Personhood begins at conception
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Personhood Begins at Conception. Stephen Schwarz. Liberal Pro-choice View. The liberal prochoice view consists of two thesis: 1) That killing human beings is morally permissible. 2) That the fetus is not a person. The Conservative Prolife View.

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Personhood Begins at Conception

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Personhood begins at conception

Personhood Begins at Conception

Stephen Schwarz

Liberal pro choice view

Liberal Pro-choice View

  • The liberal prochoice view consists of two thesis:

    1) That killing human beings is morally


    2) That the fetus is not a person.

The conservative prolife view

The Conservative Prolife View

  • The conservative prolife argument goes as follows:

    1) Killing a person is morally wrong.

    2) The fetus is a person.

    3) Therefore, abortions are morally wrong.

    The pro-choice view denies premise 2.

    However, they agree with premise 1.

Rejection of the pro life position

Rejection of the Pro-life Position

  • The prochoice view rejects the prolife argument because it maintains that the fetus is NOT a person, even though it it is an organism that belongs t the human species.

  • Prochoice view also maintains that it is morally permissible to intentionally kill a human being as long as it is not yet a person.

  • Therefore, it is morally permissible to kill fetuses.

Major difficulty for the prochoice view

Major Difficulty for the Prochoice View

  • One of the major problems that arises for this liberal prochoice position is that, if the argument works for fetuses, it will also work for infants.

  • Therefore, this view also finds morally permissible infanticide (the intentionally killing of infants and small children), and this seems morally reprehensible.

Mary anne warren

Mary Anne Warren

  • Warren makes a distinction between a biologically human organism and a person.

  • The former is any living organism that is conceived from a human ovum and sperm. The latter is also a biologically human organism but much more developed



  • A person is a full-fledged member of the moral community that has at least some of the following properties:

    1) Consciousness

    2) Reasoning

    3) Self-motivated Activity

    4) Capacity to Communicate

    5) Presence of self-concepts and self-awareness

Is a fetus a person

Is a Fetus a Person?

  • A fetus, according to Warren, does not have any of the 5 properties mentioned above, therefore, it is clear that a fetus, while a biological human organism, is not yet a person and we cannot attribute to it the rights and value that we normally attribute to persons.

Schwarz s argument

Schwarz’s Argument

  • Schwarz wants to refute the claim that a fetus is NOT a person. He wants to demonstrate that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception.

  • If he can do this, then it follows that all abortions are morally wrong, even for the liberal prochoice advocates, because they too believe that it is morally wrong to intentionally kill an innocent person.

Major mistake

Major Mistake

  • Schwarz argues that the liberal prochoice view makes the mistake of NOT distinguishing between being a person and functioning like a person.

Consider the following cases

Consider the following cases:

A – A normal adult sound asleep (Present Immediate Capacity)

B – A normal adult in a coma (from which he will recover) (Latent-1 Capacity)

C – A normal newborn baby (Latent-2 Capacity)

D – A normal baby soon to be born (Latent-2 Capacity)

E – A fetus at 7 weeks (Latent-2 Capacity)

F – A zygote (Latent-2 Capacity)

Being a person and functioning like a person

Being a person and functioning like a person

  • First, consider case (A), a normal adult who is sound asleep. This is a case of a person who, while sound asleep, is NOT functioning as a person, and yet no one would deny this individual’s personhood.

  • Moreover, no one would argue that it is morally permissible to intentionally kill this individual while he or she is not functioning as a person.

  • Schwarz wants to argue that cases C,D,E, and F are similar to A and thus that these individuals should also be considered persons.

Cases a and b are essentially similar

Cases A and B are essentially similar

  • Schwarz argues that in case A the person has an immediate capacity that is present to function as a person, hence present immediate capacity.

  • Schwarz claims that the difference between A and B is that B’s ability to function as a person has been temporarily postponed, but it has functioned as a person in the past and has the capability to continue to function as a person in the future. The reason it has this capability to function has a person in the future is because it is a person.

Cases b and c f are essentially similar

Cases B and C-F are essentially similar

  • The difference between B and Cthrough F is that C through F have no history of functioning as a person. However, they are similar in that they ALL have the capability to function as a person. The reason they have this capability to function has a person in the future is because they are persons.

  • Schwarz says, “Both [case B and cases C-F] are beings with the potential to function as a person, and this they can only have if they have the basis for it, that is, the being of a person.”



  • I fail to see the strength of the argument. In Case A and B the being HAS the essential organs and structure at the developmental stages for it to function as a person. It is true that both are NOT functioning as a person in the present, but the present includes the basis for such functions.

  • In cases C and D, the being does NOT have the essential organs and structure at the present to function as a person. It is not just that it is not functioning as a person at the present, but rather it is that it CANNOT function as a person at the present.

  • Nevertheless, I argue that the being in cases C and D can have very basic functions that are quite sophisticated in themselves, even if they do not reach the level of a full-fledged person.

Argument from continuity

Argument fromContinuity

  • Schwarz also argues that if the person in case A is the same being as in case F, let us call him Todd, then this also shows that Case A through F refer to essentially the same kind of being, namely, a person.

  • For it is clear that the same individual is present in case F, E, D, B, and A , but at different stages of his development.

  • Schwarz argues, “In fact, this variation in capabilities presupposes the continuity of my being as a person.”



  • The continuity argument has various problems. First, some philosophers argue that a given zygote cannot be identified with the future human person it eventually becomes, because between conception and the first 10 days the zygote can split and become 2 fetuses. If that were to happen it would be impossible to say that the two persons that develop were identical to the 1 zygote.

  • Therefore, the continuity-identity argument can only go back to 10 days after conception, when the possibility of twinning has passed.

  • Even so, the argument does not work, because from the fact that we can identify a continuity of an individual’s stages of development, it does not follow that the nature and essence of the individual in all of its stages are identical!

The zygote and personhood

The Zygote and Personhood

1) Continuity – The continuity argument fails to demonstrate that the nature or essence of the being that traverses the different stages is the same during the various stages. “Same” seems to be used in two different ways as referring to one being and as referring the same kind of being, thus committing the fallacy of equivocation.

2) The zygote has the physical basis for the basic inherent capacity to function as a person. This argument begs the question. It is a truism that the zygote contains the potential to develop the basic physical structure necessary to function as a person (notice that this is second-order potentiality). This claim is true by definition. The question remains whether this kind of being, that has only second-order potentiality (the potential to develop the physical structure that will eventually permit it to have the capacities of a person) can be considered a person at this stage of development?

Zygote and personhood

Zygote and Personhood

3) Continuity Again. Schwarz argues that there is a continuity among the following stages of development: (J) to do, (K) the capacity to do, (L) the capacity to learn to do, and (M) the capacity to acquire the physical nature to have the capacity to learn to do and to do.

Critique: This argument once again begs the question. The zygote is identical with stage (M) and a child is identical with stage (L). However, the question remains whether a being that only has a capacity to acquire the organs and equipment that will give him a further potential to learn to function as a person is a person. The question remains whether being (M) and (J) are essentially different. It seems to me that they are.

What does follow from schwarz s argument

What does follow from Schwarz’s Argument

  • Schwarz fails to demonstrate that a zygote and a person are the same, especially if we begin, as he did, with Warren’s definition of a person.

    Cantens’ Argument

  • However we can conclude that a being that has the potential to develop into a person (or two), a zygote, is an essentially different being than a being that does NOT have such a potential.

  • Moreover, if being a person is something of great intrinsic value, then a zygote is something that has great intrinsic value, even if it does not have the same value as a full-fledged person.

Handicapped humans and personhood

Handicapped humans and Personhood

  • Schwarz argues that humans who are handicapped and do not fully develop the abilities to function as a person, and who will never do so, are still to be considered persons.

  • The difference between these individuals and children or fetuses is that the latter will eventually develop such abilities, thus they have a real potential, while the latter will never do so, thus they have a “hindered” potential.

  • Schwarz explains, “Even a severely or handicapped human being has the basic inherent capacity to function as a person, which is a sign that he is a person. The abnormality represents a hindrance to the actual working of this capacity to its manifestation in actual functioning. It does not imply the absence of this capacity, as in a nonperson.”



  • Human defects can manifest themselves in many different forms and degrees. There does not seem to be discrete ways of categorizing these kinds of human problems. They manifest themselves in different grades, depending on the severity of the problem. Therefore, there does not seem to be a clear answer to the issue of personhood with respect to handicapped human beings.

  • No matter how severely mentally handicap someone is, there will be some level of functioning that pertains to personhood. Unless a human is in complete vegetative state, it seems difficulty to deny that he will have some status of person.

  • This view is coherent with Warren’s thesis.

Personhood and love

Personhood and Love

  • It is difficult to see what exactly Schwarz’s argument is here. I find that there is nothing persuasive that supports the fetuses status as a person.

  • It is consistent to hold that a fetus is NOT a person and that a fetus should be cared for, treated as a precious being, and allowed to develop into a person, etc.

Final remarks

Final Remarks

  • Drawing lines: prochoice views cannot point to criteria that represent a line in the development of a human organism that can distinguish personhood from non-personhood.

  • Agnosticism: our inability to draw a line that indicates when a human being begins to function as a person, should not lead us to the view that we cannot know when personhood begins; but rather it should lead us to the view that personhood is there all along.

  • The Gradualist Position: The view that a human being develops gradually is true for functioning as a person but not for being a person.

  • Finally, The Concept of Potential Person: true when applied to functioning as a person, but false when applied to being a person.

Functioning person theory

Functioning-Person Theory

  • Functioning-Person Theory holds that intentionally killing innocent children is morally permissible because while they are human beings they are not persons.

  • Schwarz denies the category of human being as solely a biological category. For him to be human is to be a person. Humanity is a sufficient (although not a necessary one) for being a person!

  • Schwarz claims that seeing human beings and persons as separate categories is a result of the fundamental mistake of equating being human with functioning as human.

Potential person

Potential Person

  • Schwarz denies the reality of the status of a potential person. There simply is no time at which a human being is a potential person, because from the moment a human organism exists, a zygote (a one celled being), we have a real (not potential) person.

The achievement view

The Achievement View

  • Schwarz argues that prochoice advocates who claim that the fetus is not a person because it cannot function as a person are involved in a form of negative and immoral discrimination he calls achievement view.

  • Basically, the prochoice view holds that until the human being does not achieve a certain level of development, it should not be entitled to the dignity, respect and rights of persons who have achieved this level of functioning.

  • These under achievers can be killed and destroyed.

  • Of course, those setting the standards are the achievers and this is a problem. Schwarz claims, “It is always wrong for persons who have power and ability to take advantage of their status by discriminating against persons who are powerless, especially to kill them.” … “this is sheer ‘might over right.’” … “Any theory that calls for or allows such discrimination is itself an immoral theory.”

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