8
$\begingroup$

I often hear or read this statement:

"It's not a human, it's a fetus."

In other words, some think a fetus is non-human until a certain point.

And another similar statement:

"The fetus isn't alive until 26 weeks of gestation."

So some think the fetus is not actually "alive" until a certain point.

What does biology have to say about these two statements?

I encounter these statements often in discussions about abortion, but that issue, and other similar philosophical issues, are outside this question. I'm wondering strictly from a scientific/biological standpoint: are these statements true?

Is the fetus in a human mother non-human until a certain point?

Does the fetus not classify as "alive" until a certain point?

The people I encountered truly believed these statements (3 of the 4 in mind also claimed science was on their side), so it's not as if the question has no merit. I assumed that in the realm of science and biology, there must be a convincing and sure answer.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Define "alive". Because a fetus almost definitely is alive. Perhaps they meant it isn't sentient until that point? $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Sep 18 '14 at 2:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you have any specific sources for these claims? To me it sounds like someone is trying to justify something they shouldn't. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Sep 18 '14 at 2:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You need to clarify what you are asking here: 1) The human foetus is of course human, it's not a bird, sunflower, donkey or other. 2) The foetus, by definitions of life that I've seen, is probably classed as "living" but that could be debated. 3) It may appear that you are interested in whether or not the foetus is concious, aware, intelligent, able to process independent thoughts feelings and emotions, or sentient (judging by the quotes you've put in) - I don't think that belongs here so you should clarify that a little so people answer the first two points but not the third. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Sep 18 '14 at 9:49
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ I feel like you are trying to get confirmation by biologists of your side of a moral, ethical, philosophical or political question. To do so, you have paraphrased your opponents' point of view in a way that might caricature or 'straw-man' them. The fact that you can't point to any place these specific statements have been made reinforces this suspicion. If you think that an answer based on a narrow biological reading of these statements will prove something about the wider question you are wrong. As questions about biology they are pointless and uninteresting. $\endgroup$ – user9392 Sep 18 '14 at 10:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @jwg, as I mentioned in my previous comment, these are exact quotations of a discussion I had last night (comments from Joji-chan at 8:37pm and from AKAMrWobbels at 9:07pm on plus.google.com/b/118125465432602950506/113663424599392189408/… ). It is quite frustrating to me that in spite of my intentional avoidance of personal opinion in the question, you have read opinion into the question against my wishes. Sigh. $\endgroup$ – JohnDubya Sep 18 '14 at 13:22
15
$\begingroup$

Life is generally distinguished from non-life by metabolism and growth. As such, a fetus is alive. The reference to "not...until 26 weeks gestation" that you've heard likely refers to viability.* With the most aggressive medical care, this is the approximate age when a fetus may be able to survive outside the womb.

The term human from a biologic perspective is a species label.** Given that a fetus is genetically indistinguishable (in broad strokes) from a post-natal human, I think it would be hard to argue that it is anything other than human.

Summary: Yes, a human fetus is both alive and human.

*Note that this use of the word viable is standard but deviates somewhat from the etymology of the word.
**I'm ignoring here other ancient species (homo-) which may be considered human but are irrelevant to the question.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @shigeta - I'm missing your point. Bacteria in feces are alive, no doubt. Bacteria in the nasopharynx that may be expelled with sneezing are alive, no doubt, as is the creature doing the sneezing. How is that related to this question/answer? $\endgroup$ – Susan Sep 18 '14 at 3:59
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Note that the question is not whether the foetus is human (adjective), but whether it is a human (noun). It's an important difference, and takes us out of biology and into philosophy and ethics. $\endgroup$ – EnergyNumbers Sep 18 '14 at 11:41
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @EnergyNumbers - mmm, not sure I agree with that distinction, but I do agree that it's not a great question for this site, not because it's un-answerable but because the answer is extremely simple (when limited to biology). I don't have enough rep to VTC, so instead I answered it as best I could within the scope of the site. $\endgroup$ – Susan Sep 18 '14 at 12:31
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I think the point is that the question almost certainly comes from the context of the abortion debate, i.e. whether killing a fetus should be a right or a crime. In that regard, whether a fetus is alive does not matter much, since we necessarily kill many things that are alive without giving it a thought. $\endgroup$ – Michael Borgwardt Sep 18 '14 at 12:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MichaelBorgwardt, you are correct. The statements in the question were copied and pasted from two commenters last night in a discussion about abortion, but I intentionally left all opinion out of the question and no mention of abortion. The man who claimed "the fetus isn't alive" said that statement was "Biology 101." So while you and others may view this question as too simplistic, it obviously isn't to some people. I decided to let those who really know biology speak to the truth of these statements. $\endgroup$ – JohnDubya Sep 18 '14 at 13:32
9
$\begingroup$

The fetus is certainly "alive" from the very beginning, since conception. The second comment hence does not make sense.

Regarding whether it is "human" or not, that would depend on the definition of "human". It seems to be more a philosophical than biological question. From the biology point of view it all goes down to this, a fetus in a human womb is a "human fetus", certainly not a "mouse fetus". Fetus only indicates a time period in the development of a mammal (before being born). Another question is whether the fetus has attributes of grown up humans, like the ability to talk. But then, a newborn does not have many of those attributes yet it is considered a human.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Any definition of "human" someone tries to use besides this one (that it is human regardless of how far through gestation it is) will almost certainly end up excluding some "obviously human" segment of the population. This answer is very well-worded. $\endgroup$ – David L Sep 18 '14 at 6:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG But a parasite does so without the host consent and is recognized by the immune system as a threat. A female mammal sacrifices herself in order to provide the environment for the proper development of the new organism, until it is able to survive outside. $\endgroup$ – ddiez Sep 18 '14 at 7:00
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A parasite escapes the immune system. The mother enables the fetus to grow in a immune tolerant environment. Organisms reproduce to perpetuate the species. This is one of the defining characteristics of life. Note that parasite has a harmful connotation and typically (if not always) involves different species. I do not think it correct to consider the fetus a parasite. $\endgroup$ – ddiez Sep 18 '14 at 8:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ddiez You can see this post. Some discussion about the definition of parasitism. Whatever be the initial turn of events, the fetus is actually eating the nutrients from the mother depriving her of those. Mother chooses to eat more and let the fetus grow for lets say some greater good; that doesn't change the nature of this interaction. The terms escapes or enables are just literary; mechanistically there is no difference. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG Sep 18 '14 at 9:44
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ In fact, by pretty much any sensible definition, the unfertilized ova and sperm are also just as alive as the fertilized embryo is. Just because these haploid gametes make up a relatively small part of the human life cycle doesn't change the fact that they move, they metabolize, and, crucially, they're capable of reproducing (by first fusing into a diploid zygote, which then grows and produces more gametes). Or, as somebody once quipped, "a chicken is an egg's way of producing more eggs." $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 18 '14 at 11:29

protected by Community May 1 '15 at 20:45

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.