When is the Beginning of Personhood?
During the past quarter century, abortion has joined race and war as one of the most contentious subjects of controversy in the United States. It discusses human interaction where ethics, emotions, and law collaborate. Many have contemplated upon the meaning of abortion. One argument is that every child born should be wanted. The people in lieu of this theory are often referred to as Pro-choice activists. The opposing argument is that every child conceived should be born, this theory epitomized by Pro-life activists. A public consensus exists that when human personhood starts, that the law must protect person. Many religions, organizations, and individuals have fervently held conflicting beliefs about when this transpires. This naturally leads to differing policies on whether a woman should have access to abortion or not.
This brings us to the scientific aspect of the controversy. The interminable question surrounding the controversy is this: When does a baby actually become a baby? A female’s ovum (egg) and a male’s sperm are both clearly alive. They are living organisms ready to be joined as one to form a baby. It is pointed out, however, that women release a few hundred eggs in a lifetime (Religious Tolerance). Almost all of these eggs are destined to die and be ejected from the body. Little thought is given to these hundreds of deaths. The same idea goes for the sperm. Hundreds of million of male sperm are liberated during a typical sexual encounteran adequate number to theoretically double the earth’s population in a week or two if each were used to fertilize a separate ovum (Religious Tolerance). Again, little consideration is given to these deaths. Yet, a public consensus exists that they are not yet human persons.
So is that essentially when a human life begins? Or is it when the sperm and egg meet, causing the conception of the baby? It is broadly believed, generally by the pro-life activists, that this is fundamentally when a human begins to form. Among women, approximately 50% of their fertilized eggs develop into babies, which are born, more or less, nine months later. The remnants are aborted or are lost due to a miscarriage.
An innate public agreement exists that an infant is the most precious form of life on earth, and needs to be protected under law. The philosophical and religious principle behind the pro-choice versus pro-life argument is when does human personhood begin? After that event occurs, termination of that life is a form of murder. Many people believe this form of murder can only be acceptable if used as a means to prevent the death of the mother, prevent extremely serious injury to the mother, or in cases of rape or incest. Approximately 14,000 women a year have abortions subsequent to rape or incest (Be Fearless). The whole controversy of abortion is based on the non-existent consensus as to when personhood in point of fact begins.
There is plenty of scientific evidence detailing the processes that start with a sperm and end up with a newborn baby. Yet, some people believe although it is scientifically an actual life, a baby forming, it is still not significant enough to allow the law to make its murder unlawful. In spite of the evidence science can make available to us, it still cannot tell us whether or not the fetus has a soul, or if a zygote has a full set of human rights. Nor can it tell us whether or not an ovum or sperm are people, or when the products of conception become a person. Most importantly, science cannot tell us if abortion is murder.
Most people in the pro-life faction believe that at the point of conception, a human being is formed. A just fertilized egg is a full human being and should be protected as one. Some believe this because of their religion. The views of the Catholic church strongly oppose abortion, as a violation of the sanctity of life. Nonetheless, Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as the general population (Be Fearless). They are taught through their religion that a soul enters a fertilized egg at the instant of conception. So, the cell is now a human being at that time because there is a presence of a soul. Kathy Ireland, a former pro-choice activist, explains how she became a believer of pro-life:
I was once pro-choice. And the thing that changed my mind was, I read my husband’s biology books, medical books and what I learned is simply what it states – this isn’t even morally – this is pure
biology. At the moment of conceptions, a life starts. And this life has its own unique set of DNA, which contains a blueprint for the whole genetic being. The sex is determined. Now people ask the question, well, is it a human being? We know there’s a life because it is growing and changing.
The views of the pro-choice, however, do not feel that the transition into personhood happens at conception. They state that the just-fertilized ovum has no limbs; no head; no brain; no ability to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch; no internal organs, nor do they have self-consciousness. They argue that even at the age of one month, a human embryo cannot be distinguished from that of a cat or dog. They all have different views as to when personhood begins. This does not separate them from the pro-choice assemblage; it merely means they believe in abortion before the stage at which the embryo becomes a person.
Regardless of everyone’s beliefs and views and concerns, abortion is legal and does take place all over the world everyday. It is a choice that every woman in the United States is free to make and is covered under the 14th Amendment (Jussim 41). Even though these women have been given the right, the case is not closed. Pro-life activists carry a strong argument, and continue to advocate their beliefs. They feel so strongly about these beliefs that violence has broken out in some known instances. Abortion not only arouses passionate opinions, but also passionate hatred towards opposing believers. Majority of the violence pertaining to abortion has been against abortion providers. Seven people have died as a result of anti-abortion attacks, and there have been hundreds of incidents of vandalism of abortion clinics.
Pro-choice activists, on the other hand, also carry very strong points. They believe that the child inside them is their property and its life does not begin until its birth. In 1973, the United States Supreme Court decided that as long as the baby lived in the womb, he or she would be the property of the mother (Mabie 130). The case made abortion legal for women, declaring that privacy rights regarding the “bodily integrity, identity, and destiny” of an individual were largely beyond the reach of government. The vote was 7 to 2. Since then, the margin in favor or abortion, or the freedom to choose it, has shrunk considerably. The last vote on abortion rights, in June 2000, passed by a single vote, 5 to 4 (Be Fearless). Because of this decision almost every third baby conceived in America is killed by abortion, over one and a half million babies a year (Mabie 139). Many countries have followed our decision on the abortion issue and some of theses include Canada, England, and France. Other countries still believe abortion should be illegal; they include Germany, Ireland, and New Zealand (Tribe 70).
Pro-life groups are very active at the state level and have successfully influenced legislators and governors into creating many laws that restrict abortion. Many of the laws have been ineffectual; they are so broadly worded that they are usually declared unconstitutional shortly after having been signed into law. Abortion is considered murder by half of all Americans. Pro-lifers believe that human life begins at the moment of conception. It is determined at the moment of conceptions whether it is a baby boy or baby girl; which of his parents he will look like; what blood type he will have. His whole heritage is forever fixed. About 15,000 genes from the sperm and ovum form a unique combination (Religious Tolerance). This is nothing less than a new human life at its earlier stage of life. In the United States many infants will not make it to puberty, old age, or even their second birthday. Just because of their shortened life, it doesn’t mean that it never existed.
It is argued that if abortion were illegal, it would force poor women to bear and raise children they cannot afford to bring up. There would be numerous abortions taking place behind doors that were unsafe to the mothers. It would also force women to give up their dreams and stay home to bring up babies. Worst of all, it would condemn victims of rape and incest to carry and nurture the offspring of their rapist. Abortion is necessary for women to have control over their own bodies and life. One activist said, “If I hadn’t had that abortion my life would have been a disaster. I wouldn’t have made it to medical school. I was married at that point to a very ill man and it would have been terrible to have my baby. People who need abortions are in some kind of turmoil and it’s really a life-saving thing” (Religious Tolerance). To ignore the rights of others is selfish and injustice. Women must have the right to control the functions of their own bodies. Revern George Gardiner pastor of the college Hill United Methodist Church, told the council that the ordnance would have done little good. “Young women need the freedom to make choices for their reproductive life when their family can’t guarantee them parental support” (Religious Tolerance).
Teenage pregnancies and abortions are a large part of this controversy. There is a consensus in North American that a single teen that finds herself in an unwanted pregnancy should seek the support of empathic, caring, knowledgeable adults. Ideally, this should be her parent(s). Parental involvement laws make such notification of and/or consent by one or both parents mandatory. Unfortunately, not all teens live in a supportive home environment. Some are in dysfunctional families where the news of their pregnancy could precipitate emotional abuse, physical abuse, or ejection from their home. Parental involvement laws are a very controversial topic. Each state has different laws regarding this issue, requiring one parent or a two-parent consent. Some don’t require consent of parents. Some approve a grandparent’s consent as a parent’s consent. Most states with consent or notifications laws allow a young woman to apply to the courts for permission to have an abortion without parental notification or consent. Many women simply travel to a nearby state or country that does not have a law requiring parental involvement. Some women seek an illegal abortion, with its additional health risks.
There is a Virginia law that requires only the notification of one parent or guardian. It has an exception for women who have been abused by a parent or guardian. Women who can convince a judge that they are sufficiently mature to make their own decision to have an abortion, or for women who, in the opinion of a physician, risk “substantial physical injury” from a parent or guardian who is notified about the abortion.
Scientific research has also proven abortion to lead to many psychological side effects. It leaves the woman with many strong feelings about their decision. They feel sadness, wishing things could have been different and grief for a lost life. Guilt arises because they know a fetus represents an independent life. Anger builds up towards other people having to do with their decision. Sometimes the mother may feel that she has, in fact, been abandoned. Most of all, the mother feels ashamed and embarrassed about her action. Even years after the abortion, women tend to remember the regretful situation. They usually wonder what the baby would have looked like on its birthday. Thirty-three year old Michelle Urbain of south Florida has had five abortions so far. She realizes now that they all left emotional scars on her that are unbearable. “It wasn’t just a mass of cell, it was a child a was killing.” (Religious Tolerance)
In summary, a women’s right to choose can justify abortion, but many think it should be banned because it is immoral and life begins at conception. Women have been given the right to have an abortion under the United States Constitution, but this right is still being protested by the people that fight for the unborn’s rights. Pro-life activists claim that it is immoral because it is simply defined as murder. Life beginning at conception is another strong point brought up by pro-life activists. Before a child is born it is given all its necessities to survive. Notice the operative word is before. Before birth the child’s heart beats, the gastric juices flow in the stomach, and all its necessary organs have been made present. This is a child that thinks, dreams, and feels pain. It is argued on the other side that women have abortions to solve her personal problems, but this is unjustified by the pro-life activists. They are seen as abandoning the abortion because it weakens their great strengths: creation, compassion, and the ability to look beneath the surface and appearance of things. It is hoped by many that the abortion issue will soon reverse, and people will see the rights of the unborn as greater importance than that of a personal right.
Religious Tolerance. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 2000. 25 Sept. 2000
CNS News Online. “Poll shows many Americans conflicted over abortion.” 19 June
2000. 24 Sept. 2000 <http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00/20000619c.htm>.
Jussim, Daniel. Medical Ethics: Moral and Legal Conflicts in Health Care. New York:
Julian Messner, 1991.
Mabie, Margot C.J. Bioethics and the New Medical Technology. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company, 1993.
Tribe, Laurence H. Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. London: W.W. Norton &