Wednesday, 4 February 2009

When Does Human Life Begin?

It is amazing what lengths people will go to to deny that human life starts at conception. You hear arguments like, "What about sperm/egg cells, then? That's human life, too, isn't it?" or "But every human cell is alive. Should we avoid rubbing our skin because our epithelial cells might come off?"

That life starts at conception is proven beyond doubt by science. With the fusion of an egg cell and a sperm cell, the resulting zygote possesses all the genetic material characteristic of a unique human person and is also programmed to develop further into a fully-developed human being. Sperm and egg cells only contain half the genetic material of the parents; epithelial cells, while containing all the genetic material of a person, are not programmed to develop further into unique persons.

It really is as simple as that!

It is interesting that Christianity has not always argued that life begins at conception since in the ancient world the scientific basis for this was not understood. But it has always forcefully held that all kinds of abortion was morally wrong. Now we know why. Science has proved Christian faith right.


  1. I actually find it quite interesting that you as a Christian would reduce the concept of life to a matter of mere genetics.

    Personally, I equate human life with sentient consciousness; our unique capacity for introspection is what separates us from our animal companions, more than any percentage of our genetic inheritance. Call it a soul if you will, or an emergent awareness surpassing by far the biological wetware produced by Nature; fact is, the ability of conscious thought is what makes us human beings. Likewise, a lack of consciousness and self-awareness disqualify a living being from humanity, as far as I’m concerned; if you imagine some grotesque experiment conducted by a mad scientist growing an insentient body in a vat, that Frankensteinian monster is not a human being in my opinion, despite possessing the required DNA.

    Is a zygote sentient? Not in any meaningful sense of the word. It is not even independent, but a parasitic constituent of a woman’s body, incapable of autonomous existence for several months as it is nourished and stimulated by maternal hormones; without this stimulus, the zygote would not develop into a viable foetus. It seems an undue simplification to ascribe humanity to a zygote based on the claim that it alone among human cells is capable of further development; it is not an autonomous entity, and I disagree with assigning it personal entitlements in violation of the mother’s human rights.

    Of course there should be an upper time limit to abortion; when a baby qualifies as such, humanity’s intrinsic morality (the Natural Law from your previous post) is offended by the notion of terminating its life, but a zygote is a simple cell, nothing more, despite its potential. While I do think that potential should be respected, in my opinion it should not be held sacrosanct at the expense of the mother and her future potential.


  2. Well, Cecilie, how lovely to hear from you again. And welcome to my blog; thanks for kickstarting the discussion, I think it merits me buying you a beer next time you come to CPH. I must also compliment you on your English; it's every bit as good as mine so I'm glad we can conduct the discussion on a suitable level.

    You bring up all the usual pro-abortion arguments, so your comments can serve as a good foundation for a comprehensive review of the subject (you asked for it).

    1) You say: having a child is not easy, especially if it is handicapped.

    I answer: well, life itself is not easy! Millions, even billions of people on this planet have to go through every single day of their lives struggling to simply get enough to eat themselves, never mind their children or elderly parents whom they look after. Yet there is not a single culture in the world where it is considered even understandable to kill one's children once they have exited the womb for any reason, even famine; neither is it ever deemed acceptable to kill one's elderly parents (there are some cultures where it is common for the elderly to commit suicide when they become a liability but that is a separate issue).

    If people who have virtually nothing to eat themselves can still accept their responsibilities towards their children, how can we with any measure of credibility claim that people in the Western world who have sufficient money and food as well as adequate housing and ready access to medical care cannot do the same?

    I know that many women who have abortions purport to do so out of a concern for their unborn children; because they do not feel that they will be able to support them adequately. But such a concern is paternalistic in the extreme and not necessarily well-founded (after all, the baby could be adopted by a good and loving family, or the mother could meet a good husband or win the lottery - who knows?). It is also founded on a mistaken sense of duty born of our Western materialistic world view. The duty of parents towards their children is not to ensure that they will lead wonderful and satisfying lives, but to do the best they can for them. Prematurely ending their life falls pitilessly short of even this.

    2) You say: human life is most accurately defined as sentient consciousness.

    I answer: if that is the case, people who are in a coma, whether temporary or indefinite, do not qualify as human beings. Arguably, even people who are fast asleep are not humans! And how do we positively know when a person has developed a 'sentient consciousness'? There isn't even an approximate scientific definition of that, it is merely a vague psychological term.

    The fact is that all people in all cultures even recognize humanity in corpses who are positively known to be dead. A human body, though it is dead and thus cannot be said to contain 'human life', is still human and has a legitimate demand to be treated with respect and not disposed of arbitrarily. Even if a zygote was not a human being yet, if we treat life which once was with dignity and respect, should we not at the very least do the same with life which is coming into being?

    But a zygote IS a distinct human person. When I argue that life begins at conception I am not reducing the concept of human life to mere genetics. I agree completely in your observation that human life is about more than the material, it is also about those metaphysical and psychological qualities you describe. But we do not know when these are present in the human. Aristotle believed that a person received his soul 40 days after birth (80 for girls). Of course he had no way of scientifically demonstrating that. We can, though, scientifically demonstrate that at conception all the physical elements of a unique human individual are present. Even if something were missing, we have no clear understanding of what it is and when it is present, so it is highly presumptious to assume that we can AT ANY POINT safely assume that it is not there. If we must err on this matter, the safe and responsible thing is surely to err on the side of life.

    3) You say: even if a child is a person, the rights of the mother trump the rights of the child.

    I answer: if you look into the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights you will discover that there is no such thing as a 'human right' for a pregnant mother to avoid giving birth to her child.

    But the 1948 Declaration is anyway only a human document which merely reflects the sensibilities of a particular people of a particular age. The point is that according to Natural Law, NO HUMAN BEING EVER HAS THE RIGHT TO ARBITRARILY DISPOSE OF ANOTHER PERSON'S LIFE! The taking of human life is permissible in two instances only: 1) self-defence; 2) grave crime, and only a legally established court has the competent authority to do so in case of the latter. The instance of a mother disposing of her unborn child is a case of a stronger person arbitrarily doing violence to a weaker (indeed - to the weakest possible person), which is fundamentally unjust.

    In the vast majority of cases, pregnant women bear the responsibility for being pregnant - either because they positively intended to get pregnant or because they willingly engaged in sexual activity which they well knew could result in a pregnancy. It is therefore certainly not an injustice to them if one expects them to take responsibility for their actions and give birth to and raise the resulting child.

    Even in the few cases where a pregnancy is the result of a rape, and the woman thus bears no responsibility, it is an injustice towards the child to dispose of it since the child is likewise a completely innocent party in the matter. Any trauma or discomfort that the woman may incur from the experience, however tragic it may be, can never outweigh the 'discomfort' caused to the child of prematurely ending its life. (I will post more on this presently, as it is probably the most contentious, and seemingly most unreasonable, issue in dealing with abortion).

    4) You say: there will always be women who want to have abortions, so society must legalize them so that they can be provided for safely.

    I answer: if abortion is really an unjust act which impinges upon another person's legitimate right to live, society must proscribe it as it does murder, or rape, or theft, or any other unjust act which impinges upon the legitimate rights of other persons. This is not to say that there can be no mercy or understanding for mothers in especially precarious situations who abort their children (and I have never argued for the utilization of the death penalty); usually even today people show some degree of understanding towards mothers who commit infanticide because of grave and sustained pressure, i.e. if the baby had been screaming for hours on end and the mother had no support from friends or family. But if abortion constitutes the termination of an innocent life, society can not ignore it, for it is the duty of society to protect its members, all of them, and especially the most vulnerable.

    It is also singularly meaningless, in order to achieve "the utopian society where every child is indeed wanted and loved" (as you say), to utilize as a means something which is an expression of the very opposite reality: the disposing of unwanted children.