Does Your Understanding of “When Life Begins” Hold Up to Scrutiny?

The majority of Americans believe that life begins at conception. You might believe this, too. You might also believe, like many Americans, that there is some line of "human-ness" or “viability” while the fetus gestates, or that life begins at birth. See the poll data here.

This question is often part of the core of the debate over abortion.

It would seem that in order to engage anyone in a productive debate on abortion, one must understand where both you and the person you're talking to stand on this question. When does life begin?

Will these two ever convince people to agree with them?

Will these two ever convince people to agree with them?

Something to consider: while people feel very strongly about their position on the question of when life begins, all points of view can be challenged:

  • At conception: If life begins at viability, there are human health complications that arise. 60-70% of all conceived zygotes (that is, eggs and sperm that have already combined) are naturally terminated in the womb, often while they are only a few cells. If we valued the life of a fetus at this stage the same way that we value the lives of babies out in the world, what might this mean about our priorities in preserving human life? Should we be putting more focus on preventing these terminations to prevent this large mass of deaths?

  • Human-ness: Unlike conception or birth, "human-ness" is very difficult to define. Does it start it at heartbeat? Is it when the fetus is able to move with its own muscles? When the fetus can feel pain? Is there some principle on which we can ground this, rather than picking one arbitrarily? 

  • Viability: Does life begin at a fetus’ ability to live outside of the womb? But with how much technological support? As ICU technology improves, we are able to save premature births at earlier and earlier stages—do we need to move our definition of “life” as technology moves? Does that seem consistent?

  • Birth: Does a baby just out of the womb have some intrinsic human value, and possess human rights, when a fetus just before birth does not have human value or human rights? What about the process of moving out of the womb actually changes the baby itself, such that we can endow it with the definitions “human” and “alive” in a way we couldn't sooner?

Does considering your position along with others give you greater empathy for those that disagree with you? What positions have you developed more curiosity about?

What does considering the above mean about one’s ability to argue for one or another abortion policy as obviously morally right or morally wrong? How might you change how you talk about abortion in order reach agreement with someone else, rather than shout them down?


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.