When does human life start?

Opinion by Adam Johnson
Nov. 29, 2012, 12:57 a.m.

The question above may be the most important human rights issue of our time. If we can agree that human life starts at conception, then abortions and in-vitro fertilization result in millions of deliberate human deaths per year.

Perhaps we can turn to science to guide us. Although many scientists – from physicians to geneticists to astrophysicists – may claim to have an answer, we should be primarily asking human embryologists. For decades, going back to before Roe v. Wade, virtually all human embryologists have maintained that human life starts at fertilization. To quote a couple textbooks: “fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed” (Human Embryology and Teratology) and “the time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual” (Patten’s Foundations of Embryology).

Let me attempt to summarize the argument. The fertilized egg is a new entity, different from the unfertilized egg in many ways, most notably in its genetic profile. This entity is a life form: It is a complex cell that divides, consumes oxygen from its environment, is subject to evolution and more. And this life is distinctly human, as it contains genetic material that differentiates it from other species.

Unfortunately, human embryologists do not have much political or financial clout when compared to in-vitro fertilization providers (who discard unused embryos), stem-cell researchers, and abortion providers. These latter groups represent thousands of scientists and billions of dollars, and they all have incentives to promote the idea human life as something not starting at conception.

This may mean defining the early stages of embryonic development as a “pre-embryo” or using metaphysical quandaries to question the working definition of life. Often these views are grounded in some science; it is scientific to note the observable similarities between human and fish embryos, for instance. These views, though, have often been discredited; returning to the fish/human comparison, subsequent research showed that it was based on flawed depictions of embryos produced in 1874. Many discredited theories, however, continue to play a role in basic science education, thus remaining entrenched in the broader public consciousness.

Of course, all of this is not to say that an embryo, though a human life, has a right to life. The Bill of Rights does not use the term “human life” but rather “person.” The common interpretation of “person” over the course of American history has changed, always becoming more inclusive. Why should it not include the unborn as well?

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act is a 2004 law passed in Congress that considers one guilty of a separate offense if one harms an “unborn child” in the act of a violent crime. Some say this distinction is only made to further prosecute criminals. Yet these criminals would not need to be further punished for their crime unless we actually thought that an embryo or fetus had some rights; if it were merely an unimportant clump of cells, what was the crime? Others argue that the extra prosecution is needed because the unborn child was generally wanted by the mother. But why should the unborn gain rights only when they are wanted?

Furthermore, many of the rights we grant to the early stages of human development – babies, for instance – are contingent on the fact that they become adults. It is considered child abuse to shake a baby, but imagine that no immediate harm were done and deleterious effects would only appear in the long run. If we view a baby’s life in that moment only, there is nothing wrong with shaking it. Yet this judgment is obviously absurd – we know that the baby will grow up, and it will be harmed. Potential matters. Would we let a pregnant woman unknowingly ingest a substance that would cause future brain damage to her fetus? Most of us would not, as we correctly realize that the fetus will one day benefit greatly from a functional brain. In most cases, the fetus will also one day benefit greatly from the act of living.

Just as saying that embryos are human lives does not mean you believe they are persons, granting embryos personhood does not mean you have to oppose a woman’s right to choose. The right to life is not absolute. If it were, how could we justify bloody wars? How could we let someone die for want of a kidney? Other rights, then, are just as important. So while perhaps my argument might fall on deaf ears in the pro-choice crowd, it should not. Human embryologists agree that human life starts at conception, and logical reasoning makes a strong claim to grant this human life certain rights.

Have any questions about Adam’s life? Email him at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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