When Does Life Begin?

My friend Tom responded to my post “Should Abortion be Legal?” with this question, “Where is the law that says that fetuses are humans?”  He was referring to the Roe V. Wade decision and Supreme Court justice Harry Blackman’s ruling.  Blackman said we don’t know when life begins and so therefore, we cannot outlaw abortion.  Here is a well written response by Michael Spencer of Life Training Institute called “Dazed and Confused[1].”

Many abortion-choice advocates would like us to believe that “no one knows when human life begins” and that there’s no consensus on the matter. The inference is obvious enough: if people cannot agree on when human life (or personhood) begins, abortion must be morally permissible. Put another way, if something seems confusing, one is apparently free to do as he pleases. This is a philosophically anemic conclusion, yet it’s offered by many abortion advocates as the “silver bullet” argument to end all arguments.

Even our Supreme Court attempted to hide behind this argument when writing Roe V. Wade. Supreme Court Justice, Harry Blackmun, assured, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”1 But any thinking person knows that by permitting abortion for virtually any reason through all nine months of pregnancy, the Supreme Court did indeed take a position on when life begins; they decided this “magical” moment occurs at birth.

It seems a dab of confusion and a pinch of uncertainty make for a useful psychological elixir, curing the intellectually lazy (or intellectually dishonest) of the malady of thinking deeply or acting wisely with regard to the unborn. But ironically, it is this alleged confusion over when human life or personhood begins that provides a crystal clear reason to oppose abortion.

This little proclamation, no one knows when life begins, is a mouthful, really, and the abortion advocate who asserts this unknowingly divulges much more than he realizes.

First, the declaration contains an implicit admission: “I don’t know when life begins.” To claim that no one knows when life begins is to number oneself among those who supposedly do not know. That being the case, this statement reveals the fact that the one uttering it doesn’t know when life begins. His statement, therefore, is valuable only to the extent that it serves as a personal confession. Its value beyond that is not established.

Second, the declaration contains an unfounded accusation: “No one knows when life begins.” But just because one individual doesn’t know doesn’t mean no one knows. Maybe somebody does know. I may not know how many bases Jackie Robinson stole during his major league career, but that doesn’t mean no one knows. Or suppose someone asserts, “No one really knows if Mars is the fourth planet from the sun.”

The person stating this reveals only one thing; he doesn’t know if Mars is the fourth planet from the sun. His assumption that no one else knows is at best ignorant and at worst arrogant. Astronomers (those most qualified to speak to the question of Mars’ location in the solar system) and astronomy textbooks declare that Mars is indeed the fourth planet from the sun. Consequently, rational thinking would require good reasons for rejecting the experts’ findings.

So too, the science of embryology declares that human life begins at conception. Embryologists (those best qualified to speak to this matter) claim that human life begins at conception.2 “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being,” write Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud.3 Now it is entirely possible that they could be wrong, but again, any responsible person would require solid reasons for rejecting their testimony and evidence, especially when so much is at stake. Interestingly, even some of the most prominent abortion-choice advocates such as Peter Singer4 and David Boonin5 accept the testimony of embryologists and acknowledge the humanity of the unborn. “A human fetus, after all, is simply a human being at a very early stage in his or her development,” writes Boonin.

Third, this declaration grants an embarrassing concession; it is entirely possible that human life does begin at conception. The one claiming, “No one knows when human life begins”, has unwittingly left a door open for the possibility that life does indeed begin after fertilization. If this weren’t so, he’d state otherwise. Moreover, lurking beneath the surface of this paper-thin abortion defense is a disturbing revelation: I’m willing to see innocent human beings die. Again, to say no one knows when life begins is to concede the possibility that the entity developing in utero is actually a distinct, living, and whole human being. Defending abortion when there’s even a remote possibility human life begins at conception is like a hunter shooting into rustling bushes without first identifying his target. Francis Beckwith illustrates this willful and reckless disregard for others by imagining a demolition team who’d be willing to detonate a building without first verifying that no one was inside. Beckwith says it well, “If you’re willing to engage in an act where you know there’s at least a 50/50 chance of killing a human person that means you’re willing to kill a human person.”6

Should we grant, for the sake of discussion, that abortion advocates are correct in saying that no one knows when life begins or that there’s no consensus, where would that leave us? Does it help their cause? To the contrary, such statements, if true, would serve to argue against legalized abortion. If there is even a remote possibility the embryo could be a distinct, living and whole member of the human family this should restrain us from aborting until the question can be further investigated and answered with certainty. Ignorance is not bliss when human lives may be at stake.

Finally, this tactic of claiming a lack of consensus was precariously missing from the debate in 1973 when Roe V. Wade became the law of the land. Clearly, the vast majority of Americans opposed legalized abortion because they instinctively believed then what the scientists tell us today: life begins at conception.

1. Roe V. Wade, [410 U.S. 113, 160]
2. The science of embryology is summarized at: http://www.abort73.com/abortion/medical_testimony/
3. Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th ed., Philadelphia: Saunders, 2003, pp. 2,16.
4. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 85-86.
5. David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002, p. 20.
6. Francis J. Beckwith, “Understanding The Abortion Debate,” The Summit Lecture Series, www.summit.org.

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