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When does human personhood begin?

Terminology; Spermatozoa, Ova & Zygotes. What
a developing pre-embryo & embryo look like.

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Terminology about life, human life, & human personhood:

There is an enormous amount of poorly defined terminology and fuzzy thinking used in both pro-choice and pro-life writings.

bulletSometimes the words "life" or "unborn" are used as a type of code word to refer to a human person.

bulletSometime "life" refers simply to a form of "human life" -- any kind of living entity which contains human DNA.

bulletSometimes "life" is used -- sometimes intentionally -- in such a way that its meaning meaning is unclear.

bulletUsually, "human being" means a "human person."

bulletA "human person" is a human life who has been given the full rights enjoyed by infants, children and adults.

bulletThe term "Baby" has been applied to zygotes, pre-embryos, embryos, fetuses, newborns, infants and/or children.

bullet"Viability," as applied to a fetus, means that it has a good chance to survive outside the womb, even if a high level of sophisticated medical care is required.

For example:

bulletSenator J.F. Kerry, during his campaign for the presidency in 2004 said: "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception." 1

bulletFrom the CovenantNews.com web site: "We have become the holocaust-deniers of the Holocaust of the Unborn." 2

bulletAn old book approved by Planned Parenthood and the Sex Information & Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) stated: "... at least one [sperm] will reach the egg, fertilize it, and conception will take place. A new life will begin." 3,4 (Planned Parenthood and SIECUS might not support this passage today.)

bulletCybercast News Service reported: "Following an emotional debate, the South Dakota House has passed a bill saying that life begins at conception -- something that would outlaw abortions in the state....It passed 54-14." 5

bulletThese Last Days Ministries' web site states: "At the moment of his conception life is within the womb, and at the moment of conception a life is forming, regardless of what the agents of hell now pollute the minds of mankind with, creating murders of the young!" 6

bulletThe Danish Parliament passed a law in 1988 stating: "the work of the council shall build on the basis that human life takes its beginning at the time of conception." 7

bulletPope John Paul II said in the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., on 1979-OCT-07:  "...all human life -- from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages -- is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God." 6

bulletWilliam E. May wrote: "...the individual personal human life of most people begins at conception/fertilization." 8

bullet "Personhood amendments" have been submitted to the voters in Colorado and Mississippi that would define personhood as starting with conception. However, they were so generally worded that voters were concerned that women would be investigated for criminal acts when they miscarried, in-vitro fertilizatin might be banned, all abortions might be prohibited, etc. The most recent amendment rejection was in Mississippi during election day in 2011-NOV.

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A statement in the Free Dictionary:

"The slogan 'human life begins at conception' embodies pro-life advocates' position that a new human being comes into existence at the moment an ovum is fertilized. The unstated assumption behind the slogan is that 'personhood' begins at the same time as 'human life', and therefore the fertilized egg is a person with a right to life from the very moment of conception."

"Pro-choice advocates argue that the slogan 'human life begins at conception' is potentially confusing or misleading. They agree that it may be technically true in one sense, but charge that it deliberately uses ambiguous language to gloss over the crucial issue of the time 'personhood' begins at -- an issue on which there is a wide scale of opinion. They attribute any force the slogan has to the exploitation of this confusion."

"Pro-choice advocates, while acknowledging that the living biological tissue of an early fetus is human -- just as body parts such as a white blood cell, sperm cell, or a finger are 'human' -- do not consider the early fetus to be a person. Most do concede, however, that as the fetus develops and approaches birth, its claim to be considered a person increases."

"A moderate pro-life position is that personhood begins at viability; an extreme position is that it begins at birth. Other positions exist." 9

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On this web site....:

We will attempt to use the terms "life," "human life," and "human personhood" in a precise manner throughout this web site with the following meanings:

bullet Life refers to anything that is alive: animal, vegetable, and (at least for some followers of Aboriginal, Earth-centered, and other religions) perhaps even mineral.

bulletHuman life is anything that is alive and contains human DNA.

bulletHuman person is a form of human life that is has civil rights of which the prime right is to not be murdered.

bullet We will occasionally use the popular, non-scientific, definition of "life" and refer to human spermatozoa and ova as being alive. Many scientists do not consider them alive.

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A further discussion of spermatozoa and ova:

Most of the public has seen movies of sperm under a microscope where they appear to be energetic swimmers, moving with intent towards an ovum. Most assume that both are alive. But, appearances can be deceptive.

From the point of view of most medical and scientific specialists, neither a spermatozoon nor an ovum are actually living entities. One knowledgeable visitor to this site wrote:

"A human ovum is little more than an inert globule of organic matter....Much like the unfertilized egg of a chicken, the unfertilized egg of a human is nothing more than a packet of organic matter - not truly 'alive'."

This also applies:

"...to spermatozoa. Their apparent 'living' movement is a result of a chemical process, and energy released by mitochondria.  A similar effect is produced when one puts a battery into a toy car. If the sperm were 'living' it would seek out 'food' with it's movement. The movement only has some sense of direction because of environmental factors within the uterus. Sperm are considered less 'alive' than a virus module."

Strictly speaking, sperm and ova are not human life. They do contain human DNA, but they are not actually alive; they do not grow; they do not reproduce by themselves. However, on this website, we will assume that sperm and ova are alive; they are forms of human life.

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What a zygote (pre-embryo) looks like:

The human ovum (egg) enters the fallopian tubes, many hours or days before it has the opportunity to be fertilized. Women release one about each month between puberty and menopause -- totaling a few hundred in a lifetime. Almost all of these are destined to not be fertilized and to be ejected from her body. Unless a couple is having difficulty conceiving, very little thought is given to these hundreds of ova. Each is about 1/100" in diameter, and is barely visible to the naked eye. Although the ovum does contain human DNA, there is a consensus that it is not a human person. They only have the potential to join with a spermatozoon and -- depending on one's beliefs -- either immediately or eventually produce a human person.

Hundreds of millions of male sperm are liberated during a typical sexual encounter. A few week's worth of ejaculations from a single male would theoretically provide sufficient sperm to double the earth's human population, if each were used to fertilize a separate ovum. Each spermatozoon is miniscule is size when compared to an ova. Viewing them under a microscope reveals them to be energetic swimmers. Essentially all of these will fail to fertilize an ovum. Again, unless infertility is a problem, little attention is given to their fate. An average man produces thousands of sperm a second. At most, a very tiny percentage during his lifetime will find an ovum and contribute to the formation of a newborn. Few men are consciously aware of the loss. Although sperm contain human DNA, there is a consensus that they are not human persons.They do have the potential to join with an ovum and -- depending on one's beliefs -- either immediately or eventually produce a human person.

fovum.gif (6674 bytes) The meeting of sperm and ovum often causes conception. When the first spermatozoon penetrates the wall of the ovum, a barrier is set up which almost always prevents additional spermatozoa from entering. Shown above is a microphotograph of a typical, just-fertilized ovum, called a zygote. It has formed a new and unique DNA sequence of 46 chromosomes out of the DNA which was contained in the original sperm and ovum. The latter two contain 23 chromosomes each.

The just-fertilized ovum, called a zygote, is alive. It contains human DNA. It is considered a form of human life. This event is considered by scientists to be the start of a new human organism. Many pro-lifers believe that it is also a human person at this point.

If all goes well, the single cell divides in two. This process of division continues.

72 hours after conception, the embryo may have reached the 7 cell-stage, shown here. (The embryo is the oval structure in the center of the microphotograph, being held between two micro-pipettes.) 

Among women without an IUD, perhaps 50% of fertilized ova develop into a baby which is born about nine months later. Some of the rest are expelled naturally by the body. Others, because of genetic imperfections or other reasons, are lost later by a miscarriage. Although the exact mechanism by which an IUD functions is not fully known, it seems that the device does not inhibit fertilization, but does prevent pregnancy from beginning by preventing the organism from being implanted in the womb. Thus, for women who use an IUD, almost all of the fertilized ova are expelled from the woman's body. Whether this is killing of human beings or terminating the life of potential humans depends upon your point of view.

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Acknowledgements: 

The color microphotograph of a just-fertilized ovum shown by permission from Dr. R. C. Wagner, Department of Biological Sciences, at the University of Delaware, Newark, DE. They have many other photographs at their Web page: http://www.udel.edu/

The black and white microphotograph which shows an embryo at the seven-cell stage is shown by permission of Dr. Malpani of the Malpani Infertility Clinic, Bombay, India.

We thank these physicians for allowing us to reproduce these microphotographs.

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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. Jonathan Finer, "Kerry Says He Believes Life Starts at Conception," Washington Post, 2004-JUL-5, Page A06. Online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  2. "Stem Cell Hypocrisy," Covenant News, 2004-NOV-10, at: http://www.covenantnews.com/blog/
  3. Diane S. Dew, "Parenthood, SIECUS admit: Life begins at conception," (1998), at: http://dianedew.com/
  4. "Conception, Birth and Contraception, McGraw-Hill," (1969), Page 15. Long out of print.
  5. Susan Jones, "South Dakota House Passes Bill Criminalizing Abortions," CNSNews, 2004-FEB-11, at: http://www.cnsnews.com/
  6. "Life begins at conception," These Last Days Ministries, at: http://www.tldm.org/
  7. S. Holm, "New Danish law: human life begins at conception," National Library of Medicine, (1988), at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
  8. William E. May, "Personal Human Life: When Does It Start?," from his book "Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life," OSV, (2000), Page 156-158. Online at Culture of LIfe Foundation Institute, at: http://www.christianity.com/
  9. "Human life begins at conception," The Free Dictionary, at: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/

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Copyright © 1995 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-NOV-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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