Fetal Life and Abortion:
Human Personhood at Conception
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Section 4: Every Human Being is a Person

Very recently it has begun to be stated that a human being can exist without, at the same time, being a human person. At first glance this position appears to contradict itself since, by common usage of words, "human being" and "human person" are interchangeable terms.(1) (Notes are listed below.)

A more thorough examination of this position, in light of its application to concrete examples, indicates that the first glance is correct. The two examples commonly given include the victim of an accident whose brain is no longer generating discernable brain waves (although spontaneous heartbeat and breathing are still present) and the conceptus of human parentage before brain waves are generated for the first time. To say that in each case a "human being" is present, but not a "human person," the speaker seems to be using one, or both, of the terms in an analogues sense rather than in their primary meaning.

On the supposition that brain waves of a certain kind are correlated with personhood, those brain waves would not be required for being human but would be required for being a person. It would be logical at this point to ask whether the brain waves are thought to be necessary only for recognizing a person or do they, in some way, constitute the unique being of the person?

Characteristic brain waves seem to have been assumed necessary for the status of personhood because they are typical of man's unique consciousness. Other animals generate brain waves, but not with the same high degree of complexity as man's. It is not clear, however, why this evidence of nervous activity in man should be attributed to his being a person rather than to his being human. In fact, it is curious that preoccupation with brain waves has accentuated a distinction which has no real foundation in fact, the supposed distinction between a human being and a human person.

Not only in philosophical tradition, but in common usage, the primary sense of the two terms identifies them as referring to the same subject, namely, the individual member of the human race. Many secondary and otherwise analogous meanings have entered the field of discourse, for example: person, as subject of rights, rather than as an individual human being; thus even a group of people can become a person for legal purposes, i.e., a "moral person."

If being human were not to require being a person, it would be logical to ask whether a human person must be a human being. If not, what happens to the human being when personhood is attained? Does the human being continue to exist? If so, are there then two existing beings, a person and a non-person? If not, then becoming a person merely modifies the human being, perhaps as adulthood modifies the child? If no new being comes into existence at personhood, then the person is also the human being who existed before personhood. Therefore the person and the non-person would be one and the same being, which seems to involve a contradiction. The contradiction can be avoided only if the human being had always been a person, and never a non-person.

Being a human person requires being a human being, because the reality called personhood demands a proper subject in which it resides or which it modifies. Is personhood a mode of being which could only sometimes be possessed by a human being? Such a situation would be contradicted by the common manner of speaking, by which a human individual is not said to "have personhood," but rather is said "to be a person."

If personhood were something which is merely "had" by a person, that personhood is only analogous to the personhood which constitutes the person, since a thing must "be" before anything can be attributed to it.

PERSONHOOD, IN ITS PRIMARY MEANING, SIGNIFIES WHAT A PERSON IS. What follows as a consequence of his being a person may be called personhood also, but the word no longer has the same meaning. For example, personhood involves the individual human being in rights and obligations. This involvement does not make him to be a person. On the contrary, he is involved in them because he is a person, a responsible, free agent.


Furthermore, personhood is sometimes confused with "personality," as seen in discussions under the title "The Beginnings of Personhood." To speak of "beginnings" instead of "the beginning" seems to imply that personhood comes about as the result of a continuous, progressive development, rather than being an instantaneous accomplishment. The prejudice engendered by this title might explain why participants in discussions on personhood shift so easily from talking about "person" to talking about "personality" (1) without realizing that they have made a dramatic transition in their universe of discourse.

According to present usage, as well as to philosophical tradition, personhood does not admit of degree -- you either are a person or you are not -- whereas personality not only allows for but demands development, as when it is said that one can improve ones personality.

This unobserved shift from personhood to personality as the subject of discussion may be explained by the preoccupation of modern science with observational changes, such as the gradual ripening of fruit, and its loss of contact with instantaneous changes which occur at the atomic level in chemistry or, at the moment of death, in biology. Instantaneous changes of substance, a thing of one kind ceasing to exist and in its place another kind of thing beginning to exist, have been traditionally called "substantial changes" and are properly understood only in terms of philosophical principles.

In this sense, the moment of conception can be defined as the first instant in which the gametes have ceased to be, this same instant being the first instant in which the human individual begins to be. For many students of the problem, this instant records the beginning (note, not beginnings) of human personhood. For then, the beginning of personhood is simultaneous with the beginning of the individual's humanity.

The unwitting substitution of "personality" for "personhood" places a condition for personhood which is impossible for the unborn of human parentage to meet. It demands that he or she possess characteristics which can exist only in mature or adult humans and never during the early stages of gestation and, in many instances, even long after birth. It simply is not reasonable to expect the unborn to have well-developed personalities based on criteria which only mature human beings can meet.

A closer reading of the position which holds that a human being need not be a person reveals a novel use of the word "person." Just as brain waves are made requisite for personhood, so also are self-consciousness and awareness of changes in ones immediate environment. Assuming that the generator of typically human brain waves is conscious because of the brain activity which generates those waves, consciousness would not seem to add a new requirement for personhood.

For some proponents of this position, however, a special awareness is demanded, called social consciousness. It is not always clear what is meant by the expression, but it seems to imply any sort of mutual stimulus-response relationship in the psychological order between two or more persons. Some have limited the social requirement to a unilateral relationship and say that it is sufficient for establishing personhood that a human being be loved by a person. Personhood, in this sense, seems to be nothing intrinsic to the person, but is a gift which may or may not be granted to the human being by some "personalized" member of human society or by the society as a whole.

It would be useful to consider whether such personhood is constituted by the social relationship and, if so, how it is related to what was formerly only a human being. In the case of the unilateral affection, it would seem that a kitten would be elevated to personhood by the affection of its owner. If it were protested that only a human being and not a kitten is eligible for the love which endows the recipient with personhood, one might logically ask for the basis of the distinction. If each is only a biological organism, why is one said to be different from the other? Is it the giver's choice which establishes the difference or is the choice made because of a difference which is already there?

In the case of the bilateral social relationship, it might be asked whether a human being could reciprocate with a personal response, unless he were already a person. In this case it is obvious that personhood is not established by the social relationship, but rather that the relationship exists only because personhood on the part of both already existed before the relationship came into being.

If personhood were once attained by a human being, by whatever means, could that personhood ever be lost, so that there is a retrogression to the non-person status of the human being? The victim of brain damage would be offered by the proponents of the position being examined, as an example in the affirmative. The value of their example might be enhanced by the fact that the discontinuation of brain waves for a determined length of time is being considered as a legal definition of death. The law, of course, is not likely to distinguish between the death of a person and the death of a human being. Perhaps the proponents of the position under examination should reconsider whether there is a demonstrable basis for such a distinction.

In those instances of brain damage wherein it is said that a human being is present, but is no longer a person, the words should be examined to see whether they are being used in their primary sense or only by analogy. For example: To speak of performing an autopsy on a human body is to use the word "human" in a sense which is quite different from its use in reference to the body of a living human being. At autopsy the body can be called human only because it is matter which, at one time, had been the body of a living human being. The radical differences manifest in the body before and after death should indicate that the term "human body" when applied in each instance, must signify realities which are far from being the same.

Care must be exercised so that a body which is no longer a human body in the primary sense of the term, be mistaken for a human being. Heartbeat and spontaneous breathing may be present in a body, supposedly because of residual medullary activity in the autonomic nervous system. But the brain damage in the centers of consciousness, as indicated by the prolonged absence of brain waves, might have changed the body from its primary sense of being human to the analogous sense of being human. This would be the same as saying that the human being may no longer be present, which would be the precise reason why the personhood is no longer present, namely, that the human being, the person, had died. At any rate, the brain damaged victim should not be used as evidence that human personhood is separable from the human being.

On the assumption that characteristic brain waves are coextensive with the life of an adult human being, their prolonged discontinuance would indicate the death of that human being. But even if it could be established that the adult human being is still present after the brain waves are no longer being generated, it is questionable whether the person has ceased to exist, since it is questionable whether brain waves are required for personhood.

And even if it were granted that brain waves are necessary for the personhood of an adult human being, it would not necessarily follow that brain waves are necessary for the personhood of an embryonic human being prior to the stage of development wherein it is natural for him or her to generate them for the first time. It is one thing to be lacking something which belongs, by nature, to an adult human being. It is quite another thing to be lacking nothing which an embryonic human being ought to have, by nature, at any stage of his or her development.

If the considerations up to this point appear to be highly academic it can be suggested that practical consequences follow from the various notions of personhood. In the case of the unilateral affection, is it to be assumed that personhood is lost by a withdrawal of the affection? And what can be assumed to remain after a unilateral withdrawal from a bilateral social relationship? Does this not appear to be the basis of justification for destroying the "unwanted" who, because they are not loved by their parents, never reach the status of persons? Or, having been granted personhood for various lengths of time, would not the socially-determined "undesirables" be capable of losing their personhood, prior to their extinction?

Because of the practical significance of human personhood in everyday life, especially for the unborn of human parentage, it would be useful to consider some of the legal aspects of the problem.

In popular usage, a member of the human race is called a human being or a person. (1) Membership in the human race requires that the person be of the same basic kind as all other individuals of the race. This requirement is fulfilled by his or her sharing in the same nature as the others, namely, human nature. (2) For purposes of government, civil law refers to persons under its jurisdiction as citizens and to others, for example, visitors to the country, merely as persons. In the Declaration of Independence, wherein the inalienable rights of all persons are proclaimed, persons are referred to as men, that is, individuals of mankind. (3)

In our civil law, one requisite for citizenship is birth. The placing of this condition is not to be construed as an attempt to deny personhood to the unborn of human parentage. Rather it seems to be a consequence of the need for legal evidence to uphold the existence of any given person as a countable member of the citizenry. This would be the same as saying that being born under certain conditions, such as from parents who are citizens, is a legal basis for becoming a citizen.

If our civil law would have attempted to distinguish between persons who are citizens and persons "in utero," there could have been a practical reason for such a distinction. By the nature of the case, the unborn person cannot participate in many of the activities for which the government must legislate. Even more pressing is the legal problem of establishing the existence of human beings before they are born, especially in early stages of their gestation. In days of less sophisticated embryology, the very sure evidence of birth could easily be used to establish the existence of a person whose privileges and obligations of citizenship might legally be established. The more delicate criterion of physical movement within the womb, known as quickening, was sometimes used for legal purposes, but not for establishing citizenship. (4)

The Dred Scott decision (7) is an example of the dangers and difficulties involved in government's attempt to decide the relationship between citizenship and personhood, even for persons already born. The Supreme Court's hearing, on October 11, 1972, relative to the constitutionality of the abortion laws of Texas and Georgia, is the first instance in which the Court had faced the issue of whether or not an unborn of human parentage is a constitutionally legal person. (Prior to this time, personhood had been taken for granted, with property rights and claims for damage being accredited to the unborn.)

Roe v.Wade decided against legal personhood for the unborn, due to the oversight of our Founding Fathers to have explicitly mentioned the unborn in the Bill of Rights. The competency of their decision does not extend itself to a denial of the personhood of the unborn. The Court admitted this lack of competency. (In defense of our Founding Fathers, at a time when human beings were the fledgling nation's greatest natural resource, they could never have imagined that citizens would one day demand legal sanction for killing their own offspring.)

In reference to this case, previously heard in October of 1971, an "amicus" brief, submitted by Dr. Joseph Witherspoon, S.J.D., Professor of Law, University of Texas at Austin, admirably demonstrates the intent of the Founding Fathers and offers many consequent legal precedents to the effect that the unborn of human parentage are legal persons and are included, implicitly, in our Bill of Rights. In the same hearing another "amicus" brief was accepted by the Court, on behalf of some two-hundred and fifty medical doctors, formulated by Mr. Dennis Horan, "et al," attorneys, to uphold the humanity, even from conception, of the unborn of human parentage. (8)

It is not intended to repeat here the evidence offered in those two excellent briefs, but rather to suggest a supplementary consideration of the problem. Before the days of modern embryology, birth was used as a clear-cut, legal criterion for the existence of a living, human offspring, a person explicitly included in the Bill of Rights. For those waiting to be born, other biological criteria, such as viability and quickening, sometimes entered into legal determinations. Yet, the common-sense of legal minds seem constrained to posit conception as the beginning of human life and personhood. The other biological criteria, quickening, viability and birth, could serve as legal evidence that conception had taken place, and that action for the protection of the new individual's life and property should be undertaken.

In light of current biological practice, it is unfair as well as archaic to wait until quickening or viability or birth, to give legal status to the right to life for the unborn of human parentage, rather than at the beginning of that life, which modern science places at conception. (9) (Also, see Section 2)


1. Person: a human being, as distinct from an animal or thing. (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary) The origin of the word person, "per sona," is found in early Greek drama, signifying one who speaks through a mask. This use is current in the designation of the participants of a play, "Dramatis Personae." It seems evident that every individual human being, each unique character, is a person. The concept seems to emphasize the reality behind the mask of the actor. Although all human beings are identical in their common denominator, which is human nature, each is a distinct person. Each person is a self-contained, individual, unique member of the human race.

The word person should not be confused with the word personality, as it is commonly used. Personality is the characteristic which distinguishes one person's mode of expressing his humanity from the manner in which others express their humanity, as when it is said that this or that person has a pleasing personality. Webster defines personality as "the totality of an individual's behavioral and emotional tendencies." Personality admits of variety and develops with experience and maturity, but personhood does not. A being either is a person or is not a person. There is no middle ground; a being cannot be only partially or incompletely a person.

Roe v. Wade speaks of the unborn as "not persons in the full sense." Presumably they are saying that Law does not recognize them as being our equals. Even if no legal precedent had been established concerning the personhood of the unborn, it would seem that Roe v. Wade, for whom this is the key issue, should have "taken up the slack" by facing up to the issue rather than excusing themselves on the grounds that their predecessors had never undertaken it.

After birth, the offspring of human parentage is given the legal status as a person. For those who question whether the unborn are persons in the natural, as distinct from the legal, sense, it would be useful to ask: When does the offspring begin to possess human nature? Since every human being is a person, and since human beings are what they are because of their human nature, the answer to that question would reveal the true beginning of personhood in the human individual.

2. Nature: "the inherent character or basic constitution of a person or thing." (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary) Also, in reference to man, that is, human nature: "man's original or natural condition."

Nature, as defined by Aristotle, is the principle of motion and of rest in those things which have a specific end and a spontaneous tendency to attain it. In the noun form, the word nature is derived from the verb "to be born". (Latin, pp "natus") It signifies the root of those characteristics which belong to things which are called natural, or things of nature, as distinct from artificial things. The adjective form, "innate," signifies the composite of those qualities without which the thing could not be of such a kind of natural thing, the endowment which it possesses when it first comes into existence and distinguishes it from all other kinds of things. Strictly innate in the case of a human being, is everything which belongs to the individual because of being a rational animal, a possessor of human nature.

Because of the etymology of the word nature, it must not be assumed that only living things have natures, or are things of nature. The atoms of the elements and the molecules of the compounds are natural entities, possessing natures, as defined by Aristotle. Nor should the word's origin, in the verb "to be born" mislead anyone into thinking that the nature of a living thing comes to it only at birth. When the words were first coined, living things were seen to have a "packaged" completeness, both in structures and functions, giving rise to the concept of nature, a distinct characteristic of all things which undergo birth, that is, living things. Only later did it become evident that non-living things, exclusive of artificial things, have natures also.

In light of the scientific practice of attributing vegetable nature to the zygote of vegetable parentage and animal nature to the zygote of animal parentage, it should not be surprising that human nature should be attributed to the zygote of human parentage. It is true that the microscopic, single cell does not look like a human being, when compared with a human adult, but neither does any other zygote look like an adult member of its species.

It is reasonable to assume that the unborn of human parentage receives his or her human nature, not only before birth, but from the first moment of conception. Since the zygote is a natural, complete entity, it must be said to have a nature from the first moment of its existence, which is at conception.

3. ". . . all men are created equal . ." There would be no change in meaning, should the word "person" be substituted for men.

4."Abortion And Due Process," by Dallin H. Oaks, "Res Ipsa Loquitur." Vol. 23, No. 1

5. ibid.

6. Person: "a human being, body of persons, corporation, partnership or other legal entity recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties."

(Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary)

7. Scott v. Sanford, 19 How. 393 (1857)

8. Dr. J. Witherspoon: Roe v. Wade (U. of Texas, 2500 Red River, Austin, Texas 78705) Dennis J. Horan, "et al:" Mary Doe "et al" v. Arthur K.Bolton "et al" and Jane Roe, v. Henry Wade (Suite 2300, One North LaSalle St., Chicago, Illinois 60602)

9. "Embryology is the study of the human organism in its immature condition, i.e., from the fertilized ovum up to the period when it assumes an independent existence." "Gray's Anatomy."

"Ovum"... The egg or female sexual cell, from which, when fecundated by union with the male element, a new individual is developed." "Steadman's Medical Dictionary"

"I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of conception; even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity." General Assembly of the World Medical Association, Declaration of Geneva, 1958.

"An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun. It is dangerous to your life and health." Plan Your Children for Health and Happiness, Planned Parenthood pamphlet, N.Y. (1963)

"The birth of a human life really occurs at the moment the mother's egg cell is fertilized by one of the father's sperm cells." Life Magazine, April 30, 1965.

"That we, the medical profession, hold to the principle of the sacredness of human life and the right of the individual even though unborn is proof that humanity is not yet lost and that we may ultimately obtain salvation." Dr. Joseph B. DeLee, M.D., "The 1940 Year Book of Obstetrics and Gynecology, p. 69."


Since rights can belong only to persons, it is important to know that every human being, even those waiting to be born, are persons. It would be quite Un-American to deny anyone his or her rights, especially the right to life! The following thoughts could be helpful in reassuring you that, despite the confusion manifest in, and engendered by, Roe v. Wade, the offspring of human parentage, even from conception is, indeed, a person and possessor of rights.

Let us begin by considering the human individual: To be an individual thing "in the world of nature" is to be something complete in itself, possessing whatever belongs to it by its nature, and not possessing anything that doesn't. Applying this definition to the human being, several distinctions must be established. The first of these clarifies whether what is, or is not, possessed is something essential, or merely incidental, to the individual. An amputee lacks what belongs to him by nature, but the missing arm or leg does not destroy his human individuality. It merely destroys his physical integrity.

Whether the brain is an essential or merely an integral possession of the human individual may, in turn, depend on the stage of that individual's development. An adult, having lost all of his brain except the brain-stem (medulla) in an accident, might well have died at the moment of impact and is no longer a human individual, even though circulatory and respiratory functions may still be evident. In the case of early development, before the schedule of nature prompts the maturing individual to construct his or her brain, the absence of a brain is not a denial of his or her human individuality. A brain is not necessary at that stage of development, and the offspring does whatever need to be done, without it. The very concept of a maturing organism presupposes that some structures and their corresponding functions, found later, will not be present in earlier stages, except in the capability of the organism to produce them when scheduled by its nature.

It will be helpful here to review the soul's function of integrating the organism. What is the integrating principle which causes an organism, at all stages of its development, not only to be an individual, but to remain the same individual? The same question might be asked about an atom of gold or a molecule of carbon-dioxide. Living things might appear more complicated, but the problem is the same: What makes the thing to be an individual thing? The companion question is: what makes it to be an individual of a specific kind?

It is the quantitative integrity (exclusivity) of a material thing which reveals its individuality. That which reveals its specificity and incorporates it into "the world of nature" is its nature. It is our human nature which expresses our human personhood. And it is that nature (species status) which an offspring of human parents possesses, by genetic inheritance, at the time of his or her conception.

Going a step further, we seek the cause of individuality and specificity in any natural thing. Is it not likely that whatever causes it to be a thing of a certain kind also specifies the quantitative parameters proper to that kind of thing? Aristotle attributes the ultimate specificity to what he calls the "formal cause" of the thing. In the case of living things, the formal cause is the soul (psyche, Gk.) of the organism, the source from which specific, vital activity emanates. From this it would be evident that any organism is of a given kind (its species) because of its soul, which expresses itself through the unique nature of that organism. It should be evident, then, that a human soul should be required for being human, and for a human being to express his or her specific uniqueness through human nature, in accordance with his or her stage of development.

To summarize these thoughts briefly: It belongs to us, as human beings, always to be persons, in the fullest sense of the word and not, as Roe v. Wade gratuitously asserts, sometimes "not persons in the full sense."

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