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Personhood Week: Conception Is a Process

Earlier this month voters in two U.S. States, Colorado and North Dakota, considered new laws that would bolster the legal rights of a fetus before birth. Neither of these ballot initiatives passed, but they’re part of a “personhood movement” that’s been gaining notoriety among pro-life advocates since about 2008. Reading about this movement in the press (Vox has a great overview) has made me wonder about the slippery, contentious, and profound meaning of “personhood.”

The Wikipedia page for personhood gives this definition: “Personhood is the status of being a person.” Right-o.

The page for person isn’t much clearer: “A person is a being, such as a human, that has certain capacities or attributes constituting personhood, which in turn is defined differently by different authors in different disciplines, and by different cultures in different times and places.”

I’ve chosen five personhood perspectives to write about this week. Today’s installment is all about conception (another fuzzy concept). Tomorrow I’ll try to tackle the transition from child to adult. Wednesday I’ll ask whether dead bodies are people. Thursday goes to non-human animals, and Friday to neuroscientists who argue that “personhood” is a convenient, if illusory construction of the human brain.

I’d love to hear about how you guys define personhood, and why. Feel free to leave comments on these posts, or jump in to the #whatisaperson conversation on Twitter.


I went to a Catholic high school, where I was taught in religion class that life begins at conception. I don’t remember my teacher getting into the biological details, but we all knew what she meant: Life begins at the moment that an earnest sperm finishes his treacherous swimming odyssey and hits that big, beautiful egg.

That’s what many Christians believe, and it’s also the fundamental idea behind the personhood movement. The website of Personhood USA, a nonprofit Christian ministry, highlights this quote by French geneticist Jérôme Lejeune: “After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. It is no longer a matter of taste or opinion…it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.”

That’s not a common belief among biologists, however. Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore calls the conception story a “founding myth,” like The Aeneid. As he jokes in a popular lecture, “We are not the progeny of some wimpy sperm — we are the progeny of heroes!”

In reality, conception — or more precisely, fertilization — is not a moment. It’s a process.

After the sperm DNA enters the egg, it takes at least 12 hours for it to find its way to the egg’s DNA. The sperm and egg chromosomes condense in a coordinated dance, with the help of lots of proteins call microtubules, eventually forming a zygote. But a true diploid nucleus — that is, one that contains a full set of chromosomes from each parent — does not exist until the zygote has split into two cells, about two days after the sperm first arrive.

So is that two-cell stage, then, at day two, when personhood begins?

It could be, if you define personhood on a purely genetic level. I have a hard time doing so, though, because of twins. Identical twins share exactly the same genome, but are obviously not the same person.

Based on this logic, some biologists push back the start of personhood to about 14 days after the sperm enters the egg, a stage called gastrulation. This is when the zygote transforms from one layer into three, with each layer destined to become different types of tissues. It’s only after this stage that you could look at a zygote and say definitively that it’s not going to split into identical twins (or triplets or even quadruplets).

Via Wikipedia: Gastrulation occurs when a blastula, made up of one layer, folds inward and enlarges to create a gastrula.
Image via Wikipedia

So is the 14th day of gestation, then, when personhood begins?

Some doctors would say no, you have to also consider the fetal brain. We define a person’s death, after all, as the loss of brain activity. So why wouldn’t we also define a person’s emergence based on brain activity? If you take this view, Gilbert notes, then you’ll push personhood to about the 28th week of gestation. That’s the earliest point when researchers (like this group) have been able to pick up tell-tell brain activity patterns in a developing fetus.

Most legal definitions of personhood in the United States also focus on this late stage of gestation. The famous Roe v. Wade case in 1973 made it illegal for states to ban abortions before the third trimester of pregnancy, which begins at 28 weeks. Subsequent rulings by the court got rid of this trimester notion, saying instead that abortions can’t happen after a fetus is “viable,” or able to live outside the womb, which can be as early as 22 or 23 weeks. (And in 2003, Congress banned a specific procedure called a partial-birth abortion, which happens between 15 and 26 weeks.)

So there you have it. From a biological perspective, neither conception nor personhood is easily defined. “I really can’t tell you when personhood begins,” Gilbert says in his lecture. “But I can say with absolute certainty that there’s no consensus among scientists.”

These definitions don’t necessarily get easier after birth, either. But we’ll get to that tomorrow.

24 thoughts on “Personhood Week: Conception Is a Process

  1. Science by democracy really has no merit. Regarding “brain dead” as a gauge; those people on life support are given certain rights and protections in the form of legally binding living wills. By this logic, lack of brain activity wouldn’t be enough to grant or deny “personhood.” I’m going to venture that personhood is in the eyes of the beholder- it is what we project of ourselves onto any developmental stage of fetal development, and is therefore biased, subjective and persists independent of the good biological questions you are raising.

  2. Richard Dawkins has some interesting comments in that wonderful book, The Ancestors Tale, about the need to define an embryo as categorically human or not human, which is the essence of the personhood movement. He calls it the tyranny of the discontinuous mind. I think that gets at the problem. It is uncomfortable to be forced into these dichotomies – is it a person or is it not a person – because we want to have respect for the humanness of the embryo but not be forced into making a false analogy between a child after birth and a non-sentient mass of cells. There ought to be some other word that acknowledges its potential without awarding it capacity.

  3. “Conception is a process” is really not that useful of an argument. Scientists can debate whether a human being comes into existence when sperm penetrates egg or later when the DNA combines but regardless there’s a point (sometime within 24 hours of fertilization) when a new human being comes into existence and that point we can reasonable call the “moment of conception”.

    As for twinning, that merely means that a new human being comes into existence through asexual reproduction. That doesn’t negate the fact that a human being already exists before the twinning occurs. For example, if I could clone you using some of your DNA that wouldn’t mean that you didn’t exist before I created your clone.

  4. ‘Personhood’ is a political concept which is created for political purposes, and has little to do with science (or any other collection of facts). Those who want to do politics will have no trouble defining it because they will define it in accordance with their purposes. Those who want to do science will — as in the present article — note that it is a fuzzy, ill-defined category at best.

    Those with a taste for anthropological excursions might want to note that in some cultures (religions, philosophies, etc.) the person exists and is associated with the body of the mother before conception, or so I have read. In others, the person is associated with the physical remains until some time after apparent physical death. In yet others, some humans are persons and others are not. These are all abstract constructions of what are actually highly ambiguous natural phenomena.

  5. And of course–as I suspect Wednesday will go into a bit more–not everyone agrees with the brain death definition of death (and brain death even has a debated history: what kind of brain death), but prefer the cardio-pulminary definition. So that creates yet another point to go “well, does personhood begin here?”

  6. Virginia Hughes, in regard to question of conception, you mention both the Colorado and North Dakota bills that were on the ballot in 2014. But did you know that neither of those propositions actually said that life begins at conception? The ND Amendment 1:

    The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.

    Colorado Amendment 67:

    …[T]he words “person” and “child” in the Colorado Criminal Code and the Colorado Wrongful Death Act must include unborn human beings.

    It was the opponents to these bills who, by lying about IVF, claimed that life begins at conception.

  7. I like Eric’s idea about projection of ourselves onto the other. Some people want to give personhood to non-human beings and Bolivia’s Law of Rights of Mother Earth goes to the extreme other end of the personhood question.

    I think ‘person’ is a social construct that arises from having a persona or personality. Personhood is first and foremost in our relating to other people. Can a fetus relate? To whatever degree it can, the mother is always the first relationship and has the primary responsibility of bringing a new person into the world. Where she is unwilling or unable to take that responsibility, I think termination of pregnancy is the lesser evil in consideration of harms to the rights of people already born (including the mother).

    Also, there is a legal definition of person in US federal law. I wonder if the right response to these initiatives is to copy this definition into all the state constitutions through the initiative process and preempt further measures.


  8. This argument typifies what I believe to be a major hazard – the belief that words have the power to create reality. This belief can be seen in Ancient Egyptian magic spells carved into tomb walls and chanted by priests and the paintings and statues that show the result: a literal afterlife. The same belief is recorded in the Old Testament, where Jehovah’s words create a world of rules about human behavior. Mere disobedience to God’s word earns dire punishment. Modern social humans continue to believe in the power of words: Americans believe in the magical words of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, not understanding that mere words (and implied intent) guarantee nothing. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, Justice and Equality must be realized through actions. As an Asperger (concrete thinker) my main frustration in life is the intractable magical perception of existence on the part of social humans. This question of “personhood” is an extension of the Old Testament search for “god’s word” instead of engaging in tough questions about human reproduction. This belief that magic words create concrete reality is a disaster!

  9. author gives way too much lip service to superstitions of religions.
    once you eliminate religion, you’re on your way to rational, consistent, humane decisions and actions.
    for the record, it is clear that based on what superstitions teach, “santa clause begiins when the north star aligns with cancer and the ghosts and goblins and fairy tales of yesteryear decide the outcome of a war(see bush) or tennis match(see michael chang).

    wash the dirty stinking deadly dangerous superstitions of religion out of your minds! start with a clean slate of logic, science, rationality, humaneness and replace “in god we trust” with “we value logic, science, rationality, humaneness”

  10. Ah, this old debate. Whenever I see it I try to point out that life doesn’t actually begin. The sperm and egg are living human cells, the combination of the two is a living human cell. There is no beginning to life, at least, not at this late date.

    Once you realize that it becomes a matter purely of religion. This is a nonbiological argument about ensoulment, not personhood, and is a fundamentally inappropriate topic for legislation by government.

  11. Simple: you offer rights and privileges to the degree that a life form is sentient and similar(to humans) and non-parasitic.
    for example, your skin cells(or any cells that are not fully integrated) or tub-mold don’t get much credit; i think most are in agreement so far.
    mammals get far more credit than insects.
    within insects, butterflies get more credit than mosquitos.

    simple deal really.

  12. Personhood is a new (made-up) concept that has not been fully worked out. As such, it is dynamic and changing. It my be like the queen in Alice in Wonderland, it means what ever I choose it to mean.

  13. Personhood is not a physical state, but a spiritual one. And it is endowed whenever the creator endows it, and may not be precisely definable by man. I posit that it would be wise for us, as the creature (and not the creator), to draw the line for Personhood at the moment the Ova receives the sperm, (and electro-chemically rejects all others). For it is after this moment that any intentional act to prevent the further development of the child risks killing a person and offending the creator. And this is a risk I am not willing to take.

  14. Oh Lord, this is like debating how many angels can dance on the head of pin. At some point each of us has come to our own beliefs on the matter of when conception starts, and whether that conception is human. Neither science nor religion will probably persuade us to change that belief. And it is a belief. Even science has erred in our history; and sometimes science is no quite heavily influenced by the predispositions of the scientist.

  15. The political issue for which ‘personhood’ has been created in this case is not about whether one should get an abortion or not, but about whether one should use force to keep other people from getting abortions.

  16. Let’s make this argument more complicated (for those religiously inclined) and point out that many, perhaps even most, fertilization events do not result in implantation (I’ve heard it’s estimated at 50%). Do these fertilized eggs count as persons? Should we mourn these balls of cells?

    On the other end what happens when doctors remove a clump of cancerous cells from a person (or a noncancerous cyst or mole). Does that clump of cells deserve to be called a person, too? Should it have rights? It is as much a person as a blastocyst.

    I don’t believe there is a clear line marking personhood, it’s more of a process that occurs over months of development. Like much of biology it’s not clear-cut, biology doesn’t read the textbook.

  17. “Reno Hates Me”, 100% of human beings die at some point, that doesn’t affect their value. Infant mortality historically was also greater than 50%, so does that mean they were not persons, should they not have been mourned?
    Also, I have a hard time believing scientists who can’t detect brain waves until the 28th week, that’s a full month after babies can be born and survive outside the womb! Maybe these scientists should be trying to detect each other’s brain waves …
    I have a nice clean definition for the author, but of course, it won’t serve to justify aborting unborn humans, but here it is: a person is a human being. That’s actually how black’s law dictionary defined it.

  18. ND Amendment 1:

    The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.

    Colorado Amendment 67:

    …[T]he words “person” and “child” in the Colorado Criminal Code and the Colorado Wrongful Death Act must include unborn human beings.

    So when, exactly, do you think the law sees as the beginning of personhood? If you don’t think it at least strongly implies conception, then you’re delusional; if you do, you’re being disingenuous. Both were poorly worded, likely purposefully, so that litigants could argue conception in front of courts.

    If cessation of brain activity is the accepted definition of death, it makes sense to me that initiation of brain activity should be the definition of viability. I’ll leave that up to biologists, ethicists, and, ultimately, the courts to decide.

    Those who cite the slippery slope argument are spot on. Just as one example, if a young child dies mysteriously in his or her home, we would expect the police to investigate the death, correct? How then, if we are treating fetuses as human persons, do we handle miscarriages? Should every miscarriage be investigated by police? Should mothers be arrested for endangerment for smoking, drinking, or eating unhealthy foods while pregnant? Is that the kind of society we want? Yet the people pushing such amendments are the same ones complaining about government intrusion into our lives.

    Oh, the irony!

  19. If one removes the political overtones, I think a vast majority of posters here agree that after conception, there is something alive, but it has not yet accrues all the rights of an adult human. One can call it a “person”, but one must immediately predicate it with modifiers. In the first 3 weeks it is a person with no brain, and therefore brain dead, and we have already a nice body of case law about the right of a guardian to terminate the life function of a brain dead person with an intact heart.
    A growing fetus gradually and incrementally adds body function and capacity, and as it does so it accrues additional human rights right up to the moment of parturition. At that point, it is merely a dependent child, cannot vote, and remains clearly subordinate to its parents for more than another decade, as its final rights as a human and a citizen slip into place.

    1. Kirk, thanks for pointing out the political overtones.
      I don’t think our body of law on brain death could be applied legally or logically though.
      The embryo is not similar to a brain dead adult, since if left unharmed the embryo will develop and attain brain functions.
      The appropeiate law to follow would be the duty of a hospital to care for people in a temporary or an induced coma.

    2. You can’t really remove the political overtones, because the only reason the personhood of a zygote-embryo-fetus is of such intense interest is that it is a tool in a political enterprise.

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