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The concept of personhood in moral philosophy (Part 1): Introduction, The qualities of personhood

Information: This is Part 1 in a series of articles looking at the question of when a fetus becomes a person (or attains personhood), and the arguments moral philosophers use to justify or reject this. In this section we introduce the nature of the debate, before looking at the argument for personhood based on the fetus displaying characteristics (or traits) associated with being a person.


The question of whether a fetus is a person or not is often at the heart of abortion debates, and a wide-range of opinions are held by moral philosophers on both sides. Most anti-abortionists argue that personhood begins at conception (or as soon as the embryo/fetus begins to demonstrate recognisable human traits e.g. when the heart starts beating), and as such it should be given the same moral and legal rights that 'persons' have outside the womb (meaning it should not be unjustly killed). On the other hand, many pro-choicers gravitate towards the view that the fetus attains 'personhood' either late in pregnancy (usually around twenty-four weeks in the third trimester) or at the time of birth. This means that if the fetus is not deemed to be a person, then it is not entitled to the same moral and legal rights attributed to 'persons' outside the womb (such as the right to life), and so abortion is permissible.

Picture of human fetusIt is important to keep in mind that in debating the personhood of the fetus we are not concerned about whether it is human or a living thing, but about when it becomes a morally significant being. This is both the sperm and ovum are 'living' prior to conception (they cannot be otherwise for conception to take place), and the fact that this involves the union of both a human sperm and ovum, both of which contain human genetic code, means the fetus is always going to be human (logically it cannot be anything else). Therefore, when considering the personhood of the fetus it is somewhat unproductive to ask, 'When does life begin?' or, 'When does the fetus become human?', both of which are implied in the concept of a person from the outset.

In this this article we will be critically evaluating a range of arguments used by moral philosophers concerning the moment when the fetus should be deemed to be a person. Although some of these arguments have been utilised to support religious beliefs about the nature and origin of personhood, we will be considering them from the rational and logical perspective only.

The fetal qualities of personhood argument

Most of us would say we know what a person is (or have some idea of what defines us as people). For example, we might say that people have certain physical features such as a head, a body and a genetic code which is different to that found in non-human species. We might also say that people have certain psychological and emotional features, such as the ability to be aware of their surroundings, the ability to display a range of feelings, and even the desire to perform altruistic acts. Persons might also be said to be rational, thinking, and social beings; able to communicate and work with other people, and evaluate and regulate their needs, interests and goals in light of these relationships. Finally, there are legal factors associated with personhood. Only 'people' are legally recognised as having a name (i.e. they have a birth certificate), to be a citizen of a country, to own property and to enter into contracts with others.

Yet many of these characteristics are also shared with non-human species, which seems to undermine their usefulness for defining the essence of personhood in humanity.

For example, the anti-abortion group Prolife Across America ran the following advertising campaign in November 2008:

Prolife Across America billboard with message '7 months before I was born I had fingerprints'

The suggestion here is that having fingerprints 7 months BEFORE birth is a physical trait of humans. As such, when a fetus acquires fingerprints we must (according to this logic) give it the full legal and moral rights associated with personhood, which in this case would be the moral and legal right not to be unjustly killed.

However, two issues are raised if 'personhood' is grounded on the physical characteristic of having fingerprints. The first is that humanity is not the only species to have fingerprints. Gorillas, chimpanzees and koala bears also have fingerprints, but we do not consider them persons nor able to claim full moral and legal rights associated with 'personhood' on the basis of this.

Human, Chimpanzee and Koala Bear fingerprints (Source:

Human, Chimpanzee and Koala Bear fingerprints (Source:

The fact that humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and koala bears have fingerprints means the soundness of grounding 'personhood' on the physical characteristic of having fingerprints is dubious.

Secondly, if having fingerprints is a defining quality of what it means to be a person, then abortion would (logically) be morally permissible prior to a fetus developing fingerprints. Yet this something the group Prolife Across America would not agree with, as they believe in the presence of personhood in a human fetus from the moment of conception.


Another problem with grounding personhood on physical traits, is that early on in its development the human fetus does not share many of the same physical characteristics with that of human life outside the womb. For example, a few hours after conception a zygote is nothing more than a collection of cells, which look nothing like an embryo or a fetus or even a baby prior to, or just having been born. Furthermore, a 7 week old embryo still has gills and a tail, which are also not characteristics it shares with human life outside of the womb.

Human zygote

7 week old human embryo

Human zygote (Source:

7 week old human embryo (Source: Wikipedia)

Aside from the absence of many shared physical features, zygotes and 7 week old embryos also lack the same psychological, rational and social characteristics which even a newborn baby displays outside the womb. For instance, zygotes and 7 week old embryos are unaware of their surroundings, do not display even a limited range of feelings or desires, and show no evidence of basic social awareness. In terms of zygotes, we would also have to show that a small collection of cells is able to have (and having) brain functions associated with a developed human consciousness; something clearly questionable seeing as the brain has yet to grow.

'Even sentient fetuses do not yet have either the cognitive capacities or the richly interactive social involvements typical of persons.' (Warren M. A., The Moral Significance of Birth)

In his essay The Immorality of Abortion, John T. Noonan Jr. argues that a zygote shows evidence of being 'alive and responding to its environment'. This is because they grow and develop into embryos and fetuses, thus showing they are 'aware' that they are in a place capable of doing this. However, the question begs as to whether this is the same sort of awareness a newborn baby shows evidence of having when it learns to cry for something to eat, or when an infant smiles at its parents.


In her essay On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion (1973), Mary Anne Warren lists five traits she believes are essential to personhood:

  • Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
  • Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
  • Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of genetic or direct external control);
  • The capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;
  • The presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.

In light of this, Warren argues that a fetus cannot be said to be a person. This is because although a being need not display evidence of having all these qualities to be deemed a person, they would need to have at least one of them:

'All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person is that any being which [has none of these traits] is certainly not a person. I consider this claim to be so obvious that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being [which had none of these traits] was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he no notion at all of what a person is.' (Warren M. A., On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion [Bracket mine])

Some moral philosophers argue that as soon as the fetus begins to display social traits (i.e. it responds to sounds and movement outside the womb), that it is to be deemed a person. However, following on from Warren’s argument, this would have us conceding that when evidence of social-ness is lacking in a fetus, then so is 'personhood'.

One of the problems in listing human traits and using them as a means by which to evaluate the presence of personhood in a being, is that this can erode the 'personhood' of people in comas, who often show no signs of consciousness or of being aware of their social surroundings.

This brief analysis of attempts to define personhood using physical, psychological, rational and social qualities shows how difficult it is to state exactly what the qualities of personhood are. The problem is further enhanced the closer we get to the time of conception; the problem being that if evidence of personhood is even slightly lacking in a zygote, embryo or fetus (or not evident at all), then logically they cannot be regarded as a persons and must be denied the full range of moral and legal rights attributed to people. It is no wonder that some moral philosophers, such as Don Marquis, no longer use fetal characteristics as a basis for their anti-abortion arguments:

'Clearly, it is wrong to kill adult human beings. Clearly, it is not wrong to end the life of some arbitrarily chosen single human cell. Fetuses seem to be like arbitrarily chosen human cells in some respects and like adult humans in other respects. The problem of the ethics of abortion is the problem of determining the fetal property the settles this moral controversy.' (Marquis D., Why Abortion is Immoral)

The concept of personhood in moral philosophy (Part 2): Viability and the fetus as potential person argument

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