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fetus as person

Chris Hill chris at fido.bfriars.ox.ac.uk
Sat Feb 22 06:53:16 EST 1997

Stephen Black wrote:

> "A conceptus...is a fertilized egg and everything that develops from it
> until it is born. A conceptus early develops two major components;
> embryoblast (most of which becomes fetus) and trophoblast (which becomes
> extraembryonic membranes, placenta, and umbilical cord). The
> fetus...becomes a newborn...when it has come out of the mother; it becomes
> an individual when it has been divided from the trophoblastic part of the
> conceptus, usually by cutting the umbilical cord."
> I initially thought this a rather far-fetched and strained argument until
> I read his next point, which was:
> "The trophoblastic parts of the conceptus are alive, are human, and the
> cells have the same genetic composition as the zygote, fetus, and baby.
> If any or all of these criteria were used to define personhood in
> constructing the argument for a legislated assertion that the zygote and
> its derivates are a person, then the practice of cutting the cord,
> interrupting blood supply to the placenta, and letting the expelled
> placenta die would become murder in the eyes of the law".

It seems to me that a mistake is being made here rooted in the early
differentiation of trophoblastic tissue and embryoblastic tissue.  This
early differentiation is necessary for the correct functioning of the
extraembryonic membranes, placenta and umbilical cord.  It would in my
view be more correct to view these early differentiated structures as
parts of the developing human entity which are shed at the appropriate
time during development when there function is completed and they are no
longer needed. The loss of these structures has no more ontological
significance than the loss of milk teeth to make way for their adult

The legal definitions of personhood as beginning at the cutting of the
umbilical cord are based on the different, but equally false arguument
that it is the cord that connects the child to its mother and that the
cord is not part of the child but rather part of the mother or part of
neither in some sense.  As has been noted, histologically and
genetically the cord and placenta are part of the child and not the

Chris Hill.

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