In our previous post we considered biblical and theological reasons for asserting that at the moment of conception human life begins. We will now consider a medical rationale for this same assertion.
There are a number of factors that we could examine in this matter. For example, we could examine the development of the fetus in the womb. Most vital organs and systems are in place and developing within the first trimester—which incidentally is when most abortions are performed. We could reflect on the numerous examples of unborn babies exhibiting stimulus and response reactions, even evidencing the experiencing of pain. Another consideration is the fact that it is now known that the developing baby actually learns in the womb. For example, much of the ability to learn and understand language begins in the womb. (Check out an interesting article on this from NPR.) We could also consider the fact that as medical science advances we are seeing premature babies surviving at ever earlier stages of gestational development.
However, there is one medical fact that settles the issue for me. It is simply this: Biologically we are human because of our genetic programming. What I mean is this: What is it that makes us human from a biological perspective? (For the moment, we are ignoring theological and philosophical considerations.) We are human, homo sapiens, because of the structure of our DNA. When human gametes meet in the fertilization process, the resulting fertilized egg is composed of 23 pairs of human DNA. Half of this DNA came from the mother via the egg. Half came from the father via a sperm cell. The result is 46 human chromosomes.
Now let us ask another question. What is added to the fertilized egg to make it a human being? Answer: Nothing! There is no additional genetic information, indeed no information of any kind, which causes the developing life to suddenly become human. From the moment of conception the only additions to this developing life are water and nutrients. That’s it. From the moment of conception to the moment that life ends, everything is a continuum. There is one continuous process of growth and development. The egg is fertilized and becomes a zygote, which becomes an embryo, which becomes a fetus, which is then born as a human baby. The baby grows into a child, which becomes an adolescent, a young adult, then a man or woman. Throughout the entire process nothing new has been added to this organism—except water, nutrients, and air. That’s it.
Do you see the importance of this? If the newly fertilized egg were not human at conception, then it could not be human at the end of the first trimester, or at birth, or at puberty, or at maturity. There is no break in the process. There is no influx of information, genetic material, or human DNA. There is no addition of this genetic because there is no need for it. It was present at conception, and has been present throughout the entire developmental process.
If you are not convinced by this fact, then let me ask you another question. If human life does not begin at conception, then when does it begin? At “quickening,” sometime during the pregnancy? That’s what people used to believe. What about birth? Okay, let’s posit this idea for a moment. A baby is human at birth. But, what about a minute before birth? Or an hour? Or a day? Or a week? How can you tell? If you assert that a newborn is human, are you willing to take the risk of assuming it only became human at that moment—and not a day before? Or a week? Or a month? What if it was a month before birth? Or six months? Are you willing to risk killing a new human life because you cannot define when human life begins? Also consider this, if babies are only human at birth—how do we deal with premature births? As mentioned earlier, premies are now living and thriving at amazingly early times. Are they not human because they did not develop to full term?
What this line of reasoning points out is that human life is indeed a continuum. It begins at conception and progresses throughout life until we die. The adult is genetically no different than the fertilized egg. It is a human being that has grown, matured and developed through a continual, ongoing process. Nothing has occurred to it that has changed it from something organic but non-human to become a human being.
Let’s consider the testimony of medical professionals to affirm this position. There is one source that is a wonderful resource of this purpose. On April 23 and 24, 1981 a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee convened special hearings to consider the question of when human life begins. One of the men who testified at these hearings was Dr. Jerome Lejeune, a renowned French pediatrician and geneticist, who taught at the Rene Descartes University in Paris. He is considered the “Father of Modern Genetics.” Dr. Lejeune declared to the committee:
“Life has a very, very long history, but each individual has a very neat beginning—the moment of its conception.” And “To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or of opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.”[i]
Dr. Hymie Gordon, chairman of the medical genetics at the Mayo Clinic stated: “But now we can say, unequivocally, that the question of when life begins—is no longer a question for theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life or the purpose of life, but it is an established fact all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception.”[ii]
Dr. Micheline Mathews-Roth was a physician at the Harvard Medical School. In his testimony before the committee he quoted from over 20 textbooks on medicine and embryology to demonstrate the human life begins at conception. In conclusion he stated, “So, therefore, it is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of its life.”[iii]
Many medical texts could be cited to further confirm that human life begins at conception. One example is The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology by Dr. Keith L. Moore (7th edition, Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003) which states the following:
“A zygote [fertilized egg] is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete … unites with a female gamete or oocyte [egg]… to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”[iv]
Dr. Moore is world renowned embryologist who has written extensively on the subject. Again, his testimony is clear. We are humans at conception.
Perhaps one last statement from the 1981 Senate Subcommittee hearings will serve to summarize our position. This is from Dr. Alfred M. Bongioanni, professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania. He stated to committee:
“I have learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception…. I submit that human life is present throughout this entire sequence from conception to adulthood and that any interruption at any point throughout this time constitutes a termination of human life…. I am no more prepared to say that these early stages [of development in the womb] represent an incomplete human being than I would be to say that the child prior to the dramatic effects of puberty…is not a human being. This is human life at every stage.”[v]
[i] Senate Subcommittee Hearing, p. 8 and 10. Found at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015025361265;view=1up;seq=20
[ii] Senate Subcommittee Hearing, p. 13. Found at website above.
[iii] Senate Subcommittee Hearing, p. 17. Found at website above.
[v] Senate Subcommittee Hearing, pp. 39-41. Found at previous website.