The beginning of personhood: a Thomistic biological analysis

Bioethics. 2000 Apr;14(2):134-57. doi: 10.1111/1467-8519.00186.


'When did I, a human person, begin to exist?' In developing an answer to this question, I utilize a Thomistic framework, which holds that the human person is a composite of a biological organism and an intellective soul. Eric Olson and Norman Ford both argue that beginning of an individual human biological organism occurs at the moment when implantation of the zygote in the uterus occurs and the 'primitive streak' begins to form. Prior to this point, there does not exist an individual human organism, but a cluster of biological cells which has the potential to split and develop as one or more separate human organisms (identical twinning). Ensoulment (the instantiation of a human intellective soul in biological matter) does not occur until the point of implantation. This conception of the beginning of human personhood has moral implications concerning the status of pre-implantation biological cell clusters. A new understanding of the beginning of human personhood entails a new understanding of the morality of certain medical procedures which have a direct affect on these cell clusters which contain human DNA. Such procedures discussed in this article are embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, procured abortion, and the use of abortifacient contraceptives.

MeSH terms

  • Abortifacient Agents
  • Beginning of Human Life*
  • Catholicism
  • Embryo Implantation
  • Embryo Research
  • Embryo, Mammalian
  • Ethics
  • Humans
  • Metaphysics
  • Personhood*
  • Philosophy*
  • Research Embryo Creation*
  • Stem Cells
  • Zygote


  • Abortifacient Agents