Biologists Overwhelmingly Agree That Human Life Begins at Fertilization

In an article titled “I Asked Thousands of Biologists When Life Begins. The Answer Wasn’t Popular,” Steve Jacobs summarizes research he did for his dissertation on the abortion debate:

I surveyed thousands of Americans using Amazon’s MTurk service. I found that most Americans believe that the question of “when life begins” is an important aspect of the U.S. abortion debate (82%); that most believe Americans deserve to know when a human’s life begins in order to give informed consent to abortion procedures (76%); and that most Americans believe a human’s life is worthy of legal protection once it begins (93%). Respondents also were asked: “Which group is most qualified to answer the question, ‘When does a human’s life begin?’” They were presented with several options—biologists, philosophers, religious leaders, Supreme Court Justices and voters. Eighty percent selected biologists, and the majority explained that they chose biologists because they view them as objective experts in the study of life.

This is good news, and it surprised me. If Americans care about when human life begins, and 93% think every human being—even the youngest—is worthy of legal protection, and they will trust the expertise of biologists, then this is good news for protecting unborn human life. (This is assuming, of course, that when confronted with the facts from biologists, these same people would stick to their responses and turn against abortion. I’d like to think that would happen, but I don’t think we can assume that. We human beings have a way of justifying what we want—if not in one way, then in another.)

Next, Jacobs “emailed surveys to professors in the biology departments of over 1,000 institutions around the world,” and the results weren’t even close:

As the usable responses began to came in, I found that 5,337 biologists (96%) affirmed that a human’s life begins at fertilization, with 240 (4%) rejecting that view. The majority of the sample identified as liberal (89%), pro-choice (85%) and non-religious (63%). In the case of Americans who expressed party preference, the majority identified as Democrats (92%).

Interestingly, the biologists were open about this until they were told the study was being undertaken to inform the debate over abortion, at which time, Jacobs reports, he started receiving hostile responses. He proposed three possible reasons for their objecting to the study:

  • Motivated Reasoning: Respondents experience cognitive dissonance when they recognize that their view of a fetus as a human complicates their political convictions in regard to abortion policy.
  • Cultural Cognition: Respondents fear that public recognition of the scientific views they are expressing could lead to other people supporting abortion restrictions.
  • Identity-Protective Cognition: Respondents fear that expressing their views may serve to estrange them from pro-choice liberals, on whom they might rely for social, emotional, or financial support.

My guess is that the second reason was likely the biggest one on the minds of biologists, who probably fear that if the public hears there is an unequivocal beginning to human life, then care for the lives of unborn human beings might outweigh care for the desires of the mothers, and these biologists want to make sure the mothers will be taken into consideration.

But it makes no sense for them to try to keep people from connecting the dots between the biological facts and the abortion debate. The debate over abortion would be much better served if we all started from a place of truth. Human life begins at fertilization. That’s simply a scientific fact of reality. Let’s just all be honest about that and then move the debate on from there.

These biologists, though they knew the truth, were seemingly angry that this truth about human life might cause people to give greater consideration to the human rights of the unborn, but this is precisely where the debate needs to happen. The pro-choice side needs to openly offer arguments as to why we should think the claims of the mother (career, money, convenience, family size, the child’s sex and abilities, etc.) carry more weight than the claims of the unborn child (i.e., life). Some already are making these arguments, of course, but I think a good portion of the public is not aware of the fact that the starting point of human life is really not controversial among biologists at all. What’s controversial is the question of whether or not every human being is valuable and has a right to life. The debate is over which—if any—of a mother’s interests justify ending the life of another human being—her child—in order to secure those interests.

Why can’t we all just be open and honest about that?

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Amy K. Hall