Does life begin only when there is human sentiment for the embryo/fetus?

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Some pro-choice people argue that since parents do not grieve at the death of an embryo or fetus as they would at the death of an infant, the unborn are not fully human.

As a standard for moral action, this criterion rests on a very unstable foundation. As Noonan has observed,

Feeling is notoriously an unsure guide to the humanity of others. Many groups of humans have had difficulty in feeling that persons of another tongue, color, religion, sex, are as human as they. [1]

One usually feels a greater sense of loss at the sudden death of a healthy parent than one feels for the hundreds who die daily of starvation in underdeveloped countries. Does this mean that the latter are less human than one's parent? Certainly not.

Noonan points out that “apart from reactions to alien groups, we mourn the loss of a ten-year-old boy more than the loss of his one-day-old brother or his 90-year-old grandfather.” The reason for this is that “the difference felt and the grief expressed vary with the potentialities extinguished, or the experience wiped out; they do not seem to point to any substantial difference in the humanity of baby, boy, or grandfather.”[2]


  1. John T. Noonan, “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion, ed. and intro. John T. Noonan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 53. [up]
  2. Ibid. [up]

Author: Francis J. Beckwith, adapted from a series in Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991. Provided with permission by Summit Ministries and the author.

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