When Human Life Begins

Published December 8, 2022

National Review

No one congratulates expectant parents on their “product of conception.”

No one throws a “fetus” shower.

No one thrills to hear the “embryonic pulsing” of their “clump of cells.”

No one is surprised when a pregnant mother gives birth to a human child.

We all know it: Inside every pregnant mother is a human being, her child. That child starts his life invisible to the naked eye, to be sure. From his very first moment in existence, however, his unique genetic code and the tiny cells of his microscopic body have everything they need to continue growing through each stage of human development.

We all expect it: The blastocyst grows into the embryo, into the fetus, the newborn, the toddler, the child, the adolescent, the adult, the man. He is the same human being all along, from the moment of conception. And he will develop through the course of a full human life — unless his life is cut short.

When it comes to abortion — the most common means of cutting short a human life, occurring about 900,000 times each year in the U.S. — we are meant to deny the reality of life in the womb. In the context of abortion, we are told that the origins of human life are too complicated to decipher and too controversial to settle through science. In a recent debate before a university audience, a viewer asked my pro-choice interlocutor when human life begins. Her response bordered on mysticism, boiling down to the sentiment: “It is simply unknowable; these murky things are too complex for us to discern.”

Other supporters of abortion are bolder. One Democratic politician, for instance, claimed that “when a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her. It’s part of her body.” Pregnant women, of course, don’t have four hands and four feet, two brains and two hearts. The unborn child is inside the mother. But he isn’t part of her. His dependence on her doesn’t make him any less human, any less alive, any less himself.

In a recent blog post, abortion advocate and biology professor P. Z. Myers writes:

Can I just say that the claim that “life begins at conception” is sufficiently absurd in all of its particulars that anyone who says it needs to be laughed off the stage? Life doesn’t “begin” at conception, and the question is not whether the focus is on life (it’s not, or these same people would be against the death penalty and eating meat or any living thing at all), it’s about when human personhood begins, which is a much fuzzier and poorly delimited thing altogether. Except we know it doesn’t happen at conception.

Nowhere does he provide an alternate theory as to when human life might come into existence, and his hasty retreat into denying fetal personhood betrays the weakness of his claim about the facts of life. (For more on both the biological and personhood arguments as they relate to abortion, see the first chapter of my book with Ryan Anderson.)

Despite the understandable prejudices of abortion supporters, the biology of human life prior to birth is quite clear. Here’s how the authors of one prominent embryology textbook put it: “Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell — a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

Indeed, there is little dispute among scientific experts as to when human life begins. One survey a few years ago found that 96 percent of biologists agree that life begins at conception. That is, 5,337 biologists “affirmed that a human’s life begins at fertilization,” while just 240 disagreed. One wonders when exactly those 240 might say life begins, if not at the moment that a new organism comes into existence. By any reasonable definition of “living,” a new human being is alive from the moment of conception.

An amicus curia brief filed by several dozen biologists at the Supreme Court in Dobbs — on behalf of neither party in the case — provided extensive evidence that the scientific field regards the question as settled. “The fertilization view is the leading biological view on when a human’s life begins and has been since the 19th century,” the brief states. It also notes that “peer-reviewed journals present the fertilization view on when a human’s life begins as a fact that requires no explanation or citation.”

The question of when human life begins, in other words, isn’t much of a question at all. The question has already been settled. Yet for the sake of justifying killing in the womb, we are meant to close our eyes to the answer.

EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.

Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

EPPC Fellow Alexandra DeSanctis writes on culture and family issues, with a particular focus on abortion policy and pro-life advocacy, as a member of the Life and Family Initiative.

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