Is a Fetus a Person?

A comment made in one of Brandon’s posts posed the question, “is a fetus a person?” (I’ll make the assumption that a “person” is a human being with both spirit and body.) I believe so. Why? I think my belief spawns from the Bible. Take a look at Luke 1:41, 44:

41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.

So it seems that John the Baptist, while still a fetus in his mother’s womb, lept upon hearing Mary’s salution? I think perhaps he may have felt the spirit of the Savior coming near.

Now that begs the question, when does the spirit enter the body, making the fetus a person? That I don’t know. I used to think conception, but now I tend to lean toward some time around the end of the first trimester. What are some of your thoughts?

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Dustin

Latter-day Blogger

21 thoughts on “Is a Fetus a Person?”

  1. Dustin,

    I agree and also believe that the fetus becomes a person when “quickened at a certain stage”, as the Origin of Man states.

    Critics of this proposition use 3 Ne. 1:13 as backup, saying that if Christ was speaking to Nephi the night before his birth, then surely his spirit wasn’t yet in his body. I disagree with this line of thinking, since one feasible option to explain this is divine investiture, where an angel or messenger could have been authorized to speak in Jesus’ name, just as we are able to do through the priesthood, and just as Jesus does for Heavenly Father.

    So, as the Origin of Man indicates, the spirit enters the body at “some stage” during pregnancy. I don’t think that it is immediately upon insemination and fusion of the two cells, nor do I think it is immediately upon delivery of the baby. I think it’s safe to say that it’s somewhere between those two events. :)

  2. There seems to be evidence of both the spirit being in the womb (John the Baptist) and the spirit NOT being in the womb (Jesus).
    This could indicate that the spirit can be there but isn’t stuck there, so if the baby is miscarried the spirt can go to another body. Maybe it spends time in tme Mother’s womb but also spends time in a heavenly pre-earth school? Maybe it depends on the actual baby. Sometimes it the spirit arrives in month 3, sometimes in month 6? No way to say for sure.

  3. I recently asked almost the same thing in a comment on my own blog: Is a 2 year old a person? Is a 12 year old a person? Is an FLDS or Strangite a person?

    If we can’t pinpoint when it becomes a person, or conclusively say it is or it isn’t, maybe that is a sign that we aren’t ready to be messing with it yet.

    I have become sick feeling after learning that some Bishops are counselling young women to have abortions if the pregnancy is due to rape, and even more sick to find out that women who do have abortions are not even necessarily disciplined or required to seek repentance in any way. I’m sorry, but I must draw my own moral line. If I know someone has done such a thing, I lose all respect for them until I have seen a change of heart, and I would not be willing to knowingly sustain such a person in any calling until such time. This isn’t just any sin, its deliberately taking a life. The only sin worse than this is defined as having no forgiveness.

  4. JKS: I assume the evidence you speak of Jesus’ spirit not being in the womb is 3 Nephi 1:12-14. While most of the people I’ve seen reference this scripture infer what you are saying, I believe that the spirit of the Savior was still with his soon to be born body. Certainly the Savior had power that we do not, since he is the Son of God and had power over life and death. But in this situation I believe that this was no personal visitation from the Savior as it seems to be misquoted often. The scripture states “the voice of the Lord came unto him, saying.” It does not say that the Lord appeared unto Nephi. Instead, I believe what I was taught in institute class 10 years ago, that this was divine investiture of authority. Much like the Savior often spoke as if he were God the Father, I believe this may have been the Holy Ghost speaking as if he were the Savior.

    Connor: I found your comment in the moderation queue after writing my comment. It would have saved me some time to just say Amen! 😀

  5. I am. Why would two wrongs make a right? And, if she doesn’t want the child, put it up for adoption, but certainly don’t kill it, the poor thing. It isn’t the child’s fault.

    If it for serious health concerns, where the Mother’s life is threatened by the child’s delivery, then I can see possible exceptions to preserve her life, since that would be the most likely life to preserve (when the baby is a gamble, but the mother can obviously be saved.)

  6. Jeff, there is something inconcsistent about what you said.

    First, you say “If we can’t pinpoint when it becomes a person, or conclusively say it is or it isn’t, maybe that is a sign that we aren’t ready to be messing with it yet.” This seems to imply that you are of the opinion that a fetus might potentially, at some stage, not yet have a spirit. Or at least you seem to be saying that you aren’t sure, which again leaves open the possibility that it doesn’t have a spirit. If such a thing is possible, then it is also possible that (say) an early term abortion would not constitute murder.

    But then you go on to say ” This isn’t just any sin, its deliberately taking a life.” Here you seem to be pretty clear on whether a fetus is a person, whether it has a spirit… yes it does, from the moment of conception. Well, you can’t have it both ways and your latter comment seems to more straightforward statement of your beliefs, so I am guessing that you didn’t really mean it when you said we can’t pinpoint when the fetus becomes a person.

    So, here’s my question(s): if I am right about all of this, why did you say in the first place that we can’t pinpoint it? And if you think we CAN pinpoint it, what kind of explanation can you offer that the fetus is a person?

  7. Oh, and since I’m here, hi everyone… and let me ask you all a question. I am not surprised to discover that most of the people here, I assume all (or most) Mormon, believe that a fetus is a person at some stage of development (whenever it gets is spirit). Now, you have your reasons for this belief, but they have their origin in religious text. That is fine for anyone who is part of your religion, but what do you say to people who are not?

    In other words, if you are engaging with someone who is not a Mormon and you are interested in convincing them that a fetus is a person, what can you say that will persuade them? You can try to cite Biblical evidence, and that might work for people who fall into the broad Islamic-Judeo-Christian tradition. But what about others? Can you offer any explanation for your belief that does NOT rely in some way on religious text or religious belief?

  8. Colin: I think my first priority would be to get them to believe in God and religious text, otherwise, all you could point to is scientific evidence which is wholly unreliable in this situation. So no, I could not offer any significant explanation that is not faith based. I think it would be futile to even try.

  9. Dustin: sorry, just checking to see if I correctly understand you… the only sources of data we have to answer any question at all are religious authority and scientific/empirical evidence? Is that what you are saying?

  10. I’m a man. I guess the reason it interests me is twofold. First, I am a philosophy grad student so I spend a lot of time discussing ethical debates and teaching ethics classes. So, obviously, the question of the moral permissibility of abortion is something that comes up a lot and I’m always interested to further plumb the depths of this topic. Second, I don’t spend a lot of time engaging in ethical debates with people who explicitly appeal to religious doctrine, so that interests me because of its novelty in my experience.

  11. OK then. Well to answer your question, no, I don’t think these are the only “sources of data” we have. I DO think these are the most reliable sources for this topic though. What other sources would you suggest and what would you term as “data?” I could discuss feeling my wife have shared during two miscarriages and two births and all that was involved in those experiences, but I’d rather not. But would feelings be considered data?

  12. Yeah, that’s a good question, I was initally just curious if you were really restricting the discussion that way. The reason I asked is because you made it sound like the only reliable way to answer moral questions is by appeal to religious authority. It seems to me that there are other ways, like by appeal to general, widely agreed upon, but secular principles of right action. As for the kind of data we should use in formulating and testing the adequacy of our moral beliefs, I don’t know exactly what to say. Its a tough question. Certainly emotion plays some kind of role, as do our firm moral convictions and core beliefs about what is right or wrong. In general I would term the domain of useful data our “moral intuition,” but it is tough to characterize what exactly falls into this domain. However, to comment on another thing you said earlier, it doesn’t seem to me that science is completely useless here. Clearly it would be helpful to have a well-worked-out theory of human psychology to better understand the limits to what kind of behavior we can reasonably expect people to engage in. This is just one example of the ways in which scientific knowledge can completment and enhance our moral insight.

  13. Colin: “It seems to me that there are other ways, like by appeal to general, widely agreed upon, but secular principles of right action.”

    I guess that is where my religious beliefs also lead me to make no real distinction between “secular principles of right action” and “appeal to religious authority” because I feel that our feelings of what is write and wrong come from the Spirit of Christ as stated in Moroni 7:16-17. I think this is in essence what you would term as “moral intuition”:

    For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.

    But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.

    Your right, science may not be completely useless, but also I don’t think a “well-worked-out theory of human psychology” would be any more useful in a debate. Look at the debates going on about psychology right now (i.e. Tom Cruise ;))

    I think a more appropriate scientific approach would be to observe when the heart starts beating and there is brain activity in a fetus. These two things seem to play a major role as to when we determine the death of a person, so why not use this data to determine the life of a person? I don’t know the exact data but I was in an infertility clinic a couple weeks ago and looked through a book that detailed the whole life cycle of a fetus. It seemed to suggest that both of the aforementioned events occurred within the first trimester.

  14. Yeah, you might be right, maybe moral intuition has a spirital origin. In that case there would certainly be no difference between the foundation of my moral principles and yours. As for the way science bears on the abortion debate, that is a very good point. It seems to me that the most important question on that topic is when, during fetal development, consciousness becomes possible. Now, it seems to me that consciousness minimally requires sentience — the ability to feel pain and pleasure. I would consider this “base-line” consciousness, the most primitive form of awareness in any degree. Any creature that is not even sentient is not conscious in any important way. Our best brain science says that human sentience requires functional connections between the superficial nerve endings, the spinal column, the thalamus, and finally the cerebral cortex (where, presumably, the raw neural information becomes full-blown ‘felt’ experience). These connections do not typically develop until around weeks 20-26 of pregnancy, or roughly 5-6 months, well after the first trimester. Maybe this isn’t ultimately decisive, but I consider it pretty important data regarding the permissibility of abortion.

  15. See, to me that is all still speculative. It’s not like you can poke at a fetus and say “can you feel that, does that hurt?” And what about the heart? According to drspock.com:

    The embryonic heart starts beating 22 days after conception, or about five weeks after the last menstrual period, which by convention we call the fifth week of pregnancy. The heart at this stage is too small to hear, even with amplification, but it can sometimes be seen as a flickering in the chest if an ultrasound is done as early as four weeks after conception.

    Would you consider this important data as well?

  16. No doubt, you can’t ask a fetus whether it is conscious, but I don’t see how that in itself defeats the scientific data. We can’t ask a sheep whether it is conscious either, but we have every reason to think so. Science proceeds to offer the best explanation in light of the total body of evidence, even when some ideal piece of evidence (like the subject’s own report) is unavailable. Could it be wrong? Of course it could, but the mere possibility that scientific theory is wrong is not a good reason to think it is ACTUALLY wrong. I can’t cite the research that supports the story about fetal development I described above, but suffice to say that is the consensus in neuroscience.

    As far as the beating heart, I don’t really see how that would be important. This is where things get a bit more philosophical. Consciousness is clearly central to our conception of a normal, healthy adult person. When we talk about persons as the locus of moral consideration, it is largely due to their consciousness that we are concerned with their interests. So to generalize this idea, consciousness is one of the most important criteria to look for in any organism when we are concerned with whether it is a person. On the other hand, a beating heart seems totaly accidental and unimportant to personhood.

    For one thing, we now have artificial hearts available. Someone who has one of these plastic mechanisms in their chest is still every bit a person, they just happen to lack a heart. Alternately, suppose aliens landed on Earth who were very much like us in terms of their level of consciousness, their ability to comunicate through complex language and thought, their ability to reason, makes plans, and choose which activites to pursue, but their biology is such that they don’t have hearts. We would still consider them persons.

    Now think about all the creatures like mollusks and insects that have hearts, but don’t even approximate to being persons. What all these examples are meant to demonstrate is that “having a beating heart” is totally accidental to personhood. Having a beating heart is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for something to be a person, it is just not essential to our status as the locus of moral consideration.

    But hey, talk about defeasible theories! If you thought science was bad, philosophy is even worse. The best argument I can offer for my conclusion, the type of argument above, makes explicit appeal to moral intuition. And insofar as our intuitions diverge, we do face a problem reaching consensus in moral debate. Still, one hopes that more often than not intuitions will match and lead us to the same results. I would definitely be interested to hear what you think about anything I’ve said.

  17. Yeah there may be artificial hearts, but still, I wouldn’t say that a beating heart is not important. If consciousness was the only thing that determined what defines a person then we could also say that a being in a coma is not a person.

    In medicine, a coma (from the Greek koma, meaning deep sleep) is a profound state of unconsciousness. A comatose patient cannot be awakened, fails to respond normally to pain or light, does not have sleep-wake cycles, and does not take voluntary actions. (Wikipedia

    As far as your aliens theory goes, what if their biology was such they they didn’t have brains or a spinal column but instead their intelligence came from a beating heart? It’s essentially the same argument.

    The same thing with the mollusks and insects. Would you say they have no consciousness? Just because animals have brains doesn’t make them persons either.

    So in essence I don’t your arguements would persuade my beliefs either way.

  18. I guess I don’t understand your points here. The coma victim was conscious at some point, has a developed personality and history, is clearly a person in the sense we typically mean. They are currently unconscious, but they could regain consciousness for all we know. I never meant to say that consciousness was the only thing that counted, but it is important to personhood. Obviously, the way in which it is important is as follows: having consciousness is necessary for having the experiences that go into forming memories and shaping that beliefs that essentially define one as a unique person. The difference between the coma patient and the fetus is that the coma patient was conscious, has a personality, etc. while the fetus never was yet conscious, has no experiences, no personality, etc. This is often called a “disruption” theory about why killing a conscious being is generally wrong — because it disrupts their ongoing life.

    As for the aliens with hearts, of course that is possible. In fact, if you want an example of persons with hearts you don’t need to imagine it: you and I are good examples. The point of the alien thought experiment is that it is conceivable that there could be persons of some kind without hearts. But again, we don’t have to imagine examples of this phenomena: there are now in reality people with artificial blood-pumping mechanisms instead of hearts. These examples seem to me like very good reason to consider a beating heart incidental to being a person.

    Your last point is extremely confusing. Do mollusks and insects have consciousness? I have no idea, but I am willing to bet that they do in some extremely primitive form. Does that make them persons? Not necessarily.

    Is that supposed to be a problem for me? I don’t see how it is. I never claimed that consciounsess in any form whatsoever is sufficient for personhood. That would definitely be a crazy view. I merely said that consciousness seems like an obvious, necessary condition for being a person. Point being: that rules out fetuses (at early stages of development).

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