Random thoughts and views of Tim Young

Abortion (Part 3): So Human Life Begins When?

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So far we have a pro-choice argument in which the permissibility of abortion is grounded in two conditions:

1. The non-human status of a fetus

2. Relevant circumstances which have been met

There are a couple of ways of responding to this. We could show that either (1) or (2) is false, or we could show that even if true, (1) and (2) taken together do not constitute sufficient grounds for the permissibility of abortion. I’m going to focus my efforts on showing that (1) is false. I will return to (2) at a later point in the series.


The question of when human life begins is an important issue in the abortion debate. So just when does human life begin? Perhaps a better way of putting it is this: At what point does a new human being come into existence? Ultimately I think we have to understand that this is a scientific question. It is not a question that can be answered by theologians, philosophers, lawyers, etc., so in discussing this question we must look at what the scientific literature says. When we do, I think we find that there is a strong scientific consensus that fertilization brings about a new human being. In his article “A Distinct Human Organism” Robert P. George, Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, writes:

…the answer is to be found in the works of modern human embryology and developmental biology. In these texts, we find little or nothing in the way of scientific uncertainty: ‘…human development begins at fertilization…’ write embryologists Keith Moore and T.V. N. Persaud in The Developing Human (7th edition, 2003), the most widely used textbook on human embryology. [1]

Quotes like the one above are pretty much what I find whenever I look into the issue. Randy Alcorn, for example, on page 52 of his book ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments has a collection of quotes found in medical textbooks and scientific reference works regarding the issue of when life begins (emphasis are in original):

Dr. Bradley M. Patten’s textbook, Human Embryology, states, “It is the penetration of the ovum by a spermatozoan and the resultant mingling of the nuclear material each brings to the union that constitutes the culmination of the process of fertilization and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual”

Dr Keith L. Moore’s text on embryology, referring to the single-cell zygote, says, “The Cell results from Fertilization of an oocyte by a sperm and is the beginning of a human being.” (emphasis his)

Doctors J.P. Greenhill and E.A. Friedman, in their work on biology and obstetrics, state, “The zygote thus formed represents the beginning of a new life.”

Dr. Louis Fridhandler, in the medical textbook Biology of Gestation, refers to fertilization as “that wondrous moment that marks the beginning of life for a new unique individual”

Doctors E. L. Potter and J.M. Craig write in Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, “Every time a sperm cell and ovum unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live unless its death is brought about by some specific condition.”[2]

Princeton University’s website has another collection of textbook quotes which can found at:

Dianne N. Irving in her article “When do human beings begin? “Scientific” myths and Scientific facts” writes:

“…a human being is the immediate product of fertilization. As such he/she is a single-cell embryonic zygote, an organism with 46 chromosomes, the number required of a member of the human species. This human being immediately produces specifically human proteins and enzymes, directs his/her own further growth and development as human, and is a new, genetically unique, newly existing, live human individual.” [3] (emphasis her’s)

Now I am certainly no expert on the subject, but it seems to me that essentially what is taught and understood within the scientific community is that fertilization brings about a new human individual, aka “human life.”

Also, life is understood as a continuum. It starts at conception and continues till death. We give labels to the different stages of development (zygote, fetus, infant, child, teen, adult, etc.), but a human being is present at every point in the continuum. A zygote may not look how we presently look, but he/she looks just as we did when we were at that same stage of development.  George writes:

The adult that is you is the same human being who, at an earlier stage of your life, was an adolescent, and before that a child, an infant, a fetus and an embryo. Even in the embryonic stage, you were a whole, living member of the species Homo sapiens. You were then, as you are now, a distinct and complete — though, of course, immature — human organism.[4]

In any case, I think we can make a strong case for (1) being false. Human life begins at conception. However, is there some way for the pro-choice argument to proceed from here? Is there some sort of response that can be given? Yes. And it is at this point that we get into the real “meat” of the pro-choice position. But more on that next post.

Further reading

When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective – White Paper



[1] George, R. P. (2005, November 22). A Distinct Human Organism. Retrieved January 2009, from NPR:

[2] Alcorn, R. (2000). ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments. Multnomah Books.

[3] Irving, D. N. (1999, February ). WHEN DO HUMAN BEINGS BEGIN? “SCIENTIFIC” MYTHS AND SCIENTIFIC FACTS. Retrieved January 2009, from Princeton University:

[4] George, R. P. (2005, November 22). A Distinct Human Organism.


Written by Tim

January 16, 2009 at 4:21 pm

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