By: Catherine Phillips, Students for Life of America’s 2012 Missionary for Life
The other day, I overheard a young woman wearing a Planned Parenthood Action Fund t-shirt, make this statement: “I mean, it’s like, one cell. It’s not a baby yet so I don’t think abortion is wrong.” The young female reporter interviewing her agreed.
It got me thinking that it might be worth it to spend a post exploring the personhood of the unborn. In my previous blog post, I stated the following:
Is the fetus in the womb a baby?
There is a clear answer to this. Even those in support of abortion (well, most) don’t try to deny
that yes, there is a baby inside the womb.
In that post, I go on to say that if the preborn is truly a person, then elective abortion is always
wrong, because it is killing a person without justification (elective abortion: that is, abortions for
economic, emotional, social, or any other arbitrary reason; i.e. not the kind of abortions done
to save the life of the mother. Elective abortions make up the vast majority of abortions done in
the U.S., and elective abortions are what pro-lifers are fighting to abolish).
Well, I want to take a step back even further and explain how, from the moment of
fertilization, the tiny living organism inside the womb is a human being: genetically distinct,
human, alive, and whole. I am not claiming that an embryo is a mature human being, because
obviously much happens during the 9 months of gestation, but I am claiming that an embryo
is a member of the human species. An embryo is a human at a different stage in development
than you, but a human that deserves to be treated like a human, namely in having the express
right simply not to be killed.
And this is not just my claim. This is scientific fact that gets all too often ignored in the pro-life/
1. Genetically distinct: Sperm and egg cease to exist at fertilization, as they form a new entity,
the embryo, which starts as one cell, but with an entirely new chromosomal structure This
embryo has everything it needs to direct its own development.
2. Living: This is pretty obvious, because dead things don’t grow. The embryo exhibits the
three scientific characteristics of living things: 1, Reaction to stimuli, 2. Converting food into
energy, and 3. Cellular reproduction (growth).
3. Human: Human parents produce human offspring. If it’s not human now, how do you
explain that an embryo that is not aborted comes out of the womb as a human baby? An
embryo has the genetic constitution which defines human beings.
4. Whole: After conception, the embryo is a whole and complete living organism rather than
part of another living entity. All of its cells are working toward its own growth, and it is fully
programmed to develop itself into the next mature stage of a human being.
Now, it may be hard to fathom how a one-celled organism (if we’re talkin’ zygotes), or multi-
celled-but-still-tiny organism (if we’re talkin’ embryos or fetuses) is really a person. But how can
something be human, yet not a person? The truth is, it can’t. Stephen Schwarz came up with
the acronym SLED to describe the differences between the embryo you once were, and the
adult you are today. These differences are due to the age of the human person. An embryo and
a baby in a highchair, a toddler and a teenybopper, a yuppie and an elderly man with a walking
stick—all of their differences are due to age.
- SIZE: An embryo is much smaller than you or me, but does size constitute a person? Is an overweight adult more of a person than a small toddler? Is a “midget” less of a person than someone of regular size? Size does not define personhood. The fact that embryos are too small to see or fathom, however, does make abortion much more easily justifiable.
- LEVEL OF DEVELOPMENT: Embryos are much less developed than we are as adult humans. But does level of development constitute personhood? Is an expert chess-player more of a person than someone who does not know the game, because they are more developed in this skill? Are newborns not people because they do not have self-awareness? Level of development does not define personhood. The fact that very young embryos are not developed enough to feel pain, however, does ease the conscience of advocates for abortion.
- ENVIRONMENT: Some people mistakenly claim that a human being is not a person when it is still inside the womb. But is your personhood dependent on where you are? How could a journey down the birth canal change the essential nature of the unborn from non-human to human? The value of a person does not depend on its environment.
- DEGREE OF DEPENDENCY: Others claim that because an embryo is still dependent on its mother’s body inside the womb, it must not be a full person yet. Just because a human being at this very early stage in its development depends on its mother’s nutrients does not mean that it is not a person. It is simply a very young person. Claiming otherwise would be like saying a person who needs a respirator to breathe temporarily is no longer a person. The value of a person does not depend on its dependence on others.
We started with establishing that the preborn/embryos/fetusus (whatever term you like)
are indeed human. Genetically distinct, alive, and whole. That is not scientifically disputed.
(for example: “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being.” –Moore and Persaud, The
Developing Human). Then I described how it makes no sense to say that someone could
be “human, but not a person,” because the differences between the preborn and us come
down to size, level of development, environment, and dependency; and none of these
As Stephanie Gray, an amazing pro-life speaker I once heard, said: “Abortion boils down to age
discrimination.” Think about it.
Written with assistance from The Case for Life by Scott Klusendorf.