Is an embryo a person?

This question is at the heart of the abortion debate. A pro-choicer may admit that genetically and scientifically an embryo is a human, but they will then argue that they do not yet have “personhood” so it is ok to kill them.

Before addressing the question of whether or not a human embryo is a person, let’s look at the question itself.

Where on earth did the idea come from that you can be “human” but not a “person”? What is the difference?

For an atheist, who believes only in the physical, an embryo is genetically human, and it is clearly alive. Therefore it is a living human. A living human is a person, because only the physical is real and they are a physical person.

However the Christian, who believes that a person is both a physical body and a soul, may believe that personhood is not physical. They may be able to believe that an embryo, although scientifically human, is not a person because they do not have a soul. In my opinion this is a poor argument, as we have no idea when the soul is imparted into the body, can never prove any view on this, so must stick with the science that says life starts from conception. But it is an argument that sounds plausible.

The atheist must accept the embryo is a person. The Christian may choose to believe otherwise (although this is illogical in my opinion).

So why are so many pro-lifers Christian, and so many pro-choicers atheists? Why are people expressing a pro-life position so often accused of being religious fanatics?

It’s really quite crazy when you think about it.

The pro-choice position is not based on atheistic logic. It is more often based on emotion – people have had an abortion or know someone who had an abortion, want to believe that that was ok, and come up with philosophical or religious reasons to justify their position. This process may be subconscious.

If you look into it hard enough, you may quickly conclude that abortion is wrong. Check out the Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League, Libertarians for Life, and this excellent article on “Why should Atheists be Pro-Life”. But many people are unwilling to look at the issue with cold, hard logic, and become blinded by emotion.

So, in your opinion, can a human ever not be a “person”? If so, when does the embryo become a “person”? And WHY do you believe this? Logically, not emotionally.

38 Responses to “Is an embryo a person?”

  1. student Says:

    Why would a Christian fret about when the soul exists? God’s command is against killing. Does Christ (in Matthew) not imply human ability can only kill the physical body?

    If God commands us not to kill, how could God be referring to killing anything but the physical body?

  2. Sb Says:

    OK I will try and explain my approach. First colours to the mast – I am both pro-choice and Christian!

    “Where on earth did the idea come from that you can be “human” but not a “person”? What is the difference?”

    Its not a matter of being human or a person – the question misses the point. Its about rights and responsibilities.

    When you are 1 weeks old you have certain rights, when you are 8 months old you have another set of rights (more than you had at 1 week) when you are 1 year old you have more rights and you have gained responsibilities (more that you had at 8 months) . Continuing the thread when you are 16 you have more rights and responsibilities (again more than at 1 year, more than you had at 8 months etc etc etc).

    When you are 21 you have more than 16 etc, when you are 25 more than 21 etc etc etc when you are 101 you have less that 25, when you are 120 you have less that 101, etc etc etc.

    Hence its where you are in the cycle of life rather than some basic point that the choices are made.

    “It’s really quite crazy when you think about it.” not at all – it makes complete sense if you look at it from another point of view, it is only nonsense if you look at it from the fixed point of view that you use.

    “The pro-choice position is not based on atheistic logic.”

    You are over thinking the issue – you have been hanging around with MandM to much!

    I note that in your text you forgot something – the mother never gets a mention, did you forget her or do you think the only place for a woman is pregnant in the kitchen?

    For example 1 week old there are two entities present, the embryo and the mother. Who has the more rights? Well its simple to see its the mother! she is older and hence has more rights and responsibilties that the embryo, hence she and she alone gets to choose.

    When the time line is 8 months the rules have changed her rights etc are the same but the embryo is now a fetus so it has gained rights.

    When the time line is 2 years old then again things have changed – get it yet?

    “ant to believe that that was ok, and come up with philosophical or religious reasons to justify their position. ”

    Could you be more patronising to women than that!

    “This process may be subconscious.” oh wait yes you can – how utterly insulting to 50% of the human race that sentence is!

    Do you really belong to the “pregnant women are stupid” camp that all their chopices must be made by men!

    I have been around pregenent women I have never noticed and reduction in intelligence or decission making capability – just the pooisite in fact!

    “If you look into it hard enough, you may quickly conclude that abortion is wrong. ” I drew the conclusion that though I dislike abortion forcing a women to go thorough a unwanted pregnancy was far worse.

    “And WHY do you believe this? Logically, not emotionally.”

    Did I fulfill your requirement?

    Sb

  3. Mr Dennis Says:

    Student, you’re dead right. Well said.

  4. Mr Dennis Says:

    Sb:
    As far as I can see you accept the embryo is a human and a person from conception, but do not believe their rights extend to the right to live until they reach a certain age – is that a fair summary?

    This is a quite different position to what I was considering when I wrote my post, and involves completely different issues, so I’ll put a bit more thought into it and write a proper post on it later in the week. I have another abortion post coming out tomorrow on another issue.

    In the meantime however, three comments:
    – I agree that responsibilities change with age, and that rights do too to a certain extent. But the command “Thou shalt not murder” is not qualified in any way to restrict it to people only of a certain age. It must be a universal commandment that you must not kill any person – therefore all people have at least the right to live, regardless of their age. Other rights may change with age.

    – “Do you really belong to the “pregnant women are stupid” camp that all their chopices must be made by men!”
    Certainly not. It is easy to ignore what I say on this issue just because I am male, but my wife fully agrees with me and could just as easily have written the post. I am discussing morality, which has nothing to do with gender. I certainly do not believe that women are stupid, and never said anything like that at all – unless you can point out where I said it?

    – “Did I fulfill your requirement?”
    Yes, thankyou. I’ll post a better analysis of your points later in the week.

  5. Andy Moore Says:

    “Its not a matter of being human or a person – the question misses the point. Its about rights and responsibilities.”
    Sb, this is nothing more than your opinion. And my friend, your opinion stacked against the life of even one human is worth precisely nothing.

    When you are 1 weeks old you have certain rights, when you are 8 months old you have another set of rights (more than you had at 1 week)
    When you are a Jew, you have certain rights, when you are a German citizen you have another set of rights (more than you would have if you were a Jew).

    do you think the only place for a woman is pregnant in the kitchen?
    sigh…

    Just a question if I could Sb, why is it that you “dislike abortion”?

    Thanks for yet another well-thought-out post Samuel.

  6. student Says:

    Sb:

    Being somewhat linier minded, should the 101 year old have more rights than the 25 and the 120 more than the 101?

    Considering the bell curve level of rights to age, is the shifting change in rights based only on age or does merit/value factor in?

  7. Mr Dennis Says:

    I have a suspicion that you may find the peak of the bell curve is whatever age Sb happens to be at the moment. They seem to believe the young and the old have less rights than they do. That is a dangerous recipe for abuse. I am not saying Sb would necessarily engage in child or elderly abuse, I don’t know them, but that philosophy is dangerous.

  8. Is an embryo a person 2 - Twinning « Samuel Dennis Says:

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  9. Andy Moore Says:

    “…the peak of the bell curve is whatever age Sb happens to be at the moment…”

    hah! brilliant!

  10. Sb Says:

    Student:

    “bell curve level of rights to age” – its not a bell curve more like a table mountain or a truncated pyramid. Unless I have missed something it is flat from 25 to 65.

    It would be essentially based on capability – as you get more capable you gain rights as you gain in capability. The drop at the end is because as you get past a certain point others take on responsibility for things that you originally did for yourself.

    At age 16 you gain the right to chose who you have sex with. At age 8 you did not have that right or responsibility. But at age 16 you are not an adult, you gain the right at 18 to be treated as a adult and to make certain decisions that you could not before.

    At the other end the reverse is true – when you are 101 and cant remember what your name is then somebody else will have removed you right to manager your finances.

    get it.

    Sb

  11. Sb Says:

    “I have a suspicion that you may find the peak of the bell curve is whatever age Sb happens to be at the moment.”

    No thanks Mr Dennis I am not 65 yet !

    “They seem to believe the young and the old have less rights than they do” – wake up smell the coffee look around – that’s the way the world has been built and always has been.

    Are you saying a 8 year old has the same rights as a 80 year old?

    “That is a dangerous recipe for abuse.” – rubbish for someone who talks about logic a lot that does not make much sense.

    “I don’t know them, but that philosophy is dangerous.”

    You have obviously never had to deal with somebody in the twilight years of their life.

    Sb

  12. Andy Moore Says:

    Sb, here’s a thought for you. The Americans included it in their constitution.

    “All men are created equal”

    An 8yr old has precisely the same rights as does an 80yr old.

  13. Sb Says:

    “As far as I can see you accept the embryo is a human and a person from conception, but do not believe their rights extend to the right to live until they reach a certain age – is that a fair summary?”

    No that is not correct – I believe an embryo is human from conception as it contains a full set of human DNA. However I believe it gains person hood as it developes.

    My finger contains human DNA so its is human but it is not a person.

    I have a hard time believing that 32 undifferentiated cells is a person even if it is human as it has the right DNA and the potential to develop into a person.

    ““Thou shalt not murder”” – go past a hospital or a old peoples home – that commandment is broken on a daily basis.

    And what about your support for capital punishment? how does that match with that command. I have often wondered at the intellectual bankruptcy of Christians who oppose abortion but support murder of prisoners.

    “I certainly do not believe that women are stupid, and never said anything like that at all” some of your previous posts suggest that no woman should be allowed to agree to a abortion because of mental deficiency – you did not say the words outright but you certainly implied it!

    Sb

  14. Mr Dennis Says:

    Sb:
    “its not a bell curve more like a table mountain or a truncated pyramid. Unless I have missed something it is flat from 25 to 65.”
    I do get what you mean about rights around behavioural stuff, a child must obey their parents but no longer needs to when they are 30 etc. But those are completely separate to whether or not it is ok to kill someone.

    “““Thou shalt not murder”” – go past a hospital or a old peoples home – that commandment is broken on a daily basis.”
    Nonsense. What do you base that statement on? Have you reported them to the cops? Murder was illegal in NZ the last time I checked. But even if it were happening, that would not make it ok.

    “And what about your support for capital punishment?”
    I don’t necessarily support NZ introducing capital punishment, but don’t personally object to it in principle. This is an entirely different issue, I won’t get into that here, except to point out that there is a big difference between executing a murderer as a just penalty for their actions, and murdering an innocent child. If you want to discuss that one further, you can do that over here:
    http://sjdennis.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/capital-punishment/

    “some of your previous posts suggest that no woman should be allowed to agree to a abortion because of mental deficiency – you did not say the words outright but you certainly implied it!”
    Either point out where I said it or retract this ridiculous abuse.

  15. Sb Says:

    “retract this ridiculous abuse.”

    Abuse ! lol – have you been taking drama lessons recently……

    ha ha ha

    Sb

  16. student Says:

    Sb:

    Hopefully you are not timid when reading responses to you.

    Would you accept legal abortion of both ends of the truncated pyramid?

  17. Sb Says:

    “Would you accept legal abortion of both ends of the truncated pyramid?”

    We already do this all the time (the end abortion bit) except we don’t call it abortion, its called withholding of medical treatment.

    Contrary to what Mr Dennis suggested above hospitals deliberately shorten peoples lives and hence to some people that would be murder. Thats why some sects refuse medical treatment.

    Consider the situation where a old women is lying very ill and unable to comment herself. Choice A do nothing she dies, option B operation, very uncomfitable afterwards extends life by no more that 6 weeks. Possibly no recovery of concinious after the operation. Choose.

    Do you say do everything you can because life is sacred or say let her go she has had 90 good years why end it with 6 weeks of pain. Some people would say not doing option B is murder.

    Same question but 35 year old man, is that murder some would say so. Same question but 18 year old motorcycle rider, is that murder?

    Same question but its a 30 year old woman who has been non responsive after a accident 10 years earlier…….

    for those people its the end of their “truncated pyramid”

    You see life is very variable student, so the questions are very variable as are the answers. Something that people on blogs like this tend to ignore with their one size fits all answers!

    Sb

  18. Mr Dennis Says:

    Sb:
    I don’t consider withholding medical treatment to be murder as such. It is wrong in most circumstances, but as you have pointed out whether it is right or wrong is dependent on the circumstances, and it may occasionally be the better option. There may be times when the benefit to the patient is not worth the cost to them.

    But there is a big difference between withholding medical treatment from someone who is already dying, and deliberately going out and killing someone who is not dying.

    The Hebrew word “Ratsach”, translated “kill” or “murder” in Exodus 20:13 depending on the translation, does not directly correspond to either of those English words. It basically means to kill a human being, whether premeditated or accidental. It is narrower than the word “kill”, as it only refers to the death of a human. But it is wider than the word “murder”, as it also includes the killing of a human by an animal, and accidental killing of a human. It may be able to mean killing by neglect. It does not however include capital punishment, this being the just punishment presented in the bible for “Ratsach”, and there is disagreement on whether it includes deaths in war or not (which is why some Christians are conscientious objectors in war and others sign up readily).

    So your capital punishment objection is irrelevant, as it is not covered by Exodus 20:13. Refusal to give medical treatment may be “Ratsach” depending on the circumstances (it would certainly be “Ratsach” by neglect for your 18-year-old motorcycle rider, but for an elderly person if the treatment would only give them another 6 weeks of life you would be hard pressed to call failure to give the treatment “Ratsach”).

    If the embryo is a person, killing it is certainly “Ratsach”, as it was not dying and could have lived for many years afterwards – there is no comparison between this and a dying elderly person being refused ineffective medical treatment.

    Accordingly, causing an abortion was considered a crime in the Bible (Exodus 21:22-25). The penalty was a fine of whatever the husband demanded in return for the life of the child, plus “eye for an eye” punishment for any damage done to the mother.

  19. Sb Says:

    “If the embryo is a person, killing it is certainly “Ratsach””

    And there you touch the core of the argument!

    If an embryo is not a person but only has the potential to develope into a person then by your logic you are not commiting Ratsach. Therefore you are not comitting murder using the biblicial deffinition if you believe an embryo is not a person.

    I have a hard problem granting person hood to a small ball of cells and then using that as an argument to overide the choice of the woman.

    I the case above of the 18 year old motorcycle, his mother following medical advice ordered medical treatement to be withdrawn. He left a son.

    Sb

  20. Mr Dennis Says:

    Sb:
    I presumed you were talking about an 18-year-old who would most likely have survived following that treatment. Obviously that was not the case, which is why this depends on the circumstances.

    I thought you did accept the embryo was a person, but just had less rights than an older one? I’m a bit confused now as to what you actually believe.

    If the embryo is a person killing it is certainly “Ratsach”. On what grounds do you believe the embryo is not a person now? “I have a hard problem granting person hood to a small ball of cells”, is just expressing your opinion, not giving any reason for it.

    “Therefore you are not comitting murder using the biblicial deffinition if you believe an embryo is not a person.”
    It is not about what you believe, but what is true. If you shoot at something that moves in the bush, and you honestly thought it was a deer, but it turns out you killed a human, you won’t escape prosecution just because you did not “believe” it was a person. You failed to identify your target, and committed “Ratsach” through gross negligence and stupidity.

    If we are in any doubt, we must not kill an embryo. Identify your target beyond all doubt.

  21. Sb Says:

    “I presumed you were talking about an 18-year-old who would most likely have survived” He had about a 20% of living but his quality of life would have been appaling – unable to move his limbs etc.

    “I thought you did accept the embryo was a person,” if you look at my 11:52 post above I said there that I did not think that a embryo was a person.

    Lets be clear I do not beleive that the embryo or whatever the medical name is at that stage gains any rights until some time after the first trimester. Until then the mothers rights trump any that the developing creature might have. I beleive that by the 8th month (at least) that the “ball of cells” has now developed persoonhood and hence now has rights which could conflict with the mothers and could exceed the mothers.

    “On what grounds do you believe the embryo is not a person now? ” lack of physical development. I think you have to acheive a certain level in order to gain person hood.

    “It is not about what you believe, but what is true.” incorrect – I have a vote, you have a vote we each get to decide what is true.

    “If we are in any doubt, we must not kill an embryo.”

    I have NO DOUBT that if the woman want to have a abortion in the first trimester then she should be allowed to do so of her own free choice.

    Could I be more clear than that.

    The iviory crown bunch who spend so much time debating how many angels can dance on the top of a needle just seem unable to understand this simple fact.

    Sb

  22. Mr Dennis Says:

    “It is not about what you believe, but what is true.” incorrect – I have a vote, you have a vote we each get to decide what is true.
    That isn’t how truth works. Either something is true or it isn’t. Truth is not decided by votes – either the movement in the bush was caused by a human or a deer, and however we “vote” on what we think it was, only one will ultimately be true.

    We must discover what is actually true, rather than choose to believe what we like because of a majority opinion. A million people repeating something that is false doesn’t make it true.

    I’m not interested therefore in what anyone believes, I’m sure there’s someone that believes the baby is a three-legged leprechaun until the 5th week or something equally nutty – and however many times they vote for that, they’ll always be wrong. I’m interested in what is TRUE, based on EVIDENCE and REASON.

    So come on Sb, what REASON do you have to believe that the baby in the first trimester is not a person? What REASON do you have to believe that “physical development” defines personhood?

  23. Sb Says:

    “I’m interested in what is TRUE, based on EVIDENCE and REASON.”

    Given your previous posts on this subject you are clearly deceiving yourself if you beleive that sentence to be true.

    Based on your religeious beleifs you will simply declare untrue any fact that conflicts with your desire to ban abortion.

    You are mistaking faith for reason.

    Person hood cannot be measured with a gauge, hence every living person will have a different deffinition of what it is.

    I will never be able to convince you no matter what reasons I bring forward because you will simply discard them as unworthy.

    You are like a child who always asks why? no matter how much you explain in detail to the child what is happening they always reply with another “why?”. For this discussion you are like that child.

    Sb

  24. Mr Dennis Says:

    “Based on your religeious beleifs you will simply declare untrue any fact that conflicts with your desire to ban abortion.”
    Not so. You will note that I take pains to consider this issue from the perspective of an atheist, and actually conclude in this post that a Christian actually has more reason to believe abortion is ok than an atheist. And I link to several atheistic sites in support of my views.

    You are just expressing the very position I mentioned in my original post as being unreasonable: “Why are people expressing a pro-life position so often accused of being religious fanatics?”

    As I have pointed out elsewhere, Christianity never states when an embryo becomes a human, we must rely on science and reason to determine this. My views on this issue are therefore built around science rather than religion.

  25. Sb Says:

    “My views on this issue are therefore built around science rather than religion.”

    If you are going to say things like that then you need to give a warning as I almost fell off my chair.

    What a thing to say…….

    “You are just expressing the very position I mentioned in my original post as being unreasonable: ”

    You are joking right?

    Sb

  26. Mr Dennis Says:

    Sb, read the original post again, you’ve been forgetting what I wrote the longer we discuss it. The strongest case I make against abortion is from the perspective of an ATHEIST, and I even comment:
    “The atheist must accept the embryo is a person. The Christian may choose to believe otherwise (although this is illogical in my opinion).”

    Find me one place in the Bible where it states when human life begins in the womb, and I will start to look at this issue from that basis. Until then I’ll stick with science, which is the same regardless of whether you are an atheist or a Christian.

    I’d highly recommend reading “Why should atheists be pro-life”, it’s not very long, may be a real eye-opener for you, and should shake your preconceived stereotypes a bit.

  27. student Says:

    Sb:

    Why would you object (assuming you do) to a third trimester abortion if the pregnant has more rights than the prenatal (even if the prenatal is a person)?

  28. Sb Says:

    Student:

    Why should I answer you when you clearly have not read what I posted earlier.

    I have already answered your question I will not answer it again for your amusement.

    Sb

  29. Mr Dennis Says:

    Have you read that article yet Sb? What are your thoughts on it?

  30. Sb Says:

    Sorry Mr Dennis – do you mean the one in your March 24, 2009 at 11:00 am post? if so I have been a bit busy and only got about half way through but I might be able to complete it tonight

    Sb

  31. Mr Dennis Says:

    That’s the one. No worries!

  32. student Says:

    Sb brings up a central aspect of modern life. Has our busy limited resource lives affected our opinions where convenience can be beneficial.

    Has abortion become so convenient that this convenience has over taken our concern for other’s lives?

  33. Bruce Barron Says:

    The fertilized ovum is a being,possesses a human nature,is self moving or rather has self motion which only living beings have,is highly differented from the moment of conception with explosive and ordered activity.
    There is no doubt that the conceptus is a human being. It is not going to become a human being because it already is one.
    If it is a being that is not human then what kind of being is it because it certainly is a being of some kind.
    Likes generate likes which is self evident. So a being is generated that is human. It possesses a human nature which specifies it from all other beings.
    Let us assume that there is no such thing as ensoulment.We can prove that there is a spiritual soul because everyone has an intellect and will and is free to make choices which irrational animals cannot do[ there are numerous proofs for the existence of an immaterisl principle] These intellectual faculties of the soul are immaterial or better spiritual. Now, when and how does the conceptus or embryo or fetus get these faculties which go with so called ensoulment.
    For those who don’t believe in ensoulment how and when does the embryo begin to make choices and reason or rather get its intellectual faculties? The brain doesn’t think nor does it think for you.No one says that”I am my brain” or “that my brain thinks for me”. We all say “I THINK”.
    So the question is when does the conceptus receive its soul unless it doesn’t receive any soul in which case it is never going to be a human being or person.
    In nature a thing begins to be what it is from the moment of conception. Apparently this is not the case with human beings.
    Just as an acorn is the smallest tree so is the conceptus the smallest person. Bur let’s not consider this as true.
    What must be determined is when the conceptus,fetus, or embryo receives its soul since we all possess a rational immaterial principle called the soul.
    We have heard of one speaking of a “potential person”.This raises the question or dilemma of how does a potential person become a real person. There is no such thing anymone than there is a potential lion in the womb of its mother.If it is not a person from the moment of conception then it can never be a person. The conception in the womb of its mother is either a person or it is not.If it is not a person then it is some other kind of entity that can never be a person because it is already constituted as a different being and only could become now a human through a mutation[s] but this does not occur because the genetic make up is the same as its parents. Mutations are not necessary because it possesses the necessary chromosomes from its parents.
    If the conceptus is a human being,formed from the genetic make up of its parents, possesses a human nature, and in order to be a person then it must be so at the moment of conception,and it must necessarily have its intellectual faculties at conception. An embryo, or fetus devoid of its intellectual faculties from fertilization will never receive them because the being in the utrerus is already specified into something that cannot be human and has whatever comlement of genetic and neural matter to develop into anything except a human being.
    The notion of a potential person is absurd. If the soul
    is something spiritual and immaterial it cannot be infused after the conceptus is formed becuse it is already formed as something else and would and could not change into something which it is already constituted naturally into existence.
    The conceptus has all that is necessary as evidenced by its inherent and intrinsic activity requiring only nutrients supplied by its Mother and to be allowed to develop in its narural place, the womb supplied also by its Mother. It matures and develops on its own provided its environment is not tampered with.
    So the conceptus id either a person at conception or it is some other kind of entity.
    A person is composed of a body[the conceptus is body] and soul and if not constututed as such at conception one is left with a human being whatever that might be but it will not be long for this world.

  34. Mr Dennis Says:

    “In nature a thing begins to be what it is from the moment of conception. …
    Just as an acorn is the smallest tree so is the conceptus the smallest person.”

    Exactly

  35. Sb Says:

    An Acorn is not a tree

    A embryo is not a person

    If I cook the acorn it will never be a tree, if I abort the embryo there will never be a person.

    Sb

  36. Mr Dennis Says:

    “If I cook the acorn it will never be a tree, if I abort the embryo there will never be a person.”

    You may as well say:
    If I cut down the sapling it will never be an oak, therefore a sapling is not an oak.
    If I kill an infant it will never be a “person”, therefore the infant is not a person.

    Sb, your illustration doesn’t prove anything, as it relies upon the assumption that the acorn is not an oak and the embryo is not a person. It then just restates this assumption, providing no evidence either for or against it.

  37. student Says:

    When did the act of killing (alone) ever justify the concept that the killed was not a unique living human?

  38. prescription glasses for dogs Says:

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