Peter Chow: When Does Life Begin? When Does Personhood Begin?


It is, for the most part, divided among the scientific and philosophical community whether life begins at the moment when the genetic information contained in the sperm and ovum combine to form a genetically unique cell.

However, what is really controversial is whether this genetically unique cell should be considered a human person – Personhood.

One can sensibly make the case that “Personhood” can only exist in a living human being and that the division of these two entities, Life and Personhood, is arbitrary at best.

Life, in the true biological sense of word, begins when the chemical matter gives rise, in a specific way to an autonomous, self-regulating, and self-reproducing system.

Long before ultrasounds and long before Roe v. Wade, it was obvious when life began.

The “Quickening,” the first time a woman felt her baby’s kick, was the moment the baby came alive, the moment it got a soul.

When Henry VIII’s wife felt her quickening, it was cause for celebratory bonfires across London.

In the 19th century, abortion in Britain was legal – until the quickening.

Today, 38 U.S. States legally recognize a human fetus or “unborn child” as a crime victim, at least for the purpose of homicide or feticide laws.

In human pregnancies, a baby-to-be isn’t considered a fetus until the 9th week after conception, or week 11 after the last menstrual period.

A prenatal personhood designation might subject a woman who suffers a pregnancy-related complication or a miscarriage to criminal investigations and possibly jail time for homicide, manslaughter or reckless endangerment.


And because so many laws use the terms “persons” or “people,” a prenatal personhood measure could affect large numbers of a state’s laws, changing the application of thousands of laws and resulting in unforeseeable, unintended, and absurd consequences.

There is neither scientific consensus on the matter of when human life actually begins nor agreement that it is a question that biologists can answer using their science.

The Catholic Church:


‘‘Life begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or ovum to produce a single cell, a zygote.”

“This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual’’; if he were alive today, St. Augustine would agree;  life begins at conception;  no doubt St. Augustine would have marvelled at a uterine ultrasound and what it reveals about a human in the womb.”

For the greater part of the last millennium the Catholic Church held that human life began at conception – its current teaching.
Many religions, including a number of denominations of Christianity, are ambivalent about the beginnings of life.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and many American Baptists don’t believe abortion is akin to murder.

Presbyterians concede that they “may not know exactly when human life begins” and encourage their followers to make their own careful decisions on abortion.

Unitarians are more overtly pro-choice and “believe not only in the value of life itself but also in the quality of life.”

The National Association of Evangelicals has passed a number of resolutions stating its opposition to abortion.

However, the organization recognizes that there might be situations in which terminating a pregnancy is warranted – such as protecting the life of a mother or in cases of rape or incest.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that “elective abortion for personal or social convenience is contrary to the will and the commandments of God.”

Therefore, the church says, any facilitation of or support for this kind of abortion warrants excommunication from the church.

However, the church believes that certain circumstances can justify abortion, such as a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother or that has come about as the result of rape or incest.

While the Episcopal Church recognizes a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy, the church condones abortion only in cases of rape or incest, cases in which a mother’s physical or mental health is at risk, or cases involving fetal abnormalities.

The official position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America states that “abortion prior to viability [of a fetus] should not be prohibited by law or by lack of public funding” but that abortion after the point of fetal viability should be prohibited except when the life of a mother is threatened or when fetal abnormalities pose a fatal threat to a newborn.

The Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed its opposition to abortion, stating that “all human life is a sacred gift from our sovereign God and therefore … all abortions, except in those very rare cases where the life of the mother is clearly in danger, are wrong.”

While the United Methodist Church opposes abortion, it affirms that it is “equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.”

The church sanctions “the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures” but rejects abortion as a method of gender selection or birth control.

Among Muslims, there is no universally agreed-upon moment when a fetus becomes a person.

“Some say it takes 40 days, others say it takes 120 days, for a human soul to be breathed into a fetus,” Sherine Hamdy, an associate professor of anthropology at Brown who researches cross-cultural bioethics, said.

She said many Muslim religious leaders allow for abortion in case of rape before 4 months, and some also allow for it in the case of a prenatal diagnosis of disability if it is seen as “an arduous burden on the family’s well-being.”

Islam believes that the termination of a pregnancy after four months – the point at which, in Islam, a fetus is thought to become a living soul – is not permissible.

The majority of Jews do not believe that life begins at conception but instead see the creation of life as something that happens over time.

During this process, the fetus is seen as part of the mother, whose well-being, both immediate and future, takes precedence.

As with other religious traditions, Jewish ethicists have increasingly become willing to consider psychological threats to the mother in addition to physical ones, when considering whether an abortion is the right decision.

“The tradition holds that we enter life in stages and leave in stages,” Rabbi Elliot Dorff, bioethicist and professor of Jewish theology at the American Jewish University in California, said.

There is no official position on abortion among Buddhists, although many Buddhists believe that life begins at conception and that killing is morally wrong.

In Japan, where there is a large Buddhist population, abortions are commonly practiced and often involve the Buddhist tradition of mizuko jizo, in which aborted fetuses are thought to be led to the land of the dead.


Unless a mother’s health is at risk, traditional Hindu teachings condemn abortion because it is thought to violate the religion’s teachings of nonviolence.

Sperm as Life?

While sperm is a body fluid regularly regenerated like blood, bone marrow, and some organs, courts have often mischaracterized sperm as equal to fertilized eggs.

In numerous legal cases dealing with artificial insemination through sperm donation, courts have elevated sperm, a substance that alone cannot result in a child, to the status of a potential life.

47 US courts have made this distinction refer to sperm’s “potential to produce life” –  in effect, elevating it to a status equal to a life.

Without legislative guidance, judges have allowed personal and religious values to influence their rulings.

Laws regarding sperm must reflect contemporary biological understanding.

More specifically, sperm must be differentiated from other genetic materials such as embryos, pre-implantation embryos (or pre-embryos), and zygotes.

While there is significant disagreement as to the definitions of embryos, the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) has attempted to clarify the issue.

According to the NIH, an embryo is defined as “the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the 9th week of gestation, when it becomes known as a

A pre-embryo is “the very early, free-floating embryo, from the time the egg is fertilized until implantation in the mother’s womb is complete, about 12 to 14 days after fertilization.”

A zygote is “the single-celled, fertilized egg.”

Once an egg is fertilized, there are religious, moral, and legal arguments over whether life has already begun.

There are five developmental stages that, from a biological perspective, are all plausible beginning points for human life.

Science knows, can tell these stages apart, but cannot decide at which one of these stages life begins.

The first of these stages is fertilization of the ovum, when a zygote is formed with the full human genetic material.

But almost every cell in everyone’s body contains that person’s complete DNA sequence.

If genetic material, DNA alone makes a potential human being, then when we shed skin cells – as we do all the time – we are severing potential human beings.

The second plausible stage is called gastrulation, which happens about two weeks after fertilization.

At that point, the embryo loses the ability to form identical twins – or triplets or more.

The embryo therefore becomes a biological individual but not necessarily a human individual.

The third possible stage is at 24 to 27 weeks of pregnancy, when the characteristic human-specific brain-wave pattern consistent with consciousness emerges in the fetus’s brain.

Disappearance of this pattern is part of the legal standard for human death;  by symmetry, perhaps its appearance could be taken to mark the beginning of human life.

The fourth possible stage, which is the one endorsed in the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States, is viability, when a fetus typically becomes viable outside the uterus with the help of today’s available medical technology, about 22-24 weeks.

The final possibility is birth itself.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing reasonably good outcomes in some preemies born at 22 weeks of gestational age.

Two key technologies have pushed that date: the use of steroids, which can speed up fetal development, and surfactants that prevent lungs from collapsing after birth.

Still, setting an absolute cutoff for fetal viability is impossible.

It depends on how you define it.

Is it when some babies survive?

Half survive?

Or most babies survive?

At 22 or even 24 weeks, many of the babies that do survive end up with permanent severe health problems or devastating disabilities.

The US Supreme Court seems poised to uphold a law enacted in 2018 by the Republican-dominated Mississippi Legislature that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, in the most important abortion case in decades.

Such a ruling would be flatly at odds with what the court has said was the central holding of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion and prohibited states from banning the procedure before fetal viability, or around 24 weeks.

American democracy is at the breaking point, and a Supreme Court ready to gut or overturn Roe v Wade is the latest warning sign.

A radical minority is accumulating ever more power, and they’re threatening to undermine equal rights under the law, basic human freedoms, and democracy itself.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even for rape and incest survivors.

Under the longstanding legal framework of Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey, two of the supreme court cases that shape abortion rights in the US, states cannot outlaw abortion before the point of fetal viability, when the fetus can survive outside of the woman’s body.

The Mississippi law violates that longstanding Supreme Court precedent.

Yet the court agreed to hear it anyway, which was the first bad sign – why hear a case that so clearly flies in the face of what the court has already ruled?

Wednesday’s oral arguments only contributed to the sense of doom, as a majority of the justices seemed ready and willing to overturn Roe.

This didn’t happen by accident.

The rightwing stranglehold on the courts has been a long-term project achieved by devious means.

Republicans blocked Barack Obama from appointing dozens of judges to the federal bench, leaving those slots open for Donald Trump to fill.

Trump then stacked the courts with conservative reactionaries, many of whom were so unqualified that they failed to get the basic endorsement of the American Bar Association (ABA).

Instead of appointing qualified candidates over rightwing stooges, the Trump administration simply cut the ABA out of the judicial vetting process.

Public figures have, in recent years, prominently claimed that scientific knowledge on the topic of when human life begins is definitive.


In 2012, for instance, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was running for president, claimed: ”Biologically, life begins at conception. That’s irrefutable from a biological standpoint.“

Similarly, in his 2015 presidential bid, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio declared:  ”I believe that science is clear … when there is conception that that is a human life in the early stages of its development.“

Senator Rand Paul said:

“The Life at Conception Act (2019) legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore, is entitled to legal protection from that point forward.”

“Only when America chooses, remembers, and restores her respect for life will we rediscover our moral bearings and truly find our way.”

Before about week 9 of pregnancy, a doctor may refer to the fetus as an embryo.

The heart of an embryo starts to beat from around 6 weeks of pregnancy.

In the debate over life’s beginnings, the heartbeat is a metaphor, a visceral and potent symbol of life that some can’t help but interpret as proof of life itself.

It’s hard to be unmoved by idea of blood coursing through an embryo or fetus’ heart, something many women and men now bear witness to in the exam room, with our eyes, ears, and, yes, hearts.

Now, lawmakers in nine U.S. states have passed laws banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, or at six weeks of pregnancy.

But what exactly do we mean when we talk about a “fetal heartbeat” at six weeks of pregnancy?

Although some people might picture a heart-shaped organ beating inside a fetus, this is not the case.

Rather, at six weeks of pregnancy, an ultrasound can detect “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart of the baby,.

This flutter happens because the group of cells that will become the future “pacemaker” of the heart gain the capacity to fire electrical signals.

But the heart is far from fully formed at this stage, and the “beat” isn’t audible; if doctors put a stethoscope up to a woman’s belly this early on in her pregnancy, they would not hear a heartbeat.

Still, the heartbeat deceives.

It renders the grayscale beginnings of life in black and white, in refutation of the fact that this is a mysterious process with many possible ends.

Denying this doesn’t just threaten women’s reproductive rights, but also limits the way we think and talk about pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and childbirth.

This mystery is what makes it possible for the same woman to choose an abortion and then grieve a miscarriage, or to pray for the survival of the 5-day-old embryo implanted in her womb by a fertility doctor while being at peace with the fact that, if that one makes it, the other half-dozen in the freezer will be destroyed.

When we view life as evolving in stages, it frees us to experience all these moments in all their fullness and complexity.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma:

“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,

A place where even squares can have a ball

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,

And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all”

Oklahoma legislators introduced a bill in 2012, the “Oklahoma Personhood Bill” that said “the Life of each Human Being begins at Conception.”

“This legislation is about as simple as it gets.  Under this bill, Oklahoma law will acknowledge that life begin at conception,” said state Rep. Lisa Billy.

“The measure provides a clear policy statement and puts the state of Oklahoma on the side of protecting human life to the fullest extent possible under existing court rulings.”

Senate Bill 1433, by state Sen. Brian Crain and Billy, declares that the “life of each human being begins at conception” and that the “laws of this state shall be interpreted and construed to acknowledge on behalf of the unborn child at every stage of development all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of this state.”

Critics of the measure expressed concern the legislation would outlaw in-vitro fertilization and birth control.

Fertility doctors would be forced to cease practice for fear of criminal charges if a fertilized egg were lost in the process of in vitro fertilization.

A similar personhood measure put to Mississippi voters in November failed by a vote of 58% to 42%, said Atlee Breland, a Mississippian and former infertility patient who worked to defeat that ballot measure.

“Mississippi is a conservative state, and its voters have a sincere value for life but also value families’ access to contraception, the ability to build families through infertility treatment and access to life-threatening pregnancy care for serious conditions such as an ectopic pregnancy”, Breland said.

“Mississippians understood those issues should not be part of the Pro-choice, Pro-life battle,” she said.

Crain has said the measure would not ban in vitro fertilization or contraception and would not prevent abortions because Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case, is still on the books…..for now.

Crain said the measure makes a statement recognizing the rights of the unborn.

The measures create a second-class citizen, Breland said.

“It is called a pregnant woman because now she has a person in her, and she cannot do the same thing that a non-pregnant woman can do,” he said.

Doctors do not want to practice under the shadow of prosecution, she said.

But Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson, a Democrat, decided that the bill declaring that life begins at conception didn’t go far enough to protect unborn children.

Johnson added an amendment to the bill, posted online, that says life actually begins at ejaculation.

“Any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.”

Flushing semen down the toilet is no better than flushing a human being down the toilet, the senator argued.


Oklahoma’s bill SB 1433, the “Personhood Bill” would give fertilzed eggs the same legal rights as human beings through all stages of conception.

It is one of many controversial “personhood” bills introduced across the United States that have further driven a wedge between pro-abortion and anti-abortion advocates.

Similar bills have recently been introduced in Virginia and Utah.

Medical professionals have voiced concerns about the sometimes unclear language used in personhood bills.

“Embryos, including those frozen in storage, are now persons,” Dr. Eli Reshef, medical director at the Bennett Fertility Institute, told Tulsa World.

“Do they have to be counted in the Census?   I know this might sound like stretching, but this is how vague a law like this is.”

State Sen. Jim Wilson, another critic of bill, tried to add his own amendment to SB 1433 that would hold men more accountable for protecting the ovum post-conception.

He proposed that the father of the fertilized egg should be “financially responsible for its mother’s health care, housing, transportation and nourishment while she is pregnant.”

His amendment failed.

The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) and the National Organ Transplantation Act (NOTA) both govern the donation and transfer of body parts.

While the UAGA allows for the donation of bodies and body parts for scientific study and transplantation, NOTA prevents the sale of organs for transplant in life or death.

Bone marrow, interestingly, is considered to be an organ under this act.

Therefore, it cannot be sold.

Blood, while somewhat regulated, is a more commercialized form of physical property and can be sold.

As it is not covered by federal restrictions, blood –  unlike organs and bone marrow – is donated, sometimes sold, and freely transferred.

In contrast, there are numerous cases that pose substantial obstacles for the free transfer of sperm as a product or a service.

While sperm is a body fluid regularly regenerated like blood, bone marrow, and some organs, courts have often mischaracterized sperm as equal to fertilized eggs.

47 Courts have incorrectly linked sperm and fertilized eggs by drafting sperm-related rulings informed by analogies from cases involving embryos and by not identifying sperm more closely with other regenerative bodily fluids.

In doing so, courts have incorrectly treated sperm as life – or as its potential.

What happens to the argument that sperm, with its potential for life, is in a category unto itself, when science is able to make sperm irrelevant?

With medical and scientific advances allowing for the creation of artificial sperm from bone marrow and and from other cells, many if not all cells in the human body would have the same potential to create life.

The classic Monty Python sketch:

Every sperm is sacred
Every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate

“Every sperm is sacred.
Men have a special responsibility for fatherhood that begins with each sperm cell they release.

Life begins at ejaculation.

Men shouldn’t be allowed to masturbate anywhere other than a sperm bank, to ensure the children are safely frozen.

It’s time this genocide of children by men comes to an end.

How could you just leave your children to die on a pillow, or put them in a tissue and throw them in the toilet?!!??

Bodies of dead children are splattered on hotel room beds all around the world.

We need to pass a bill.”

Laws regarding sperm must reflect contemporary biological understanding.

More specifically, sperm must be differentiated from other genetic materials such as embryos, pre-implantation embryos (or pre-embryos), and zygotes.

And yet, courts still rule as if sperm were life itself – the seed alone able to grow into a child.


Laws regarding sperm donation must be revised to treat sperm consistently with other bodily substances rather than as a “special class,” as if sperm, alone, could produce a child.

Or, in contrast, courts must initiate more thorough treatment of spilling of seed, perhaps putting the spiller to death, as in Genesis, or at least charging him with abandonment, as in the movie Legally Blonde.

The overall point is that biology does not determine when human life begins.

It is a question that can only be answered by appealing to our values, examining what we take to be human.

Perhaps biologists of the future will learn more.

Until then, when human life begins during fetal development is a question for philosophers and theologians.

And policies based on an answer to that question will remain up to politicians – and judges.

Other comments in the debate:

“Life begins when the dog dies and the kids go off to college.”…Anonymous

“The anti-abortionists believe in life before birth and after death, but not in between.”…Anonymous again