TED Conversations

Feyisayo Anjorin

Freelance Director, Afro-Carribean Media Group


This conversation is closed.

Is a Fetus a Person?

The debate over whether abortion should be considered as murder often focuses on the question of whether the fetus is a person or not.
Here the issue of culture and religion comes in.
But what does it take to identify a fetus as a person? There are thinkers today with the belief that a fetus can be called a human being, but should not be called a person because it takes more to be a person than just having genetic material.

Philosopher Mary Ann Warren argues that in order to be considered a person, a being should have the following characteristics:

1. A developed capacity for reasoning.
2. Self awareness
3.Consciousness and ability to feel pain
4. Self motivated activity
5. Capacity to comminicate messages of an indefinite variety of types.

It would seem as if even new born babies may not be considered as persons according to the aforementioned school of thought.

No doubt infanticide has always got widespread condemnation, but abortion has always been a controversial issue.
So, what do you think? Is a fetus a person?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    Oct 7 2012: In the US, the fetal debate centers on when "life" begins. Typically this is called being. There are three major points of debate.

    1. Conception
    2. At heartbeat development
    3. Point of viability

    There are many others and different subcategories but those are the main ones.

    The conception model looks at a fertilized egg and cellular division as the beginning of life. While still just a cluster of cells, it has the potential of becoming a human and is therefore defined by many as "life." But for me, cancer is a bunch of rapidly dividing human cells and nobody gets all bent out of shape when that is removed.

    The fetal heart begins to beat around week 8 or 9. Those who feel there is an attachment between heart and soul typically feel that is when a bunch of cells crosses into being.

    The point of viability is where the fetus has a chance of living separate from the mother. This has changed over the years as technology has advanced and we can keep a fetus alive outside the mother earlier and earlier. But the long term ramifications of the application of technology have yet to be fully realized.

    But no one considers a fetus or an infant or even a young child a person. In the legal and philosophical realm, a person is typically considered to have agency, or the ability to make decisions. That is why Ms. Warner suggests those parameters. It sets up the foundation for her philosophical discussion. Each philosopher will do something similar when discussing person. It has changed over the centuries, for instance, women are now considered persons.
    • thumb
      Oct 7 2012: Thanks Linda.
    • thumb
      Oct 7 2012: Yes a fertilized egg is a cluster of cells and so is cancer, but does cancer have the potential of becoming human?
      • thumb
        Oct 7 2012: Good question. Perhaps yes. Theoretically all human cells have human DNA so what distinguishes the parallel? If cancer cells have the same DNA as fetal cells what is the difference? Both feed off the host and cannot survive without it. Both can kill the host. Both rely on the host for nutrition, respiration, excretion, growth and development. Both will derive what it needs from the host whether or not the host ingests it. Think about it.

        Cancer is human.
      • thumb
        Oct 7 2012: @ John

        " pro-choice is a pro-woman strategy, anti-abortion is a pro-man position." Wow interesting article!
      • thumb
        Oct 7 2012: @ Sterling Theoretically, if we could figure out the technology any human cell could potentially become a 'fully fledged human.' I do think that this will someday become a reality. If not in the US, it will develop in some other country that is not as conflicted about life.
        • thumb
          Oct 7 2012: So are you saying cancer could never become a 'fully fledged human' on its own then?
      • thumb
        Oct 7 2012: In all honesty, I really don't know. Cancer is usually hit with chemicals or radiation or surgically removed. If left untreated it will kill the host. But I am not sure if it would develop into a self-sustaining organism if it did not kill the host. Only that it has the potential to.

        Hmm. There's that word potential again.
        • Oct 7 2012: At the risk of going awfully off-topic, I'll answer that question.
          In a strict sense, animal cells are never self-sustaining (or primary producers or autotrophs). They need something else to make "food" for them. However, used in a looser sense, the HeLa cells that I mentioned earlier *are* self-sustaining. Given "food", they'll grow and reproduce indefinitely. The HeLa cancer cells are not unique in this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immortalised_cell_line.

          There is an infectious cancer that's killing off Tasmanian Devils which is, again, caused by such a self-sustaining cancer cell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil_facial_tumour_disease

          So, the answer for Linda Taylor: yes, *some* cancers will form a self-sustaining organism.

          And the answer for Sterling Spencer: no, it it awfully unlikely to ever form a full-fledged human. Cancer cells have several mutations that can't be simply reversed or turned off. So, even if technology ever progresses far enough to clone a person from just his dandruff, we'll never be able to clone a person from their cancer cells without making many modifications to the DNA first.
    • Oct 7 2012: "But for me, cancer is a bunch of rapidly dividing human cells and nobody gets all bent out of shape when that is removed."

      I agree with most things you say, except this. Of course, I wouldn't get all bent out of shape when cancer cells are removed. But nobody? Reference: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-Cells.html scroll down to the question "How did they do that?" ;-)

      The world is a weird place. But just to be clear: I agree with the essence of what you say.
      • thumb
        Oct 7 2012: I had heard about this so thanks for the article. I heard about it when we were discussing ownership. For instance, who owns those cells? Has to do with informed consent to research. Another fine ethical discussion:)

        Think about it. They could clone her at some point. So those cells could become a person some day. They better not kill any of them...

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.