Human PersonhoodWhen does human personhood begin?


This is a question which has occupied biologists, philosophers and theologians for many centuries. In ancient times the question was important with regard to the value of the unborn child in the womb as to any compensation that should be paid by a person causing miscarriage. The writings of the major world religions all speak of the origins of the unborn child in the womb using descriptive language which does not have the benefit of 21st century biological knowledge. Science can tell us intricate details of the cell and molecular biology of fertilisation and embryo development but cannot by its nature address the major ethical questions that face modern medicine. Issues about abortion, genetic screening of embryos, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, surrogacy, cloning, embryo-derived stem cell therapeutics and saviour siblings all hit the media headlines on a regular basis. They each involve asking the question – What is the value of the tissue involved here? Is it merely a clump of cells or a human being?

By the end of this tutorial you will be able to:

  1. Understand the range of definitions of personhood and the complexity of the field.
  2. Engage with fundemental questions of the importance and significance of the embryo
  3. Realise that in the continuum of embryo / foetal development there are many possible points at which it is possible to draw a line of moral status / personhood / ensoulment depending either on your belief system or your interpretation of biological milestones.