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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  • 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

  • R

    I have had two abortions and I am not a nasty person or a murderer or a child killer! I am sick and tired of reading comments from people who have NEVER been in that situation.
    Yes there are girls who have sex and have an abortion straightaway because they don’t want the child, this is wrong if they have lots as they should begin to use contraception, but not everyone who has ha an abortion is selfish or anything most pro lifers say!
    I was 17 on my first. I was on the pill and my then bf was 17. We had no way we could raise a child. He was from a strict catholic family and couldn’t tell them so even though we both would never imagine having to abort a pregnancy but ultimately that’s what happened. I was about six weeks. We felt sad after and never spoke of it again.
    My second was a few months ago I’m now 22. I had been with my bf two months when we found out. Our relationship was rows. We were having a huge row when we found out. We were both planning to break up before we knew. We both have always wanted to be parents, so we put our differences aside and tried harder. We told our parents and work too. Eventually a fter worse rows we broke up. It was stress everyday. We worked together in a call centre and it was awful. We both tried but it felt like it was over. We came to that hard decision and went together. I was 8 weeks then. I wasn’t sure I wanted to abort but everyone was saying to me it wouldn’t be fair bringing a baby into that and how I couldn’t change my mind to abort later. Seeing as I was only 8 weeks I thought it was for the best. The pain I felt. The crying in the clinic. The way I was pretty much pulled about to have my legs in stirrups. Your not spoke to in these clinics your made to feel like you shouldn’t speak.
    That was the first week of August and here I am still googling what I’ve done everyday. We are back together but we feel an emptiness. I would change it if I could but I cant. So its good to believe that a child born into how we were then would be completely different to a child we would bring in next year or so. Someone’s personality and being is a result of the society and background they’ve been bought up around and the stuff they have been through or seen in life.

    Do I believe life starts at conception? No. An embryo in the first trimestar is no more alive than the sperm it once was. Yes it has a heartbeat but that’s because it is connected to the mothers. Soon as the mothers stops, that heartbeat would not carry on inside. If I chose to starve myself whilst pregnant I would most definately miscarry through the embryo not being able to grow where its dependant on me so it would be rejected out my body the same way an unfertilised egg would. Women miscarry naturally at anytime in the trimesters just because for whatever reason the embryo or fetus didn’t make it to term.

    On biblical views, it says in the bible “and God breathed in his nostrils the spirit of life and man was a living being”. Something like that. Also it says in the bible if a pregnant woman is caused to miscarry the man will be fined. If the women is injured then something else. But basically the fetus is not considered a life.

    On pro lifers who say all life is sacred
    Yes I believe so too but there are different types. When you bleach your toilet it “kills bacteria” bacteria is alive and multiplies. Do you also eat meat? Because that was once alive, walking around with a family. And you eat your food at home whilst claiming how pro life you are.

    Is abortion always ok?
    I don’t mean to contradict myself but I personally wouldn’t have a termination over 8 weeks purely for my own reasons of you should know in that time whether its right or wrong to have a baby. I also couldn’t stand the thought of a late term fetus being removed from me that far in. It seems unnessacary.

    Speaking from experience
    You can not tarnish everyone who has had a termination with the same brush. I never in a million years believed I would have one let alone two. I love children and would love to be a mother. But I will not bing a baby into an unstable home being made to have there own issues once they’re older. I was not carrying a baby I was carrying an embryo which would develop in 30odd more weeks into one. 9 months is a long time. If it was a baby at the start you wouldn’t have to carry for 9 months and follow the rules like the healthy diet and no drinking and smoking.

    I have wrote a lot but I am tired of being made to feel judged and like a murderer. I feel bad because I stopped a potential life forming, but I never killed a life.

  • Delfin J Beltran MD

    On January 1, 1968 I began my position of Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Stanford University, Stanford, California. My MD was awarded at Madison, Wisconsin, June, 1953 from the University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine. On July 1, 1956 I started training in Anesthesiology at the VAC, Wood Wisconsin. The first day of training ended with a meeting of the new Resident Physicians under the direction of Sherwood Gorens, MD. During the meeting Woody asked if anyone would like to join Dr. Deward Lepley in the Dog Lab to learn the new (April, 1956) techniques of cardio-pulmonary ByPass that would permit open heart repair of cardiac disease. As the only volunteer to that program I joined Dirk Lepley as Cardiac Surgeon and Ace Adams as pump-oxygenator technician. Dirk had just completed his training in thoracic surgery in the Marquette Medical School Program at Wood VAC,Wisconsin. Six months later Dr. Lepley went to Minneapolis, MN to spend a year with Walt Lillehei who had been the first surgeon to successfully support a human on CPB in order to repair a funcitional cardiac abnormality.One year later Dr. Lepley returned to Milwaukee, St. Luke’s Hospital to initiate the new program in open-heart -surgery. I served as the main anesthesiologist in support of that first program. Within the next year the team and St.Luke’s realized the need to establish the first Intensive Care Unit for support of the post cardiac surgery patients and others requiring that intense level of life support facility. This was accomplished under the direction of Mert Knisely, Administrator; Gordon Sprenger, Asst. Hospital Administrator and the Architectural firm of ______________ of Minneapolis MN. Upon completion of the unit we had six beds available for Intensive life support proceedures, including the newly developed monitors and ventilators. Because of the prolonged periods of time away from my home and family I sought to change location and work responsibilities that led to the 1968 move to Stanford which had developed a larger staff of concerned physicians and nursed in this field but had not developed a formal ICU program. Dr. Norman Shumway had developed the concept of human heart transplantation and was prepared to proceed with the first such procedure. As the Medical Director of the Stanford ICU I found the need to define the appropriate clinical test to determine the newly conceived diagnosis of ‘ Brain Death’ that would permit the removal of a beating heart from the ” Brain-Dead” donor human for optimal preservation of the heart to be transplanted into the recipient human in need of a ‘ new heart’ to continue life., Using the physiologic knowledge associated with the practice of my specialty, I was Board Certified in Anesthesiology, I conceived of such a test that could determine that the respiratory centers of the brain were no longer functionally alive and thus the patient being sustained with a beating heart was in all reality, Brain-Dead. The test consisted of measuring arterial blood gases before and after the test to assure that adequate oxygenation needs for life were met, but that the ability to stimulate ventilation and respiration of normal carbon dioxide stimulus to these essential physiologic function no longer existed, thus brain control of life had ceased and that human individual was no longer capable of enjoying independent life functioning and was in fact ” Brain-Dead’. The test situation as to disconnect the artificially ventilated subject from ventilator support and connect the endotracheal tube to the lungs to a bag of 100% oxygen, before which a sample of arterial blood was withdrawn from the patient anaerobically and forward to the gas lab for analysis of oxygen and carbon dioxide partial pressures. After a period of apneic oxygenation, the patient was reconnected to the artificial ventilation and before which the second arterial blood sample was withdrawn and submitted to the gas lab for analysis. During the period of apneic oxygenation the ” Educated Hand’ of the anesthesiologist ;maintained contact with the oxygen filled resuscitation anesthesia bag to determine if any evidence of spontaneous resumption of patient ventilation occurred. The determination of Brain Death could be diagnosed if the no spontaneous ventilator effort was made during the period of apneic oxygenation that maintained normal oxygen levels while the carbon dioxide normal stimulus to ventilation failed to produce any spontaneous ventilatory efforts in response to the normal physiologic levels of carbon dioxide identified in the arterial blood samples withdrawn from the patient before and following the test period of apneic oxygenation as the carbon dioxide levels rose from below normal, through normal and into toxic levels without producing a living physiologic response to those normal stimulatory levels. The medical conclusion of these tests was that the patient was no longer able to sustain independent life and was therefore ” Brain Dead” Based upon my Fifty years experience in the field of cardio-vascular anesthesiology and ICU direction it is my medical opinion that the concept that life begins at conception, human sperm entering the cellular membrane of the ovum completes the genetic formation of a new human life and just just as the ovum cell membrane no longer permits the entry of additional genetic material into the fertilized ovum the conceptus must be considered to be a new human life form with all the rights of individuality that are conferred by human knowledge, morality and ethic to all human life. Thus the post-conception interruption of the normally developing individual must bear the identical respect and responsibilities due to any other human individual until a definitive medical test of that humans physiologic integrity can be determined to no longer exist. Delfin J Beltran, MD