When Does a Human “Person” Begin?
When does human “personhood” begin? Various answers are offered to this question, depending upon the individual responding, and his or her philosophical, or religious persuasion. The question cannot be answered from a strictly “scientific” perspective, for science cannot determine anything about a human “spirit,” much less when its bestowal initiates a “person.”
Some contend that the entity resulting from conception is not a “human person” until sometime after birth, when it can be certified genetically sound. Such was the position of Nobel Prize winner Sir Francis Crick, a skeptic who denied that human beings even have a soul (Howard and Rifkin, 81).
A view among some is that the fetus becomes “human” at birth. Those who endorse the practice of “partial-birth abortion” have no qualms about killing a child so long as a portion of the tiny body is yet within the birth canal.
Many secular medical authorities argue that viability is the commencement of a “human person.” Viability is generally defined as the shortest length of pregnancy after which a child that is born prematurely has a chance of survival. Generally, this ranges from 20-27 weeks.
Conservative scholars within the framework of “Christendom” contend that personhood commences at conception. In April of 1981, a distinguished panel of geneticists and physicians testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee with reference to the nature of the human organism that is produced by the union of a sperm and ovum.
Dr. McCarthy de Mere, a medical doctor and law professor at the University of Tennessee, testified as follows: “The exact moment of the beginning of personhood and of the human body is at the moment of conception” (emp. WJ).
Known as the “Father of Modern Genetics,” Dr. Jerome Lejeune told the lawmakers: “To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion . . . it is plain experimental evidence” (emp. WJ). See: When Does Human Life Begin?.
Note the testimony of world-renowned geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, an atheist: “A human being begins his existence when a spermatozoon fertilizes an egg cell” (10; emp. WJ). Even the late Isaac Asimov, a rabid enemy of the Bible, conceded that “the human being . . . begins life as a fertilized ovum” (20; emp. WJ). Neither of these men believed in the existence of a “soul”; nonetheless, they acknowledged that the union of sperm and egg is the commencement of a human person.
To purposefully destroy a human embryo is to take the life of a human being.
A Recent Claim
Recently I was introduced to a theory advanced by some gentlemen who wanted to “bounce” off me some arguments relative to an idea they apparently are considering. They contend that one cannot prove that the “spirit,” as bestowed by God, enters the sperm-egg union at that point in time; rather, they allege it is more likely that the spirit enters the embryo when the latter implants itself within the uterus.
There was absolutely no biblical argument offered for this position. The claim was simply this: one cannot prove that the “spirit” is bestowed at the time of the sperm-egg union, i.e., at conception.
In view of this position, these questions, designed to focus the issue, surely are appropriate. (a) Is the pre-implanted embryo living or non-living? (b) Is the embryo human or non-human? The answer to the first question is too evident to warrant further discussion. The response to the second is similarly apparent.
The embryo certainly is neither fish, reptile, fowl, or beast; if fully developed it will never be anything other than a man or woman. (c) Is the human embryo a person or non-person? If one answers that it is a non-person, upon what basis is this judgment made? That proposition must be supported with evidence if it is to be affirmed.
The Consequence of the Teaching
Reflect upon this necessary deduction: If human embryos are not “persons” prior to implantation, then they are appropriate candidates for experimentation, or any utilitarian purpose, e.g., stem cell research, and extermination — at the whims of scientists! There are approximately 400,000 frozen human embryos now awaiting an uncertain destiny. What Christian can possibly live with this conclusion?
In the course of my communications with the gentlemen mentioned earlier, it became fairly apparent to me that primarily they are motivated by the fact that certain birth-control procedures are designed to destroy the fertilized egg before it reaches the uterus. Thus, if it could be demonstrated that the embryo is not a human person until implantation, elimination procedures prior to that event could be justified. This position, we contend, is fallacious.
Person versus House
With the union of spermatozoon and egg, a new living entity is formed that, in its microscopic-genetic substance, consists of everything it ever will be genetically — if sustained with water, oxygen, and nutrition. The implantation in the uterus is analogous to moving into a house that has been designed to facilitate the resident.
It makes as little sense to argue that a baby is not a person until it enters the house in which it will live, as it does to allege that the embryo is not a person until it reaches the uterus. Is it permissible to practice infanticide while the child is en route to the house, but not after it has entered?
Biblical Evidence — Old Testament
As we noted earlier, “science” cannot speak to the issue of the “spirit,” for the spirit is a non-material entity. On the other hand, for those who respect the testimony of the Scriptures, if there is light to be shed on the “spirit” issue, surely it will be within the pages of sacred literature. Is there biblical information that provides help in this regard? Yes. The Bible writers take for granted that personhood begins at conception.
The Hebrew Old Testament uses the word zera’ (seed) both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense it may be used of seed planted in a field. “The most frequent metaphorical use of . . . zera’ (seed) is employment to designate human seed, i.e., offspring and descendant(s)” (VanGemeren, 1152). The word can signify an individual person, as in the case of the coming Messiah (Genesis 3:15), the people of the nation of Israel (Genesis 15:5; 22:18), or, prophetically, Christians (Psalm 22:30; Isaiah 53:10; cf. “children” – Hebrews 2:13).
Now here is an important point. In Numbers 5:28, a woman was said to “conceive seed,” or as the English Standard Version reads, “conceive children.” That which is “conceived” is not a blob that later becomes a child; it is a child.
David declared: “In sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Calvinists pervert this text in an attempt to prove original sin; they misunderstand the hyperbolic nature of the language (cf. Job 31:18; Psalm 22:10). That aside, the text assuredly indicates that David considered himself a person (“me”) from the moment of his conception.
In Psalm 139, David described God’s care of him even at the earliest stages of his development. He said that Jehovah saw “my unformed substance” (v. 16). The Hebrew expression appears to denote the “undeveloped embryo” (Kirkpatrick, 789; cf. Kidner, 466; emp WJ). The “embryo” exists before implantation.
Biblical Evidence – New Testament
A Greek word corresponding to the Old Testament zera’ is sperma (seed). It is found 217 times in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint; LXX), and 44 times in the Greek New Testament. Likewise, it is employed metaphorically for a person; and this “seed” (person) commences at “conception” (see Hebrews 11:11).
Both Elizabeth and Mary are said to have “conceived” a “son” — not mere tissue (Luke 1:36). It will scarcely be denied that “son” in this context indicates a person.
James wrote: “The body apart from the spirit is dead” (2:26). The text suggests (by implication) that the spirit is present as soon as there is a living body. That tiny “body” commences at conception. But is it proper to designate the embryo as a “body”? How is a living human to be defined?
By the time the embryo reaches the uterus, it already has developed into a conglomerate of some 50 to 150 cells. This tiny organism exhibits all the characteristics of a living body.
- It has independent movement.
- It experiences true growth, the multiplication of cells.
- It responds to external stimuli.
- It is capable of metabolism, i.e., it breaks down products outside of itself for the production of energy.
The fact that it is so small in no way nullifies the reality that this is a living body.
This information, combined with James’ affirmation, argues for the presence of the “spirit” or “soul” of that person. The divine equation is this: body – spirit = corpse; body + spirit = living person. To classify this process of logical reasoning as mere “assumption,” as some have done, is incredible! It is logical inference, not assumption.
As suggested earlier, after analyzing the statements of some of those who justify the destruction of the embryo prior to implantation, I am convinced that the prime motive behind this position either is: (a) guilt for having sanctioned birth control methods that are known to abort the embryo; (b) a desire to defend a practice that is perceived to be a convenient method of birth control. Some argue in this fashion.
- If all embryos have a spirit, and;
- Oral contraceptives abort embryos;
- Then, oral contraceptives kill embryos with spirits, thus people.
The “syllogism” is constructed incorrectly. If the conclusion is to follow, the minor premise (2) must read: “All oral contraceptives kill embryos.” That was not proved. A contraceptive designed to destroy an embryo is immoral. One aimed at simply suppressing ovulation is not. A wife should be informed as to the nature of the pill she uses.
Another argument being employed relates to what is called the “Luteal phase defect” (LPD), which is believed to occasionally interfere with the implantation of embryos during the postpartum breast-feeding span. Unbelievably, some contend that God “designed women in such a way as to cause” LPD, and therefore this destruction of an embryo is evidence that the spirit is not present. What about the many causes of “miscarriage” after uterine implantation? Do these tragic occurrences likewise suggest that the fetus is not a human person; thus, abortion is permissible anywhere en route to birth?
The fact is, LPD is recognized as a “disorder,” a “defect” — not something divinely purposed. One might as well argue that heart attacks and cancer have been divinely designed. The human body is fraught with many weaknesses as a consequence of the long-term effects of sin. Disorders and death are attributed to Satan (Luke 13:16; John 8:44b), not God. Does the fact that disease takes life argue that one may kill his neighbor with impunity?
It is unconscionable that men who profess to represent Jesus Christ should advocate that the deliberate destruction of an embryo is a moral act that carries the approval of the Creator. Yet even good men can be caught up in societal trends. Such is a tragic reality. May those who seek to be advocates of Christianity study carefully and reason logically.
- Asimov, Isaac. 1963. The Genetic Code. New York, NY: Orion Press.
- Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1965 ed. Evolution, Genetics, & Man. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
- Howard, Ted and Jeremy Rifkin. 1977. Who Should Play God? New York, NY: Dell.
- Kidner, Derek. 1975. Psalms 73-150. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
- Kirkpatrick, A. F. 1906. Psalms. Cambridge: University Press.
- VanGemeran, Willem A. 1997. Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.