When does Human Life Begin?

A very good article on when embriologists define the beginings of human life can be found in the January edition of First Things Magazine. In his article Embryology: Inconvenient Facts, William L. Saunders, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Human Life and Bioethics in Washington D.C. writes:
"Every human being begins as a single-cell zygote, grows through the embryonic stage, then the fetal stage, is born and develops through infancy, through childhood, and through adulthood, until death. Each human being is genetically the same human being at every stage, despite changes in his or her appearance.

Embryologists are united on this point. Consider the following statements from standard textbooks: “Human development begins at fertilization.... This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual” (Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud); “Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote).... The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual” (Bruce M. Carlson); “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.... The embryo now exists as a genetic unity” (Ronan O’Rahilly and Faiola Muller)."

Saunders goes on to explain why many have sought to change the definition of when human life begins by quoting from some of advocates of embrionic stem cell research, as well as defenders of abortion:
"These are the facts, which we can either affirm or deny. Unfortunately, the denial of inconvenient facts has become quite common during the past several decades. Consider, for example, an editorial published in the September 1970 issue of California Medicine, which was then the journal of the California Medical Association. The editorial invited the Association’s members to play a new game called “semantic gymnastics.” The first rule of the game was the “avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death.” The goal was to replace “the traditional Western ethic” respecting “the intrinsic worth and equal value of every human life regardless of its state or condition” with “a new ethic for medicine and society” in order “to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing.”

...For what public policy reasons was the term “pre-embryo” invented? Princeton biology professor Lee Silver, a noted advocate of all the new biotechnologies, supplies the answer in his Remaking Eden (1997):

* I’ll let you in on a secret. The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly by IVF practitioners for reasons that are political, not scientific. The new term is used to provide the illusion that there is something profoundly different between a six-day-old embryo and a sixteen-day-old embryo. The term is useful in the political arena—where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo experimentation—as well as in the confines of a doctor’s office where it can be used to allay moral concerns that might be expressed by IVF patients.

The debate over the ethics of abortion, cloning, IVF, and embrionic stem cell research requires that we understand what we mean by human life, and especially when it begins. The argument over "personhood" is a diversion, or red herring, intent on introducing dualism into the discussion, and thereby to short circuit any recognition of the fact that we are actually talking about human beings. This is especially important to keep in mind as the debate on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research (am I the only person to note that the media never uses this distinction, and always refers to it as simply "stem cell research" as if they are synonimous terms?). My experience has taught me that people even from the side opposed to such research often accept as a premise that it is a matter of religious faith and belief alone that accepts that human life begins at conception. But the science is, as we have seen above, very clear on this matter: human life begins at conception. So when we are talking about destroying that life, we are, in reality, talking about the killing of human beings. To deny this fact is to argue not with religious beliefs, but, rather, with science itself, and this strikes me as very ironic, since most of the proponents of embrionic stem cell research do so from the point of view of "advancing the cause of science."

Needless, to say, science cannot be divorced from ethics, or we end up in a very dangerous place in very short order.



Anonymous said…
I know very few pro-abortionists who argue that human life does not begin at conception. Rather, the most intelligent ones argue that yes, you are "killing" a human being, but that doesn't matter because an early embryo/fetus is a human being but not a person.

This argument is far from a red herring. 'Person' carries very different connotations from 'member of the human species'. Pro-abortionists often argue that the latter has no moral significance on its own. Whether they're right is another question altogether, but you cannot dismiss the argument as a mere diversion.

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