Life Begins At . . . ?

Planned Parenthood volunteers help bring the f...

Image via Wikipedia

The recent dust-up between the Susan G. Komen charity foundation and Planned Parenthood coupled with the newly-introduced contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act, have provided right-wing conservatives with a red-meat issue of the kind they’ve been seeking, never mind that contraception is a practice embraced by the vast majority of American women, including Catholics. The rancor and opposition by clerics has been fierce and the same baton is now being lustily taken up by conservative pols as an excessive intrusion by government into moral territory claimed by religion, no matter that the ACA merely makes contraception available and nobody is being forced to use it.

Another Globe blogger, Duane Graham (The Erstwhile Conservative) argues persuasively that the real issue here is abortion, something that many conservatives view as nothing short of murder because they believe life begins at conception. I agree with Duane that the political dispute is a (simple) case of powerful men wishing to define the issue in a way that satisfies them intellectually but which ignores the scientific facts and the right of ownership by women of their own bodies.

But, while the dispute itself is simple, I submit that underlying issue of when life begins is not. That has both theocratic and scientific components. Theocracy of course is not amenable to rational debate. If one chooses to believe that “life” begins at conception, when sperm meets egg, then abortion is evil and subject to residential assignment by Dante. As mentioned in Duane’s post, that is the end of the argument for columnist Greenberg and the conservative right. But, ought we not consider what science says about the matter?

Does life begin at conception? This is a riddle the answer to which depends on what one chooses the question to mean. What is life? My dictionary say that it is “the condition which distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity and continual change preceding death.” In other words, grass, trees, elephants, bacteria, men and mosquitoes are all forms of life. So perhaps the real question is, do the human embryos develop differently from those of other animals? It turns out that they don’t.

English: A six week embryonic age or eight wee...

A Six-week old embryo, via Wikipedia

Mammalian reproduction is a messy process. Thousands of sperm are discarded in the process of conception, as are numerous eggs. And, when the parts don’t fit, which they sometimes don’t because something is wrong, the zygote, morula, blastula, or fetus (the three initial stages of fetal development) is spontaneously expelled by the mother in an act of natural abortion.  If these are human beings, does that mean there is a special place for them in heaven, or a special place for them to resume their interrupted development?

Reproductive cell fusion and the resulting embryogenesis (production of an embryo) may result in an almost infinite number of possible outcomes, depending on the random combinations of genes from the male and female genes. It is a process which is well understood and which is common to all living things. In other words, while human beings are at the top of the food chain, we are very much like all the other forms of life on this planet. In fact, studies of fetal development show that human embryos in their early stages are virtually indistinguishable to the eye from those of many other animal forms. This is a product of evolution. Have you, like me, ever wondered about the similarities between humans and animals? For example, that mammals have four limbs, a spine, two eyes, two ears, a skull, and similar nervous, endocrine and circulatory systems? Those patterns were established very early on in the process of animal evolution.  Once a successful grouping of characteristics evolved, it was carried forward by the process of survival, even while new variations arose through natural variation and mutation. This describes the very real and understandable process of genetics.

There is another good Wikipedia page that shows how the embryos of all earthly life forms develop with amazing similarities. The process is a continuum, starting with initial cell division of the fertilized egg. When the mass reaches about a hundred cells, still microscopic, it is called a blastula, after which specialization begins in accordance with the genetic instructions in the DNA. Scientists have made amazing strides in understanding this process in just my lifetime. There is little physical, scientific mystery left to how this happens. To the inquiring mind the only real mystery left about the differences between human beings and animals is that of self-awareness, and even a few animals share some of that ability with us.

It is interesting to me that here in an age of scientific enlightenment there can be such a passionate controversy over something like evolution, but abortion is different.  I get that. Clearly, at some undefined point the fetus acquires a brain and a nervous system. It takes on the features of a person and reacts accordingly. But even then, it is on the path of a continuum towards undefinable completeness. Most people can not retrieve memories earlier than age 3 or 4, which means to me that self-awareness has taken that long to develop. Youths do not develop full maturity of judgement until some time in their 20’s and older people are categorically more mature still. We are a species capable of not only self-awareness but of self-understanding, but the latter is a lagging process and is in conflict with our spiritual nature. One wonders, given the environmental and political challenges faced by us so suddenly on the evolutionary scale, whether evolution can adapt us quickly enough to save us from extinction.

Related post (a good one):  Embryos Gain Personhood In Oklahoma

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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22 Responses to Life Begins At . . . ?

  1. jwhester says:

    Don’t be so quick to let the right-wing Christians off the hook. Any reasonable survey of the Bible reveals that bodily life begins with the breath of life (birth). The origin of the soul precedes birth, but it also precedes conception. So there is nothing in Scripture that lifts up conception or fertilization as the beginning of life. Christians who clamor around the abortion issue have interpreted scripture to conform to their cultural conservatism.


  2. Jim,

    Excellent post. It has made me remember my exposure so long ago (as a staunch “pro-lifer”) to philosopher Michael Tooley’s essay, “Abortion and Infanticide.” I intend on rereading that piece to see how it strikes me today as a pro-choice defender. I have lately been thinking about how to define “personhood” in terms of the abortion issue and generally default to something like “when self-awareness emerges” and run smack into Tooley’s argument about infanticide. You have made me want to get a better grip on this subject.

    Thanks for raising this important, if politically excruciating, issue.



  3. Well, I used to tell my kids that abortion should be legal all the way up to age 18. I gave them life and by God I can take it away just as easily. Of course they totally ignored me.

    In Roe v. Wade, I think the Supremes used the idea of “viability” or “quickening” to determine when life begins, usually be the end of the first trimester. Anyway, the right wing nuts, railing for freedom for everybody to do as they please without government interference, seem awfully quick to take away freedom from a pregnant lady. No choice for her. It’s off to the back alley with a coat hanger.


  4. PiedType says:

    jwhester’s comment makes me think about what the Bible could possibly have said about when “life” begins, other than at birth. In those days they had no way of knowing when conception or fertilization occurred.

    And Jim, you point out the crux of the whole issue — no one is being forced to obtain and use contraceptives if they don’t want to.


  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ JWHester and Pied, et. al.,

    JW’s biblical proposition that the soul precedes conception comes as a surprise to me, but it is very thought-provoking. Let’s examine that, shall we?

    When I think about myself, it is always in the context of my material life, always. Our material environment is the prism through which all experiences come. All of the senses are affected by the material world. The feeling of clothing, the weather, the sensation of eating, the act of love, thirst, being seasick, even breathing, all of it is part and parcel of our experience in this world, is it not? So, let’s suppose that we existed as souls before conception, as JW suggests. Who were we then? Were we aware of anything material? Were we planted on another world and then, as it were, transplanted to Earth in a different corporeal husk? If we were, then what remains of our former selves? Certainly not memories. (Unless you are someone like Bridey Murphy of course.)

    But, now I’m thinking, what if we were simply non-corporeal souls, drifting in a space without material properties? What then would be the context for our previous existence? Not heat, cold, hunger, satiety, pain, nor clothing either. Without material context I submit we would not be what we call human at all, so what would that kind of pre-existence mean? If it has no correlation to who we are now, then how could such a previous existence even be said to be “us”?

    Sorry, JW, I simply can’t buy it. And, for what it’s worth, I did a search for biblical references to the beginning of life and found them all to be typically so vague as to be meaningless. However, I did find it an interesting notion. Thanks for the comment.


    • Jim,

      There is neither evidence nor logic that would lead us to believe there is a mind or spirit or soul that exists independent of our physical bodies. What passes for evidence are the Biblical accounts (and claims in other ancient religious texts), written in pre-scientific times, or accounts like Bridey Murphy, a case of either fraud or self-deception or both. And any Scholastic logic that could be adduced has been contradicted by what we are learning about how the brain works and how memories are created and how—think dementia—they are extinguished.

      What we have, it appears, is wishful thinking ran amok, even though I believe that possession of a sober hope that we will all live again in a happier place is not necessarily a negative attribute.



      • Jim Wheeler says:

        Well said, Duane. I agree, except possibly with the notion that hope of an afterlife is always good. That is something I believe to be built into the “God part of the brain” as an evolutionary bandage against discouraging reality and is thus unlikely to change in most of the population. However, it does cause me to wonder how politics might be affected if most people became rational realists. Would it make things better or worse? Frankly, I think better. After all, much of the world’s rancor derives from disagreement over religion, Israel’s woes being a central example. And, I would predict: no suicide bombers.


      • Jim,

        You are right. That is why I used the modifier “sober” in front of hope and the words “not necessarily” in front of negative attribute. Like you, I would find it rather odd if someone were to strap on explosives and kill out of a non-dogmatic wish for a blissful life beyond. The enemy here, as in a lot of things, is absolute certainty about things in which no one can be even remotely confident.



    • jwhester says:

      Let me be clear about my position: The Bible is not a scientific text, and it should not be used to address scientific issues such as when life begins (as a scientist would understand the term “life”) But it particularly galls me that those who want to use the Bible as a scientific text distort (IMHO) what it says about the beginning of life.


      • Jim Wheeler says:

        I believe, JW, that what you are addressing is the age-old conundrum of the interpretation of scripture, i.e., whether it is to be taken literally or as inspirational poetry. Seems to me that you can’t have it both ways, but if you choose poetry, and clearly you do, then distortion is inevitable. Was the world created in six literal days, or is “days” subject to interpretation? Did Jesus feed the multitude by miraculous multiplication of limited supplies, or did he do it by inspiration? I would however point to Psalms as perhaps the best example of how terribly fuzzy the guidance can get. One can find words in there to support just about any position one cares to take, IMHO.

        BTW, nice to have you back. I have missed your conversation.


  6. peddiebill says:

    Thanks for the sensible contribution to the debate. Unfortunately both sides talk past one another.
    The Bible as probably expected is very vague about the biology – after all they didnt even have microscopes in those days and unfortunately many of the early Church statements are now ossified as doctrine despite the huge increases in knowledge since.


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    I agree with Duane, an excellent post that disputes using both science and philosophy (to a degree) the arguments against life at conception. Bees cause conception in flowers, but it takes a long time for the plant to “bud” or “flower”.

    Forget Genisis for the moment, a “story” written by a man with much more limited understanding or knowledge than we have today. Like the texts of long ago about the flat earth, we as humans have progressed to a much deeper understanding of our world that simple stories to explain the still unknowable.

    Based on science life was maybe transported to Earth from interstellar space OR was “begun” somewhere on Earth, perhaps deep in the cooler ocean depths where the volcanic heat was much less than on the surface of the Earth. We still don’t know those answers. All we know for sure is life began, somehow, on Earth either originating “out there” or within the confines of Earth itself.

    To try to demand government force to settle those arguments or serious questions is ridiculous, in my view.

    As for “souls” I believe it is Hindu religion that would suggest our souls keep regenerating in the form of life, but all sorts of “lifes” from one generation to the next. Fine, Hindus, believe what you like but I will form my own judgment as well.



  8. Jim,
    Interesting and thoughtful contribution to this insidious debate. Looking at the history of the abortion controversy, it seems to me that this is a political-control issue masked as a religious issue. The politics of control; if the court overturns Roe v Wade then they will have overturned the right to privacy, and that, I think, is what it has been about all along. I would say the politicians at the top of this controversy don’t care about vulnerable sacred life — but they are able to use the language and political skills to get their followers riled up to the cause by casting it as a moral/religious issue – they convince their flocks that this is about babies when it’s really about controlling the right to privacy.

    I do not feel adamantly that I am right about this — it’s just the way it seems to me. I listen to the politicians who say the meanest things about the poor, the needy, the vulnerable citizens in our country, the ones who turn their backs on any effort to help the needy, and I just can’t believe its about caring for babies (who would have to fend for themselves if they find themselves hungry or sick *after* they’re born.)

    You are right of course about the similarities between humans and other animals. I (and I believe Peter Singer)) would take your comment about self-awareness much further than you do. Many other animals, other than humans, do have the self-awareness that is — erroneously, I believe — often attributed only to the human animal.

    It is a terrible state that this country is in, and I fear a slide from democracy to plutocracy to theocratic control.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I get your point about privacy, Helen, but somehow the word doesn’t seem strong enough in the context of this issue. If we were still living in the year 1800 with primitive medical care, that would mean more, but here in the twenty-first century we are all inter-dependent on a complex, technological society in which we are compelled to rely on government for a multitude of services that make life better for everyone. This is something that Duane Graham often argues persuasively about – the minimum level of comfort to which each member of a civilized society ought to be entitled to, given the now immense capacity of science to deliver.

      As you can see by my latest post, you and I are generally in agreement on the matter. Thanks for your comment – I am delighted to have a woman’s input.


  9. Not to worry, all.

    The Oklahoma legislature (along with many other states I’m sure) is considering a bill that says life begins at conception. Thus, Roe v. Wade is conveniently circumvented, and the hubris, arrogance, and audacity of our state legislature will have reached a new high. But more importantly, it would also mean that anyone who performs an abortion would be committing murder and the mother, being an accomplice, would be equally guilty. I suppose a miscarriage would be manslaughter. I haven’t read the bill so I don’t know how they plan to handle still births, birth defects, and births where the baby is addicted to some controlled substance. Also, I’m not exactly sure how the right wing nuts rationalize this legislation with their platform of keeping government out of our lives and allowing everyone an unimpeded freedom of choice.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      They have figured out a great way to win an argument, Herb. Forget the rhetoric, just make it the law of the land! Talk about intrusion on personal freedoms!

      Please, keep us up to date, and if you need refuge, Joplin is still available. So far as I know the MO legislature hasn’t tried that one yet.


      • Well, it gets more and more curiouser and curiouser at the Oklahoma legislature these days. What I described above is Senate Bill 1433, “The Personhood Act.” Now along comes State Senator Constance Johnson of Oklahoma City who has offered amendment to SB 1433, that provides, “However, any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” Of course, among other things, Johnson’s amendment would essentially outlaw oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation. WTF!!!


    • PiedType says:

      Herb mentions the main reason I left the Republican party some years back — their insistence on “small government” while at the same time intruding on my right as a woman to make my own medical decisions.

      As for the Oklahoma laws, they seem determined to turn their backs on reality, science, and progress and return to the 1950s. Sad. I lived there most of my life, but I’m not sorry to have finally moved away.


  10. ansonburlingame says:

    I can only remark that I find all of this both astonishing and revolting, particularly if what Herb now tells us is true. As these crazy ideas become a benchmark in the GOP I will seek a different party to support as well as calling these men idiots for pushing such nonsense using the force of government!

    Please keep me posted, Herb, as this “stuff” goes through the legislative process.



  11. Jim and Herb,
    First of all, the Missouri legislature has already done what Oklahoma is doing. In 1986, in legislation that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court (I listened to the oral arguments in the case a couple of days ago, when I was researching the Oklahoma mess),  Missouri said in its “preamble,”

    …the life of each human being begins at conception.

    The Oklahoma bill is based on this court-approved model. (The court essentially ruled that as long as Missouri did not prevent any woman from getting abortion, it was not obligated to subsidize or promote them.)
    Second, Oklahoma State Senator Johnson’s proposed amendment (she is a Democrat) to the personhood bill was meant as satire, calling attention to the ridiculousness of the legislation. In fact, I almost posted a video of Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” on my blog when I was researching the stuff, but didn’t for two reasons. One, I thought I would get my behind in trouble and, two, others had already beat me to it.
    So, as bad as this stuff is, it is not quite that bad—yet.


    • This whole idea of person and personhood is very intriguing. In checking out Wikipedia, the mind boggles at the various meanings in various contexts — legal, religious, political, social, biological, philosophical. I feel an essay coming on.



  12. Here’s a little more detail on Oklahoma SB 1433, if you’re interested. It was approved 34-8, and several Democrats were among the 34 ayes:

    Also, there is a similar bill being proposed in Virginia. Virginia’s HB1, introduced by Del. Bob Marshall, declares that “The life of each human being begins at conception,” that “Unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being,” and “The natural parents of unborn children have protectable interests in the life, health, and well-being of their unborn child.” The language is almost identical SB 1433.

    Apparently, all this is being orchestrated by an outfit called Parenthood USA. According to one source, “Personhood USA is a grassroots, Christian organization founded to establish personhood efforts across America to create protection for every child by love and by law. Personhood USA is committed to assisting and supporting Personhood Legislation and Constitutional Amendments and building local pro-life organizations through raising awareness of the personhood of the preborn.” So, it’s likely that OK and VA will soon have company as other states pile on.



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