When is a fetus a human being with independant rights?

In my opinion, a fetus is a human being at 3 months. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this is not as arbirtrary a line as it seems on the surface. Admittedly there is very little difference between a fetus at day 89 and day 90. Why draw the line at day 90 then? Because day 90 is the best possible choice. The production of offspring is a rigidly controlled engineering problem defined by millions of years of evolution.

Take two partial cells, combine them, and grow a human being within a confined space capable of having the best possibility of surviving outside the specialized environment of the womb while impeding the survivability of the mother to the least possible degree.

Evolution has solved this incredibly complex problem, with astounding precision. The development of a fetus is calculated and scheduled by the body to a degree that would make the precision of an orbital launch look like a shoddy job. Early in a pregancy, this precision is necessarily heightened still more. Any deviation from schedule will result in escalating deviations later on.

Through use of a sonogram, a trained professional can take measurements at as little as six weeks, and tell to a very high degree of precision on what day the developing fetus was conceived, and what day it will be born.

The development process is necessarily rigid and structured.

So, what day do we have a human being? On day two or three we have a bundle of cells with little differentiation. Is this human? In my opinion no. It is potentially human.

Day 90 though is a different story. We have a small, but essentially fully formed human being. The heart beats. The internal organs process. There are eyes and ears that function.

There is a brain. It sleeps. It moves. It can feel pain. It can recognize sounds. It reacts emotionally. It can laugh.

Physically it is all there, except for the finishing touches. Mentally, it is an infant. Basically it has all the tools it needs to survive outside the womb, save one.
The lungs are underdeveloped.

You see, in the equation of reproduction that evolution is solving, maximum size and devlopment is the key to survivability. The finishing touches are being added, and the baby is adding the maximum amount of weight and strength possible before it exits the woman. It’s not expecting to leave for a while yet, and it won’t need the lungs until it’s outside, so they develop last.

A ninety day old fetus is basically a fully developed human being that cannot breathe on its own.

Abortion past this point represents the death of a human being. One may argue that it is a human being even earlier with some merit, but there can be little doubt at the ninety day point.

There are 2 parts to your question

  1. When is a fetus a human being?
  2. When does a fetus have independent rights?

For the first question, I’d like to suggest this web site as (what I think) a good primer to this topic.


Often times, there seems to be some semantical issues involved (For example, is there a difference between human, human being and person?).

The second question is a philosophical/legal (not medical) question. Typical responses that I have heard from pro choice folks suggest that because the fetus is “dependent” on the mother for at least a portion of the normal pregnancy period, that it can’t have independent rights. Some people, therefore use the “viability” standard as part of this. As JubilationTCornpone has wisely pointed out…the smarter pro choice folks don’t go down this road…because viability is an ever changing “standard”. Others mention “sentience” as a landmark that establishes “independence” or seperateness (I probably phrased that poorly)

My take…as the above site suggests (with plenty of embryological cites), at the moment of conception a new and distinct human life is created. So for me, a zygote/embryo/fetus is a distinct human being.

The concept of personhood (and therefore, independent rights) is, I believe, a philosophical one… (19th century blacks serving as an example of “humans” not necessarily accorded personhood status by many).

It has independent rights when it is born. Its kind of dependent before that:)

As soon as the mother says it is. If you were looking for a less ambiguous definition, you just don’t get it.

I think beagledave’s right: it’s two separate questions. And I think that the answers to both questions are extremely subjective: I think lots of fetal development experts, for example, would quarrel with Scylla’s assertions that a ninety-day fetus is “mentally equivalent to an infant” and is a “fully-developed human being” except that it can’t breathe on its own. So the answer to the question of “when is a fetus a human being?” probably runs the gamut from “conception” to “sometime before birth” and probably even “sometime after birth”, depending whom you ask.

The question “when is a fetus a legal person entitled to individual rights?” is of course even more subjective. You don’t acquire full legal suffrage, for instance, till eighteen years after birth. More seriously, I doubt whether the unborn fetus is ever legally held to have rights equal or comparable to those of the mother: for example, abortions when the mother’s life is at risk are legal right up to the end of pregnancy (except where “partial-birth abortion” hysteria has produced laws that the judges haven’t struck down yet).

Now I imagine that legally privileging the life of one class of law-abiding persons over that of another class when they threaten each other’s survival would be highly discriminatory in the case of any two groups recognized as having legal personhood; but we routinely accept that sacrificing the fetus to save the mother is standard procedure (though I know of children whose (late) mothers deliberately chose the other option). So I’d say that the process of acquiring “independent rights” is, like attaining human status itself, a long-drawn-out one that certainly starts at conception but doesn’t attain completion till—well, till some point that everyone will probably identify differently. I don’t think drawing a line in the sand at the end of the first trimester is very useful in either case.

no problems with maternal infaticide I take it?

I dissagree as my mother still considers me about 3 years old. :slight_smile:

Begging the question you’ve posed, Scylla, I would like to point out that this assertion is not entirely accurate.

A 90 day old fetus lacks the ability to regulate its own body temperature, digest food, or fight infection. I would hazard a guess that a multitude of life-threatening issues would occur other than immature lungs. IIRC, the lungs are among the last organs to fully develop, and their maturity is a major milestone in fetal viability. We can save a baby born nearly four months prematurely because its lungs stand a chance of functioning. At six months premature, even if the baby’s lungs were somehow functional, it would perish for any number of other obstacles.

Not viablilty without extraordinary medical measures. And smarter abortion foes no longer go down this road either, because advances in cloning technology are going to take viability right past fertilization to adult human stem cells. When they (or any other cell, since all but red blood cells have a full complement of DNA) can be prodded into developing into a complete person, what’s going to be the status of all those “potential human beings” you’re carrying around/made of?

For that matter, has any couple resorting to in-vitro fertilization waited until the zygote divided, then had the cells separated to produce identical twins? Apology in advance for the hijack.


Thanks for the excellent link.

I personally agree with everything I read in it. Human life begins at the moment of conception as a unique individual. While I think a human being exists at conception. I am not prepared to defend that. Nor am I prepared to debate that a women’s right to control her own body should be subverted in defense of a single cell which is 100% parasitic.

Fear itself:

I take it then you feel a mother has the right to terminate her own 4 year old child at her discretion? Did you think before you posted?


You are correct. I too think it’s gradual. I think the fetus acquires the right to life at the end of the first trimester.


You are of course correct. However, oustide of a narrow environment I am unable to regulate my temperture as well. At ninety days a fetus is processing waste,and has a rudimentary digestive system capable of absorbing nutrients. If I am fed intravenously, I am still considered a human being. I am also subject to infection, as is that fetus. According to my reading the only design element not present or functional to some degree at 3 months are lungs.

I appreciate your comments on the link.

Your 3 month old fetus is parasitic…as is a 9 month old fetus…so I don’t understand the relevance of the term “parasitic” in your paradigm, as a determining factor for “you” (I can understand how some other pro choice folks could use the argument…but you attribute special status at the end of the first trimester…even though it is still parasitic)

While you use the example of “a single cell” in your last statement, you do realize that NO elective abortions are performed on single cells? Fetal heartbeat typically begins in the 7 week range…so a good many abortions indeed “stop a beating heart”

If you distinguish between the terms “human life” and “human being”…do you do so for philosophical or medical reasons?


The 3 month old fetus is still parasitic, yet it has developed all the rudimentary attributes necessary to independant existence… with help.

As for no elective abortions being performed on a single cell, I think you might be mistaken. The morning after shot, Iud’s and I believe Ru486 could potentially abort at the single cell stage and certainly before heartbeat. I believe in the pill allows for the possibility of conception.

“Human life” and “human being” as a distinction is not something I have completely thought out, so let me be tentative and conditional in my reply.

A fertilized egg is human life, but may not be destined to become a human being. It may spontaneously stop dividing and be absorbed, it may not implant, and simply exit the womb, or may for a variety of reasons be unviable. In Vitro fertilization fertilizes eggs outside the womb, freezes them, and then tries to implant them. When success occurs the other eggs may be stored, or simply destroyed. I don’t think they are sufficiently developed enough to be human beings, though they are certainly human life.

Is that philosophical or medical? It may not even be valid, but I’ll stick with it till I hear something better.

beagledave, can’t you come up with a better link than that crackpot article? It’s been done.

This question is for anyone who belives that it is possible to determine when a fetus becomes a human, and that doing so is worthwhile and important.

This strikes me as one of those questions on which you will never get people to agree. Personally, I think it’s one of those unanswerable questions. At 24 hours gestation, you plainly do not yet have a human. At labor-minus-24-hours, you plainly do. The shift did not occur at any pin-down-able moment, but gradually over the course of the pregnancy.

I don’t think a set dividing line can be drawn at any particular point, and I don’t see any value in these futile attempt to draw one.

I see no chance that people will agree on this, but let’s suppose for a moment that you manage achieve a consensus. What would you really have accomplished? You won’t have changed anything. The decision to have an abortion is not based on any abstract, scholarly concept of when a fetus becomes human. It’s based on the reality that one is faced with an unplanned pregnancy that has occured when a baby would be a disaster. Women and girls with unwanted pregnancies will still seek abortions. Nothing they or anyone else may think about when a fetus becomes human will not disuade them.

Correction – that should have been “Nothing they or anyone else may think about when a fetus becomes human will disuade them.”

So, does anyone think that settling this particular great debate would accomplish anything in terms of actually changing people’s behavior?


I am curious as to why you pick purely physical criteria for determining personhood, and not mental. In my eyes, a baby born without a true brain (merely a brainstem) is not a true person. There’s no mind there, no consciousness, since the part of the brain required for consciousness has not developed. And yet, if you look at a fully conscious person who suffers some sort of traumatic accident and loses the funcitonality of their body–even if they were just a brain in a jar–I would consider them a person. Would you consider a conscious brain-in-a-jar as not being a person? What about a child born without a brain? The complex cerebral cortex does not begin to develop in a fetus until the fifth month, and is not complete until around the sixth month or so. The cerebral cortex is the brain that can “think”, not just monitor functions, react to stimuli, etc. Therefore, about the fifth-sixth month is where I draw the line, though since the fetus has only presumptive consciousness and the mother has certain consciousness (normally), I could still condone abortion after that point for health concerns.

I don’t believe that’s true. If a woman firmly believes that abortion at a particular point is murder, she may very well decide not to abort after that point. In fact, I think it likely.

Woo hoo! I finally asked a question that prompted someone else to start a new thread! Towards the bottom of page one, if anyone cares.

My answer to the thread title: Birth. I’m quite willing to consider varying degrees of fetal rights up until that point, but only after birth are we talking about a truly “independent” human being.

However, I notice that you totally avoided my question that prompted this thread, Scylla:

Please don’t avoid answering this question, as there is a perfectly legitimate answer.


I don’t share your pessimism. Accepting for a moment that conception +1 is not a human, but birth -1 is as fact, wouldn’t greater precision leading to more progressive laws save lives?

Say we narrow it down further. Conception +30 days isn’t, but 7 months is. We know a range where the line should be drawn, and can make useful decisions based on it.

Greater precision is useful in all kinds of applications and eminently desirable.

For example gasoline burns efficiently in your car engine at optimum amounts and concentrations determined through careful analysis. The effort that the engineers who designed your car went to to figure this out is the difference between your car starting when you turn the key, and your car exploding in a giant fireball.

Valuing human life, I’m glad they went to the effort. Why would you suggest that it’s appropriate to do less for our unborn children?

Minty green:

I didn’t answer your question because it’s kind of silly and obvious, at one level, and simply not true at the other. Finally, if you will carefully read my OP, you’ll see that I answered it.

First the Silly:

On a day to day comparison of most any organism you are unlikely to see overt changes, yet I am sure you would agree that somewhere between conception and retirement, a human being has formed. By your argument this never happened since there isn’t any big difference from one day to the next. It’s a silly assumption.

Now the obvious:

You draw the best, most precise line you can. If you have done so, you are not being arbitrary, you are working precisely within the limits of your available data.

Now why it’s not true:

In the first trimester of pregnancy changes occur very swiftly and major distinctions over small periods of time are both discernible and regular.

Why I answered the question in the OP:

I spent a lot of time talking about the precision, regularity and the schedule of fetal development in the OP in relation to the validity of the 1st trimester mark. I did this in direct response to your question. I even repeated myself more than once in an attempt to be painfully obvious. I did all this just for you.

I am now repeating myself again. Just for you.

I am doing so instead of answering Gaudere’s question about why I didn’t draw the line at intelligence or brain development, which I will now have to leave to a later time.

On second thought, it occurs to me that perhaps I have answered the question.