Challenge Response: No Scientific Consensus on When Human Life Begins

Here's my response to this week's challenge:


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This week’s challenge comes from an article which is part of the Pro-Choice Action Network’s website where they refute “some common misconceptions about abortion.” The first misconception they address is that human life begins at conception. 

“There is no scientific consensus as to when human life begins. It is a matter of philosophical opinion or religious belief. Human life is a continuum. Sperm and eggs are also alive and represent potential human beings, but virtually all sperm and eggs are wasted. Also, two thirds of human conceptions are spontaneously aborted by nature.”

There are a number of scientific mistakes that are made in this article. This question has nothing to do with philosophical opinion or religious belief. It has to do with the facts of the matter. On the fact the matter, this article gets a lot of these facts wrong. 

First, let me make an observation. If it’s really the case that no one knows when life begins, this actually turns out to be a better case for the pro-life position, not a case for the pro-choice position. In March 2000, the NFL and baseball stadium known as the Seattle King Dome was demolished. The demolition team put on about 4,500 sticks of dynamite and blew up the entire thing. Before the demolition team could push that little lever to demolish the whole Seattle King Dome, they asked a question: Is there anyone still inside that stadium? 

Here’s a conversation that did not transpire. Somebody didn’t say, “Well, nobody knows if someone is still inside the stadium, so let’s just go ahead and blow it up anyways.” The reason is because if nobody knows whether there are still any people inside the stadium, you can’t go ahead and blow it up because you might end up killing innocent human beings.

In the same way, if it’s really true that no one knows when life begins, then we shouldn’t make abortion legal and should not permit it to remain legal. If we allow abortion, it might end up killing innocent human beings. This is why if it’s really the case that no one knows when life begins, this is actually a better case for the pro-life position because we should err on the side of caution and not allow for abortion to occur just in case we’re killing human beings.

The second point that the science of embryology makes is that the unborn is a unique individual, not merely part of the mother’s body. There are a number of reasons why we know this is the case because the unborn and the mother differ in significant ways. The unborn is going to have a different brain, a different central nervous system, a different heart, different blood type, and possibly a different gender. Furthermore, the unborn can be conceived outside of the mother’s body in a science lab and then later placed inside of the mother’s body at some point in the future which is further evidence the unborn is not merely part of her body. You could even have an African-American child growing in the womb of a Swedish mother. Just imagine that, and you can clearly see that we’re talking about two different persons.

The third point the science of embryology makes about the nature of the unborn is that the unborn is a human type of being not a potential human and not some other kind of animal or species. We can know the unborn is a human type of being because if you were to do a DNA test at the moment of conception, it would say decisively that it is a human type of being.

Of course, most of us don’t have access to any kind of a test that can look at a newly formed human being after the moment of conception to determine whether it’s a human being. But, there is another way we can figure this out. It’s known as the law biogenesis. It states that species reproduce after their own kind. In other words, if you have two dogs that come together and mate, they’re going to produce another dog. Two lions that come together and mate are going to produce another lion. So when my wife and I were pregnant, we may have wondered whether we were going to have a boy or a girl, but we didn’t wonder whether we were going to have a human or not because we’re both humans. When my wife and I were pregnant with our second child who turned out to also be a human, we weren’t surprised that we had two humans in a row. We're both humans, so we know the unborn we have after us will also be human. 

The issue of the law of biogenesis produces a very handy test if you want to know what kind of being the unborn is, all you have to do is ask what are its parents. If its parents are human, there’s no way the unborn will not be human. You can’t have two humans come together to produce something that is not human but later becomes one. That would violate everything we know about science and embryology.

The science of embryology speaks decisively to these three points: the unborn is a living being, the unborn is a unique individual being, and the unborn is a human type of being. Based on those three scientific principles or ideas we can come to conclude that the unborn is a human being from the moment of conception. There’s no question about this. It is decisive.

It turns out that standard embryology textbooks confirm what we’ve just pointed out. For example, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects the sixth edition, which is the most current edition, says this: 

“The zygote, formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being.”

To site another standard embryology textbook Human Embryology and Teratology the third edition, which is also the most recent edition, says, “A new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pro nuclei blend in the oocyte.”

Even David Boonan, who is one of the top defenders of abortion in our country, in his book A Defense for Abortion says this, “A human fetus is, after all, simply a human being at a very early stage of his or her development.” 

Even Peter Singer who’s perhaps one of the most devout abortion defenders says that not only is abortion permissible, but it’s even permissible to kill disabled newborn infants for up to four weeks after they’re born. Even he says, “There is no doubt that from the first moment in its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and egg is a human being.”

There is no reason to think that we don’t know when life begins. This isn’t some question that can’t be answered. We do know when life begins. Life begins at conception. 

Let me add one final comment regarding how sperm and egg are also somehow human beings, they are not. Sperm and egg are different than a human zygote. Human zygote is simply a human being at the first stage of development. So, right after conception you have a human zygote. Sperm and egg are categorically different than a human zygote. Sperm and egg are simply parts of an organism like your skin cells, heart cells or bone cells. A zygote is a complete human organism. A sperm and egg both have 23 chromosomes while a zygote has 46. A sperm and egg have a genetic signature similar to the host, whereas the sperm has a genetic signature similar to the man and the egg has a genetic signature similar to the woman. A human zygote has a completely unique genetic signature from the mother and father. Finally, a sperm and egg have met their full potential. Left on their own they will never become more than sperm and egg. The human zygote left on his own will become a human child and so on and so forth. While human sperm and human egg are parts of a full human being, a human zygote is a full human being. 

The bottom line is this: it’s not the case that we don’t know when human life begins, we do. This is a scientific question, not a philosophical or religious question. Human life begins not with sperm and egg, but when sperm and egg come to meet at conception. That is when you have a new human being. That’s just basic science.

Alan Shlemon