I came across this article yesterday on the Science 2.0 website, with a very honest title; “I confess: I don’t know when human life begins”. Paul Knoepfler, Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine, walks through all the stages of gestation and does, however, come up with his reasons for when life doesn’t begin. Before that, though, he goes through a list of three main authorities on when it begins; those with moral authority, doctors, and scientists. He argues that none of these folks have “the answer” that applies to everyone, but that seems to suggest that we get to define when life begins rather than life defining itself.
Religious commandments or cultural norms really don’t determine when life begins; they only generalize about when people should treat life as having begun. (He touches on that on his own blog.) That is not the same question as when life truly begins, but lacking that knowledge, we do need some sort of dividing line. He argues that science really doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, answer that question. At this point in our scientific knowledge, I tend to agree, especially since the question of what “life” actually is is still quite a mystery. Hence, we can only, at this point, decide when to treat life as having begun. Those aforementioned commandments and norms were instituted long before we knew what we now know about what’s going on in the reproductive cycle, and our new knowledge should inform our decisions, should it not?
In 1998 I wrote an essay, “Just One Question”, which gave my take on the topic, especially as it related to abortion. My personal opinion in that was that life begins at conception, and I set out my arguments for it. (This was the culmination of a debate, 5 years earlier, on a local computer bulletin board system; the internet before there was The Internet.) Some of my points here will come from that.
Knoepfler talks about 6 main possibilities when when life might start: “(1), before conception (yes, you read that right), (2) at conception, (3) at implantation, (4) when distinctively human, organized brain activity begins, (5) when the fetus can survive outside the womb, and (6) at birth. “
Option 1 refers to parthenogenesis; an egg dividing and growing on its own. This happens in other life forms, but does not naturally occur in humans. Therefore, since we’re questioning specifically human life, I don’t think this plays a part.
Option 2 is conception, where I come down on the issue. Knoepfler agrees that it is a nice, clear dividing line, and a step that must be taken before anything else can. But then he gets lost in his own analogy against this.
However, the case against conception is that a fertilized human egg is not by any stretch of the imagination an actual human being, at least not in my opinion. The fertilized egg, also known as a zygote, has the potential to make a human being, but often it does not. From my perspective, which of course may be wrong, a fertilized egg is very much like a seed. I really like this analogy. Let’s run with it.
OK, picture this in your mind–a small Sequoia seed that just fell out of a cone onto the forest floor in Yosemite. See it? That seed is not the same thing as a 2,000 year old Sequoia Tree, right?
Even if that seed has the potential to become that tree over a period of thousands of years by growing trillions of times in mass and developing leaves and other specialized structures, it does not mean that that seed is a tree.
As much as he really likes it, this is a bad analogy. No, the seed is not a tree any more than a zygote is an adult human being. However, both the seed and the tree are Sequoias — the same species — and both the zygote and the adult are human. He then makes his major point against conception as the dividing line using this bad analogy as the backdrop.
Key idea: Potential does not mean equality. A seed can become a tree, but a seed is not a tree. They are different. A fertilized human egg can become a human being, but that potential does not equate the fertilized egg with a human being. It has to survive, implant, grow trillions of times in mass, etc.
A fertilized human egg (his phrase) is already human. It is not a potential human. It is, however, a potential adult, and lots of things have to happen to realize that potential. But then, a lot of things have to happen for a 1-day-old baby to reach that potential as well, yet we still consider the baby a human life.
Conception is a clear dividing line. Before that point we have an egg and a sperm that, if properly cared for and nurtured, die in hours or days. After that point we have a fertilized egg that, if properly cared for and nurtured, can become an Associate Professor of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine.
Option 3, implantation, is a necessary step in the gestation cycle, but this is simply a change of location with access to nutrition. The cells have already been dividing and this just gives them the ability to divide faster. There is no clear dividing line regarding development.
Option 4, fetal brain activity, is another nebulous stage, and Knoepfler is unimpressed with it, as am I. He comes up with an argument against it that I was unaware of. Random electrical activity occurs quite early in the gestation, but nothing (that he’s seen) related to thought. A dish of human neurons can do that by themselves.
Option 5, when a fetus can survive outside the womb, is also a poor choice. Knoepfler notes that this is different for different fetuses, and I would add that it’s different based on what century you live in. Medical science keeps advancing and making once unviable babies healthy human adults. Still, viability is, in general, a made-up construct to muddy the waters. As I said in my essay:
The issue of viability, when looked at through the lens of this single important abortion question [is it a human life?], is revealed to be nothing but an artificial smoke screen used to make a black and white issue look gray. Something that is “viable” is simply something that can live. In most dictionaries, the additional requirement of living without artificial support is added only as a special instance for fetuses; a special instance that is obviously there solely due to the abortion situation. For every other use of the word, it simply means something that is able to live (a viable company, a viable candidate, etc.). Consider how viable would those researchers on the Antarctic continent be if not for their artificial support (heaters, shelter, etc.)? If something dies when you take it out of it’s natural habitat and place it in a hostile environment, that does not make it non-viable.
And finally option 6, birth, while a well-defined event, really is mostly a change of location rather than anything physically different in the baby. (I say this with regards to the question of life only. The birth, to the parents especially, is far, far more than just a change of location of the baby, speaking as one with 4 children.)
Of all these options, there is really only one that is a clear dividing line creating a fundamental change; conception. If “life” doesn’t really start at that point, then it is at least the point at which a significant corner is turned. Our knowledge of what life actually is may continue to grow, but at this point in time, with what we do know, conception is the unique, best option.
The application of this, of course, is partly political. Knoepfler ends with, “I personally think that everyone has to decide this question, one of the most important we can ponder, for themselves.” The problem with hand-waving away any potential issues associated with it as he does, is that groups like Planned Parenthood make millions convincing women that their babies aren’t life. The possibility that PP is killing human life is worth more than a bland, “Well, decide for yourself.” It’s a literal case of life and death. The problem is, groups like PP and their allies in government and science have introduce viability as some sort of actual distinction. Based on Knoepfler’s poll on the subject, it’s worked too well, unfortunately.
There are consequences — major consequences — to the answer to this question, and it should be a concern of science and government. As a culture, we need to wrestle with this question, but not eternally. We need to determine our collective answer to it at the present time, but be open to new knowledge in the future that changes it. For now, the dividing line is clear, but Big Abortion (if I may call it that) has a vested, monetary interest in keeping it blurry. This should not be the case where life itself is at stake.
Doug Payton blogs at Considerettes.