There are few issues today that are as contentious, and emotive as the moral status of abortion. Even though abortion in South Africa is a legal and normal practice – it has not prevented the debate from continuing. What makes the abortion issue particularly complex is the various and diverse concepts, moral principles, scientific and empirical data, interests; which are in tension and must all be reconciled into a unified and coherent principle able to handle the nuances that life throws at us. Needless to say such a task requires a sustained and rigorous intellectual effort to be concise and unambiguous – a task very few of us are equipped to handle and therefore most debates end up being incommensurable. My approach to the issue will be to primarily establish the ontological status of the foetus (what exactly is the foetus). I will demonstrate that the foetus is a human being and therefore a person. In the process I will deal with objections that argue there is a distinction between the two concepts.  I will then briefly offer an outline of an argument that for an abortion in which (1) there is no imminent and immediate threat to the woman’s life and (2) excluding the case where the woman has been raped: abortion is indeed the killing of an innocent person and therefore morally unjust. Thirdly I will briefly comment on the case where the woman is pregnant as a result of rape and argue that even in such a case: the value of an innocent person remains high and Thomson’s violinist thought experiments fail to support her conclusions.

What is the foetus?

I think Judith Thomson rightly points out that “most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception” (Thomson 2014: 305). Indeed there are no debates over what a woman should do with her teeth. If it was a settled fact that the foetus is a mere body part – my guess is that the debate would be nonexistent. Therefore before proceeding further we must indeed establish what we are dealing with when talking about the foetus; because what it is determines precisely how it should be treated. The essay will argue for the personhood of a zygote and therefore assume the implications will hold for a fetus, and it will also use the concept of a zygote, embryo and fetus interchangeably.

When life begins

 It is without controversy to say that life for individuals that belong to the species of human beings begins with fertilization – “Fertilization is the culminating event of sexual reproduction, which involves the union of the sperm and egg to form a single, genetically distinct organism” (Bianchi and Wright 2016: 93). The product of a successful fertilization is conception which results in a unique distinct single celled organism, a zygote, that is capable of self-directing, organizing and generating a globally coordinated development process towards a species-specific form[i] (Condic 2014: 796). The embryo is defined as an “immature organism contained within the coverings of an egg or within the body of the mother” (Accessscience 2016). In an article on ontogeny fertilization is described as “…the joining of haploid gametes (a spermatozoon and an ovum, each bearing half the number of chromosomes typical for the species) to form a diploid zygote (with a full chromosome number), a new unicellular living being” (Accessscience 2016). It is a clear empirical fact that a zygote is a single celled living organism capable of self-directing and coordinating its development into a mature form. The fetus in the field of embryology is defined as the developing organism in human beings in its ninth week after fertilization (Accessscience 2016).

The distinction between totipotency and plenipotency

It is important that we understand the uniqueness and distinction between a zygote and say a stem cell, skin cell or a sperm cell. Condic argues that the word totipotency is often used ambiguously in scientific literature (Condic 2014: 796). Totipotency can mean (1) a single cell capable of self-directing, generating a process of developing into a complete mature organism such as a zygote. (2) A cell capable of differentiating into any of an organism’s cell types and tissues such as a stem cell which can become a heart or skin cell[ii]. Condic argues that stem cells and tumors cannot and do not display totipotency in the first sense – they can only take part in an ongoing embryonic process of development but cannot originate, generate and coordinate such a process (op. cit., 797). Condic (Ibid) suggests that cells of this nature should be referred to as plenipotent and that the term totipotent to be reserved for the zygote alone. Therefore stem cells and tumors are not totipotent in the strict sense and therefore do not have the capacity to generate and coordinate a development process towards a mature organism – they can only be parts of an actual living organism.

The zygote is a human being

We are now in a position to affirm that from the moment of conception an individual living organism generating and self-directing its own development towards maturity is present. The question then arises – to which species does the zygote belong to? A general principle is that every member of a genus must belong to a particular species. If an object belongs to the genus or class of being a shape it must also belong to a species within that genus such as being a triangle or circle. Something cannot belong to a genus without also being a specific genus. Similarly if an individual being belongs to the general class of living organisms it must also belong to a certain species of living organisms. The zygote is a living organism and if it is the product of the union of human sperm and egg then the zygote belongs to the species of human beings; if belongs to the species of human beings then it is a human being and not a potential human being. From the moment of conception when a zygote is originates, it is an individual living human being.

The false distinction between being human and being a person

Warren (1973:53) agrees with the fact that a foetus is a human being but argues that a distinction should be made between being human in the genetic sense and a moral sense. Her argument is that it is personhood that qualifies one to be human in a moral sense and the foetus lacks qualities that persons have and therefore has no right to life. The implications if accepted would lead to what the general population would consider a moral absurdity. Infants as well do not have these cognitive features and therefore would not qualify as being persons, and therefore killing infants would be ethically permissible. Another philosopher Michael Tooley also advances the same argument and indeed agrees that infanticide is completely ethically acceptable. It would be enough to end there – an argument that ends up concluding that there is nothing morally repugnant about killing infants, or the mentally impaired – is an absurdity deserving no further engagement. However, there are further metaphysical problems with Warren and Tooley’s approach.

If we follow Warren’s reasoning we will be led to a contradiction. The first thing we must ask is how do we define a human being? A highly problematic question granted but perhaps we can begin with Aristotle’s classic definition that a human is a “rational animal” (Eberl 2004: 335). We can easily agree that human beings have distinctive anatomical and behavioural features: consciousness, sense perception, bipedal mobility, erect posture, complex organs and systems such as digestive, respiratory, circulatory and nervous systems. If we were to go to another planet and find another species with these specific features we would conclude they are humans as well.

The problem is if we follow Warren’s reasoning then infants, foetuses and certainly a zygotes do not possess any of these features. We would have to conclude that a zygote is not a human being because it possesses none of the distinctive anatomical and behavioural features that human beings are paradigmatically defined by. Warren claims an individual is a person if and only if they have capacities X (where X represents the list of traits listed by Warren such as self-awareness, desire, rationality). We could do the same about a human being and say an individual is a human being if and only if they have capacities W (where W represents unique behavioural, biological and rational capacities of humans which includes capacities X of personhood). A zygote would then possess none of the capacities W and therefore we would have to conclude that a zygote is not a human being.

Similarly an infant does not display all of the features essential to being a human, it lacks rationality and therefore an infant using Warren’s reasoning is not only not a person, but is also not a human being. An essential and unique feature of humans is that they are persons (rational individuals). Warren’s assumptions and reasoning lead us to absurd conclusions – whereby we end up concluding that an infant is not a human being.

How then can the zygote not be a human being and yet simultaneously be an individual living organism belonging to the species of human beings? A clear contradiction arises if we follow Warren’s reasoning. To resolve this contradiction, we must acknowledge that the distinctive paradigmatic features of a human being, and of most living things, refer to the mature adult form of the species. The defining features are given of a human being at a particular stage of its development. The definition is static ( a snapshot of the mature paradigmatic stage) but the actual living human being is dynamic – the human always develops towards that stage, going through numerous developmental stages where it gains the defining features.

We would have to amend our definition of what counts as a human being and say some individual is a human if and only if it has a form, nature or essence[iii] that has the actual potential for capacities W (unique traits of human beings). This helps us make sense of the fact that a zygote possesses the same nature, essence, as an adult human being and it is the zygote’s form and essence that makes it human and explains why it self-directs and develops into a mature adult human rather than a mature adult elephant or bee. If we deny this principle of form or essence- then we end up with a contradiction and have no way of explaining why a zygote (a living individual organism) with none of the distinctive defining paradigmatic human features is a living human being[iv].

The conclusion we can draw from the above discussion is that:

  1. An individual living subject is a human being if and only if it possesses the form or essence of a human being.
  2. An individual living subject can possess the form or essence of a human being without displaying the paradigmatic features of a human such as rational or biological capacities.
  3. Similarly a living subject can be a person if and only if they possess the form or essence of a rational kind.
  4. The form or essence of a human being is of a rational kind; our form or essence grounds the capacity to develop our rational capacities.
  5. Therefore an individual living subject that possesses the form and essence of a human being; is a human being and therefore is an actual person.
  6. Human beings are persons.

A human is a human is a human

The above discussion might appear a bit abstract but it has concrete implications. It is this kind of reasoning that helps us makes sense of our everyday judgements regarding how we treat people with deficient or impaired cognitive and mental faculties. We treat people with mental impairments as human beings, as persons with intrinsic value who need care – we do not classify them as non-persons, or as possessing only half of human dignity. We treat infants and children as persons with intrinsic value and worth even if they have not fully developed their mental faculties. Our everyday common sense judgements rest on the presupposition that personhood is what one is, and not what one obtains.

Implications for abortion

The essay has focused on the ontological status of the foetus and argued that a foetus is a human being and therefore a person and the distinction attempted is false. I cannot develop the arguments that abortion is immoral in the various cases at length and therefore a brief sketch rather than a rigorous argument will have to suffice. Objections to arguments that abortion is immoral, specifically in cases where pregnancy is not due to rape and the woman’s life is not in immediate danger, on the basis that a foetus is not a person are false. The standard argument that abortion is immoral is: (1) it is wrong to kill an innocent person. (2) Abortion is actively ending the life of the foetus. (3) A foetus is a person that is innocent. (4) Abortion is therefore actively ending the life of an innocent person and is therefore wrong.

In the cases where pregnancy is due to rape (Thomson 2014: 306) employs the famous thought experiment of the famous violinist. We are asked to imagine ourselves waking up one morning with a famous unconscious violinist strapped to us. The violinist has a kidney problem and the Society of Music Lovers kidnapped me after discovering I have the same blood type and have now plugged the violin into my own circulatory system. Unplugging the violinist would mean they would die. Thomson argues if I unplugged the violinist knowing they would die because I did not agree to this, and in fact had my own rights violated, I would not be doing any wrong. Similarly abortion where pregnancy is not due to consent, where the foetus relies on the woman’s organs for survival would not be wrong if the foetus is there not out of consent. I think the analogy is faulty for the following reasons. Firstly, the violinist is dying because of a disease; a normal healthy violinist would not need to be plugged into someone. A foetus during abortion would be dying because what a normal healthy foetus needs to live is taken away – to be a normal healthy living foetus is precisely to be growing in the womb. Secondly suppose the violinist was not a stranger but my child – what obligations and responsibilities do parents have towards their children that they do not have towards strangers? The analogy is faulty and cannot help us draw moral conclusions from it. The right to life is primary and other rights are subordinate to it – one has the right to freedom, property and one’s body only because they have the right to life to begin with.


The crux of the essay has been to demonstrate that the foetus is a person. Firstly the empirical and scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear that from the moment of a successful fertilization when conception occurs – a distinct individual single celled living organism originates i.e. a zygote. The fetus is the developing organism from its ninth week after fertilization. Secondly there is a clear distinction between the a developing organism such as a zygote or fetus and cells such as stem cells, sperm cells or skin cells. The former is a distinct individual living organism self-directing, organizing and coordinating all of its parts for its own development (totipotency); the latter is only a part capable of participating in an ongoing process of development and turning into other cell types. Thirdly if the zygote is a living individual organism it must belong to some particular species and therefore is that species – so a zygote being the product of human fertilization it must then be a living developing human being. Fourthly the distinction that an individual can be a human being and not be a person is false. When a human being is defined as a rational animal it refers to the paradigmatic and distinctive features of the fully developed adult form. If we deny this then we would conclude that zygotes as well as  infants are neither persons (because they lack rational capacity) nor are they human beings (because they lack distinctive biological and rational human traits). If the zygote or an infant is not human then what kind of living substance is it? A clear incoherence arises which is resolved by acknowledging that one can be a human even if they lack paradigmatic features of humans in virtue of belonging to the human kind and therefore possessing the nature of human beings. Therefore a zygote is a human being and therefore a person. The implication is that arguments that justify abortion on the basis of denying the personhood of the fetus are based on an incorrect premise. The fetus is a person with moral worth and dignity which should be respected. Only in acknowledging this are we able to secure dignity for infants and those persons that are mentally impaired. Our world has been marred and plagued with a history of denying that certain traits excluded certain groups from being persons. Our highest ideals must include protecting the most vulnerable members of society and the zygote is no exception.


Accessscience. 2016. Ontogeny.

Accessscience. 2016. Embryology.

Accessscience. 2016. Fetus.

Bianchi, E. and Wright, G.J. 2016. Sperm Meets Egg: The Genetics of Mammalian Fertilization. The Annual Reviews of Genetics, 50:93-111.

Condic, M.L. 2014.Totipotency:What it is and what it is not. STEM CELLS AND DEVELOPMENT,23(8): 796-812.

Eberl, J.T. 2004.Aquinas on the Nature of Human Beings. The Review of Metaphysics, 58(2):333-365.

Marquis, D. 2014.Why Abortion is Immoral, in Contemporary Issues in Bioethics. Edited by Beauchamp, T.L., Walters, L., Kahn, P.J. and Masroianni, A.C. Clark Baxter, 289-296.

Teichman, J. 1985.The Definition of a Person. Philosophy, 60(232):175-185.

Thomson, J.J. 2014. A Defense of Abortion, in Contemporary Issues in Bioethics. Edited by Beauchamp, T.L., Walters, L., Kahn, P.J. and Masroianni, A.C. Clark Baxter, 305-314.

Warren, M.A. 1973. ON THE MORAL AND LEGAL STATUS OF ABORTION. The Monist, 57(1):43-61.

 End Notes

[i] Condic (2014) offers some distinctive features of an embryo, “Embryos develop in a predictable manner toward aspecies-specific adult form (human embryos do not mature into mice, monkeys, or tumors). Embryos repair injury. They adapt to changing environmental conditions. Most importantly, they show coordinated interactions between parts (molecules, cells, tissues, structures, and organs) that promote the survival, health, and continued development of the organism as a whole; that is, interactions that are characteristic of ‘‘an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a living being,’’

[ii] Other authors make this distinction as well, see Thanh QuangDang NguyenMaria ElenaTorres-PadillaHow cells build totipotency and pluripotency: nuclear, chromatin and transcriptional architecture

  “However, in a strict definition, totipotency refers to the ability of a single cell to develop into an organism…the zygote is the ultimate totipotent cell as it is able to develop into the embryo proper with all embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages”

[iii] The concept of substantial form cannot be fully expounded here. Aristotle’s metaphysics of hylemorphism resolves this apparent difficulty because material composition alone is insufficient for explaining how different material bodies can possess the same nature. Aristotle takes an individual substance to be a composite of matter and a substantial form. It is the form of a substance which is the (1) intrinsic organizing principle of matter (2) the essence of the substance (3) provides the unity of existence and persistence through time of the individual substance (4) determines the unique activities and capacities of the substance. See David Oderberg, Hylemorphic Dualism

[iv] Relying on DNA cannot resolve the issue because skin, hair and sperm cells possess human DNA but are not individual human beings; human stem cells also possess human DNA but as already argued, are not totipotent in the strict sense and therefore are not living human beings. DNA is therefore insufficient.