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In vitro image of a human fetus in the womb

When Does “Human-ness” Really Begin?

Jonathan Wells notes that issues around “personhood” are now purely semantic, especially when the case is being made that many animals are persons too
In-vitro image of a human fetus

In last week’s podcast, “Jonathan Wells on Why a Baby Should Live,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviewed molecular and cell biologist Jonathan Wells on that topic, which he has discussed in articles at Evolution News and Science Today: (here and here). It’s becoming a hot topic now that a bill to protect babies born alive from abortions from being killed or left to die was recently defeated in the Senate. At the heart of the issue is the conflict between those who believe that all human beings have a right to life and those who believe that children do not have a right to live before they are self-aware. In unpacking the issues, Egnor and Wells turned to the question of when life begins and when “human-ness” begins.

A partial transcript follows. This portion begins at about 04:36. Show notes and links follow.

Michael Egnor: Many supporters of abortion, including many scientists, argue that the embryo or the zygote, the embryo, or even the fetus, is really just a bundle of cells at that point. That it’s not a real human life and that the acquisition of humanity happens sometime after conception. Many people say it is when the fetus is first able to feel pain. Many people say that it’s up to birth, and as we’ve already talked about, sometimes even after birth. Do you believe that those kinds of arguments make any biological sense?

Jonathan Wells: Speaking as a biologist? No, I don’t. I can imagine how one could look at the single-celled embryo, or even the early multicellular embryo, as just a bundle of cells. But after only a couple of weeks, those cells start undergoing orchestrated movements to pursue the form of the human being. And those movements are human.

Note: Here’s a remarkable time lapse video showing development to, perhaps, twelve weeks gestation.

Jonathan Wells: And certainly by eight weeks after the sperm and the egg unite, the embryo, which is now called a fetus, looks human. It’s got arms and legs, eyes, and ears, mouth, many of the organs, or all of the basic organs it needs as an adult, even though they’re not quite functioning yet.

So it seems to me that, at the very least, it’s undeniable that as of eight weeks of age, the fetus, the baby human, is fully human.

Michael Egnor: It seems to be kind of an odd argument to say that even a zygote isn’t fully human, when the fact is that we as human beings have all been zygotes. And in fact, if a zygote looked like a human being, that would be really odd because that’s not how human biology works. So there’s nothing that’s not human about, even just a one-celled zygote. It’s still a human being. Do you feel that there’s a difference between human being and personhood? Between a human being and a person? Is there a semantic difference there?

Jonathan Wells: Well, if there is, it’s purely semantic. If you look at definitions of human in the dictionary, almost all of them include the word “person.” But various philosophers have managed to separate the word person from the word human so that now certain animals even can be regarded as persons, while human embryos and fetuses cannot. So that’s a philosophical and semantic move. It’s certainly not a biological one.

Michael Egnor: It does seem strange that there would be scientists who would actually make an argument that an embryo or fetus, or even a zygote, is not human, when the biology of human development really has been settled science for several centuries now. There really is no ambiguity about the biological status of the human being from the moment of conception. It’s a distinct individual human being.

Note: This vid takes us through later stages in prenatal human development as well:

Michael Egnor: It would seem to me that the idea of persons has to do with whether an entity has rights or not. That one could say, well, an embryo is a human being, but doesn’t have the right to life. But that gets to be a really disturbing argument, because then what one is saying is that there are certain classes of human beings who don’t deserve protection under the law. Who don’t have a right to life. And that particular idea has a terrible history.

Jonathan Wells: It certainly does. It was intimately involved in the Nazi Holocaust or the Soviet Famines that killed millions of people. Or the things that have happened in communist China, and things like that. Or in the ancient past. You decide that certain human beings are persons and some are not, and you’ve started down a very, very slippery path that gets very steep very quickly.

Note: As was noted in last week’s podcast, increasingly, Western countries are drifting toward child euthanasia. So it is no longer clear that legal personhood confers, for example, a right to life. Also, in some American jurisdictions, doctors are not obliged to care for children born alive from abortions even though they are technically legal persons, presumably because they are not wanted.

Michael Egnor: Since Roe vs. Wade was enacted in the United States, which essentially made abortion legal in all 50 States, do you know how many abortions have been performed in the United States?

Jonathan Wells: I’ve seen various estimates, but I think it’s quite reasonable to say that at least 60 million babies have been killed since Roe v. Wade, in the United States alone.


Next: Is there bias in terms of which babies are aborted? Abortion is made easy for Black American women, with abortion clinics strategically located within easy walking distance. Very high abortion rates will reduce the significance of Black voices over time. It’s called “demographic sunset.”

Do babies really feel pain before they are self-aware? Michael Egnor discusses the fact that the thalamus, deep in the brain, creates pain. The cortex moderates it. Thus, juveniles may suffer more. Jonathan Wells recalls, from when he was a lab technologist, how very premature infants would scream when he took a drop of blood for tests.

Previous: Do infants really have a right to live? Some argue that children who are not yet self-aware do not have a right to live. Some countries now practice child euthanasia and there is pressure in Canada to ease restrictions on euthanasia, to include children.

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Jonathan Wells
  • 01:13 | The reasoning behind after-birth abortion defenses
  • 03:00 | Peter Singer and human sentience
  • 04:36 | At what point does human life begin?
  • 07:28 | Do all human beings have personhood?
  • 09:29 | Abortion statistics in the U.S.
  • 09:55 | Racial disparities in abortion
  • 11:44 | Can the fetus feel pain?
  • 14:57 | The Silent Scream
  • 18:44 | The legal future of abortion
  • 21:20 | Arguments for Roe v. Wade from evolutionary biology

Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript Download


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When Does “Human-ness” Really Begin?