following defense: that all life
should be allowed to go forward not because the result is always
good, but because the potential for good is there. But this is a
poor argument. It would be like arguing that an accidentally-started forest
fire should be allowed to burn out of control, because it might enter someone's
backyard and light his barbecue.
Another defense may be that humans are not God, and they cannot predict
the positive or negative potential of an embryo. And, lacking the knowledge
of God, they should not play God, aborting a fetus who may very well lead
a positive life.
The presumption that humans shouldn't play God rests on three errors.
First, it is not true that humans cannot predict the future. We know for
a virtual fact that mothers with AIDS will pass the disease on to their unborn
children. We know for a fact that severely alcoholic mothers give birth
to babies with fetal alcohol syndrome. We know for a fact that children
who grow up in alcoholic homes will struggle with dysfunctionality the
rest of their lives. We know for a fact that a woman hooked on crack will
give birth to a crack baby. We know for a fact that most teen-age mothers
come from teen-age mothers themselves, and that teen-age mothers suffer
from much higher rates of divorce, crime, suicide, illness, child abuse
and substance abuse. We know for a fact that poverty also increases these
problems. And we know for a fact which children will suffer deformities
or excruciating diseases, through prenatal genetic testing.
A baby born under these conditions is given bleak odds even by the
Bible, which states, "For evil cannot produce good fruit." (Matthew 7:18)
Although it is true that we sometimes cannot predict specific
cases with absolute certainty, we can indeed predict them generally.
Because positive human life is such a cherished ideal, pro-choice advocates
believe they hold a responsibility to maximize the odds for positive human
life whenever possible. And the way to achieve this is to avoid generating
human life in negative circumstances, and generate it only in positive
ones. This seems something that God would approve of, not condemn. God
commands us to "love thy neighbor," to heal others' sickness
and alleviate their sufferings. It would certainly be consistent to prevent
the unnecessary suffering of children born at the wrong time and the wrong
place, and instead raise children who enjoyed even greater prospects for
Second, it is impossible not to play God when it comes to decisions
of childbearing. Even sexual abstinence is a God-like decision, since it
deprives a potential person of future life. An even more terrible God-like
decision is deciding to have a baby whom you know is going to be
deformed, addicted to crack, or infected with the AIDS virus. Every potential
parent is called upon to play God in the lives of their children; their
judgments affect their children for the rest of their lives. The best humans
can do, if they seek to avoid responsibility for such a life-and-death
matters, is seek divine guidance. But the Bible is silent on the specific
issue of abortion's legality.
Third, if God did not intend humans to "play God" in matters
of procreation, he would not have given them the power to procreate at
will. And the fact that abortion is not mentioned specifically in the Bible
can only be viewed as tacit permission for humans to make their own judgments
on abortion. If it were indeed a sin, the Bible would have specifically
condemned it as such. But it doesn't, and humans have no choice but to
"play God" on this issue.
Furthermore, we have plenty of Biblical evidence supporting the
idea that God has always maximized the odds of positive life by producing
it only in positive situations, and minimized negative life in negative
ones. In the story of Noah's flood, for example, God destroyed the entire
world, which had grown wicked beyond redemption. Presumably, a percentage
of those lost included pregnant women and their unborn. In the Israelites'
exodus from Egypt, God sent a plague that killed every firstborn Egyptian
son -- including male infants, both born and unborn. God also destroyed
the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, including women, children and
the unborn. In preparing the destruction of the wicked Midianites, God
ordered Israel to slaughter all Midianite males of all ages. The women
were to be inspected for their virginity; the non-virgins [which would
have included pregnant women] were killed, and the virgins were taken into
sexual slavery. This atrocity has inspired such leading pro-lifers as Pat
Robertson to offer the following defense:
God told the Israelites to kill them all, men, women and children,
to destroy them, and that seems a terrible thing to do. Is it? Well, that
would be 10,000 people [author's note: it was more like 200,000, given
the plunder figures in Numbers 31:32-35] who probably would have gone to
hell. But if they had stayed and reproduced... then there would be 1 million
people who would have to spend an eternity in hell... so God in love,
and that was a loving thing, took away a small number so that he might
not have to take away a large number. [Emphasis added.]
Within this explanation, you can hear the pro-choice rationale for
abortion. It is wrong, they believe, to bring children into a needlessly
painful, sinful and dysfunctional life. It is heartening to see that even
Pat Robertson agrees with this philosophy.
Viability as a test for personhood
If pro-choice advocates reject conception as the first moment of personhood,
then the question becomes: when do pro-choice advocates believe that personhood
begins? One of the best tests of personhood is viability, upon which the
1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade was based. Viability is
defined as the ability to live outside the womb. It is based upon the broader
logic that "a person is as a person does." In other words, people
normally breathe on their own, circulate blood on their own, fight off
most germs on their own and sustain normal cellular activity on their own.
A fetus is able to achieve these functions once it reaches a weight of about 5
pounds. This usually occurs between the 7th and 8th month of pregnancy
-- coincidentally, about the time that the baby has finished its brain and
central nervous system. The extra womb time appears to be a biological
Critics charge that a baby cannot survive outside the womb for long
without a mother's feeding, care and protection. Certainly the child is
a person by now, so how can viability be a test for personhood? This common
objection is based upon a confusion of the terms viability and dependency.
They are not at all the same thing, although both are needed for human
survival. Viability is defined as an individual's ability to survive
as a person. Dependency is defined as one's reliance upon society
to survive as a person. Remember our broader definition that "a person
is as a person does." The newborn baby breathes, circulates, perspires,
digests, immunizes and sustains bodily and cellular functions just like
a normal person. But it is also normal for people to depend on each other
for food, shelter and survival, from the day they are conceived until the
day they die.
An example might illustrate this point more clearly. When
your car was on the factory assembly line, it was dependent upon the care
and attention of the factory workers. But it was not yet a car, because
it was only half-built and could not even go. Fresh from the assembly line,
it could now be considered a full-fledged, fully operational automobile --
yet it would still require the care and attention of its owner, from filling
the gas tank to conducting maintenance. Dependency and viability are both
necessary for personal survival, yet in the end they are separate characteristics.
An element of gradualism must be accepted in determining viability,
for there is no clear line over which a nonviable fetus suddenly becomes
a viable baby. No premature fetus has survived delivery before the 7th
month (at least without technology). The 8th month is a gray area, and
bioethicists advocate erring well on the side of caution by defining these
babies as persons. After the 8th month, they are clearly viable, and are
Critics point out that our advancing technology is saving premature
babies at ever earlier ages, and therefore the age of viability is being
pushed back. Indeed, one day it may be able to fertilize an egg in the
laboratory and raise it to term completely outside the womb of the mother.
All this technology, however, simply amounts to a surrogate womb. Viability
is still defined as the ability to live outside the womb, whether that
womb be real or artificial.
Critics may then charge that a person hooked up to a breathing machine
is nonviable, and could be allowed to die as a nonperson. But our gradualism
principle prevents this. If people are viable in every aspect of life except
one or two, then a moral society should grant them the full rights of personhood.
Another criticism is the example of the accident victim who needs massive
life support just to survive. They may fully recover in six months, but
at the moment none of their systems are working, and without massive intervention
they would die. Like the fetus, they are guaranteed to wake up eventually,
and letting them die seems certainly wrong. In the case of the accident
victim, it is wrong, because there is a tangible victim involved:
say, the 30-year old Susan, who had a lifetime of experiences and all the
characteristics of personhood. But the fetus had none of these traits to
begin with, and, absent a person, there can be no victim. It is the difference
between repairing a vase of great sentimental value and deciding not to
make one from scratch on the pottery wheel. No harm is done to a future
vase by removing the clay from the wheel.
This is only the beginning of the debate on personhood, and, if history
is a reliable guide, the debate should continue to evolve.
For a pro-life view from a liberal perspective, visit the website Left Out.
Return to Overview
1. Anand, K.J.S., and Hickey, P.R., "Pain and Its effects in
the Human Neonate and Fetus," The New England Journal of Medicine,
317:21, November 1987, p. 1322.