Fetal Life and Abortion:
Human Personhood at Conception
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Section 2: Personal, Human Life Begins at Conception


In recent years, some abortion-minded biologists have begun to claim that the offspring of human parents, in the one-celled stage of its existence, is not an organism. (The one-cell stage is called "zygote," from Greek, meaning "yoked" with reference to the fusion of the two parental, reproductive cells at the time of conception.) If it is not an organism, then, of course, it is not a human organism, not even an immature human organism. This position should be questioned, since it seems not to be based on sound biology. 

The Supreme Court's decision on abortion, January 22, 1973, is based in part on the assertion that the unborn of human parentage is not legally a person. Whether or not it is a legal person, the question still remains whether it is a person at all, because one must be a person before there is any hope of being legally recognized as a person. Little would be accomplished in the problem of abortion by assuming that the unborn becomes a person at some later stage of his development. A more fundamental question must be settled, namely, whether the offspring of human parentage, in its one-celled stage of existence, is a person.

Biologists classify organisms according to naturally occurring genera and species on the assumption that organisms are natural entities or products of nature. Thus, although a cell and an organ of a rabbit are specially organized matter, only the rabbit is called an organism and is said to belong to a given genus and species. For everyday usage all biologists seem to agree that an organism, besides being alive, is something whose matter is integrated in such a way as to constitute an individual, self-serving whole.

DEFINITION, ORGANISM: An organism, whether it is single-celled or multi-celled, is a living, autonomous being whose parts are coordinated among themselves and subordinated to the functions of the whole. Any living thing which is not only non-continuous with other matter, but can develop and maintain its own structure and its specifically unique functions, compatible with its degree of maturity, is an organism.

The individual cells of a multi-celled organism, whether somatic (body) cells or reproductive cells, are alive in some sense, but only with the life of the organism. Otherwise the organism would not be an individual living thing, but rather a colony of living things. The somatic cells are never autonomous except, perhaps, when some abnormality such as cancer is involved. They are under the control of the organism. Even when separated from the organism, as in tissue culture, somatic (body) cells, though kept alive and dividing with outside help, never attain the completeness of even the simplest one-celled organism. The reproductive cell of complex animals is also deficient of itself, as is seen in its sole function of fusing with another reproductive cell to form a new organism. And so, it is not within the common understanding of biologists to speak of gametes (reproductive cells) or of cells "in vitro" as being organisms.

It might be difficult to visualize the zygote of a multi-celled species as being an organism. Yet it is an autonomous whole and numerically distinct from its parents. A chicken zygote, in the incubator, in virtue of its own vital forces and under the guidance of its own genetic information uses the materials which it finds available within the confines of the eggshell to initiate, by cell-division and cell-differentiation, its embryonic development. The chicken, in its one-cell, zygotic stage of life is already an organism, however immature it may be at that time. It takes the necessary first step and it takes it in the right direction. Compatible with its small degree of maturity, it manifests individual autonomy and self-sufficiency.

The current quest of "test-tube" babies is evidence for scientific acceptance of the fact that the zygote, once having been brought into existence, needs the mother only by way of environment. The researcher who brings the gametes together continues his experiment with no other assistance to the resulting zygote than to provide what he considers to be suitable materials for the zygote's use and a suitable environment for the zygote to work in.

In their early development, embryos of such diverse organisms as salamander, chicken and man, possess a similarity of configuration which prompted the axiom: "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." But it is not long before these similarities disappear and new configurations emerge which enable one to identify the specific characteristics of each embryo. Biologists attribute these similarities and subsequent differences to the unique genetic information contained in the chromosomes of each embryo. If the genetic information is different, the structures will develop differently.

But IS THE GENETIC CODE A COMPLETE EXPLANATION or is it merely as far as the biologist can go? In other words, is a cause of the specificity of each genetic code required? Just as the members of a given species may have some individually different characteristics which they inherited from their parents, should there not be an explanation for that part of their genetic codes which they have in common, that is, as individuals of the same species?

Aristotle, the "Father of Biology," speaking not as a biologist but as a philosopher, seems to have posited such a cause. This he called the organism's nature. He defined nature as the source or cause of motion and of rest in those things which have a specific end and a spontaneous tendency to attain it.

TO DETERMINE THE SPECIFIC NATURE OF A GIVEN ORGANISM, the philosopher observes its behavior, using the axiom: "A thing is as it acts." In this way he groups and separates organisms according to their natures. The biologist uses a similar procedure in classifying individual organisms into the classical groupings of his own science: kingdom, phylum, etc. Despite the many difficulties in the sciences of classification, for example, the problem of judging which structures and functions should serve as the basis of grouping and separating, the biologist does not hesitate to assume that there is a causative factor underlying the pattern of characteristics which he finds in each organism, that which the philosopher calls the "nature" of the thing.

Biologists insist that an organism is an uninterrupted continuum from the beginning of its existence until its death. It is the same individual that begins to live, develops, matures and dies. At birth a rabbit is still an immature organism, but an organism nevertheless. It maintains itself and matures from within, as is the manner of all living things. There should be no hesitation in accepting such continuity throughout the rabbit's intra-uterine development, from zygote stage to birth.

The zygote of human parentage, no less than a rabbit zygote, is an organism having the same nature as its parents, even though some time must pass before he or she puts forth the characteristic configuration which makes macroscopic identification possible.

THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE MOMENT FOR THE ORIGIN OF THE HUMAN LIFE-COURSE IS THE ONE PRIOR TO ANY AND ALL DEVELOPMENT, NAMELY, THE MOMENT OF CONCEPTION. It is then when the zygote was endowed with its genetic code and its human nature, which enabled it to begin its trend of development. The moment it began to develop it was already a human being, since a thing must be before it can act. Furthermore a thing must be of a certain kind in order to act in a distinctive manner, indicating that the thing must have a specific nature. And since the action is developmental, once begun, the same actor endures throughout the entire life-course of the human being, from conception until death.

THE REMAINING QUESTION CONCERNS THAT ACTOR. In later stages of his or her development he or she is called a person.  It would seem reasonable that he or she be called a person at the very beginning of his or her acting. Is the zygote of human parentage a person? To answer this question one must establish the minimum requirements of personhood and to see whether the zygote of human parentage meets them.

The task is simplified by first noting that personhood is not the same as personality. Personhood, like nature, admits of no degree; whereas personality demands training, education and character development, allowing for great variety among human individuals. Personhood is the same for all. Personality is not expected of the human individual in his zygote stage, but personhood is something else and the zygote does qualify for that; FOR A PERSON IS NOTHING MORE OR LESS THAN AN INDIVIDUAL MEMBER OF THE HUMAN RACE.

The word "individual" is used in the same sense as that which indicates the relationship between one rabbit and the rabbit species. A single rabbit is an individual of the rabbit species. Two factors are involved in the concept of the individual. First, as the word indicates, the individual is an undivided whole. Secondly, the individual is dimensionally non-continuous with others of the species. Thus, the human individual is not and never can be a part of any other human individual, including his or her mother.

Reference to the individual of any species necessitates such expressions as "this rabbit" or "this man." Common usage regards expressions such as "this man" and "this person" as interchangeable. In other words, a special badge of identification applies to man. He or she is called a "person." This designation is given in recognition of man's unique and highly significant characteristic of being master of his own destiny. Every individual human, because he or she belongs to that species of beings whose members are capable of deliberate and responsible conduct, is automatically a person.


The capability mentioned here stems from the individual's human nature. Whether the individual is an adult human or a zygotic human, it is natural for him to be able to reason and to make deliberate choices. This does not mean that it would be unnatural for him not always to be reasoning or making deliberate choices. A sleeping or anesthetized adult is not engaged in either of these activities, yet does not thereby cease to be a human person. It might not be possible to judge from his behavior that he is a human person, but that is quite a different matter. In other words, it is one thing to be a human person and quite another to demonstrate the fact that he is a human person. This points up the current problem of establishing legal criteria for the death of a human being.

It is true that the zygote does not yet possess the structures which are required for the act of reasoning. The sleeping adult already has these structures, but it should be obvious that his possession of them, as well as his ability to use them, presupposes a more fundamental capability attributable to his nature as a thinking being. Otherwise there would be no distinction between man and other complex animals which possess highly developed nervous systems.

Even when it is granted that the human adult has a more highly specialized nervous system than possessed by any of the brute animals there remains a basic question: whether a reasoning adult reasons because he happens to have the specialized nervous system or whether he has the specialized nervous system because of his innate ability to reason. Since the structural development of the individual follows the guidance of his genetic code it would seem necessary to say that he develops human structures simply because he is a human being. And, since that development began in his zygote state of existence, it follows that he was a human being even at that stage of his development.

If one admits that human life begins at the moment of conception, he must admit that a person has begun to exist at that moment. If the zygote is an individual human being, and if every human individual is a person, the conclusion is inescapable: The zygote in question is a person.

REVIEW AND FURTHER READING. #1. Definitions of "human person" and "conception," with awareness of the interdependence of Biology and Philosophy.


"Human person" and "conception" exist in two different orders of reality. Conception, being a physical action, pertains to the science of material objects, things perceived by the senses. The science in this case is Biology, whose subject is all living things (organisms.) Insofar as a human being is an organism, he or she is the subject of Biology. But, as a human being, he or she has a non-physical dimension, called personhood, which cannot be perceived by the senses. It is the intellect which must function here. The definition of "human person" belongs to the science of Philosophy, the science of non-physical realities.


Biology is called a physical science because it deals with material things. (physical, from Gk. = material, from Latin) Philosophy is called an intellectual science because it deals with realities which are non-material, sometimes called "abstract concepts," such as beauty, goodness and truth, which can be handled only by the intellect. "Person" and "nature" are philosophical concepts. Biology interests itself in organisms and all their bodily characteristics. Philosophy concerns itself with something which belongs to all organisms but which has no physical dimensions, namely, life itself.

Biology and Philosophy are both sciences. Science is knowledge, organized, demonstrable knowledge. The basis of organization in both instances is the same, namely, cause-effect relationships. Demonstrability, likewise, is the same for both: the establishment of incontrovertible fact and the presentation of reasonable theory.

Biology relates effects with their proximate causes; Philosophy with their ultimate causes. For example, Biology tells us that it is the monitoring of the carbonic-acid of the blood plasma in the medulla of the brain which is the ordinary cause of variability in our respiratory and circulatory functions. Philosophy tells us what a cause is.

It might be helpful to speak of the physical sciences as knowledge which we acquire by reasoning upon what we have experienced with our senses. Intellectual science is knowledge which we acquire by thinking upon what we have learned with our intellect. It is important to note that both sense-knowledge and intellectual-knowledge can be examined in terms of cause-and-effect relationships. Both sciences also concern themselves with "purpose," satisfying our need to know "why?"

THE ULTIMATE PURPOSE OF THINGS PERTAINS TO PHILOSOPHY. We can reason to the beginning of a personal, human life by examining the purpose of reproduction: The purpose of reproduction is to bring into existence another organism of the same species as its parent(s.) In sexual reproduction this is accomplished at fertilization, because, from then on, the offspring is capable of fulfilling its own destiny of maturing as an individual of that species. Its dependence on suitable environmental factors is no more opposed to this conclusion than the need for suitable environmental support at anytime during an organism's lifespan. In the case of human reproduction the offspring begins to exist and to be a human person, at the moment of his or her conception.

In this context, it could be helpful to remember that the "actions and reactions" of natural things are the result of our Creator's design. It follows, then, that the ultimate purpose in the workings of nature is God's intention. This could lead us to propose that abortion is contrary to the will of God who, having begun the life of a human person, has a right to expect that there be no deliberate interference against the continuing of that person's life.

BEFORE EXAMINING THE DEFINITIONS OF PERSONHOOD AND CONCEPTION, REFLECT UPON YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING OF THESE TERMS. You and I are persons; rabbits and trees are not. Perhaps you would place at lest two elements as requisite for human personhood, rational nature and individual autonomy: Human beings, because of their human nature, are members of a group who are characterized by their ability to reason and who are, because of that same nature, fully possessive of themselves.

Whatever your concept of person is, ask yourself whether there is ever a time when a human being is not a person: Were you, from the beginning of your existence, ever not a person? This question, logically, leads to another: When did you begin to exist?

Going backward from birth: Before you were born you were already alive. At four months before you were born, your mother felt you moving around within her body. It must have taken you some time to have produced your skeleton, with its associated nerves and muscles, to have managed that movement. How much farther back than four months can you go to find a time when you did not exist? However long that might be, the important thing is that it was you who appeared on the scene!

In going back to the beginning of your existence, you find yourself reviewing the biology of conception, spoken of in the textbooks as "fertilization." Outside of Biology, and out of respect for the dignity of human beings, as distinguished from the lesser organisms, fertilization in humans is called "conception."

From the viewpoint of Biology, conception is the combining of the two reproductive cells (gametes) of the two human parents, bringing into existence the one-celled, zygote stage of their offspring. It should be noted here that conception is an instantaneous event and not to be mistaken with the implanting of the offspring in the uterine wall of the mother, called "nidation" (nesting) which occurs several days later.

FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF PHILOSOPHY, CONCEPTION IN HUMANS INVOLVES MORE THAN IS REQUIRED IN THE FERTILIZATION OF THE LESSER ANIMALS. Human parents, as do the lesser animals, provide highly-organized materials, the sperm and the ovum, which supply the material content of the zygote-stage of their offspring. The offspring, however, as he or she matures, manifests non-material capabilities, which cannot be explained as a contribution of the parents.

In all cases of fertilization it is necessary to have a specific cause to explain the combining of the sperm and ovum, the production of something which is quite different from either of them. The uniting of materials from the parental cells to form the offspring requires an active principle to combine them in such a way that the matter of the two become one individual, living thing. Also the vitalization of that individual thing with life proper to a member of the parents' species requires a cause capable of producing that effect.

THAT VITAL PRINCIPLE IS COMMONLY CALLED THE SOUL (psyche, Gk. Aristotle) OF THE LIVING THING. It is the soul which reorganizes the material of the sperm and ovum, causing them to combine. And it that soul which keeps the individual organized, in structure and function, throughout the lifetime of that living thing. It is because of this unique vital organization that the living thing is called an organism, and that all living things are said to have souls.

BECAUSE YOU ARE A HUMAN BEING, your soul is different from the soul of a chicken. This is evident from the difference in the self-movements which flow from those two souls. You can know, and be motivated by, non-material objects, such as truth and honor. The chicken, as its behavior indicates, is limited to sense-knowledge and material motivation. The chicken soul, being a material principle of life, comes to the offspring through the ordinary workings of nature, from potentialities which the Creator made to be resident in reproductive matter.

YOUR PARENTS PROVIDED YOU WITH MATERIAL ALSO, THEIR REPRODUCTIVE CELLS. BUT NOT YOUR SOUL; THEY HAD ONLY THEIR OWN SOULS AND NO SPARE ONE TO GIVE. Your non-material soul, making you to be a human person, had to be given to you directly by your Creator. It is that soul which gives you your human nature and the uniqueness of your individuality, your claim to being an individual member of the human race, a person. In a very real sense, it is your personhood which establishes you on a "one-to-one" basis with your parents and your Creator. You are a being in, and for, yourself, the basis of your autonomy and human dignity. The chicken, on the other hand, might reasonably be served at table for your dinner.

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