When Life Begins and Why It Matters

Part of the strategy of abortion advocates is to cloud the starting point of life so that the act of abortion is seen as inconsequential as removing a wart. Before the routine use of prenatal ultrasounds it was easy to say abortion was just getting rid of a “clump of cells” or a “blob of tissue”. Now that ultrasound technology has given us a window into the womb those terms seem ludicrous. A mere clump or blob does not have a beating heart and fingers and toes.

But what about earlier in gestation when the nascent being is hidden from the ultrasound? Is there life?

In the recently-argued Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the government asserted that birth control methods which interfere with implantation shouldn’t be considered abortifacients or abortion-inducing drugs. Although conception takes place a full week prior to implantation, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines pregnancy as beginning with the embryo’s implantation into the uterine lining; prior to successful implantation, the government claimed, there’s no pregnancy to be aborted.

The response from the plaintiffs was to show a stack of textbooks from prestigious universities around the United States. Each of these texts clearly stated that life begins at conception. Who is right?

Why Life Begins at Conception

From a scientific perspective, there is no question that life begins at conception. It is inaccurate to call the result a “fertilized egg” which makes it sound like fertilization just enhances the female gamete. The sperm and the ova join at fertilization and then cease to exist. The entity existing after fertilization is something completely new, a zygote.

The zygote meets all scientific criteria that define life. It has metabolism characterized by a series of chemical reactions that both build and break down substances to further the zygote’s growth and development. The zygote is responsive to changes occurring within its cell membrane as well as in the external environment. There is purposeful movement of the whole zygote as well as of its internal organelles, specialized structures inside the cell. There is both growth and differentiation as the zygote divides into more cells and these cells specialize to perform critical functions. This development includes the formation of cells that will one day allow the reproduction of the new life formed at fertilization.

It is important to note that this growth and differentiation is wholly directed by the unique DNA that is completely present in the single-celled zygote. The mother provides an environment conducive to this growth but her DNA does not control it. Clearly, from the formation of the first cell at fertilization, the resulting being is alive. The DNA is human DNA so this life is human life.

The Moving Target

What various abortion advocates try to say is that life does not merit recognition until it crosses some arbitrary threshold. Defining pregnancy as beginning with implantation cannot change the scientific fact that prior to implantation, a human life exists from the moment of conception.

Viability outside the womb, the standard advocated by the majority in Roe v. Wade, is a moving target, since medical technology is constantly moving that milestone to earlier and earlier stages of development. Neurological level of development, another proposed benchmark for characterizing human life, is an artificial construct, with no basis in the biological understanding of what constitutes a living being. Therefore, defining the beginning of life as any point other than conception is a denial of scientific reality.

Some abortion advocates will concede that life begins at conception, but will then argue that life has no standing until it meets some milestone of development. They deny “personhood” to this immature life. The problem with this approach is that it denies the existence of intrinsic human dignity.

ACOG does not recognize life’s existence until implantation, and does not afford any life a right to exist until after birth. Other abortion advocates will draw arbitrary lines throughout gestation, based on nothing more than their own visceral response to destroying life at various levels of maturity. For some, the presence of a heartbeat will be enough to declare the fetus too developed to destroy. For others, even passage through the birth canal is not enough to establish a right to life. Until the mother accepts the child as her own, the child’s life is disposable.

The Danger to Human Dignity

This lack of objectivity is dangerous because it makes human dignity an acquired trait granted by others. If a right to life is granted, it can also be taken away. The supporters for physician assisted suicide and euthanasia use the same logic as abortion advocates. They choose arbitrary levels of cognitive function or perceptions of the quality and utility of life to define the protection and moral standing offered to others. As Pope Francis repeatedly reminds us, we have developed a “throw-away culture” that includes throwing away human lives that we find inconvenient or burdensome.

Human life begins at conception. This is not revealed religious dogma that can be rejected by non-believers. This is a scientific fact.

Failure to safeguard this life says that some human life is valued more than others. However, once we start capriciously declaring some lives are not big enough, smart enough, old enough, or even just wanted enough to be worthy of protection, all human life becomes vulnerable. The weak and marginalized become subject to the whims of the strong and powerful. Building a culture of life requires consistent ethics that hold all human life, no matter the stage of development, cognitive capacity, or physical capabilities, as intrinsically dignified and of inestimable worth.