Out From Under the Umbrella

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That Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is (or what is the definition of person) Part 2


If you’re just joining in it probably be helpful to read my last post: That Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is (or what is the definition of person) Part I

*Trigger Warning – This is a difficult, complex, controversial, and divisive subject.  As such people become highly impassioned.  For that reason I’m going to ask that if you can’t be respectful please move on.  This is the final installment of a two-part series.

So when exactly is a person a person?  Does it help to define it?  Does it even matter?  In the last several days I’ve come across new information. It’s not really new information but it is new information to me. Not even so much new information as a new perspective.  It is a perspective that has caused me to re-think my unabashedly pro-choice position.  Have I learned nothing from my Fundamentalist Christian group-think days?  Don’t important positions require re-examination?  Have I not just become a fundamentalist of another kind if I’m not open to new information?

There are a number of distinct moments that can be thought of as the beginning of personhood and there is no scientific consensus. Personhood is a question of philosophy – not science.  As an atheist shouldn’t science inform our philosophy – especially if we also call ourselves Humanists? It is a question of ethics. So what does science tell us about the beginning of human life?

Embryologists agree that human development, and thus human life, begin at fertilization.  How could development occur without it being a living organism?  A human living organism.  Did we really need an embryologist to tell us this?  Not really.  We know that’s when life begins.  A sperm and ovum meet, become a unique living organism, implant themselves(if they are healthy) to a woman’s uterus, and begin growing(again, if they are healthy). There are terms for this.  Zygote, Embryo, Fetus.  These are stages of maturity within the human life – the birds and the bees; the facts of life.

The conversation about abortion is not one of life but of one personhood.  If a human being is a person and a person is a human being then how is a zygote not a person? Just because there are medical terms for these stages of development do not mean they are any less human or any less a person.  There are medical terms for every stage of human development.  Infant, toddler, adolescent, adult.

We would call a brain-dead individual a brain-dead person.  They don’t cease being a person because they are dead.  On the whole we would agree that even a brain-dead individual should be treated with respect.  Would we dismember them?  Typically not without their consent obtained beforehand.  Even when it isn’t obtained before hand family members make this decision based on what they know of the individual and their wishes.  Even in death we take their well-being into consideration.  We are, rightly, mortified when we hear of cases of illegal organ harvesting or postmortem dismemberment.  It is a question of ethics.

According to Wikipedia Humanism is a movement of philosophy and ethics that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

Being pro-life, in my opinion, has more of a basis in Humanism than any other.  We should be ever evolving based on what we know based on facts.  Scientific fact is that human life does begin at conception. And this human being is a unique individual – not just a part of the female. It is completely separate and whole, though not mature.  A fetus is a human being at the very beginning of maturity.  Human beings do not begin at birth.  Shouldn’t we protect the weak?  Does personhood even figure into the equation, then?  In my personal opinion a human being is a person regardless of status.

What does that mean for legalized abortion, then?  Does that mean we should criminalize the practice?  Throughout history, in every civilization, in every era there has been the practice of abortion.  Women have undertaken the risky practice of drinking all sorts of concoctions, using crude and unsterilized tools, and enlisting the help of others to perform abortions.  Women have both obtained abortions legally and illegally.  Isn’t criminalization really just an interest in punishing the participants?  Laws against abortion seek to penalize practitioners and not necessarily women who obtain abortions but, either way, it really is only dealing with punishment.  What should we conclude about this?  Criminalization doesn’t work.  It is like treating the symptoms of a disease with no cure.  It is much like America’s War on Drugs and it’s War on Poverty.

I don’t think that abortion will ever be eliminated completely.  For all their religiosity and their piety concerning abortion between 1973 and 2008 Protestants make up 37% of women obtaining abortions and Catholics make up 28%.[1]  That’s more than half.  These are women who, while the practice isn’t illegal, supposedly violate their own consciences.  Is a law going to change that?  As a pro-life advocate shouldn’t the goal be reducing the number of abortions – not punishment?

I submit that the answer lies in our attitudes toward women and their rights and autonomy before pregnancy occurs. If you want to reduce or end abortion ask yourself why a woman feels the need to have an abortion in the first place and address those needs.

I would suggest that we stop, as a society, slut-shaming women who enjoy sex.  Stop making women feel as if having sex in general is wrong and something to be ashamed of regardless of marital status. If you belief that every life is valuable don’t you think it devalues a woman when you make her feel ashamed of her own body and her own sexuality?  Isn’t that committing murder in and of itself?  Many religious women consider having or do have abortions because they know that the world will know that have have been having sex.

If you want to make laws regarding reproductive rights start with requiring employers, regardless of religious affiliation, to cover contraception as part of their insurance coverage.  Let contraception be between a woman, her partner, and her God or lack thereof.  Start effective sex education which includes abstinence and proper use of contraception.  Prepare people to be responsible with decisions with regards to sex, not as a matter of religion, but as a matter of pragmatism.  Let people who can’t afford contraception know that there are options.  In my particular state the Department of Health issues contraception to those who are unemployed and minors free of charge.  This is not a known fact.  Advertise it.  Contraception is less expensive than pregnancy.  My state’s Department of Health also provides prenatal care on the same basis.

Offer practical solutions to women who are not prepared to be mothers.  Sometimes, even used correctly, contraception fails.  Stop being so high and mighty, get off your high horse, put your damn picket sign down and put your money where your mouth is.  Begin to act with compassion instead of judgement.

[1] http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html

*Edited to add:  If you would like more information about arguments from pro-life humanists please visit http://www.prolifehumanists.org/.

30 thoughts on “That Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is (or what is the definition of person) Part 2

  1. I agree with you that “life” begins at conception, but is that “life” a human being, a person, whose rights are protected under the constitution? Or is it merely a cluster of cells until it achieves human consciousness? I also think any laws restricting women’s rights, including those related to abortion, should be opposed. I am unaware of any laws restricting vasectomies or the distribution of Viagra for men.

    And I wholeheartedly agree with your comments regarding contraception and comprehensive sex education. Doesn’t it make more sense to reduce the number of unwanted, unplanned pregnancy through contraception and sex education than to resort to abortion? As they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure,” where prevention is contraception and “cure” is abortion.


    • I don’t know if the constitution addresses the unborn in any way. I’m not sure there was a need to when the constitution was constructed. Regardless, just because something is constitutional doesn’t mean it is ethical and I really think that is what is at the heart of the issue.

      Is it merely a cluster of cells? A cluster of what kind of cells? It is my understanding that, scientifically speaking, a zygote is a whole individual, albeit immature.

      There are no laws restricting vasectomies or the distribution of Viagra to my knowledge either. Neither are there any laws that say a woman, regardless of religious affiliation, is restricted from any type of contraception either. The issue is availability and affordability.


      • “…scientifically speaking, a zygote is a whole individual, albeit immature.” I don’t think that’s accurate. Most of the attributes that make a human a human are not developed in a zygote. A zygote is a fertilized sex cell. It is going through a process of cell division with the potential to create a person. Bit it has no consciousness. And certainly a zygote cannot survive outside of the womb as “an individual.”

        With respect to the Constitution, you’re right. It’s silent on the unborn, but the Constitution does address the rights of persons. So the question is, are the unborn “persons.” So it ultimately does get down to the definition of personhood.

        Finally, pro-lifers want to outlaw abortions, but would they also outlaw vasectomies? Do those who oppose the availability and affordability of contraception also oppose the availability and affordability of Viagra?

        Something to think about: if men could get pregnant, would abortion even be an issue?


        • I’m looking at this from a strictly scientific standpoint.


          A zygote is always synthesized from the union of two gametes, and constitutes the first stage in a unique organism’s development. Zygotes are usually produced by a fertilization event between two haploid cells—an ovum (female gamete) and a sperm cell (male gamete)—which combine to form the single diploid cell. Such zygotes contain DNA derived from both parents, and this provides all the genetic information necessary to form a new individual.

          With respect to the legal definition of persons via the constitution – just because something is legal does not mean it is ethical. Not only that but why would the constitution need to address the rights of the unborn if was presumed that the unborn was a person? I am not suggesting that abortion rises to the level of homicide as some pro-lifers suggest. What I am suggesting is that there is a whole lot of gray area.

          You are a cluster of cells. I am a cluster of cells. A zygote is a cluster of cells – an individual human. The level of development doesn’t determine it’s humanness.

          So then are we saying that if a cluster of human cells cannot survive independently of another it can be eliminated?

          I’m not suggesting that abortion be outlawed. I’m suggesting better education on the front end so that abortion might not be necessary. Also vasectomies and abortion are two different things entirely. Again, there is no law against female contraception. Abortion is the evacuation of a human zygote. A vasectomy cuts off sperm. Sperm only has 23 chromosomes. Prevention of ovulation isn’t the same as abortion. An egg only has 23 chromosomes. When the two meet up and the egg is fertilized it is then 46 chromosomes – everything it takes to be an individual.

          It’s time for those who oppose the availability and affordability of contraception to rethink their position as well.

          This is not just an issue for women either. Sex education and contraception need to be taught to men as well. It takes two to tango and if you are going to tango you should definitely be educated and responsible.


  2. You and I are clusters of cells. We have consciousness. We have brainwaves, we can function independently. We can read and write blogs. A zygote is a cluster of cells that has no consciousness, has no brainwaves, cannot function independently, and, most important, cannot read and write blogs. A zygote and a human being are not the same things. A human being was once a zygote. A zygote has the potential to be a human being. A chicken was once an egg. An egg has the potential to be a chicken. But is an egg a chicken?

    We will not agree on this except with respect to the importance of sex education and contraception. But it was interesting reading your perceptions.


    • I think the question of personhood could be asked to any number of people and there would be an array of answers as to what constitutes personhood. I think it is a matter of personal conviction.

      Incidentally, I read your blog post about this and agreed with most of what you wrote. I’m extremely conflicted about this and am in no way advocating the restriction of abortion. I’m just going through an evolution of sorts and thinking out loud.

      Also, which came first – the chicken or the egg?


  3. Hello Ruth,

    I understand why women with severe health issues and rape victims decide to have abortions. I have to admit, I don’t feel comfortable judging any woman who has had an abortion for any reason because I haven’t faced the same scenarios that they have.

    When I was a Bible College student, half a lifetime ago, I was involved in the school’s moral issues ministry. I spent one semester as the ministry’s leader and we were intense about pro-life causes. At the time I was so “pro-life” that I was against birth control and sex outside of marriage.

    While in my early thirties I spent a few months as executive director at a Christian pregnancy center (important to note here, it was inter-denominational). They (not me by this time) were very much against birth control for everyone and very supportive of NFP (Natural Family Planning) for all married people. They also pushed for single women to adopt their babies out to Christian couples. We rarely had positive pregnancy tests and I would say eight, maybe nine, out of every 10 girls we saw attended Church two times or more a month.

    As an atheist now, I must be honest here and say that I am not 100% against abortion, but a part of me cannot say that I am 100% pro choice either. Years ago I would have considered someone such as myself as a flake.

    As Doobster has mentioned on his blog, abortion is a gray area, there’s nothing black and white about it.

    Here’s some food for thought.



    • Based on what you wrote about NFP, are you of the opinion that it is an effective form of birth control? I’d be interested in why this group and, in turn, you were so “pro-life” that you were against contraception. What is the rationale? I’ve read the Catholic Church’s policy on this and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Especially in light of the scriptures I hilighted in my first post.

      I think it’s possible to be pro-life and pro-choice. I’m intentionally putting those in lower case because those terms are very politically charged. I just don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I’m 100% pro-choice. I don’t think we can say that abortion is alright for this reason or that and not another. Who gets to decide what reason is a good enough reason?

      Having said that I also think that many of the abortions that are performed are unnecessary and could have been prevented. Not by emotionally blackmailing women into keeping unwanted pregnancies but by preventing pregnancy to begin with. If young men and women were actually educated about how their bodies work and what their options are for contraception they could make more responsible and logical decisions about their sexuality.

      I’ve seen those photos before. They are, indeed, heartbreaking.


  4. I agree with a great deal of what you’ve written, but the question, “when does life start?” is a misnomer. A foetus was never inorganic and suddenly became organic. “Life” never emerges in the foetus. Life began on earth 3.8 billion years ago and hasn’t been interrupted since. “Life” does not magically spring forth at conception, or at any phase through the foetuses development. The egg and the sperm are already parts of the living system; a system that began 3.8 billion years ago.


    • That’s an interesting observation and not unreasonable. I think that implied in the question “when does life start?” is “when does each individual’s life start – what is the beginning of individual autonomy?”. There was life on this planet for millions of years before I got here and it will carry on for millions after I’m gone but I’m not lining up to be euthanized(which I’m also not opposed to for various reasons).


      • Me neither 🙂 Far too many songs i haven’t danced to yet!

        To the post, the better question to be asked is, as you pointed to, the presence of uniqueness.


        • Yes, and to that end, I can see where some would be of the opinion that a zygote is a unique, new individual with unique DNA.

          But I can also understand how some people would be of the opinion that this uniqueness only begins with brain activity.

          To some that may make me double-minded on the issue, or that I’m – as CHope put it – a flake. I’m coming to the realization that this is just not so cut and dried, so black and white, as many would like it to be.

          Life is just really, really messy despite our efforts to tie it up in a nice, tidy bow.


  5. “Very true, and why every adult conversation about abortion should ideally focus on “prevention,” not “access,” as the central theme of discourse.”

    Well said, John!

    @Ruth, when I was a teenager I was under the impression that the only Godly form of birth control was abstinence. As I got older I felt that method only was not practical. Even while I worked at the pregnancy center, I thought it was strange for our board and staff to push NFP on marrieds. I thought it was none of their business. I also felt that NFP is very unpredictable for not every woman has a predictable cycle. It’s just a glorified version of the Rhythm Method and I don’t think it’s exactly reliable.

    I believe that the religious right actually encourages abortion by their slut shaming, abstinence only sex education (IF any at all.), pedophiles among their clergy and consistently blocking information and legislation that would support contraception distribution, as well as government assistance. I believe that this extreme behavior is why some atheists, feminists and humanists push for more legislation in favor of abortion. The right has to learn to be flexible and understanding. I believe that when that happens, abortions will dwindle in number.

    I have seen how deceptive pro-life people can be. When I was in my early thirties, working at that Christian pregnancy center, Focus on the Family provided for most of the funding for our new sonogram machine. As soon as their representative came to our location in Hawai’i, she immediately began to criticize our pro baby tactics. She informed us that we needed to take down EVERYTHING about babies because young women don’t want to see that. It’s like Focus on the Family wanted us to use some sort of a bait and switch tactic.

    I have seen abortion used as a means for racial purification twice. Once while in my twenties and another time in my thirties. The first time involved a friend’s daughter who was in her early teens. I noticed that her oldest daughter already had a baby and she didn’t mind having her as a grand daughter. However, my friend, her boyfriend and her parents were all over this young girl to get an abortion. It took me some time, but I began to realize that it was because my friend and all of her family were Hispanic and the young boy who got her youngest daughter pregnant was White. Unfortunately, this girl was bullied by her family into having the abortion. While my friend was yelling at her daughter to get an abortion I begged her to let me take in the baby. I didn’t know how I would do it working full time and living by myself, but I would do it. I even offered (not knowing the whole racial purification aspect at the time) to give the baby back when her young daughter was older and wanted to be a mother. Seriously, I meant it. (Just a couple of months later I ended up taking in my pregnant sister and helping her raise her daughter.) The second racial purification incident I learned of was my Jewish friend’s cousin. My friend said that baby would never be loved because the baby’s father was a violent Black man. This woman got an abortion and just a year later was pregnant again. This time she kept the baby. The father of the child was incredibly violent, but I guess her family was okay with the pregnancy because he was White. BTW, both these situations were right here in the U S.

    I hope that answers some of your questions, Ruth. Like you, I have a hard time thoroughly supporting abortion. However, I do somewhat understand a few reasons why a woman might be faced with having one. (I’m sure that you are well aware of Feminists for Life.)

    Thanks for the discussion everyone.


    • Thank you for explaining a bit more. I just didn’t know, since you said you had very few positive pregnancy tests, if you felt that NFP was effective.

      “I believe that the religious right actually encourages abortion by their slut shaming, abstinence only sex education (IF any at all.), pedophiles among their clergy and consistently blocking information and legislation that would support contraception distribution, as well as government assistance.”

      That’s exactly why women who identify as Christian Catholics and Protestants combined) make up a whopping 65% of those seeking abortion. Either the Christians can kill a woman with their slut-shaming or they can kill her with their abortion-shaming. It’s ridiculous. You’d think they’d pick up on a pattern. So instead of addressing the issue practically and logically they just turn up the heat and tighten the screws.

      It’s a shame that people who purportedly believe that life begins at conception would so shamelessly throw away a life because of race or ethnicity as well. I always wondered if my friend really told her parents that she was raped or if that was a story they came up with as a family to avoid the shame of her having been impregnated by a black man. That was still very taboo then.


  6. Ruth, I won’t hog your blog on this post anymore, I just want to say thank you for being kind about the topic at hand. I also applaud those who have commented on this post, as well as the previous article, for being so cordial. Abortion is an issue that we all need to discuss for I believe that we all have something to bring to the table. There’s certainly room for improvement regarding the topic at hand, as well as our foster care system and our adoption process as well.

    Thank you for being so gracious.


    • Kindness is the only way to approach a sensitive subject like this, IMHO. All the arguing and bickering and venom really don’t seem to be very productive.


  7. Twice in my life I thought I had this one figured out. First as a religious fundamentalist and then again as an unborn-again nonbeliever. Then the humanist pro-lifers really made me think. And I was always troubled by those pictures of aborted fetuses. I agree wholeheartedly that more ought to be done in the of preventing unwanted pregnancies. Beyond that I don’t have a lot to say about the subject.


    • It seems you and I occupy the same headspace on this. I think there’s valuable information on both sides and if we could calm down a bit and discuss things like grown-ups instead of kids in a sandbox we could accomplish a lot.


      • I believe that any normal person is pro-life. This article makes all the good points in my opinion; education is the key. I’m an atheist, rather liberal (whatever that means today) — but a life is a life.
        I’m appalled that around 3,000 future artists, intellectuals, athletes, humanists, faithful, curious, doctors, die every day in this country alone, just because mommy has an issue with paying the rent, or simply couldn’t bare the idea of bad timing after mindless sex.

        At the same time, on an individual level, I do have empathy for the mothers who choose this solution. I know a few, and the best ones ARE tortured by it to this day…
        Empathy does not mean agreement however.

        A life is a life, after all.


        • I’m inclined to agree with some of your points. And, of the women I know who have had abortions or have considered having abortions, there was much gut-wrenching, hand-wringing, and agony over the decision. Even the women I personally know who have even just contemplated that as an option feel extreme guilt for having had the thought even though they didn’t carry it out.

          Having said that, some of those 3000 future artists, intellectuals, athletes, humanists, faithful, curious, doctors could also be the next Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Sandy Hook school shooter, psychopathic serial killer, rapist, abusive spouse, etc. These are not, in and of themselves, reasons to have or not have an abortion.

          I’d also say, about the mindless sex, that according to the statistics 45% of women having abortions between 1973 and 2008 were either unmarried or not co-habitating. That means that some 55% either are married or are in long-term(at least long enough to be living together) relationships. That number surprised me. Because it’s not just unmarried young girls out having a jolly good time and regretting it when the consequences were too much to bear.

          Then I read stories like this:


          and it touches me in a profound way. And I wonder if a person isn’t mentally or physically prepared to even carry a baby should they be forced to? In one way my heart mourns because it all sounds so cold and callous. Yet, in another, I can understand that sometimes we just can’t do what we just can’t do and there should be options.


      • Yes — sobering facts. I totally agree. It is really a very difficult subject, and as usual, judging another is pointless if not cruel at times.
        As you can see, I’m still trying to figure it out…

        One of my friends told me she had an abortion, and thanked me for acting totally unjudgemental. It cost her to tell me… that was it for me. I knew she had not taken it lightly. What else can a fellow human do?

        Like Elyse says, “We need to change the way we talk about abortion.”



  8. Excellent article.


  9. Man, I didn’t even need to write my blog post…I should have just linked yours. You made your argument much more succinctly. lol For me, I sort of felt like my baby wasn’t even a person until about 2.5 months. It takes this long for the baby to sort of realize it is no longer a part of its mother anymore and start having a sense of self. As I mentioned to John in response to his comment on Part I, the problem lies in our future thinking abilities. KNowing that a process is beginning that will eventually lead to a person even if they aren’t a person yet. This is why I wholeheartedly agree that our focus should be on looking at the factors that cause women to get abortions and trying to solve those issues instead. The life that is not being considered often by the anti-abortion crowd is the woman. While parents will do an incredible amount for their children, they do not have superpowers. They are still human, finite, and imperfect themselves. We might be surprised by how much more we are capable when we have this tiny human to take care of, but we still have limits. So we need to focus on what can give parents, especially mothers, more time, more energy so they can better care for the born and unborn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, no. I like your posts. I think this is a reflection of how much conflict there is within even our own selves on this issue.

      The fact of the matter is, it’s easy to arm-chair quarterback and tell other people what they should and shouldn’t do. It’s just that life is rarely as black and white as we want to make it. Most of the time that makes life a grand adventure. Sometimes, though, it makes life complicated and difficult. Sometimes there isn’t an easy answer. For those who think that the decision to abort is an easy answer or the easy way out or not taking responsibility for one’s actions, I would disagree. And it is those holier-than-thou, judgmental, attitudes that cause many to even consider that option. A woman is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she has an abortion she’s a murderer. If she doesn’t she’s a whore and needs to learn to take care of herself.

      Life is messy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, that is probably the most important thing to take from this issue is that because of how deeply personal it is, it is very hard for anyone else to judge what that person is going through and what their life is like. I get why people are anti-abortion, and I get why people are pro-choice. There are a good arguments on both sides. What I do know is the worse decision is banning abortions and not giving women the right to decide for themselves. Life is messy indeed!


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