When does human life begin?

October 24, 2008

Dear Cecil:

At a forum last August at his megachurch in California, preacher Rick Warren asked presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama when human life begins. McCain replied, “At conception,” a response that went over well with the pro-life audience. Obama said, “Answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade,” which many thought was evasive or flip and which I think sounded lame, even though my own views are closer to Obama’s than McCain’s. No doubt Obama punted because he thought he’d get into even more trouble if he answered frankly, but you, Cecil, are under no such constraints. So tell us: When does human life begin?

Cecil replies:

Little problem, Frank. That wasn’t what Rick Warren asked. The thrust of his question — he phrased it slightly differently for each candidate — was, “At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?” But a lot of people think once they’ve answered your question, they’ve answered Warren’s. So here’s my take on the subject, which shows why I’ll never be running for public office:

1. Human life begins at conception.

2. Big deal.

Let’s review the leading theories on when human life starts, many drawn from Roe v. Wade:

At birth. The belief of the Stoics, Roe tells us, and some religions today.

At conception. This idea harks back at least to the Pythagoreans but didn’t become the standard view among abortion opponents till the late 19th century. An important turning point, for Roman Catholics anyway, was a pair of declarations by Pope Pius IX: (1) in 1854 he said Catholics were obliged to believe that Mary, mother of Jesus, had been free of sin since conception; and (2) in 1869 he decreed abortion was punishable by excommunication. Before this the Catholic church had waffled on when human life began (more on this below), but once conception had been established as a watershed, opinion hardened.

At the 40th day (for males) or 80th day (for females) after conception. This odd notion was formulated by Aristotle and embraced by Thomas Aquinas, and generally speaking was Catholic belief, though not dogma, till the time of Pius IX. The idea is that while basic existence begins at conception, the fetus isn’t animated — or in Catholic terminology, ensouled — until several weeks out, at which point it becomes human. The matter was debated for centuries, although without much practical impact on church policy; abortion was always prohibited for the same reason birth control was prohibited — it interfered with a natural process. But prior to ensoulment abortion wasn’t homicide.

At quickening. That is, at the point at which fetal movement can be detected, usually around the 16th week of pregnancy. Abortion before quickening, Roe observes, wasn’t an indictable offense in English common law, apparently in line with the Aristotelian idea that the fetus didn’t become a person till sometime between conception and birth.

At implantation of the embryo in the uterine wall, the commencement of brain activity, etc. These are modern attempts to fix the beginning of human life at some point in fetal development following conception. While not without merit, they suffer from the defect of seeming to separate life from human life, the matter to which we now turn.

Few would dispute that animal life in the ordinary sense starts at conception. An inseminated frog egg develops into an adult in the normal course; an unfertilized one doesn’t. No biologist distinguishes not-yet-frog embryos from froggy ones; they’re all frogs from the start. So it is with us. Notwithstanding the many critical stages in fetal development, human life by any reasonable definition starts at conception.

However, to be blunt, so what? We may stipulate that human life begins at conception, and that abortion is the purposeful ending of that life. It doesn’t necessarily follow that abortion is always wrong. We take innocent lives when it suits us — in a “just war,” say. Sure, abortion often ends a life because it inconveniences the mother. But look at it this way:

1. Until the late 19th century, the mainstream religious and philosophical tradition in the West was that a human fetus didn’t acquire personhood until some point after conception but before birth.

2. We can argue about when that point is, but a logical milestone is the beginning of measurable brain-wave activity, roughly 25 weeks after conception. After all, brain death is now commonly accepted as marking life’s end.

3. We may then say that, personhood having been acquired, the child is entitled to our protection. One accepts that abortion in such cases may be necessary when the mother’s life is in peril, but it doesn’t seem to me it can be justified (as some would have it) merely because the child is a product of rape or incest or is defective. These things weren’t the mom’s fault, and may impose some hardship on her, but they weren’t the kid’s fault either, and he’s one of us.

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