When Is a Human a ‘Human Being’? Ask the White House Science Adviser

By Terence P. Jeffrey | July 29, 2009 | 5:08 AM EDT
Last August, Pastor Rick Warren stumped then-Sen. Barack Obama with a seemingly simple question. “At what point,” asked Warren, “does a baby get human rights, in your view?”
“Well, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade,” said Obama.
It turns out, however, that an even simpler question once stumped the very person Obama now pays to give him advice about science: When does a human become a “human being”?
John P. Holdren is director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In 1973, he co-authored a book—“Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions”—with Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich.
At the time, Holdren was a researcher at California Institute of Technology and the Ehrlichs were professors at Stanford. Paul Ehrlich was already well known for having authored “The Population Bomb,” a 1968 bestseller that The Washington Post later said “launched the popular movement for zero population growth.”
Holdren’s credentials are stellar. He earned a doctorate from Stanford, taught at California and Harvard, and was director of the Woods Hole Research Center—where his co-authorship of “Human Ecology” is cited in his online curriculum vitae.
“Human Ecology” painted an apocalyptic vision.
“Human beings cling jealously to their prerogative to reproduce as they please—and they please to make each new generation larger than the last—yet endless multiplication on a finite planet is impossible,” the authors wrote in the opening chapter. “Most humans aspire to greater material prosperity, but the number of people that can be supported on Earth if everyone is rich is even smaller than if everyone is poor.”
On page 235, while making an argument for legalized abortion, the authors use language that on its face says a child “will ultimately develop into a human being”—after it is born.
“To most biologists, an embryo (unborn child during the first two or three months of development) or a fetus is no more a complete human being than a blueprint is a building,” they wrote. “The fetus, given the opportunity to develop properly before birth, and given the essential early socializing experiences and sufficient nourishing food during the crucial early years after birth, will ultimately develop into a human being. Where any of these essential elements is lacking, the resultant individual will be deficient in some respect.”
The Ehrlichs and Holdren conclude the paragraph that includes the above passage by noting that legal scholars do not believe humans are constitutionally recognized as “persons” until they are born. But the authors don’t clarify when exactly, in their view, a developing member of the species homo sapiens ultimately turns into an actual “human being.”
“From this point of view, a fetus is only a potential human being,” the authors continue. “Historically, the law has dated most rights and privileges from the moment of birth, and legal scholars generally agree that a fetus is not a ‘person’ within the meaning of the United States Constitution until it is born and living independent of its mother’s body.”
The authors then make a case for aborting unwanted children.
“From the standpoint of the terminated fetus, it makes no difference whether the mother had an induced abortion or a spontaneous abortion,” they write. “On the other hand, it subsequently makes a great deal of difference to the child if an abortion is denied, and the mother, contrary to her wishes, is forced to devote her body and life to the production and care of the child.
“In Sweden,” they note, “studies were made to determine what eventually happened to children born to mothers whose requests for abortions had been turned down. When compared to a matched group of children from similar backgrounds who had been wanted, more than twice as many of these unwanted youngsters grew up in undesirable circumstances (illegitimate, in broken homes or in institutions), more than twice as many had records of delinquency or were deemed unfit for military service, almost twice as many had needed psychiatric care, and nearly five times as many had been on public assistance during their teens.”
If the unwanted child lives, they argued, it causes “unwanted consequences” all around.
“There seems little doubt that the forced bearing of unwanted children has undesirable consequences not only for the children themselves and their families but for society as well, apart from the problems of overpopulation,” the authors wrote. “The latter factor, however, adds further urgency to the need for preventing unwanted births. An abortion is clearly preferable to adding a child to an overburdened family or an overburdened society, where the chances that it will realize its full potentialities are slight.”
The first meaning of “being,” according to the Webster’s Online dictionary, is “the quality or state of having existence.” By definition, as soon as a human exists, he or she is a “human being.”

The abortionist, whose evil cause the White House science adviser championed, may succeed in terminating a human being’s life on this planet. Undoing that child’s humanity or the existence of his immortal soul are—as Obama himself might put it—above his pay grade.