Is a Fetus a Person?

Unborn baby at 20 weeks



In the course of my travels, I lost track of local news and did not learn until recently that back home, in Canada, the government is going to vote on Motion 312 this week. It proposes to re-examine section 223 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which stipulates that a child only becomes a human being once he or she has fully proceeded from the womb. This is on the heels of a ruling by the Canadian Medical Association in August 2012 affirming the Criminal Code in this regard. I confess, I almost swallowed my tongue when I read that! Educated doctors who actually believe a baby is not human until it’s born? I glanced at my calendar. “No, it’s 2012, not 212.” Yet, it would seem that many Canadian doctors, and apparently most politicians, actually believe that a fetus is not a person until it is born. Then what is it? What is this kicking, thumb-sucking, smiling “thing” five minutes before it is born? The following was first written on July 12th, 2008 in attempt to answer this most pressing question of our times…


IN response to The Hard Truth – Part V, a Canadian journalist from a national newspaper responded with this question:

If I understand you correctly, you place a great deal of moral emphasis on the capacity of the fetus to feel pain. My question to you is, does this mean abortion is entirely permissible if the fetus is anesthetized? It seems to me that either way you answer, it’s the ethical “personhood” of the fetus that is truly relevant, and its ability to feel pain tells us little if anything about it.



Indeed, the issue here is personhood which begins at conception, at least in the minds of those who defend the unborn. It is based, first, on biological facts: The fetus is alive. It is completely and genetically unique from its mother. Its first instant of existence as a single cell genetically contains everything of who it is, and will continue to develop to be. The mother at conception becomes a means of nourishing and sustaining the baby, as she will when it is born, albeit in a different manner.



One argument for legitimizing abortion is that the fetus is an antibiosis, dependent entirely upon its mother in the course of its life in the womb, thereby infringing on her “rights.” However, this is fallacious reasoning since the baby, after it is born, is still completely dependent. So personhood, obviously, cannot be determined by either dependence or independence.

The argument that the fetus is merely an imposing “part” of the mother that can be removed is also illogical. If that were the case, then the mother would for a time have four legs, four eyes, and in about half of pregnancies, a male organ! The baby is not a part, but a separate human person.

The embryo is not a cat, a dog, or a mouse, but a human embyro. It is developing from conception into its full potential. That person is different at conception than at 8 weeks gestation, than at 8 months, than at 8 or 18 years. Birth is not an arrival but a transition. So too is going from diapers to sitting on the potty (trust me, I have eight kids) or from sitting to walking, or from being fed to feeding oneself. If the criteria for abortion is an undeveloped person, then we should be able to kill an 8 year old because she has not fully developed either, and even moreso an 8 day old baby who, as she is in the womb, is completely dependent upon her mother. Thus it seems that developmental stage cannot determine personhood either.

Doctors can induce a mother to give birth several weeks prior to full term pregnancy, and that baby can survive outside the womb. [1]I remember reading in the 90’s the story of a nurse who said they were fighting for the life of a five month old baby while, on the next floor of the hospital, they were aborting a five month old baby. The contradiction moved her to become an advocate for the lives of the unborn… Viability of the newborn, though, is often dependent upon technology. 100 years ago, a 25 week old baby would not have been considered viable. Today, it is. Were those babies 100 years ago not human persons? Perhaps technology will find a way to sustain life at any stage several decades from now. That would mean that those whose lives we destroy now are persons already, just not viable. But there is another problem in this argument. If viability or survivability is the criteria, people who are sustained by oxygen tanks and respirators or even pacemakers should not be considered persons either because they cannot survive on their own. Indeed, is this not where society is already headed? Recently, an Italian court ruled that a young disabled woman in that country may be dehydrated to death. Apparently, she is no longer human, it seems. And lest we forget, this is also where society has come from: black slavery and the Jewish holocaust were justified by reasoning away the personhood of the victims. When this happens, killing becomes no different than removing a wart, cutting out a tumor, or culling a herd of cattle. Thus, viability cannot determine personhood either.

What about functionality? An embryo cannot reason, think, sing, or cook. But then, neither can a person in a coma, or even a person who is asleep. By this definition, a sleeping person is not a person either. If we speak only of potential to function, then someone who is dying could not be considered a person. So functionality cannot determine personhood either.



Catholic philosopher, Dr. Peter Kreeft, defines a person as:

…one with a natural, inherent capacity for performing personal acts. Why is one able to perform personal acts, under proper conditions? Only because one is a person. One grows into the ability to perform personal acts only because one already is the kind of thing that grows into the ability to perform personal acts, i.e., a person. —Dr. Peter Kreeft, Human Personhood Begins at Conception,

One must say natural because even if a robot was equipped with artificial intelligence and advanced mobility, it would not be a person. The moment of when personhood begins is at conception since it is from that instant that inherent capacity is present along with everything else. The fetus grows to that potential since it is already a person to begin with, the same way that a tiny sprouted wheat seed grows into a full stalk of grain, not a tree.

But even moreso, the person is made in the image of God. As such, he or she has an intrinsic dignity and an eternal sou l from the moment of conception.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you… (Jeremiah 1:5)

Just as a soul does not leave a body when it is sleeping, so too the soul does not depend upon the full functioning of all the senses and bodily capabilities to be present. The only criteria is that the living cell(s) in question constitute a person, a human being. Thus, a soul does not occupy human cells alone, such as skin or hair cells, but a human being, a person.



For those who will still not accept the personhood of the baby, answer this problem: A hunter sees something moving in the bush. He is not sure what it is, but pulls the trigger anyway. It turns out that he has killed another hunter and not an animal as he had hoped. In Canada and other countries, he would be convicted of manslaughter or criminal negligence, for the hunter must be certain it is not a person before he shoots. Why then, if some people are not certain about when the fetus becomes a person, are we allowed to “pull the trigger” anyway—without any consequences? To those who say the fetus is not a person until it is born, I say, prove that; prove with certainty that the fetus is not a person. If you cannot, then, intentional abortion is murder

Abortion is a clear-cut evil…  The fact that some people controvert a position does not in itself make that position intrinsically controversial. People argued for both sides about slavery, racism and genocide too, but that did not make them complex and difficult issues. Moral issues are always terribly complex, said Chesterton — for someone without principles. —Dr. Peter Kreeft, Human Personhood Begins at Conception,



In the summary of my writing on fetal pain, society recognizes that animals are not human, yet to cause them pain is deemed immoral. So, for argument’s sake, if the fetus is not considered a person, and yet experiences terrible pain, then why isn’t anesthesia at least required when we are causing pain to this living creature? The answer is simple. It “humanizes” the fetus. And that is a big problem for a billion dollar industry which relies upon its “noble” public image as the defender of “freedom-of-choice” to attract unsuspecting customers. Abortionists do not speak about the personhood of the baby, and rarely even acknowledge the living reality of the fetus. To do so is bad business. Infanticide is a hard-sell.

No, anesthesia would not make abortion permissible—no more than doping one’s neighbour before shooting him would make it justifiable.

Perhaps someday, there will be a museum dedicated to the holocaust of hundreds of millions of victims of abortion. Future minds will walk through its corridors, viewing its graphic displays with open mouths, asking in disbelief:

“Did we really do this to these persons?





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1 I remember reading in the 90’s the story of a nurse who said they were fighting for the life of a five month old baby while, on the next floor of the hospital, they were aborting a five month old baby. The contradiction moved her to become an advocate for the lives of the unborn…

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