Personhood & Abortion Rights: How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue

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Although it has been 45 years since Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), abortion continues to be a highly controversial and polarizing issue within the body politic.

By Gary Whittenberger | Skeptic

At the two ends of the continuum are the radical pro-life and radical pro-choice advocates. The radical pro-life position is that from the moment of conception the human organism is a person that should have full human rights, including the right to life, and these rights should be fiercely protected by the state. On the other side, the radical pro-choice position is that the pregnant woman already has full human rights, including the right to bodily autonomy, and that she can freely decide to end her pregnancy at any time she wishes for any reason at all. Many pro-lifers view the zygote—the one-celled human organism resulting from fertilization—as sacred, and believe that causing the death of the zygote, embryo, or fetus, either directly or indirectly, is murder. By contrast, the pro-choicers believe that the organism becomes a person only after it leaves the womb and becomes disconnected from the life support of the mother. The main purpose of this essay is to articulate a third position that falls between these two extremes. Call it the “pro-person” position. Although it leans more towards the pro-choice stance, it has a much stronger philosophical and scientific foundation.

Most of us would agree that all persons should be assigned the full spectrum of human rights, e.g. rights to life, bodily autonomy, property, etc. But what is a person anyway? When does the human organism developing inside a woman become a person? Traditionally, the answer was left to theologians and religious leaders. The prevailing view during the time of Aristotle was that the human soul entered the forming body at 40 days in male embryos and at 90 days in female embryos.

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