Moral Issues: Life vs. Personhood

The first and most basic question in the issue of reproductive rights is the moral question. Apart from any question of whether abortion should be legal or illegal, the first issue is whether or not it is a violation of ethical or moral standards.

It is extremely possible, and often the case, that something can be judged to be unethical or immoral but does not rise to the level of requiring public policy intervention.

At one time, governments decided that adultery — the violation of marital vows — was not only immoral, but should be prohibited as a matter of law. Violators were punished, often put to death. The American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a scathing critique of such policies in his classic masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. And in his famous classic, the “guilty” heroine Hester Prynne was granted mercy, and received an unusual public shaming — the wearing of a scarlet letter “A” sewn to her front of her blouse — in lieu of being put to death.

Yet today, we can look at adultery, which many would still consider a violation of ethical or moral values, to be a private matter of personal relationships, not something that should be enforced as a legislated mandate enforced by criminal penalties. Few in our time would consider it appropriate to be enforced as a matter of criminal law.

In the same way, we can look at the matter of abortion and say that, even if some may consider it to be morally wrong, it could be a private matter of personal belief and opinion, and not a matter to be governed as a matter of criminal law.

But the question of whether or not abortion is ethical or moral is really the first issue that must be addressed. If the choice to abort an unwanted pregnancy is not even a moral offense in the first place, then even the stated basis for dealing with it as a legal issue — a matter of public policy — becomes moot.

That which some consider morally wrong — what some might call a “sin” — may or may not rise to the level of being legislatively mandated. But if something is not even wrong to begin with, then any talk of outlawing it becomes irrelevant.

We will deal with the legal issues in the accompanying article on that subject, and the religious issue in the article on Judeo-Christian perspectives on reproductive choice, but if we can resolve the issue at the level of the moral question — if there is nothing wrong with abortion in the first place — then that should be enough to settle the matter out of hand.
Article on legal issues:
Article on religious issues:

In discussing the moral aspects of the issue, we will defer the religious question for now. For those who have strong religious views, their moral views are largely rooted in those religious beliefs, often with complex moral questions being reduced to “because God says so.” But because any adequate examination the religious aspect is so extensive, and is not relevant to non-believers or others who want to see moral questions addressed based on inherent issues of right and wrong, we have reserved that for a separate article all its own.

In the accompanying article on the Judeo-Christian perspectives on reproductive choice, we will demonstrate that careful, objective, context-based examination of even the religious issue takes that away from the religious conservatives.

So, is there even anything morally or ethically wrong with allowing a woman to have reproductive control over her own body?

Human Life vs. Being a Human Person

For many who oppose abortion on moral grounds, the issue seems obvious. Life begins at “conception” (the fertilization of egg by sperm) and taking an “innocent” human life is “murder.”

Their view: Human life begins at fertilization. The newly-created embryo is a human being. A person. To kill it is the moral equivalent of murder. Seems simple. Straightforward. Obvious. In the words of Dr. Raymond Dennehy, referring to the prenatal uterine content, that “This creature is produced by a human father and a human mother. If it’s not a human being, what is it?” (Los Angeles Times, 2-23-2010)

But there is far more to the issue of when a human person begins to exist. The issue consists of much more than simplistically reducing it to the equation:


The problem for those who equate human life with being a human person is that those who make this assertion do not apply it consistently to all human life. Exactly the same could be said of a human egg or a human sperm before fertilization.

Sperms and eggs are produced by human parents.
Sperms and eggs are alive.
Sperms and eggs are human life.

Yeah, yeah, I know — they have not fully achieved the combined genetic status.

But sperms and eggs are alive.
Sperms and eggs are of the human species.
Sperms and eggs are human life.

To say that being a human person depends on whether they have 23 or 46 chromosomes concedes the issue of “human life” and imposes a qualification on when LIFE becomes a PERSON.

To say that it is the number of chromosomes that determines personhood is to acknowledge the recognition that human life is not the issue — that something more than being alive and of the human species is necessary for human life to become a human person.

In any case, basing personhood on the number of chromosomes instead of being alive gets a bit dicey. If 46 chromosomes is what makes you a person, is it okay to abort a fetus with Turner’s syndrome (45 chromosomes) or Down’s syndrome (47 chromosomes)? At what number do you draw the line? And why is this purely arbitrary standard (a number of chromosomes) a valid basis for saying that some human life is a person and other human life is not?

In any case, to say that being a human person requires the human sperm (alive) and the human egg (alive) to combine in order to be a person is to say that human life is not the issue at all. It is the combination. Or the chromosomes. Or something, but not life itself.

They can’t have it both ways. They can’t say it is about “human life” and then make it about combinations of human lives (that were already alive before they combined) or numbers of chromosomes or heartbeats or whatever.

The old cliché that “human life begins at conception” is patently false. No one seriously believes that a human sperm or human egg capable of becoming a future person is either not alive or that it is not of the human species.

The real issue is not human life but when that life becomes a person, or else you must include sperms and eggs.

As to when human life becomes a human person, there are many opinions on when this occurs:

When the egg is created or when the sperm is created (when life begins).

When the egg and sperm join.

When cell differentiation begins.

When the blastocyst becomes implanted in the uterus to begin the pregnancy. [For anyone who questions that, apart from the question of either life or personhood, that uterine implantation is the point at which the pregnancy beings, I would suggest they look at a woman holding a Petri dish with newly fertilized zygotes prior to implantation for in-vitro fertilization.  Prior to that zygote being inserted, no one would say that the woman is pregnant. But afterward, everyone would agree that she is pregnant.]

When a fetal heartbeat commences.

When there is the onset of measurable EEG brain waves (which occurs at about 24-25 weeks; middle of 2nd trimester, as differentiated from routine electrical cell activity in all cells, including sperms and eggs).

When there is actual sentient human consciousness.

When the fetus emerges from inside the most private part of a woman’s body to begin its separate, autonomous experience with the surrounding environment.

At which of these milestones does human life become a human person?

The answer is a matter of opinion and values.

Some take the Biblical standard: when the new life is BORN and takes its first breath (Gen 2:7).

So many opinions? Whose opinion counts?

As long as it is inside the most private part of a woman’s body, only that woman has the right to make that decision in each situation.

It is her opinion and her opinion only that matters.

Beginnings and ends. There should be some reasonable inverse correlation between the definition of the end of life and the definition of the beginning of life. The definition of the end of life is the cessation of measurable EEG brain waves, at which point organs can be removed for donation.

Thus, my own preference is to apply the exact inverse of the end of life to the beginning of life: since the cessation of measurable EEG brain waves confirms the fact of death at the end of life, we cannot say there is a human person before the onset of measurable EEG brain waves. There may be human life, but it cannot be considered a human person. The same standard for the end of life can be reciprocated to delineate the minimum standard for what can be considered the beginning of life. [Sources from peer-reviewed science on onset of EEG brain waves at 24-25 weeks of pregnancy:
a) According to Bergstrom, R.M. 1986, Development of EEG and Unit Electrical Activity of the Brain during Ontogeny, In L.J. Jilek and T. Stanislaw (Eds.), “Ontogenesis of the Brain,” Prague: University of Karlova Press
b) Morowitz, Harold J. and Trefil, James S. 1994, “The Facts of Life,” Oxford University Press, a study of brainwaves in fetuses younger than 25 weeks, which included fetuses from 59 days old (8.5 weeks) to 158 days old (22.5 weeks), there were no brain waves seen before 25 weeks, although electrical (neural) activity was present (electrical activity is present in ALL cells, including sperms/eggs).]

But that is my opinion for myself. I do not impose it on anyone else.

Again, to say that anything other than the fact of being alive and of the human species, whether it be the number of chromosomes, a beating heart, the onset of measurable EEG brain waves, the onset of full conscious sentience or biological autonomy at the time of birth, is to acknowledge the recognition that something more than being alive and of the human species is necessary for human life to become a human person.

In any case, if one believes that human life is the standard, then it becomes incumbent on them to offer their specific proposals for ensuring that every human sperm cell and every human ovum — each a unique and individual human life — never be allowed to die unfertilized because, according the  standard of being purely pro-life:

Menstruation is murder.
Ejaculation is genocide.

Menstruation washes away a formerly living ovum cell that was allowed to wantonly die unfertilized.

Masturbation washes away hundreds of thousands of formerly living sperm cells that were allowed to wantonly die unfertilized.

Each human egg or sperm was alive, or it would not be capable of being fertilized.

Each human egg or sperm was, by definition, of the human species.

Each was a HUMAN LIFE.

Any person who claims that all “life” is inherently sacred and must be protected by force of statutory legal mandate, must be prepared to offer their suggestions for what policies they propose to ensure that no human egg or sperm ever be allowed to die unfertilized.

Any person who does not consider each egg and sperm, before fertilization, a human person must admit that the standard for defining a human person is not mere life, but requires something else.

Since I do not know of anyone who supports the standard of taking action to ensure that no human egg or human sperm — each a unique human life — ever be allowed to die unfertilized, it is safe to say that no one, regardless of what labels they adopt, is truly “pro-life” when it comes to protecting the life of the pre-born.

And it should be pointed out that, while the cessation of measurable EEG brain waves is the standard for determining the end of life, EEG brain waves are not the same as full sentience or consciousness. EEG brain waves are the minimal standard for mental activity. A person can be asleep or unconscious or even in a vegetative state and still have quite active EEG brain wave activity.

On the end of life, the cessation of EEG brain waves is the ultimate standard. Once the minimum threshold for mental activity has ended, there is no more meaningful life, even if other cell activity has not all shut down completely yet.

At the opposite extreme, the onset of EEG brain waves is the barest minimum standard for determining the onset of human personhood. At the first moment that EEG brain waves flicker to life, there is far less actual sentience or consciousness than in a fish or a lizard or a mouse.

Sure, if we want to play it utterly safe, just as we do at the end of life, that is absolutely a very safe standard. But even at this point there is nothing remotely resembling real thought, real consciousness, real feeling, real experience, or anything close to that. In contrast, by the time an actual baby has been born, it does have all of those capabilities. It has real thoughts, real consciousness, real feelings and the beginning of real experiences. They may be at a very early beginning stage of development, but they are all there.

The book Extro•Dynamics, by Douglas Dunn, is an excellent resource that discusses at length the nature of human sentience and consciousness as the basis for human personhood and the foundation from which our moral and ethical standards are derived and the starting point from which social dynamics and human interactions occur.

Value derives from the process of sentient interaction of consciousness with the surrounding environment as it eVALUates that which it encounters and experiences. And the ultimate in value is the encounter and experience of one sentient consciousness with other sentient consciousnesses, as the inherent process of value that originates in each interacts with and builds upon the inherent value of all the other sentient consciousnesses, in a process in which the sum is greater than the parts.

The concept of Extro•Dynamics ultimately leads to a beautiful protocol of human interactions based on empathy and compassion — the empowerment of practical compassion in action — that could not exist in the absence of these human qualities. These very human qualities that exist in babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, adults and seniors but which do not exist in sperm cells, egg cells, embryos or first trimester fetuses.

This is not to say that sperm cells, egg cells, embryos or first trimester fetuses are not capable of having value. Lacking sentience or consciousness of their own, they do not have inherent, intrinsic value. But if the woman whose body they occupy wants them, they may have great value. But it is not their own inherent value; it is value derived via the consciousness of the sentient being that cherishes them. And on the contrary, if the pregnancy is unwanted, there is no inherent value, only pain that only the woman can choose to remediate.

Life v Personhood.jpg

Embryo / Fetus vs. Person

Some comparisons of similarities and differences in organisms of HUMAN LIFE:

Is a one-celled human life form?
Ovum: YES.
Sperm: YES.
Newly-fertilized embryo: YES.
Newborn baby: NO

Has measurable EEG brain waves?
Ovum: NO.
Sperm: NO.
Newly-fertilized embryo NO.
Newborn baby: YES

Has actual feelings and sentience?
Ovum: NO.
Sperm: NO.
Newly-fertilized embryo: NO.
Newborn baby: YES

Can be frozen, stored for years, and revived?
Ovum: YES.
Sperm: YES.
Newly-fertilized embryo: YES.
Newborn baby: NO

Is biologically autonomous (not dependent 24/7 on a SPECIFIC non-transferable caregiver)?
Ovum: NO.
Sperm: NO.
Newly-fertilized embryo: NO.
Newborn baby: YES

If “abortion is murder” (“killing” one pre-sentient, pre-conscious “life”), then menstruation — allowing an pre-fertilized human life to die — is also murder, and ejaculation — allowing hundreds of thousands of human lives to die — is genocide.

The egg and sperm are human life before fertilization. A child that has actually been born is a human person after birth.

Conservatives show no interest in protecting the human life of eggs and sperms before they are in the woman’s womb, nor are they willing to provide food or housing to children who have actually been born, but are living in poverty through no fault of their own. The only time conservatives show any interest in human life of anyone other than themselves is while it is occupying the most private part of a woman’s body. Thus, the only viable conclusion is that it is about controlling women, and has nothing to do with the “sanctity of life.”

An embryo is no more equal to a baby than an acorn is to an oak. Each has the potential to become the actuality of the other. It is no more equal to an ensouled human person than a house being built is equal to a completed home with people living in it.

If you mix a batch of blue paint and a batch of yellow paint, you get a new batch of paint: green.  But the paint existed before it became green; it was just changed or adapted into a new phase.  But before that joining they were all paint.  The origin of that batch of green paint began in the batches of yellow and blue paint that formed it.  If there were some kind of hazardous chemical wrongly found in the green paint, you can bet that it would be traced back to either the yellow or the blue paint and clearly it would have to be said that the green paint is a continuation of the blue and yellow that came together to form it, though we would all agree that a substantive and important change has occurred.  However, in all cases, the blue paint or the yellow paint or the green paint, would still be paint.  Not a painting or work of art, but just paint.  All of them would have the potential to become a painting (or perhaps just be used to paint a fence).

This is not to say that a fertilized egg is not a genetically-uniquely piece of human tissue. A human being is much more than the mere existence of life. Insects and bacteria have life and uniquely individual DNA. Each is an autonomous, living individual. Is it a sin to get immunizations that kill millions of individual lives? Or to use insecticides, or to unnecessarily kill and eat sentient, biologically autonomous birds and mammals non-vegetarians butcher to satisfy their lust for more fat in their arteries?

To be a human person is more than merely being alive. It is more than merely having human chromosomes and human DNA. It is a combination of life, human genetics, consciousness and sufficient autonomy that it can live apart from its biological mother, even if it still requires someone to be a caregiver, as long as the person is capable of doing so willingly, by choice.

Trying to equate a born human person to a one-celled organism is dehumanizing and is just one more example of how religious conservatives seek to minimize the equality, dignity and value of women.

What if your Mother had aborted?

A typical question often thrown out by anti-choice extremists is, “What if your mother had chosen to abort? You wouldn’t be here.”

While that is undoubtedly true, it does nothing to differentiate the value of a human fetus from that of a human sperm cell or a human egg cell.

How far back do you go?

I can always turn the question back to them and ask, “What if your mother hadn’t been ‘in the mood’ the night you were just a gleam in your father’s eye?” Once again, the “logic” of the conservatives’ silly question can apply every bit as much to human egg cells or sperm cells before fertilization as to their status afterward. If taken seriously, it leads yet again to the conclusions that, by their standard, every time a woman produces an egg cell or a man produces a sperm cell, if that sperm or egg cell — each a unique human life — is allowed to die unfertilized, it is the moral equivalent of murder.

The absurdity immediately becomes obvious.

But beyond that, the extremists’ choices of examples of who might not be here if their mothers had chosen to abort is suspiciously suspect. They always use “you” (the person they are asking the question of) or else some highly-esteemed figure such as Jesus (“What if Mary, a young unmarried mother, had chosen to abort…” as if, according to their own beliefs, God would somehow have chosen his “son” — actually an alternative incarnation of himself — to be impregnated into someone who would make that choice) or Washington or Lincoln or Gandhi. They never seem to use as their examples those who actually were born to troubled, dysfunctional homes where they were unwanted, such as Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson or the street thug who broke into their home the week before.

Thought-questions on personhood:

a. Why are sperms and eggs not “human life” if they are alive and of the human species? If “abortion is murder” (“killing” one insentient, preconscious “life”), then “menstruation is murder” (allowing one egg to die unfertilized) and  “ejaculation is genocide” (killing hundreds of thousands of human lives).

b. In the case of identical twins, in the time after fertilization and the onset of cell division, but before the blastocyst actually divides into two entities, how many human persons exist? If only one, when did the second twin become a person if not at “conception”? Does the requirement to use your body to keep someone else alive only apply to situations that only affect females? There is no place in the United States where you can be forced to donate blood, or marrow, or organs, even though thousands die every year, on lists waiting for a donor which, of course, would mean that males could also have their bodily autonomy infringed. Organs cannot even be collected for donation after a person has died unless that person had previously granted explicit, written, permission in advance. Denying women the right to abortion means that women have less bodily autonomy than the corpses of dead people.

c. If cessation of brain waves is the standard for the end of life, how can you call it human life prior to the onset of EEG brain waves near the end of the 2nd trimester? Shouldn’t the standard for the clinical beginning of life be the reciprocal of the standard for the clinical end of life?

d. Which would you save in a fire, a sleeping 3-year-old in her bedroom, or a frozen embryo in the freezer?

e. Let’s say there are estranged brothers who are a good donor match. One needs the other to donate bone marrow to save his life, but the brother does not want to. They are both adults, undeniably human persons. Does one have the right to force another to use his body to keep him alive if the latter doesn’t want to? They are both males. Does the requirement to use your body to keep someone else alive only apply to females?

f. Let’s consider a purely hypothetical example to see if we are really willing to apply the same standards to men as to women. Let’s imagine that the anti-choice extremists get their way and get conservative judges to repeal Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion.

An unmarried couple, some time in a future conservative utopia, living in a state where abortion has been outlawed, has a one-night hookup and, a few weeks later, the woman informs the man that he is going to be a father. He implores her to get an abortion but, now illegal, she can’t do that. She is forced by law to use her body to keep a pre-sentient fetus alive until birth.  A week after birth, the infant is diagnosed with Leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant.  After checking available donors it is determined that only the child’s father has a compatible match.

The father, who did not want the baby in the first place, says “NO!” … IF you believe a woman should be forced to use her body to keep an embryo/fetus alive, do you also believe the state should also be able to compel the Father of the baby (with threats of fines and prison) to submit and have some of his bone marrow extracted to save his baby’s life? Keep in mind that bone marrow, like its cousin the blood transfusion, is far less invasive or demanding of time than nine months of a pregnancy and, like a transfusion, is fully restored without permanent loss in a relatively short period of time.

At this point, we are no longer even dealing with the question of whether the offspring is a human person or not. This is no longer an embryo or a fetus that many believe a woman should be forced to use her body to sustain. It is now clearly a full-fledged, biologically autonomous sentient human baby.

Should a male parent be subject to the same demand that he be forced to use his body to keep his child — unambiguously a child, not a fetus — alive?

Even if he didn’t want the pregnancy in the first place?

Even if he is estranged from the mother (and the baby, too)?

Even if he possibly has religious objections to any kind of transfusion?

Aside from the moral issue, should the state hold the father to the same standard as the mother?

Should any exception be allowed?

Qualitative Differences Between Human Persons and Other Life Forms

What is it about the essential nature of a human person that makes it qualitatively different than a rat, fish, insect, bacterium or virus?  And by that I mean, why is a human person more special?  Why is a human person inherently more valuable?  What are the qualities of a human person that render intrinsic value that a rat or fish doesn’t have?

I have stated that they are rooted in the qualitative distinctions that are unique to our species: conscious sentience and a capacity for reflective thought and self-examination, and the actual physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capabilities, features and processes that make such a distinction possible (as distinguished from the mere genetic blueprint or potential to develop those features).

One could say that the closer primitive creatures come to such abilities, the more intrinsic value or inherent worth they have — the closer they come to the qualitative values of human personhood, even if they are not actually human.  Most people would be far more outraged by the wanton killing of a chimpanzee, gorilla, dolphin or whale than they would a rat or a fish or especially non-vertebrate life.


Clearly none of these animals is a human person.  But they have many of the qualitative equivalents to a sufficient extent that we accord them much the same value. Even so, it has never been demonstrated that any of them, including chimpanzees, have the uniquely human attributes of moral self-examination, multi-generational historical perspectives or broad capabilities of abstract scientific or mathematical reasoning.

A human has human DNA and a rat has rat DNA.  The DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is substantively different just because the arrangement of A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s of the genome sequencing (nucleotide base pairs of adenine [A] and thymine [T] or cytosine [C] and guanine [G] respectively) are different in an empirically observable and objectively quantifiable way.  No problem. They are quantitatively identifyable according to their respective species. But why are they qualitatively different?  Why does the label “human” make it intrinsically more valuable than the label “rat”?

A baby that has been born has all of the actual attributes of this kind of humanness, though they are very primitive at this early stage of development.  But all of the physical features (a brain with measurable EEG brain waves, the supportive organs and bodily tools for operating on the environment) and emotional tools (the ability to express pain, anger, emotional and physical needs) and mental tools (the beginnings of actual cognitive interaction with its surrounding environment) actually exist.  Again, they are new and young and just getting started, but they are all there.

But even if one says that a baby does not actually have all of these fully-functioning uniquely human capabilities (moral self-examination, historical perspectives, abstract reasoning), and perhaps has not attained full personhood, one does have to draw the line somewhere.  Clearly NO first trimester zygote or embryo has any of these actual features or functions.

Clearly most human persons after a few years of life have all of them to some degree.  And even damaged brains in comas or a persistent vegetative state DO maintain quite extensive repositories of actual personal experience as well as active EEG brain waves (the cessation of which allows the pronouncement of legal death), as well as the possibility of coming out of the coma.

So it appears reasonable that if many of the attributes of personhood don’t even begin to fully manifest themselves in their full humanity until some time after birth (though the features and processes out of which they derive are fully extant at birth), and birth is the point at which the most private part of a woman’s body is no longer being occupied, and care can possibly be transferred to others who are willing, then birth is a logical point at which to draw an absolute line on the beginning of personhood at which point the question of personhood can no longer be doubted.

Certainly if one really wants to play it conservatively, one could say that an absolute minimal standard would be the onset of EEG brain waves, which occurs at about 25 weeks pregnancy, near the middle of the second trimester, since even fishes and reptiles (vertebrates) have measurable EEG brain waves. So full personhood — full humanity — must commence at some point not merely at the onset of EEG brain waves, but some undefined point after that.

And as we have noted before, if the end of measurable EEG brain waves defines the end of personhood, certainly the time before that onset is a minimal standard for the onset of personhood.

Accepting responsibility / consequences

Some have argued that if one has consented to consensual sexual intimacy, one must accept the responsibility (consequences) for that decision.

Women like sex, too, and should be able to engage in it however and whenever they want and deal with the consequences in whatever they choose. If a woman is pregnant and does not want to be, preventing her from making her own choice about how to handle it absolutely constitutes forced pregnancy, which the United Nations calls a “crime against humanity.”

Consent to SEX does not have to be consent to PREGNANCY any more than consent to riding in a car is consent to an automobile accident, even though both are possible secondary but unwanted, unintended and unlikely outcomes. And in any case, in the event of an automobile accident, accepting responsibility does not require that one be left to bleed to death at the scene of the accident. Medical remediation is sought to minimize physical and emotional trauma and to do everything possible to limit negative consequences. That is part of taking responsibility. And in the same way, consequences of sexual intimacy may include medical intervention and, if the woman decides that abortion is part of the medical remediation that is right for her, then that can very well be an important aspect of accepting responsibility.

This whole line of argument demonstrates the intent to impose one’s personal moral or religious opinions onto others who may not hold the same beliefs. .

Even a completely voluntary sex act would not necessarily mean she invited the embryo into her body, since only a small percentage of sex acts result in pregnancy. The POSSIBILITY of an outcome is very different than its INTENT. If a person rides in a car, knowing there is the POSSIBILITY of an accident, should that person be denied the right to receive medical care, auto repairs or reimbursement from a responsible party if they have an accident … since they KNEW that was a POSSIBLE outcome? A woman who has sex only invites the sharing of sexual pleasure, not the embryo that accidentally resulted. And EVEN IF she got pregnant on purpose, there is no reason to say that you can’t change your mind or correct a mistake, especially when it is the rights of an actual human person against those of non-sentient cell tissue with the potential of becoming a person … if the woman wants it.

Suppose I invite someone over for a drink. He stays and stays. He becomes obnoxious, in fact. I decide I don’t like him. I want him gone. I have as great a right to evict him as I would if he were a burglar. The fact that I previously thought I wanted him there (or I simply change my mind) does not make me lose the right to control who stays in my house. And a woman’s body is far more personal and intimate than a structure of wood and stucco.

When a man forcibly enters and occupies the most private, personal, intimate part of a woman’s reproductive anatomy against her will, we call it “rape.” Though it only lasts for a few moments (barring additional physical assault and injury), the trauma and emotional scars can last for years. Yet there are some who would require, by force of law, that women be mandated to have that most private part of their bodies occupied by an unwanted intruder for nine long months. The trauma and emotional scars of a forced, unwanted pregnancy can harm a woman just as long as a rape, and also traumatize the child that is born unwanted.

In any case this argument automatically validates abortion in the case of rape or incest where there was no such consent at all.

The questions of when human life begins, when human life becomes a human person and questions that weight the “rights” of pre-sentient cell tissue against the rights of fully conscious, fully sentient human persons — the question, in the case of each issue of who gets to choose — are at the core of the issue of a woman’s right to abort an unwanted pregnancy.

But as we have seen in this article, abortion is not the only issue affected by such questions. And in the clash of moral philosophies, and how public policies should be brought to bear — by force of law — on the full spectrum of such issues and choices, we consistently see that those who claim to equate human life with human personhood, despite their inconsistency in omitting the human life of human sperm and egg cells, remain dogmatic in their intent to impose their beliefs and values on those who feel differently.

Those who support the right of a woman to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or a terminally ill person to choose to end their suffering, or scientific advances that can cure diseases, or expanded options for new technologies to assist those who choose to be pregnant but wrestle with fertility issues, all respect the right of any person who holds different views to put those beliefs into practice in their own lives.

But we adamantly reject the notion that they have the right to impose those beliefs on others.

Who gets to choose?


My new book Who Gets to Choose? (ISBN 9780944363201), from which these WordPress pages have been excerpted, and which includes the material from all the pages on this site plus additional material not in these web articles, has now been expanded, edited and published, and is now available, and can be ordered in in a paperback print edition from and Barnes &, as well as other outlets: (in paperback print edition):

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Articles on this Site:

Moral Aspects of Reproductive Choice [this page]

When does HUMAN LIFE become a HUMAN PERSON?
Hint: HUMAN LIFE does NOT begin at “conception” (fertilization).
Life begins BEFORE fertilization; both the egg and sperm were alive and human (i.e., human life) long before that point.
The real issue is: what qualities of human personhood are necessary to have developed in order for that “life” to develop into a human “person.”

Legal and Legislative History and Issues in Reproductive Rights

Roe v. Wade was decided 7-2 — not even close — and written by Harry Blackmun, a REPUBLICAN appointee of Richard Nixon, citing personal liberty issues and the “intent of the Founders” since abortion had been legal in all 13 original states for almost 50 years, until Connecticut became the first to outlaw it in 1821.

Judeo-Christian Religious and Scriptural Aspects of Reproductive Rights

Even though we are a secular nation with separation of state and church/temple/mosque, for those who claim (without basis) that the Christian Bible opposes abortion, the irony is that THE BIBLE IS 100% PRO CHOICE (well, at least for the husbands, if not the wives):

Additional Issues in Reproductive Choice

Turning the tables on the typical conservative myths about late-Term Abortion, Parental Consent, Abortion in cases of Rape, and more.

26 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Emilia on May 23, 2021 at 6:12 am

    I’m writing an essay on the topic of personhood in abortion myself right now, and I’m so glad I came across this! It is a really good piece of work and I appreciate your research and views so much! I’m glad how much sense and clarity one can find within such a “difficult” topic because personally I’ve been feeling so disappointed with how many extremely uneducated or religiously passionate and delusional takes on the topic have been surfacing the internet. Keep up the good work! I will make sure to cite you in my own work!


  2. Posted by guest1324 on August 9, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    In my opinion a fetus in the first trimester is a human life without rights, in the second trimester is a human life without rights but… if a woman abort a healthy fetus at 16, 17, 18 or 19 weeks, she should be judge by society ( that abortion was too late). In the thirth trimester is a human life WITH RIGHTS and must be protected. If she kills it then yes… JAIL. But she kills a human life with rights, not a person so the sentence should be soften. Once the fetus is born becames a PERSON.


    • The point of the article is to differentiate between human LIFE and being a human PERSON. While they overlap to a significant degree, they are not synonymous by any means.

      As for your comment about the third trimester, the fact is that Roe v. Wade allows states to regulate the third trimester and elective abortion is prohibited in all fifty states. As noted in my article on additional issues, one of which is late-term abortion, ALL abortions performed in the third trimester are for urgent medical necessity, and invariably involve the tragic termination of a WANTED pregnancy. Please don’t be so judgmental of any situation in which you don’t know the facts.


  3. Anti-choice and right-winger break all God’s most repeated and most important laws: they add their own vile words to the Holy Bible and leave out the most important rules of conduct Real Christians and Jews!

    The Bible is Pro-Choice – YouTube

    Conservatives Teach “Another Jesus”


  4. To try to save face after he blocked me for he know I am right, now I can access you posts once again enforcing doctrines you have created going against what God & the Prophets have declared! As Jesus said: “Thus in Vain do the masses worship God …… ….. ….. “


  5. If you continue your bogus claim that life begins at conception, then you a guilty of murder every time you cut your hair, shave, and or cut or trim your nails!

    You Fail With A Big F!!!

    To Anti-choice Who Add Words To The Bible And Leaves Out That Which Is Most Important!

    Conservatives Teach “Another Jesus”


    • Meant to say – If you continue your bogus claim that life begins at conception, then you ARE guilty of murder every time you cut your hair, shave, and or trim your nails!
      You Fail With A Big F!!!

      To Anti-choice Who Add Words To The Bible And Leaves Out That Which Is Most Important!

      Conservatives Teach “Another Jesus”

      The Lord God Jesus said, “Flesh begets flesh, Spirit begets Spirit!”

      Paul said: “Be Not Carnal Minded!”

      A biological sperm & egg Can’t under any circumstance, create a Spiritual Soul, and a Spiritual Soul Can’t under any circumstance, enter a fetus at least until the brain, which even after physical birth is not well protected, there is a soft spot, ( some having more soft spot to the brain then others.. hee hee hee — Sorry, I digress ), at least until the brain has adequately grown to house the spirit! If you say the heart beats, or this or that, cut a worm in two and see what happens!

      To think that conception creates a child a person a Spiritual Soul is 100% BLASPHEME!
      Anti-choicers like right-wing conservatives add words to the Bible saying it is in the Bible and leave out the most important words in the Bible!
      And if you are a right-wing conservative and you claim to be Christian, you are either a Liar, and or lead astray by your corrupt right-wing leaders! For Jesus as clearly revealed in the gospels, He is an anti-conservative far Left Liberal!


  6. Thank you. Very well done.


  7. Posted by Confessions Of A Great White Shark on June 12, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Reblogged this on Hi, I'm Jaws..


  8. Posted by Guy on February 5, 2014 at 12:52 am

    I would also like to add something – I am going to just resubmit the entire comment, and you may ignore the first two.


    OK, it’s a shame that you spent so much time and effort justifying ending an innocent life…. but your thinking went wrong quite early in the argument. I’ll make it fairly simple.

    You said ” those who make this assertion do not apply it consistently to all HUMAN LIFE, because exactly the same could be said of an egg or a sperm BEFORE fertilization”.

    It’s all about POTENTIAL, not merely living human cells or number of chromosomes, or age or size. What do you need to live? Nourishment and shelter – and you will grow. Once a human egg is fertilized – it meets the same definition. You or I or anyone else were at this stage. By deliberately terminating this life, you are cancelling that human’s potential.

    Here is the test. If you nourish and shelter a drop of sperm, will it grow into a person? How about an egg, or a bit of flesh from your arm? the answer is no. Those things have no potential. A fertilized human egg, once cell division has begun – has UNIQUE DNA and possibly a unique blood type and only needs nourishment and shelter.

    If the only criteria then is that a fetus completely depends on the mother – then what of a 6 month old baby? Is that child any more or less valuable? No – they have the same potential.

    Abortion based on your logic is nothing more than size and age discrimination. Without the conscious decision to terminate that life – he/she would otherwise grow into a person.

    I would also like to add:
    You quoted Genesis 2:7, as if this is the only mention of the subject in the Bible. The implication was that a person needed to take a breath. I would point you to some other passages in scripture that recognize unborn children otherwise.

    Psalms 139:13-16:
    For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
    I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
    My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth

    Exodus 21: 22,23
    If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
    And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life


  9. Posted by Edison Alulema on December 26, 2013 at 1:00 am

    I’m a 19 year old student from NYC, and I gotta say I loved this post very much.


  10. Posted by Rational Thinker on July 7, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    I love the analysis and agree wholeheartedly. I wish more people could just understand it. I do however think this is a weapon of mass distraction. A big deal is made out of this issue, and I honestly believe the politicians do not care. Many of the politicians who jump into this discussion are just pandering for votes or position within their respective party.

    It just goes to show how ignorant the masses are. If you believe that live begins at conception, then you must believe that sperm and egg are life. I trolled an acquaintance of mine on FB who pontificated about life vs. personhood and when I told him he had mass graves at the bottom of his hamper…it went right over his head. Luckily a few sensible people appreciated the joke. I now call him the Stalin of masturbation.


  11. Posted by Taki on February 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I very agree with what you saying.. got here from a Fb post where you linked this post; I live in Spain and religion+abortion is also a very spikey subject.

    The way I see it is a difference with how we use/define words.. Human to me is full being, for being you need to be outside, so until the new Human comes out is only human. There is a difference as Human -Noun; human- adjective.
    Think of it from another specie point of view, it gets less spikey.. frogs, so frog cells are not Frogs; so human cells are not Humans. They are human cells not “A” Human. Keep repeating myself, but those that dont want to see this wont. My specific case is Asexual Sterile and believing in Mother Nature. *smiles* So Abortion is something that doesnt really hit me personally but of course I see it all over, and it worries me how some people think, luckily you show that some hope remains. *wink*

    Also, 47 chromosomes is not Down syndrome. Am actually not sure how the Down syndrome works, but I dont think it’s caused in the “extra” 1; I thought it was somewhere in the middleish chromosomes. You can have similar looking phenotypes, such as with distorted body ratios which might come from 48 and 49 chromosomes. [… extensive additional portion omitted …]

    But thank you very much for all the reading and information. I think though a few more generations will be neeeded to unlearn the impositions and accept facts. This subject you are treating is still very connected with religion and that is fluctuating a lot this new century, and the morals and norms about Man/Woman, Sex, Consent and Sexism.


    • Taki — Your comment about the main point of this article begins, “The way I see it…” and then you note that “Human to me is….”

      I am fine with you having an opinion on when HUMAN LIFE becomes a HUMAN PERSON and you have explained why you believe it occurs at a certain point. But again, the point is to differentiate between HUMAN LIFE and being a HUMAN PERSON. Many here in the United States, from where I am writing, make a big deal about HUMAN LIFE and then claim that HUMAN LIFE begins at “conception” (a term of religious origin that refers to the fertilization of a human egg by a human sperm). My point is that they are wrong; that LIFE BEGINS BEFORE fertiliation/conception. The human sperm and the human egg were fully alive before joining. So that is NOT the point at which human life begins. What they are really saying is that the joining of the egg (human life) and the sperm (human life) is the point at which human life becomes a human person. My point is that it is not LIFE that is the issue for them, no matter how much they repeat their silly little mantra, but that some other crieteria is applied and, for them, it is the joining. For others it is at other points, such as uterine implantation, cell differentiation, onset of fetal heartbeat, onset of measurable EEG brain waves (the inverse of the legal standard for clinical death when those brain waves stop) or, in your case, viability to survive outside the womb. I have my opinion, which I find most credible at the onset of EEG brain waves, but that is only MY opinion, I don’t demand others accept MY OPINION. I respect all opinions in this very personal matter. But as to any specific, individual pregnancy, whose OPINION should count? Since there are so many different OPINIONS, and NONE of them is based on the onset of human LIFE (which occurs long before fertilization), the only OPINION that should count in any individual pregnancy is that of the woman whose most private body part is being occupied.

      The point about chromosomes was to show the absurdity of trying to define life based on numbers of chromosomes, which even standard of the moment of fertilization does not adequately address. It was not to go off on a tangent of technical medical jargon analyzing the details of chromosomal abnormalities. The extensive additional portion of your lengthy comment regarding a detailed exploration of chromosomal abnormalities as genetic aspects of gender was not germane to the main point, and so was omitted in the interest of keeping the comment somewhat concise.


      • Physical Life Is Not Spiritual Life!
        To Anti-choice Who Add Words To The Bible And Leaves Out That Which Is Most Important!
        Conservatives Teach “Another Jesus”

        The Bible teaches for those to those who listen: “God Is Spirit! God Created Man In His Image, Spirit!”

        The Lord God Jesus said, “Flesh begets flesh, Spirit begets Spirit!”

        Paul said: “Be Not Carnal Minded!”

        A biological sperm & egg Can’t under any circumstance, create a Spiritual Soul, and a Spiritual Soul Can’t under any circumstance, enter a fetus at least until the brain, which even after physical birth is not well protected, there is a soft spot, ( some having more soft spot to the brain then others.. hee hee hee — Sorry, I digress ), at least until the brain has adequately grown to house the spirit! If you say the heart beats, or this or that, cut a worm in two and see what happens!

        To think that conception creates a child a person a Spiritual Soul is 100% BLASPHEME!
        Anti-choicers like right-wing conservatives add words to the Bible saying it is in the Bible and leave out the most important words in the Bible!
        And if you are a right-wing conservative and you claim to be Christian, you are either a Liar, and or lead astray by your corrupt right-wing leaders! For Jesus as clearly revealed in the gospels, He is an anti-conservative far Left Liberal!


  12. I’m going to print all of these. May I? I boil my silly stuff down to about 500 words. You are very deep. I am very shallow. but I think we’re both moving in the same direction. Love’ya Bettejo


  13. Posted by anonymous on April 13, 2012 at 11:31 am

    you use the bone marrow from a brother as an example, the answer is no, a person doesn’t choose to have a brother.
    if a woman chooses to have sex, she has an obligation to keep the baby alive
    if a baby needs bone marrow from the father, he chose to have sex with the woman so he has the obligation give the bone marrow to keep the baby alive.
    it is about personal responsibility, not entitlements.
    when the dna from the mother and father are joined, that is when it becomes a person, before that neither can grow into an adult person.


    • OK, Anonymous, you have expressed YOUR OPINION that it is about “personal responsibility” and I respect your right to your OPINION.

      You have not explained why you should not have the same respect for other people who have a different OPINION, or why you should be able to impose YOUR OPINION on anyone else.

      In any case, your OPINION is not logically or morally consistent. If a woman chooses to have sex (which automatically means you allow the choice in the case of rape or incest or even failed birth control), she is choosing sex, not pregnancy. Yes, pregnancy is a possible outcome, but not a necessary one or even a likely one. According to your “logic,” someone choosing to ride in a car is also choosing to have an accident, which is a possible outcome, so in the interest of “personal responsibility” they should not be allowed medical remedies in the event that possible outcome actually occurs.

      You also do not explain why a woman has the obligation of keeping a fertilized blastocyst (it is NOT a “baby” or a “toddler” or a “child” or a “teenager”; it is a blastocyst, embryo or fetus) alive, but no obligation of ensuring that every sperm cell she chooses to accept — each an individual human life — alive.

      A human sperm is alive and human. So is a human egg. Unless you accept these as fully human persons, you are conceding that merely being HUMAN LIFE does not equal being a person. Something else has to be added. It is YOUR OPINION that the mixing of the DNA is that something. Other people have different opinions. I respect your right to your opinion about your own body. I also respect the right of other people to have a different opinion about their own bodies for as long as such time that their body is being occupied.


    • Posted by Rational Thinker on July 7, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      Anonymous, where does it end? By your logic if a man and woman have a son who at the age of 40 needs a kidney, they should be obligated to give him one (assuming they are alive and a match)?


  14. […] Moral Issues: Life vs. Personhood […]


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