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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  • https://twitter.com/TheWrightWingv2 JWright

    So, if the human at the fetal stage of life is not alive, why does it grow and develop?

  • James Dwyer

    My position on ‘when life begins’ is it begins when the embryo attaches itself to the embryonic wall and gestation begins and ergo ‘life begins’.In the past the Roman Catholic Magisterium’s position had no fixed position on the embryo as to whether same was life.The Magisterium called same “pre-life”.Life is life.There is no such thing as ‘pre-life’.

  • Pingback: Rhetorical Speech Proposal: Women’s Reproductive Rights & Healthcare | hannahtoolson()

  • guest

    A woman’s womb never stops being hers regardless of what state her womb is in, there’s no debate there. What a woman chooses to do with its contents is her business alone. All the debate about what a fetus is is pointless in light of this fact.

    • myintx

      The body of an unborn child never stops being his or hers. That body should be protected from a selfish woman who would kill in the name of “my body”.

  • Selkie

    It is self evident fact that a woman’s body belongs to her at all stages of her life, she therefore reserves the right to make choices for her body, up to and including abortion. This is indisputable fact.

    People calling a woman’s choice to abort a fetus murder, are stating personal beliefs, beliefs are NOT facts. A woman choosing an abortion is making a very private and personal choice and it’s no ones business but hers.

    • myintx

      No, it’s not indisputable fact…. Post viability abortion laws disprove you right off the bat. They can tell a woman what she can and cannot do to ‘her body’.. Oh, and by the way, it’s not ‘her body’ killed in the abortion – you do know that right?

      The FACT is that abortion kills a human being.

      Not all “private and personal choices” are legal or right – e.g. the “private and personal choice” to kill an unborn child after viability (in most states), to kill a newborn that survived a botched abortion, to rip the limbs off a puppy, etc.

      We CAN make laws based on our beliefs. Most people BELIEVE its wrong to kill an unborn child after viability, so most states have laws protecting them. Most people believe ripping the limbs off of puppies is wrong, so states have animal cruelty laws. Those laws are called Malum in Se laws. Polls show most people want unborn children protected after 20 weeks. We should be able to have laws to protect them.

      • Selkie

        Some states have restrictions on late term abortion but this is not nationwide, nor is there any general consensus on that topic. You digress using animals to argue against women’s reproductive rights, stick to the issue.

        How exactly is a woman’s womb not part of her body? Is her womb any LESS part of her body simply b/c a fetus is present in it? Your opinion does not trump biological fact. When people say a fetus should have rights over a woman, they are in fact denying women their rights.

        Calling abortion “murder” or “killing”, completely disregards the factual definition of all three words. The meaning of words doesn’t change for your personal beliefs. Your “facts” about fetuses are not actually facts, they are beliefs and opinions. Science and medicine do not concur with your personal belief system, which is why abortion is deemed a legitimate medical procedure.

        • myintx

          MOST states have restrictions on late term abortion and about 80% of people want abortion restricted in the third trimester (gallup poll). I would call that consensus.

          Inside a pregnant woman’s womb resides ANOTHER HUMAN BEING. That human being should have his or her own basic right to life. I never said an unborn child should have rights over a woman, but he or she should have the SAME rights as every other innocent human being. Just as a woman with an unwanted newborn cannot use “right to happiness” as a reason to kill or abandon her newborn (because the newborn has a “right to life”) a woman should not be able to use “right to happiness” as an excuse to kill an unborn child.

          It IS a fact that an unborn child is alive.
          It IS a fact that abortion kills an unborn child

          The fact that abortion is legal doesnt have anything to do with whether an unborn child is alive or a human being. It has to do with the Supreme Court falling for a LIE (Roe was never raped) and misinterpreting the Constitution.

          • Dirg3

            Misinterpreting the Constitution?

            You know ZIP about the Constitution. Show me where in the Constitution the government is granted the authority to compel childbearing or childbirth?

            As stated in the Constitution, the government cannot deprive anyone of their life, liberty or property without due process of law. Your attempts to “protect” what’s inside a woman’s body cannot be done without first stripping said woman of her rights to life, liberty and property, i.e. her unalienable human rights.

            Women and their wombs do not become the property of others to quibble over once pregnant. Unlike fetuses that have no consciousness whatsoever, born people have rights. If a pregnant woman no longer wants to be pregnant, it’s none of your damn business.

          • myintx

            Show me where in the Constitution it even hints that it’s a-ok to stab a needle in the skull of an unborn child or tear the arms and legs off an unborn child. It doesn’t hint in the Constitution that it’s OK to rip the limbs off a puppy and some evil man might think that not being able to do that is denying him of a ‘right to happiness’.

            All HUMANS should have rights. An unborn child is most certainly a human being. We don’t let women wake up one morning, cry “Slavery!” and use that as an excuse to walk out of her house and leave her newborn to die. OH NO. She might be FORCED to do something against her will – e.g. call 911 and (gasp) WAIT however long it takes for them to get there and get the baby. Is that ‘depriving’ a woman of her life or liberty? NO, it’s PROTECTING another human being.

            We can protect unborn children after viability. The word ‘viability’ is never mentioned in the Constitution. We can protect, puppies and kittens too. We should be able to protect unborn children before viability.

          • Selkie

            Medically, legally and scientifically, there is no general consensus on whether or not a fetus is human.

            Once a fetus is born it inarguably becomes human with full human rights. Attempts to classify “what a fetus is” BEFORE it is born, have been mere conjecture. A fetus is biologically alive, yes, but saying it’s “human” or that voluntary abortion is “murder”, does not align with medical, legal or scientific fact due to clear lack of consensus in those groups. Medically, scientifically and legally, a fetus only ceases to be fetus once it’s outside the womb – thus referring to it as anything else is not factual, it’s opinion.

            Good laws, science and medicine that serve all, does its utmost to be impartial and unbiased. Topics like these are often approached with some form of bias, be it religious or what have you. And so the dialogues go in circles, objective facts go neglected and unacknowledged when they do not fit into a personal, partial, subjective world view – subjects like these are far too complex to be fully understood from such a narrow aperture.

          • myintx

            You were in your mothers womb – you were the SAME BEING – just in a different stage of development. Like you were when you were a newborn too – same being, just in a different stage of development. LOGIC and COMMON SENSE would tell you that if you were a human being one second after birth, you were one one second before birth, and one second before that, etc – all the way back to when you were created (fertilization.

            A teenager ceases to be a teenager when they reach 13 – we don’t say it’s ok to kill a child because they haven’t become a teenager. A child and a teenager are both HUMAN BEINGS. So are toddlers, newborns AND unborn children. Humans should have basic human rights – i.e a right to life.

  • logicool

    Life incontrovertibly begins with fertilization. If the egg and the sperm are human, then the zygote (diploid; first embryonic cell) must be human. Thus, human life begins at fertilization of human sperm to human egg.

  • heatherGirl

    “……If the preimplantation embryo is left or maintained outside the uterus, it cannot develop into a human being……”

    This seems an odd criteria, seeing that outside the uterus is not were most embryo are! This criteria, I think, could be used to justify the destruction of embryo’s created in the lab, but to use it as a criteria for the process of normal human reproduction is silly. Using this a criteria for when life begins is stupid. A newborn baby left to itself will also not survive, does this mean it is also not human life? A two year old left alone probably would not survive either!

    That being said, I do think there is a difference between an embryo and a human being, even if both are “alive”. A good description of this is the idea of “life in the general sense” and “life in the specific sense” that I read about in a book on reproductive science….. living human cells such as an early embryo being human life, but in a general sense…… versus those same cells in a configuration complex enough to develop consciousness and self awareness, human life in the specific sense.

    Given the newly developed cloning technology, one could argue that any living human cell is now a “potential human being”…… but no one would argue that a hangnail or surgically removed tonsils now has the rights of personhood! So I would argue that we need to settle on a stage of fetal development that we agree grants the fetus consciousness and some level of awareness.

    Life beginning at conception is to simplistic……. but to suggest as a representative of planned parenthood has, that life beings when the baby is delivered is the opposite extreme!

  • Ella

    abbortion, is, needed in some cses, for the health of the mother, but I do wish they will block it unless it is really needed and the circumestances are dangerous. After all, an embryo is, “life”.

  • Pingback: The English Hub | Pro-Choice VS. Pro-Life()

  • R

    The quote I referred to

    • R


      • R