I saw somebody’s new Facebook page the other day, with a picture of a small child touching a pregnant woman’s belly. The text overlaid on the image said, “Science proves that human life begins at conception.” Hey, if you keep repeating something often enough, it eventually becomes “true,” right? And you probably know a bunch of good answers to this one, like I do. But I think I’m going to try something different this time. I’m going to agree that, yes, human life does begin at conception.
In a way, it’s true. When the two gametes fuse, that’s the beginning of an important phase in the human life cycle. Of course, it’s not a “beginning of human life” in the sense that something not alive magically becomes alive, or something non-human magically becomes human. Rather, it’s a step in the construction process that will ultimately produce a new person. Two living, human gametes combine to construct the physical basis upon which all future processes will operate.
Obviously, this isn’t the only beginning in the human life cycle. The process of meiosis is also the beginning of human life—it’s the beginning of the existence of the gametes which went into that conception. So meiosis is also the beginning of human life, as is sexual intercourse, which brings the gametes together. Granted, there are any number of points along the process from meiosis to birth where the reproductive chain of events can be interrupted, leaving “the beginning of human life” without an actual human at the end. But these are all still beginnings nevertheless, and every new person did have these beginnings, even prior to conception.
There are many beginnings after conception as well. For example, the very earliest growth of the embryo happens inside a glycoprotein shell called the zona pellucida which limits the size of the embryo such that each cell division has to produce smaller cells so they can all fit. When that shell breaks, that’s another beginning of human life. Still another is implantation, when the embryo establishes the symbiotic relationship that will allow it to continue to grow and without which it will never reach maturity.
The beginning of differentiation transforms the embryo from a mere mass of cells into something beginning to resemble the human body. This, too, is the beginning of human life, since without this differentiation, the embryo isn’t going to develop into anything we would call a person. Many of the spontaneous, natural abortions that happen during pregnancy happen at this point, since the differentiation process tends to expose any significant abnormalities in the developing embryo.
And the beginnings continue. The development of a heart muscle could be called the beginning of human life, although some might prefer to wait until the very first actual heartbeats, since a beating heart is the traditional sign of life. Another beginning is the development of the central nervous system, which happens fairly late in the gestational process. It won’t be a fully-operational system in the womb, due to low blood oxygen levels, but the basic infrastructure gets built, and it’s an essential prerequisite for the things that make us persons, so the beginning of this system can accurately called the beginning of human life.
That leaves birth itself. It’s tempting to call birth “the beginning of human life,” but it might be more accurate to call it the end of the beginning. At birth, a human life has been produced, and the process of beginnings has had a successful completion. There will be more beginnings after birth, but they won’t be the beginning of the person themselves, only beginning of parts of the person’s life. Birth is where the beginnings of human life arrive at their destination, and deliver the end result.
So yes, conception and other key events in pre-natal development are all the beginnings of human life. But the beginning of a journey is not the journey. Science proves that conception, like every other identifiable stage in the human life-cycle, is part of a process of reproduction that takes things that aren’t quite there yet, and brings them closer to the end result. At each step, something that is already living and already human—the human sperm, the human egg, the human zygote, the human embryo, the human fetus—is modified in some way that brings it closer to becoming a real person. Conception is just one of those steps, not the end result.
And here’s the other point that science would like to remind us of: this process is taking place inside the body of a person. If we’re going to appeal to science, then we need to listen to everything that science has to tell us about the process. This is not a process that’s happening in isolation, independently. It’s happening inside the body of a person. And that person has the right to decide whether or not to use her body as a host for such a process. No one has the right to force her to use her body against her will, not even for the sake of sincerely held religious misconceptions about the biological significance of conception.
So if you’re clicking the Like button on that Facebook page, good on you for turning to science for questions the Bible can’t answer. But please, if you’re going to use science, use it right, and don’t just pay it lip service in order to promote the abuse and enslavement of women. Thanks.