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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