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  • Paul Stark

When does life begin? How the New York Times obscures the science

“When does life begin?” That’s the title of a recent New York Times article by Elizabeth Dias. But the muddled and wide-ranging piece works hard to avoid clarity about the answer—or even about the question. 


When people talk about “when life begins,” they can mean different things. They might mean the scientific question of when the life of a human organism (a human being) begins. They could also mean the philosophical or ethical question of how young human beings ought to be treated—the question of when they become “persons” who have value and rights.  


On the first question, the evidence of embryology is clear. “Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, a zygote,” explains the textbook The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology. “This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” 


The scientific consensus isn’t new. It arose after discoveries in the 19th century, and it led the American Medical Association to successfully campaign for new abortion laws protecting human beings from the point they come into existence at fertilization. “Physicians have now arrived at the unanimous opinion that the foetus in utero is alive from the very moment of conception,” wrote Dr. Horatio Storer, who spearheaded the AMA’s effort, in 1866.  


Later, in 1933, Dr. Alan Guttmacher (who would become president of Planned Parenthood) noted that a human being “starts life as an embryo,” that “the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm,” and that “this all seems so simple and evident that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn’t part of the common knowledge.” 


The Times article doesn’t really deny the long-established science—it even (almost offhandedly) refers to the “scientific consensus around conception” and quotes a prominent scientist, who is not pro-life, affirming that “from the biologist point of view, I’d need to say [that] the life of a mammalian organism begins at fertilization.” 


Yet Dias does obscure this reality. She claims, at different points, that the beginning of life is “difficult” and “without consensus“ (without distinguishing between the scientific and philosophical questions). She quotes a pharmacist saying that “it really is a very personal decision on how we perceive life to begin”—as if we can make scientific fact whatever we want it to be. She misleadingly describes the youngest humans as “groups of cells” rather than organisms. She inaccurately calls unborn children “body parts” of their mothers (though acknowledging that they are their own individuals). And although Dias reviews some of the history of thought about early human life, she largely (not entirely) ignores the most important and consequential part of the story—the part where scientists discovered that each member of our species began when a sperm fused with an egg.  


Dias also quotes a professor named Nick Hopwood, who dismisses the question of when life begins as “not a good question” because “the egg is alive, the sperm is alive, the cells from which they develop are alive, it is a continuum.” 


It’s true that the egg and sperm are biologically alive, but no one who says “life begins at conception” means “life” in that generic sense. That’s not what anyone is talking about. The scientific question at issue, rather, is when the life of an individual human organism begins. Egg and sperm are not organisms. They are gametes that cease to exist when they combine and give rise to a new human. Embryos and fetuses, by contrast, are individual members of our species—just like the infants, toddlers, teenagers, and adults they become. 


“Although life is a continuous process,” explains the textbook Human Embryology & Teratology, “fertilization … is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed.” 


To be fair, though, after Hopwood’s dismissal of the question of when life begins, he adds this: “There might be slightly more acceptance of the question, ‘When does a life begin?’” Yes, that is the question: When does a new human come to be? But Hopwood continues: “And then different biologists might point to different stages.” 


No, no, no. Embryology textbooks, scientific journals, even a recent study that surveyed thousands of biologists—all make the fertilization consensus overwhelmingly clear. (You just might not know it if you only read the New York Times.) 


But maybe Hopwood isn’t talking about science (though the reader is left to conclude that he is). Maybe he’s actually talking about the philosophical question—the question of the significance and rights of young humans. This is where the debate over early human life really lies. Dias’s article, unfortunately, has little to say about it. 


On one side of the debate are those who argue that we have rights simply because we are human beings—not because of what we can do, or what we look like, or what others feel about us, but rather because of what we are. On this view, all humans matter, and they matter equally. On the other side are those who say rights belong only to some humans—those who have acquired particular characteristics or abilities. According to this perspective, not all of us pass muster, and even those who do probably don’t count equally (because we have the relevant characteristics in varying degrees).  


Unborn children are human beings. Science shows us that. The crucial question to ask now—one you won’t find Dias shedding any light on—is whether or not all humans, even the youngest and most dependent, really matter. 

This article appears in the January 2023 issue of NRL News.


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