The Crux of the Argument

In the debate between the pro-choice and pro-life positions, there is one clear barrier to reconciliation: When does life begin? The disagreement between the two groups can be boiled down to the answer to this singular question.

Abortion abolitionist groups object to abortion on the grounds that abortion constitutes murder. In contrast, the pro-choice point of view requires denying the humanity of the fetus, therefore denying the accusation of murder.

There are plenty of pro-choice biologists who assert that human life begins at conception, but they still deny that the fertilized human embryo is a human being. Indeed, not everyone in a given camp—whether anti-abortion or pro-abortion—will share precisely the same belief.

Since precision is the handmaiden of clarity, a study of the science relevant to the question is helpful to any serious study of the issue of abortion.

For a few thousand years, physicians have understood that in order to have offspring the vast majority of animal life on Earth—including human beings—there must be male and female genetic inputs. The invention of the first microscopes and the discovery that cells are the building blocks of biological life opened a number of doors to further study.

Defining Life

Philosophers study the question of when life begins from a distinct angle. Often, philosophical answers to the question are more compelling than scientific ones. However, many in the pro-choice community refuse to hear any evidence for life that is not neatly categorized into the filing cabinet labeled “science.”

Fortunately, scientists have studied the question and sought to find an empirical answer to the question of when life begins.

In 1859, the first observations of the human zygote, sperm cells, egg cells, and human embryo informed physicians that life began at conception. Two years earlier, the American Medical Association wrote a scathing report on abortion in the United States applying the phrase “The heinous guilt of criminal abortion.”

The report decries the lack of protections for the unborn, stating the belief that they are human beings possessing human rights.

As a profession we are unanimous in our condemnation of the crime.

— American Medical Association (1857)

In 1859, the North American Medico-Chirurgical Review reiterated the point and declared that life begins at conception.

If the foetus be a lifeless excretion, however soon it might have received life, the offence is comparatively as nothing; if the foetus be already, and from the very outset, a human being, alive, however early its stage of development, and existing independently of its mother, though drawing its sustenance from her, the offence becomes, in every stage of pregnancy, MURDER… the ovum does not originate in the uterus; that for a time, however slight, during its passage through the Fallopian tube, its connection with the mother is wholly broken; that its subsequent history is one merely of development, its attachment merely for nutrition and shelter, it is not rational to suppose that its total independence, thus once established, becomes again merged into total identity… or that life… dates from any other epoch than conception.

— North American Medico-Chirurgical Review (1859)

Human Cell Division at the beginning of life

Chronological Snobbery

Human beings—especially secular scientists—have a tendency to assume that their generation is smarter or more advanced than previous generations. C.S. Lewis called this fallacy “chronological snobbery.”

In some ways, this assumption is not wrong. Society has many clear and observable scientific achievements that were not present two centuries ago. As individuals, however, we are no different from our predecessors. Still, an obvious objection to the statements listed above would simply be: “We have learned more since then. They were wrong.”

The most obvious rebuttal to this objection would be to turn the clock forward by a century and take another look. In 1965, there was a brief attempt by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology to redefine the beginning of life from fertilization to implantation in the uterine wall—an assertion that contradicted the scientific consensus of the time.

At first glance, the distinction is very subtle and seems like a reasonable concession. However, the change was a semantic trick; rather than simply changing the definition of life beginning from “conception” to “implantation,” they tried to change the definition of “conception” to be coincidental with implantation rather than with fertilization.

This effort was led by Planned Parenthood affiliated doctor Bent Boving, who said:

The social advantage of [birth control] being considered to prevent conception rather than to destroy an established pregnancy could depend upon something so simple as a prudent habit of speech.

— Bent Boving (1963)

The goal of changing the definition was to pave the way for abortifacient birth control like the “abortion pill.” The semantics were meant to pull the wool over the eyes of a society which rejected abortion even at the earliest stages of pregnancy.

Nevertheless, three of the four most referenced contemporary medical dictionaries refer to pregnancy as beginning with fertilization and not implantation.

In a survey of recent medical dictionary changes, Dr. Christopher Gacek revealed that temporary alterations were made to some medical dictionaries to reflect the pro-choice agenda. Most, however, have reverted to defining pregnancy as beginning at conception, conception occurring at fertilization—not implantation.

Modern obstetricians do not technically consider the failure of a fertilized egg to implant on the uterus to be a miscarriage, but they do describe it as “early pregnancy loss.” This implies that they see life as beginning at fertilization.

Contemporary Agreement

More recent scholarship continues to affirm life beginning at fertilization, which coincides with conception.

Dr. C. Ward Kischer—a human embryology professor at the University of Arizona—said as much in a journal article published two decades ago.

“Every human embryologist, worldwide, states that the life of the new individual human being begins at fertilization (conception).

— C. Ward Kischer (2002)

Embryologist J.T. Eberl made a related claim two years earlier.

As far as human ‘life’ per se, it is, for the most part, uncontroversial among the scientific and philosophical community that life begins at the moment when the genetic information contained in the sperm and ovum combine to form a genetically unique cell. However, what is controversial is whether this genetically unique cell should be considered a human person.

— J.T. Eberl

Even doctors who support abortion agree in principle that life begins at fertilization. From the moment of sperm-egg fusion, genetic material from the sperm cell fertilizes the ovum and the two of them create a zygote—a fertilized egg with a distinct DNA of his or her own.

He or she is a separate creature. The discussion of whether the new creature has human personhood or if he or she is a baby may be still in question to some, but at this point, the issue of when life begins is evidently settled.

According to all rigorous scientific knowledge accumulated with respect to human biology, the zygote is a human organism. Furthermore, he or she is a part of the human species, and he or she is in an early stage of human development.

The DNA does not lie: a zygote has unique DNA that is separate from the mother’s and is clearly a unique organism by scientific definition. The stage of human development is not relevant to the discussion of whether he or she is a separate life. A human embryo is simply a smaller baby, even as a baby is simply a smaller human being.

A Brief Lesson in Biology

Some debate still exists on the specific second when life begins within the context of fertilization.

Instantaneously, the zygote is formed when the sperm cell and oocyte combine and takes steps to shut out further sperm since a single sperm contains all necessary genetic material. This is accomplished by ionic composition changes, which release zinc.

The zinc alters the exterior of the zygote structure and shuts out additional sperm. The nuclear membranes of each cell break down, mitosis occurs, and the two cells with identical nuclei are encased in a new membrane.

The maternal and paternal material combines and changes each other so that DNA replication can begin right away. Already, the cells contain all of the genetic material that will determine eye color, height, skin color, organ functionality, and all other facets of biological human life.

There are embryologists and fertilization scientists who debate whether fertilization should be marked by its beginning stages or by its completion. The argument is somewhat arbitrary and should not prominently factor into the abortion debate, as the difference between the two positions does not exceed twenty-four hours.

Based on these findings and a heap of scientific evidence and facts, it is unsurprising that the American College of Pediatricians publicly released the following statement:

The American College of Pediatricians concurs with the body of scientific evidence that corroborates that a unique human life starts when the sperm and egg bind to each other in a process of fusion of their respective membranes and a single hybrid cell called a zygote, or one-cell embryo, is created.

The college goes on to say:

As physicians dedicated both to scientific truth and to the Hippocratic tradition, the College values all human lives equally from the moment of conception (fertilization) until natural death. Consistent with its mission to “enable all children to reach their optimal physical and emotional health and well-being,” the College, therefore, opposes active measures that would prematurely end the life of any child at any stage of development from conception to natural death.

scientist looking at cells to see when does life begins

Philosophy Weighing In

The dispute about whether the new life created in the womb constitutes a human being still wages.

The abolitionist side of the argument is informed by the biblical definition of human life—a being born of two human parents and made in the image of God.

Human beings have a spiritual and a physical component; the existence of the human body, even as an embryo, implies the existence of an attached soul. The human being has a definite beginning: a creation moment. But human souls are immortal and continue to exist beyond the death of the human body.

Pro-choice philosophers argue that souls may or may not exist and that if they do exist, there is no evidence to suggest that an embryo has a soul. Often, the pro-choice argument rejects the existence of God and ignores the non-empirical spiritual concerns of the anti-abortion side.

The embryo is insufficiently advanced to have a mind; it does not have a brain that is fully developed for several weeks after conception. Even after birth, a baby’s brain will still experience much development.

If Descartes was right and cogito ergo sum is a meaningful philosophical statement, then babies may not truly be human—at least, not until they can “think.”

This begs the question of when personhood begins. Some of the reasons given for personhood beginning after birth are arbitrarily distinct from personhood beginning before birth. To be consistent in this area is to tolerate infanticide, which some still do—and will continue to do in the future.

Legal Definitions

Based on the opinion of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, the standard for when human life begins is most closely linked to the idea of “viability.”

Viability is the earliest moment in which a baby can survive outside of the womb. However, the notion of viability is not a sufficiently objective and constant standard. Viability changes based on medical technology, access to decent care, and even the constitution of the specific baby.

Generally, twenty-four weeks of gestation is considered the edge of viability. However, babies as young as twenty-one weeks old have survived premature birth.

States have been aggressively pursuing increased restrictions on abortion in recent years. At the time of this writing, the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to take up a case involving a Mississippi law prohibiting abortions in most cases after fifteen weeks.

Texas also recently signed a bill into law that bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is normally around six weeks gestation. The pro-choice side of the argument obviously believes that these are unlawful attacks on abortion rights.

Most laws make exceptions for rape or incest pregnancies, as well as concerns regarding the health of the woman.

The Position of End Abortion Now

Any restriction of abortion is a victory for life and for the human race. Most laws, however, fall far short of the real goal, which is the immediate and absolute abolition and criminalization of all abortion for any reason and at any stage.

Heartbeat bills, bans after arbitrarily determined deadlines or stages of development, and exceptions made for the health of the woman or for pregnancy resulting from rape or incest miss the entire point.

It has been established that pregnancy begins at fertilization. A new human being exists in the womb—regardless of the circumstances of his or her conception.

Distinctions placed after fertilization that seeks to limit life to a specific milestone of development—or even to a purely arbitrary time such as fifteen weeks—make no sense and are inconsistent with the available scientific data.

Those bills are still small victories because they will save babies’ lives. But the only consistent abolitionist position must be an outright ban on all abortion because all abortion is the unjust termination of human life. It is murder.

The position of End Abortion Now is based on the Word of God. It is also supported by the scientific facts discovered and confirmed by a mixture of theistic and atheistic scientists.

The new life created at fertilization is unique and distinct in biological terms from the mother and the father. The fact that the new creature dwells in the mother’s body is incidental. The personhood of the unborn is undeniable.

A Final Note of Thanks

Though the author of this article is not a medical professional, he has sought to clearly communicate the knowledge and scientific acumen of physicians on the issue of life.

If this article is found to be compelling by the reader, let the reader credit the original writers of the American College of Pediatricians. Any shortcomings in this article may be attributed to the author.