Life’s Beginning

When Does Life Begin?

The news is often flooded with tragic stories of human beings being killed — from shootings to terrorist attacks — and there is an almost universal consensus that to kill innocent people is wrong.

However, is it the victims’ ages that makes the attacks wrong, or is it their humanity?

Clearly, whether a person is 50 years old, 18, or two is not what makes killing wrong. What matters is that the victim is human. Identifying the moment an individual person’s life begins also pinpoints when her human rights begin.

Science teaches us that a new human being begins at the moment of sperm-egg fusion, otherwise known as fertilization.[1] Sperm and egg, by themselves, only contain half the genetic material needed to form a human being.  When these cells fuse, however, a new individual who is genetically distinct from both parents comes into existence.  There is a wealth of testimony from medical texts which backs this up. [2]

Consider those who create life: whether a human being is created inside a lab via in vitro fertilization, or whether someone breeds horses on a farm, a female’s egg fertilized by the male’s sperm is required to create offspring.  Once fertilization occurs, a new organism of the same species as its parents is formed.

Since life begins at fertilization, an individual grows and develops between the moment of fertilization throughout adulthood. For example, prior to birth, a human being’s reproductive organs develop (in fact, female preborn children have early reproductive cells in their ovaries by 9 weeks post fertilization, or 11 weeks from a pregnant woman’s last menstrual period [3]).  After birth, the person’s reproductive organs continue to develop.  Although the individual is less developed at birth compared to adulthood, development does not determine a person’s humanity.

Consider for a moment, if life doesn’t begin at fertilization. The following are the alternatives:

  • Implantation — but that’s just a change in location from fallopian tube to uterus.
  • Heartbeat or brainwaves — but those are just developmental milestones.
  • Pain sensation —but that’s another stage in development (which might never occur, such as for those with congenital insensitivity to pain [4]).
  • Consciousness — but that’s also a stage of development which can even change after birth (while sleeping, being in a coma, or under anesthetic).
  • Birth — but that’s just a change in location.

Life Begins at Conception

In short, a human life begins at fertilization.  After fertilization, a human being continues to develop.  Since “human rights” are grounded in being human[5]—not in a person’s age, level of development, or location — human embryos and fetuses have the same inalienable and universal right to life as human infants, toddlers, teenagers, and adults.

“But what about personhood?” some might ask. “If the embryo isn’t conscious, rational, or self-aware, doesn’t that mean it’s not a person?”

First, the right to life is grounded in the biological category of “human,” not in the legal or philosophical label of “person” (that’s why they’re called “human rights” and not “person rights”).

Second, humanity has an ugly history of defining the term “person” so as to exclude certain groups of humans.  If it’s wrong to deprive women, Black people, and Jews of their personhood based on the criteria of sex, skin color, and ethnicity/religion, it is also wrong to deprive the preborn of their personhood based on the criterion of age.

Third, the history of defining personhood based on features only some humans have explains why the UN has stipulated, in Article 6 [6] of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which was adopted shortly after the Holocaust), that human beings should automatically be considered persons. Therefore, since the preborn are humans, they ought to be labeled as persons.

Since all humans have the fundamental right to life, since the preborn are human, and since humans are persons, it is evident that abortion would always be wrong.

“But what about the hard cases?” some might ask. “What about rape, or if the woman’s life is in danger, or if there’s a poor prenatal diagnosis? Wouldn’t these be good exceptions that justify abortion?”

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[1] See medical textbooks such as “The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th Edition” by Keith L. Moore and “Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th Edition” by T. W. Sadler.
[2] Ibid.
[5] Human Rights
[6] Human Rights