I came across this quote from an article on what the study of embryo development is :

“The study of the development of an organism, commencing with the union of male and female gametes. Embryology literally means the study of embryos, but this definition is restrictive. An embryo is an immature organism contained within the coverings of an egg or within the body of the mother. Strictly speaking, the embryonic period ends at metamorphosis, hatching, or birth. Since developmental processes continue beyond these events, the scope of embryology is customarily broadened to encompass the entire life history of an organism. Embryology may, in this wider context, consider the mechanisms of both asexual reproduction and regeneration.” (www.accessscience.com)

Embryology studies the development of organisms from the moment of conception. From conception you have an organism that is developing, that is alive, this development process continues right throughout its life. It is Important to note that development process does not stop when the organism hatches, or is born – rather it takes a different form. So in the case of a human – from conception you have a human being that is developing and maturing and progressing.

In other words there is no qualitative difference between a foetus or an infant, but rather a quantitative one where the same individual is going through different development stages. In the same way there is no qualitative difference between a baby and adult – but rather quantitative where the difference is in which stage of development the individual is in.

Why does this matter? 
Because establishing whether the unborn foetus is a human being is the most critical part of the abortion debate. Are we terminating a human life, a person or something else like a body appendage? If the unborn foetus is not a human life then there is no need to further debate the issue – no human being is dying. However if the unborn foetus is a human life then we are engaged in killing a life.

What does personhood (being a person) depend on?

Personhood begins at conception and not when a particular organ such as the heart or brain appears. Firstly, if personhood depended on the formation and functioning of the heart or brain it would mean someone with brain damage or heart damage does not have full personhood. Secondly an individual organism during its development would form a heart and brain to serve a specific function for its survival. If personhood arrives when the heart forms, during the development of the heart- whose heart is actually forming then? Thirdly the organism does not begin to be alive when the heart forms – it forms its heart precisely because it is alive. Only alive organisms develop and regulate their growth. That development process begins at conception and continues right throughout an individuals life until the death of the organism.

Perhaps personhood depends on being self aware as Peter Singer suggests. However I think few would be willing to live the consequences of that idea:

I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.… I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.

The logical conclusion for Singer’s idea of personhood is that babies are not fully persons. A baby does not have the same rights of personhood as an adult. It seems Singer would agree with the ancient practice in Rome of exposure, where new borns who were unwanted by the parents would be exposed and left to die outside.A practice that came to an end when Christianity began to flourish and influence Roman culture. The absurdity of Singer’s view would mean when you are unconscious, or asleep, basically lacking self awareness you cease being a person. Personhood begins at conception, that seems to be the only logical position to take.

  1. Killing is the intentional ending of a human life and is wrong.
  2. An unborn foetus is a human life.
  3. Abortion is the intentional ending of a human life.
  4. Therefore abortion is wrong.


Further Reading

  1. http://prolifetraining.com/resources/five-minute-10/
  2. Fetus
  3. Schizophrenic About Science