When Does Life Begin? Medical Experts Debate Abortion Issue

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When Does Life Begin? Medical Experts Debate Abortion Issue

When does life begin? Two experts share their opinions on this issue, as it relates to abortion. They discuss scientific and religious views. Share your opinions here too.

[Editor's note: This article was originally hosted on MyFamilyDoctorMag.com, our sister site.
It's now featured here as part of our new general-health section.]

When Does Life Begin? Medical Experts Debate Abortion Issue | The Survival Doctor


Pro-lifers generally belief life begins at fertilization. So pro-choicers generally believe no, it doesn’t.

… Right?


In every political season, abortion emerges as one of the most hotly debated topics. It draws in everybody—from the religious to the political. But what about the scientists?

In 2006, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Ethics published their opinion on “Using Preimplantation Embryos for Research.” In it, they say, “If the preimplantation embryo is left or maintained outside the uterus, it cannot develop into a human being.” Did you catch that: “… into a human being”?

The question for many doctors and scientists is not, “When does life begin?” but, “When does that life become a human being?”

Pro-lifers say it’s a human from the start. How could it be anything else? “Scientific and medical discoveries over the past three decades have only verified and solidified this age-old truth,” says the conservative-leaning American College of Pediatricians on its website. “The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is not one of personhood but of development.”

Rules of Engagement

We invited each participant to write an argument, then read the opponent’s argument and, if desired, write a rebuttal. Neither was allowed to read the other’s initial argument before writing his own, and neither could read the other’s response before rebutting.

“Pro-choice docs would say that it is not their business to determine for a patient when life begins,” says Diana Philip, interim executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers and its sister organization, the Abortion Conversation Project. “Ultimately each patient determines the value and definition of life and that definition lies within her own mind and heart.”

So the question to our debaters was simply—and yet not so simply—“Do we know when human life begins?”

Now, let the debate begin.

Argument: YES, any biologist in the world can tell you when life begins.

Donna J. Harrison, M.D., president, American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Since the mechanism by which mammals reproduce has been known for at least the last 150 years, any biologist in the world can tell you that a mammal’s life begins when the sperm from the father unites with the egg from the mother. This process is called fertilization, and when the DNA from the father and mother have combined, the egg is called a fertilized egg, or zygote.  When the zygote splits into two cells, it is called a two-celled embryo. When it splits into four cells, it is called a four-celled embryo, etc.  The definition of “embryo” is “the youngest form of a being.”

If this being is nourished and protected, it will proceed uninterrupted through the developmental stages of embryo, fetus, newborn, toddler, child, teen, adult and aged adult: one continuous existence. This being never develops into a pig, a frog or a tree, but only into a human. This being is therefore, by definition, a living human being.

This fact is very inconvenient for those who want to treat embryonic and fetal human beings as property. The real argument in the abortion debate is whether or not this human being is a “person,” with all the legal rights and protections of “personhood.”

Those who traffic in human tissue argue that he or she is not. This is the same argument used in the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that black Americans, though human, are not “persons” under the law.

As long as “personhood” is denied to human beings in their embryonic and fetal stages, the holocaust of abortion will continue.

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Argument: No, we don’t even know when life ends, much less when it begins.

Suzanne Holland, Ph.D., bioethicist; chair, Religion Department, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Wash.

What makes us so sure we know when human life begins? Despite our best efforts, we do not even really know when human life ends, as the Terry Schiavo case reminded us. If it is so achingly difficult to know whether someone is dead or alive when she is in front of people who love her, how much harder it is to be certain when life begins, especially when we cannot see it with our own eyes.

Biologist Scott Gilbert, an expert in human development, tells us that there are at least four distinct moments that can be thought of as the beginning of human life. Each can be said to be biologically accurate.

The genetic view (the position held by the Roman Catholic Church and many religious conservatives) holds that life begins with the acquisition of a novel genome; it is a kind of genetic determinism.

The Survival Doctor's Guides to Burns and Wounds, by @James HubbardThose who hold the embryologic view think life begins when the embryo undergoes gastrulation, and twinning is no longer possible; this occurs about 14 days into development. (Some mainline Protestant religions espouse a similar view.)

Proponents of the neurological view adhere to brainwave criteria; life begins when a distinct EEG pattern can be detected, about 24 to 27 weeks. (Some Protestant churches affirm this.) Interestingly, life is also thought to end when the EEG pattern is no longer present.

Finally, one can say that life begins at or near birth, measured by fetal viability outside the mother’s body. (Judaism affirms something close to this position.) After all, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of all embryos conceived miscarry.

So, when does life begin? I do not think we can know this with any more certainty than we know when life ends. People of faith, and people of good conscience, are going to have to agree to disagree—with a good dose of humility—on matters of life and death.



Dr. Holland’s
Dr. Holland declined to submit a rebuttal.
Dr. Harrison’s
Dr. Holland’s arguments are essentially religious, obscuring the basic biological question:  When does mammalian life begin?
Her “moments” only highlight notable characteristics along a continuum of human life already biologically existing. The “views” she misrepresents are scientifically incoherent and biologically inaccurate. (In her “genetic view” identical twins would not be considered alive since they don’t have a unique genome, a human corpse alive because it has one.)
The defining characteristic of mammalian life, including human life, is the continuous process of development, which starts at fertilization and ends at death.
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Original article appeared in July/August 2008 edition of My Family Doctor magazine. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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  • GeniusPhx

    both arguments can be true. the big question is, why do pro lifers want to legislate their beliefs on the other half of the country? why must your beliefs have to become my beliefs by law? since it is mostly christians who want to legislate their beliefs on others, aren’t xns supposed to be inclusive, open minded, forgiving, able to look at the sinner not the sin? why would Jews, Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, have to obey christian views by law??

    my message to pro-lifers, get the hell out of my bedroom, my familys decisions, my sex live, who I can and cannot love, whether I can use contraception or not! Not your concern! Now go find some illiterate rice farmer and make him a christian!!!

    • Guest

      i just hope one day, if you do have an abortion, you will feel the pain of knowingly killing someone that would eventually be your pride and joy, your bloodline, and your bearer to your grandchildren when you get older. And if you do get an abortion with a shot you could possibly never have kids again. Just saying.

      • southern feminist


    • missy

      Have a son that gets a girl pregnant, said son tells girl have baby and walk away I’ll raise it alone. He believes life starts at conception, she doesn’t. I wish there was legislation that would give the Father some rights before birth. He has no say and has to live with the fact that the love of his life killed his baby because it’s”technically” legal. Her point of view vs his. It’s a shame we even have to talk about whether or not it is human and worth saving. All life is precious no matter how tiny.

    • David

      So, you say yourself that both arguments can be true. This implies that you believe, at least half way, that life starts at conception, and DNA defines that life as human. It also shows that you acknowledge that abortions are, in-arguably, being conducted. In fact, over a million abortions are conducted each year in the U.S. alone. So, that means that over 1 million human lives are terminated each year. What’s the definition of murder? Ahh, that’s right, disregarding the flock of crows, murder is the killing of a human being, which isn’t an exclusively Christian definition. I would hope that you agree with murder being illegal as universal, not just to Christians. Abortion isn’t accidental man-slaughter either. It seems pretty deliberate to me. Before you make fun of some “illiterate rice farmer” who is busy growing food to provide for people, check your grammar.

      • southern feminist

        if you are so adamant about abortion and anti-killing, are you also anti-death penalty, anti-war, and pro social programs that help to sustain life?

      • GeniusPhx

        you have a black and white answer for everything. problem is those arguments are old, they are the same as argued for roe v wade. in other words the law is the law. in one of their opinions the supreme ct wrote no one person should be able to decide for another when life begins. and thats what you want to do, legislate your views on me whether i like it or not. is that something Jesus would do?

        scotus only changes a decision if new evidence comes up that was not available at the time of the first time. that isnt the case here. the nervous system has developed at 24 weeks and thats why scotus decided that way.

        in the new movie Counselor a drug lord is talking to him about the murder of his wife. counselor keeps bargaining for the life of his wife while the drug lord explains its too late and he should accept shes dead and go on with your life. that’s what you ppl should do, stop bargaining and accept that abortions are a fact of life and go on. even if they outlawed it, the number of abortions hasn’t changed legal or illegal. if you think stopping abortion is hard when its legal, try stopping it when its illegal and it happens in ppls homes all over the country. that’s what happens when choice is no longer an option.

        • Remi

          Why do pro lifers want to legislate their beliefs on the other half of the country? Why pro choicer want to legislate their belief on an unborn human?

          • southern feminist

            why are you dismissing the human even having to make that choice? i find it humorous that once a female becomes preggo, then fuck all – she, as an individual with hopes and dreams ceases to exist, and she becomes some mere portal for forced reproduction. you guys really need to take into account that the country who can strip you of your right to choice can move the scales either way (look at china). the government strong enough to keep you from having an abortion can also force you to have one. it can also forcibly sterilize you if they decide that you are unfit to procreate – forced sterilization was huge in the US up through the 70s with regard to minorities.

  • Marina Redwood

    I think life begins at conception, but I’m pro-choice.

    • E E

      Interesting I’d like to hear your argument for being pro-choice then.

      • southern feminist

        perhaps because some of us believe in the separation of church and state and not forcing our personal opinions on others, and i am not being snarky here (inflections of tone is lost on the written word). but most scientists believe that life does begin at conception, but the question is rather, when does this life become a human being, and when is a life worth protecting. further, one cannot argue religiously on this topic, well you could, but that would be a mistake – because faith, too, is a matter of opinion. if society really wants to remedy this, perhaps we should start by creating an environment that protects it’s mothers politically, socially, and economically.

  • Anonymous

    Nobody has yet mentioned this, so I thought I would. Regarding Dr. Hollands argument, the precise moments at which of these occurs is as follows:

    1) Conception – a clear, identifiable moment
    2) After twinning is no longer possible (about 14 days into development) – the exact moment is very unclear
    3) Brainwave criteria (about 24-27 weeks into development) – the exact moment is very unclear
    4) At or near birth (measured by fetal viability outside of the body) – the exact moment is very unclear

    Conception is the only event that occurs at a definitive moment. All the others (as well as some she didn’t list) are merely time frames in a person’s gradual development. Since one either is alive or isn’t alive, it follows that the only possible option for the beginning of life is that which occurs in an instant – conception.

    • southern feminist

      but life is also seen as a continuum. i mean the egg and sperm are alive prior to conception, so technically you can say that my monthly period is my body aborting a potential human because a sperm didn’t infiltrate.

    • GeniusPhx

      the bible doesn’t back you up at all. ppl keep talking about life when the legal argument is about viability, not life. the bigger argument is whether one side can tell another they cant make a choice to carry or not. That’s what SCOTUS decided, that one person does not have the legal right to require another to abide by their beliefs.

      • southern feminist

        i bet they would understand the ideology behind separation of church and state if all of a sudden sharia law was implemented and muslims became the majority forcing their respective beliefs on them.

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  • S Lockhart

    No birth-certificate, not allowed to vote, not counted on the census, so no. it’s not a person. Sorry. I don’t agree!

    • RGM

      Isn’t that dangerous? Deciding whether someone/thing is person or not based on a legalistic view? Slaves and Indians weren’t given any of those things, either, so by your definition: not people. Or they weren’t, but when the law passed, suddenly they were. Only because the law said so.
      (One note: While slaves were technically counted in the census, being a numbered head or 3/4 of a person hardly counts.)

      • southern feminist

        but can we truly compare the plight of a viable being with memories and full awareness with something that, while it would eventually develop into a human being, possesses neither trait.

    • missy

      At 17 I wasn’t aloud to vote, should someone have the right to dispose of me? A baby up to a month old may not have a birth certificate or have been issued a ssn, should they be disposed of because it’s no longer wanted? There are so many other options. I would rather know I gave my baby away to be loved than live with the fact I killed it.

  • Constitution Man

    Simple: life begins when the heart beats for the first time, not long after the first division of an embryo’s cells. Life ends after the final beat of the heart. QED.

    • illyinphilly

      According to the medical community (those that study this stuff) life is officially deemed done when brain waves (as measured by EEG) stop. It use to be based on heart beat. This was changed in the 1980s.

      • GeniusPhx

        maybe it should be used to say when life begins also. which is 24 to 27 weeks.

  • liberalslovedeadbabies

    the debate is over dudes…life begins at conception…just be intellectually honest…and morally corrupt…you want to play god…and decide…who will live and who will die…do you hear me seniors…these same folks are going to be pulling plugs on you…thanks culture of death…

    • southern feminist

      abortions have existed as long as prostitution. get over yourself. i hope you get this irate over war and the death penalty.

    • illyinphilly

      That’s fine you believe this. But, this is an opinion and based on any facts or scientific evidence. As a good christian I a, assuming you are against the death penalty and agree with programs to help single mothers and the poor. Since you mentioned the “playing god” I am also assuming you are against IVF and pretty much any scientific advancements that allow people to maintain their lives.