Religion and Beliefs

Does a fetus have human rights?

by: Bill K. Underwood


Today I learned something new: A human being is not the same thing as a human person. Seriously.

This column is not intended to be a political statement. I’m neither Republican nor Democrat. I am assiduously neutral as to politics.

The Supreme Court, I’ve discovered, is not. Their decision to end Roe v. Wade had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with their respect for life. If they respected life they would not have ruled, in the same week, that state laws restricting guns are unconstitutional.

But the Roe v. Wade decision created such a furor in the news I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Surely, in this scientific age, the legal status of a fetus has been well established?’

Apparently not.

Scientifically, a human being is an individual of any size or age with 46 chromosomes. When 23 male chromosomes in a human sperm cell unite with 23 female chromosomes in a human ovum, within 24 hours a human being comes into existence. It is unique, different from both its mother and its father. It will remain a unique, individual human being until the day it dies, and neither scientists nor lawyers debate that.

It is first dubbed a zygote, then a blastocyst, then an embryo, then a fetus. But all its genetic details, from hair color to eye color to male or female gender – even some thought processes – are written down in its DNA from Day One. While it draws nutrients from its mother, Science acknowledges that its growth is governed and controlled, not by its mother’s body, but by its own DNA. It is a unique human being.

The loud chant that is heard at every women’s rights protest, “MY body, MY choice!” is just not scientifically accurate. After Day One, that blastocyst is its own body, living within hers. It is more separate from her body than if she had a conjoined twin.

This is a medical opinion, not a religious one. Dr. Herbert Ratner wrote that “It is now of unquestionable certainty that a human being comes into existence precisely at the moment when the sperm combines with the egg.” Dr. Bradley M. Patten from the University of Michigan wrote in Human Embryology that the union of the sperm and the ovum “initiates the life of a new individual.” And John L. Merritt, MD and his son J. Lawrence Meritt II, MD, present the idea that if “the breath of life [referenced at Genesis 2:7] is oxygen, then a blastocyst starts taking in the breath of life from the mother’s blood the moment it successfully implants in her womb.”

When a fertility clinic fertilizes several eggs they are all, scientifically, human beings. The one that gets implanted into a womb may well grow. At some point in its growth it will obtain the status of human person. The legal and medical status of the other fertilized eggs? Human beings, but not human persons.

Many human beings die before their mothers even know they exist. About 1/3 of all zygotes don’t last more than a few days; of those that reach blastocyst stage roughly half fail to implant on the uterine wall. But if one does implant it become an embryo, and by week 11, a fetus.

Some are lost for no reason. Some are lost because of something in the mother’s diet or water or air or activities, or some complete mystery that happens to her, without any knowledge on her part. Others are lost because the mother suspects or knows she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be, and she takes some action that results in the death of the human being growing inside her.

If a fetus had human rights, at some point her intentional actions would become no different than those of a criminal whose assault of a pregnant woman results in the termination of her pregnancy – the criminal can be charged under the federal “Unborn Victims of Violence act” (H.R. 503, 2001). If the fetus has no human rights, how can a criminal be charged with harming it?

At what point does a human being become a human person?

Some argue that taking the first breath makes a being a person; others say No, personhood starts with brain activity; still others create philosophical lines between ‘potential human’ and ‘human person’.

The doctors cited above made clear that breathing isn’t the start: a blastocyst is taking in the breath of life from its mother’s bloodstream.

The brain activity camp doesn’t have a decent argument, either: If a fetus doesn’t become a person until it has “rational attributes” as they contend – a sense of self, the ability to interact intelligently with the external world – then there are an enormous number of already-born folks – from brain damaged to severely autistic to Alzheimer’s victims, and others – who could be labeled non-persons, having no life rights, because of having lost their rational attributes. Most infants, for that matter, don’t have a ‘sense of self’ separate from their mothers prior to two years of age. That’s what the ‘terrible twos’ is all about… a baby’s discovery of itself as an individual. If that definition were correct, no one could be charged with a crime for throwing a teething baby in the garbage!

Feminist professor Mary Anne Warren asserts that a fetus has no rights. “There is only room for one person with rights within a single human skin,” she says. Hmmm.. I have to come back to the “conjoined twins” argument again.

Militant abortion rights activist Peter Singer, director of the grossly misnamed Center for Human Values at Princeton University, goes beyond even Ms. Warren. He says that dogs, pigs, apes, monkeys and other creatures may be persons; but that some human beings, including fetuses, disabled human adults, and even normal human babies who haven’t yet demonstrated a sense of self, should not automatically be considered persons. An article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2012 quoted several other medical authorities holding the same opinion, some suggesting that defective babies could be used for medical experimentation or organ harvesting.

Speaking on the subject of babies born as they were about to be aborted, (something, again, I hadn’t thought about before sitting down to write this but that is apparently quite common) Singer defended infanticide. “We cannot coherently hold that it is all right to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive. If… the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either.”

Medical science has reached the point where 60-70% of preemies born at 24 weeks survive. According to Singer, nothing should be done to keep those kids alive.

Regular readers of this column know my beliefs are not based on which way the wind of human thought is blowing, but on what the Bible says about a subject. Does the Bible have anything to say about abortion? Are Christians anti-abortion? Are anti-abortionists Christian?

It’s going to require Part Two to deal with all that.

Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at

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