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Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights

Part Three: Is the Unborn Human Less Than Human?

by Francis J. Beckwith

Realizing that many popular arguments for abortion rights -- such as some of the ones found in the first two installments in this series -- have little logical merit, many philosophers, ethicists, and theologians have presented more sophisticated arguments for abortion rights. These radical and moderate pro-choice thinkers agree with pro-life advocates that the abortion debate rests on the moral status of the unborn: if the unborn are fully human, then nearly every abortion performed is tantamount to murder. They argue, however, that although the unborn entity is human, insofar as belonging to the species homo sapiens, it is not a person and hence not fully human.

Those who argue in this fashion defend either a decisive moment or gradualist approach to the status of the unborn. Those who defend a decisive moment view argue that, although human life does begin at the moment of conception, it is at some later stage in the unborn human's development that it becomes worthy of our protection. It is at this moment that it becomes a person.

Other philosophers take a gradualist position and argue that the unborn human gradually gains more rights as it develops. Hence, a zygote has less rights than a 6-month-old fetus, but this fetus has less rights than an adult woman.

In order to understand decisive moment and gradualist theories, it is important that we carefully go over the biological facts of fetal development. In this third installment of my four-part series I will cover the facts of fetal development and some decisive moment theories. In Part Four I will critique some more decisive moment theories and the gradualist view, concluding with responses to common questions asked about the pro-life view that full humanness begins at conception.



While going over the facts of prenatal development I will present the case for the pro-life view that full humanness begins at conception. I will deal with objections to this view when I critique the decisive moment and gradualist views in both this article and the final part of this series.

First Month

Pregnancy begins at conception, the time at which the male sperm and the female ovum unite. What results is called a zygote, a one-celled biological entity, a stage in human development through which each of us has passed (just as we have passed through infancy, childhood, and adolescence). It is a misnomer to refer to this entity as a "fertilized ovum." For both ovum and sperm, which are genetically each a part of its owner (mother and father, respectively), cease to exist at the moment of conception. There is no doubt that the zygote is biologically alive. It fulfills the four criteria needed to establish biological life: (1) metabolism, (2) growth, (3) reaction to stimuli, and (4) reproduction. (There is cell reproduction and twinning, a form of asexual reproduction, which can occur after conception. For more on twinning, see below.) But is this life fully human? I believe that the facts clearly reveal that it is.

First, the human conceptus -- that which results from conception and begins as a zygote -- is the sexual product of human parents. Hence, insofar as having human causes, the conceptus is human.

Second, not only is the conceptus human insofar as being caused by humans, it is a unique human individual, just as each of us is. Resulting from the union of the female ovum (which contains 23 chromosomes) and the male sperm (which contains 23 chromosomes), the conceptus is a new -- although tiny -- individual. It has its own unique genetic code (with forty-six chromosomes), which is neither the mother's nor the father's. From this point until death, no new genetic information is needed to make the unborn entity a unique individual human. Her (or his) genetic make-up is established at conception, determining her unique individual physical characteristics -- gender, eye color, bone structure, hair color, skin color, susceptibility to certain diseases, etc. That is to say, at conception, the "genotype" -- the inherited characteristics of a unique human being -- is established and will remain in force for the entire life of this individual. Although sharing the same nature with all human beings, the unborn individual, like each one of us, is unlike any that has been conceived before and unlike any that will ever be conceived again. The only thing necessary for the growth and development of this human organism (as with the rest of us) is oxygen, food, and water, since this organism -- like the newborn, the infant, and the adolescent -- needs only to develop in accordance with her already-designed nature that is present at conception.

This is why French geneticist Jermoe L. LeJeune, while testifying before a Senate Subcommittee, asserted: "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. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence."[2]

There is hence no doubt that the development of a unique individual human life begins at conception. It is vital that you -- the reader -- understand that you did not come from a zygote, you once were a zygote; you did not come from an embryo, you once were an embryo; you did not come from a fetus, you once were a fetus; you did not come from an adolescent, you once were an adolescent. Consequently, each one of us has experienced these various developmental stages of life. None of these stages, however, imparted to us our humanity.

Within one week after conception, implantation occurs -- the time at which the conceptus "nests" or implants in her mother's uterus. During this time, and possibly up to fourteen days after conception,[3] a splitting of the conceptus may occur resulting in the creation of identical twins. In some instances the two concepti may recombine and become one conceptus. (I will respond below to the argument that the possibility of the conceptus twinning and the subsequent concepti recombining refutes the pro-life claim that full humanness begins at conception.) At about three weeks, a primitive heart muscle begins to pulsate. Other organs begin to develop during the first month, such as a liver, primitive kidneys, a digestive tract, and a simple umbilical cord. This developing body has a head and a developing face with primitive ears, mouth, and eyes, despite the fact that it is no larger than half the size of a pea. Toward the end of the first month (between 26 and 28 days) the arms and legs begin to appear as tiny buds. A whole embryo is formed by the end of the first month.

From the eighteenth day after conception, substantial development of the brain and nervous system occurs.

This is necessary because the nervous system integrates the action of all the other systems. By the end of the twentieth day the foundation of the child's brain, spinal cord, and entire nervous system will have been established. By the sixth week, this system will have developed so well that it is controlling movements of the baby's muscles, even though the woman may not be aware she is pregnant. At thirty days the primary brain is seen. By the thirty-third day the cerebral cortex, the part of the central nervous system which governs motor activity as well as intellect, may be seen.[4]

Second Month

Despite its small size, the unborn child by the beginning of the second month looks distinctly "human" (although -- as this article maintains -- it is human from conception). At this point it is highly likely that the mother does not even know she is pregnant. Brain waves can be detected in the unborn at about forty to forty-three days after conception. During the second month, the eyes, ears, nose, toes, and fingers make their appearance; the skeleton develops; the heart beats; and the blood -- with its own type -- flows. The unborn at this time has reflexes and her lips become sensitive to touch. By the eighth week her own unique fingerprints start to form, along with the lines in her hands.

A vast majority of abortions are performed during this time, despite the scientific facts which clearly show that an individual human life is developing, as it would after birth, from infant to child to adolescent to