When do we become people? | GUEST COMMENTARY

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When did I become me?

I suppose I would have been conceived in January, at which point I would have been a mere single-celled, fertilized zygote. That zygote met pretty much all of the properties of life biologists typically use to distinguish what is alive and what is non-living: It was organized by molecules and organelles, had a metabolism, could maintain homeostasis and was growing. It is at this point that 95% of biologists would consider me “alive.” Some cultures protect this zygote’s life, with countries like Honduras, Montenegro, and the Philippines banning even the morning-after pill.


By day five the zygote had become a mass of cells called a blastocyst and may have already mutated away from my parents’ genetic code.

Only one month later, my first brain cell would have developed in the embryo. These neurons are some of the few cells that stay with me for my entire life and could theoretically survive over 200 years.


Four months on, and my mother was in her second trimester and could probably feel the fetus’ movements. In fact, the fetus could already respond to different sounds.

It’s about six months in when the fetus was finally independent — or, theoretically independent. That’s when the medical field would have called it “viable”: It could have survived outside my mother’s womb, were a premature birth necessary. It is also at this time that the fetus will begin to gain some form of consciousness, though it won’t retain memories for a long time. Up until this point, it was also completely unprotected. Living in the United States, Roe v. Wade gave my mother the right to abort the pregnancy up until viability. But at this stage, some states — including California (where my mother was at the time) and Maryland — protect the fetus and only allow abortion to protect her health. In some states, though, she could still seek a late-stage abortion.

When I was born in October, U.S. law was pretty unambiguous regarding my personhood: I was alive and a person. Killing me would constitute murder. But the idea of personhood is contingent on social constructs, social meanings given to bodies that American society cannot decide on. According to a 2021 poll, while 61% of American adults think abortions should generally be legal in the first trimester, that percentage drops to 34% in the second trimester and 19% in the third.

Other cultures have better-defined boundaries of personhood, though they may seem abhorrent to us. The Wari’ people of Brazil “locate key features of personhood in social ties” and, when a child is born out of wedlock, killing it at any point before it is first breastfed is considered an acceptable choice at the discretion of the mother’s family. Infanticide is somewhat common outside of western cultures, though it has a tradition in the West, too. It was even practiced by Ancient Greeks if the child was illegitimate, unhealthy, the “wrong” sex, or even just a burden on the family. Aristotle himself advocated: “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” This is to say, up until I was a year old, many cultures would not have considered me a person and a postnatal “abortion,” of sorts, would have been permissible.

There’s even an argument to be had that I didn’t become who I am today until age 3, when I will have my first long-term memories. John Locke’s Memory Theory holds that consciousness defines personhood, and most people’s earliest memories happened when they were about three years old.

Was that 2-year-old body with which I share many cells the same as my current 20-year-old self, even though I cannot remember that individual? Were they a person? Are we people at around the age of 12, when our reproductive organs start functioning and when we are responsible enough to be left at home alone for a few hours? Or is it at 25, when our brain reaches full development?

When do we become people? Exactly where should the line between abortion and murder be drawn? These are the questions we should be asking on the abortion issue, for if we can agree on their answers, we can legislate a custom and solution that is robust to the whims of nine people in fancy robes.

Francisco “A.J.” Camacho ( is studying international affairs at George Washington University, where he is a reporter for The GW Hatchet. He lives in Baltimore.