1162 When does life begin?

With the discussion about  Roe v Wade - the High Court decision guaranteeing American women the right to abortion - I decided to investigate this question:

  When does Life begin?  

with content from Marcelo Gleiser, in Cosmos & Culture

 "Commentary on Science and Culture"

Some say at conception, some say at birth; it must be sometime between then ... so you decide for yourself. But the question is pertinent in the abortion debate.

from 5 weeks gestation an abortion may be performed

the embryo measures about 2mm from end to end

At 5 weeks a pregnancy test can be taken; hCG hormone levels are high enough to show a result; early symptoms like fatigue and nausea are also possible. 

from 8 weeks an embryo is called a fetus; it is about 

3.5cm long, around the size of a prune and weighs about 8g

Some doctors perform abortion as soon as a woman tests positive for pregnancy; other doctors may want to wait until the fifth or sixth week. In most countries, where abortion is legal, they can be performed at up to 22 weeks' gestation. After that, often 2 doctors must approve the procedure. But 9 out of 10 abortions happen before 12 weeks of pregnancy in many high-income countries, while the proportion of those done under 9 weeks has risen.

at 16 weeks a fetus is around 11.6cm long from head to bottom

which is the size of an avocado, the weight is around 100g

At this stage in the abortion discussion, the question is likely to arise: Does a fetus feel pain? Some argue that a fetus cannot feel pain at 20 weeks gestational age.

In some US states a law was passed that requires doctors to give anesthesia to a fetus prior to performing an abortion that occurs at 20 weeks of gestation or later. The law assumes that a fetus may be able to feel pain at that stage in development; however, doctors groups and other critics of the law argue that a fetus cannot feel pain at 20 weeks gestational age. 


"The science shows that based on gestational age, the fetus is not capable of feeling pain until the third trimester," said Kate Connors, a spokesperson for ACOG. The third trimester begins at about 27 weeks of pregnancy. (Factcheck.org)

But that position is debated: "A comprehensive review of the scientific literature, including neural development, psychology of pain sensation concludes that unborn babies may experience pain as early as 12 weeks. The review notes that neural connections from periphery to brain are complete after 18 weeks. 'We no longer view fetal pain in a gestational window of 12–24 weeks as impossible.' The review points out that a fetus may not experience pain in the same way as an adult, but does indeed experience pain as a real sensation." See below, "they think it's murder". 

(Lozier Institute ... the Lozier institute is anti abortion)

But let's start from the beginning. At conception we have the joining of the male sperm and the female ovum. The zygote is the result of the biochemical embrace of 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. The zygote phase is brief, lasting about four days; after the fifth day, the mass of cells is known as a blastocyst.

Some argue - radically - that life starts before fertilization; after all, the sperm is very much alive, as it moves determinedly toward the ovum.

Usually, heartbeat in the embryo (until eight weeks of gestation) or a fetus (after eight weeks, until birth) can be detected by vaginal ultrasound somewhere between 6½ and 7 weeks; the heartbeat may have started around six weeks.

But an important transition in pregnancy happens when the fetus can survive independently of the mother. But when exactly does that happen? Nowadays, due to remarkable advancements in neonatal medicine, a 26-week premature baby can survive, although with difficulty; serious intervention and an extended stay in the neonatal unit is critical (roughly, 80 percent survive.)

at 26 weeks, the baby can respond to the world around them;

it now measures more than 30cm and weighs ca. 820g; they start to put on 

a lot of fat and muscle from now, which will fill them out to look more like a newborn baby

Finally, we must wonder when consciousness arises in human babies. Is it while still in the womb, at birth or during early childhood? 

Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate that provides consciousness with its elaborate content is in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.

(Scientific American)

But this topic is tricky because it implicitly involves the definition of consciousness, a red herring. The nature of consciousness is an enigma, alongside how life began, probably the greatest scientific mystery there is. 

However, the question as to when life begins really is a moot one. Life began millions of years ago, and the cells in a human (as well as in animals) are alive, including the cells of a fetus.

my first grandson at 54 minutes of age

So the question really should be, when does personhood begin? But this is a most personal questions and a definitive answer is not available. However, when considering the issue of abortion, a position must be arrived at. Naturally everybody will have their own answer, which often is guided by cultural issues, religion, dogmata etc ... and not by science. Nevertheless, science says that the process of personhood is not likely to take place before the 24th week of gestation.

It’s important that correct terminology is used, guided by scientific principles and biological facts. But often the debate becomes emotional - as Richard Dawkins points out (see below) - when the issue is framed as abortion being ‘baby-murder’.  

It is a shame that on the issue of abortion the polarization lies with the terms 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice'. Myself, I am definitely pro-life. I don't like the idea of abortion - it's a messy proposition; after all, a human life is growing ... but I am even more - emphatically - pro-choice. 

There is an aspect to the ‘pro-life’ vs ‘pro-choice’ dilemma that is decidedly unsavory: who in their right mind would be anti-life? For right-minded people that is a non sequitur (the one does not automatically, logically follow the other) … indeed, to be pro-life should not necessarily mean to be anti-abortion. In fact the two - pro-life and pro-abortion - can very well live alongside each other. 


So, above all, the right to abortion should not be taken away from women. The decision to have an abortion - I assume - is hard enough. It is clear the prohibition would drive the procedure underground and cost many womens’ lives ... not to mention the anguish they are forced to go through. 

Looked at it that way, abortion is a 'lesser wrong' than the wrong of submitting a woman to the stress of bringing into the world a baby she cannot have, bring up or support.

In the context of abortion, this is a related question: Is life sacred? Your religion will probably tell you it is ... but on closer examination, the answer must be: No.

Most people who are not vegetarian will not combine these two issues - for them killing animals probably has nothing to do with the issue whether life is sacred. 

I have an essay  VEGETARIAN

But beyond that? Well, we also kill humans at will, namely when we go to war ... but killings at war are considered 'legal' and 'moral' when perpetrated in the context of self defence ... a context that for many will extend to other areas in life - beyond war - as regards killing. 

A case in point is that the question often is decided in the positive by opponents of abortion (as well as VAD - voluntary assisted dying), purportedly for religious reasons; more importantly though, for reasons of convenience ... to bolster their anti-abortion stance. Remember, some anti abortionists - while sanctimoniously claiming ‘sanctity of life’ - may kill doctors who perform abortions.

So obviously life is not sacred.

This discussion about the 'sacredness' of life comes to and end when one considers that evolution always starts at 'life' - whether human or animal; especially since in its most simple stage, human life is indistinguishable from animal life ... so this means life generally is sacred (both human and animal). 

Or not sacred at all.


Here is an excerpt from a well-reasoned article by  Richard Dawkins:

They think it's Murder

Dawkins makes the point that anti-abortionists don't differentiate between a baby and the embryo (until eight weeks of gestation) or a fetus (after eight weeks).

So why are they so fanatical about this one issue, eclipsing, as it does, all others? It is because they really think abortion is murder. They synonymize 'embryo' with 'baby'. Abortion is baby-killing.

But how do we respond, we who march in the vanguard of progressive, enlightened thought? “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” A woman’s body is hers alone, and nobody else’s business. “My body, my choice.”

The fact is, we have to modify our arguments to meet the deeply held beliefs of our opponents head-on. We have to persuade them out of their fallacious belief, their passionate conviction that human personhood begins at conception and therefore abortion is murder.

Here’s another point we might make, and this one will work only if our hypothetical pro-lifer accepts the truth of evolution. At what point in evolution does human life achieve its peculiar level of sacredness, such that killing a human embryo resembling a small fish is infinitely worse than killing an actual fish? 

Should we treat them as infinitely precious human life for moral purposes such as those we deploy in the abortion debate? If you think human life is precious but animal life is not, where in the evolutionary continuum would you draw the line?

In considering the process of embryonic development (a smooth continuum, from zygote to embryo to fetus to baby and beyond) there would be some evolutionists who are foes of abortion (even  Christopher Hitchens  had qualms).