Life Begins at Conception: So What?

What follows began as a correspondence five years ago via social media with some one I know who challenged my claim that it’s undeniable both scientifically and logically that humans are humans from the moment of fertilization (with the creation of a new zygote, in biological terms). I had been trying to unflinchingly draw attention back to that singular, foundational, undeniable fact while news outlets and pundits were routinely shifting conversation away from that reality to any other subject they could possibly link to the pro-life / pro-choice debate (like the inconsistencies of some pro-life advocates regarding other policy issues, such as the death penalty, war, health care, etc). My response was once again to double down on the irreducible importance of acknowledging the full humanity of the new human creature from the moment of conception/fertilization, but then to move on to answer some legitimate policy questions that may follow from that premise, adding that, unlike the scientifically and logically demonstrable premise, my answers regarding policy were completely my own opinion. I’m glad I had the chance to differentiate between the objectivity of the premise and a more personal, perspective-relative grounding of my own policy thoughts following from that. And five years later, with a challenge to abortion currently in deliberation within the Supreme Court, I hope some of my theoreticals may prove to be sensical and compassionate.


Now, I’ll answer with my personal opinions about some of the policy questions you raised, but I want to reiterate that policy always must follow from premise, not vice versa. I acknowledge your point that premise and policy are inextricably linked, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy equal stature. Both logically and chronologically, premise comes first. So let me try to sure up my premise, both philosophically and scientifically, since you find it unpersuasive and unactionable. Defining humanity is hard. You mentioned “the soul,” a feature that has for centuries been variously described and defined. Materialists reject the existence of that feature altogether -however it’s defined- and instead define humanity only by what can be seen and measured. Somehow, though, our secular society has managed to amalgamate some broadly agreed upon idea about what a human is and has assigned that reality certain rights within an (even more remarkably) amalgamated moral system. Within that broadly accepted moral system (and indeed within our legal system as well) the label of human is extended to newborn babies. We’re all in agreement there, I believe.

My premise, again, is that there is nothing either in our legal system or in our broadly secular definition of humanity that can distinguish between the humanity of that newborn and its very same self a week, or a month, or 3, 6, or 9 months prior. Logically, the entity we see as a human in the delivery room is continuous with the in utero entity at every previous chronological stage. To draw a demarcating line between its humanity and the humanity of itself at some previous point, you’d need both a border/boundary in your definition of humanity and very clear evidence of that boundary having not been crossed at some stage in zygotic/embryonic development. The same applies from a scientific angle (in that distinct human DNA and the life-volition to develop in accordance with that DNA are really the only scientific requirements to name something human). Unless you’re able to point to a stage or feature in development that clearly, unquestionably falls outside the widely prevailing definition of humanity (secular or scientific), then no demarcating line can reasonably be drawn anywhere.That’s not to say there aren’t other demarcating lines that can be drawn. Viability, heartbeat, pain sensation, for example. But leaving aside the problem that those are all notoriously difficult benchmarks to measure accurately, none of them have anything essential to do with our definition of “human.”It’s not unreasonable to find it hard to feel the same pathos for an embryo as for a newborn or a grown human. But that’s not a logical or a scientific position. It’s a problem I commiserate with, though. In fact, I’m not even that fond of babies, usually. They’re loud and gross. Thankfully, in this instance, I don’t allow my emotions to govern my reason.

So to summarize the premise, there is no philosophically or scientifically justifiable demarcation of humanity that can be drawn at any point whatsoever along the continuum of life that begins at the earliest embryonic level. If anyone disagrees with me about that, I’d request that we limit our discussion to that central issue before unduly moving on to what must follow from that. (As a side note, the attempts to use “personhood” instead of “humanity” as a litmus lies open to all the same problems, and usually ventures into even more dangerous territory by creating definitions that also exclude disabled people and newborns).

However, assuming we do agree on that most primary and important premise, then we can turn to those situations you raised—situations that strain us intellectually, morally, and emotionally.

As for miscarriages: by definition, these are beyond our control, and there need be no policy amendments regarding miscarrying to reflect a change in the legal status of the unborn. I know a lot of women—close friends and family—who’ve had multiple miscarriages, and their intent and hope is always for life. No, I don’t think by any reasonable standard could one call a dubiously quantifiable risk of miscarriage “reckless endangerment.” One might as well extend that label to bringing new life into this unpredictable world, ever, at any point.

Turning to the issue of distinct rights and protections for mother and baby in the context of the unique and uniquely challenging arrangement of the baby’s life depending on the mother: I don’t think either’s rights should ever be pitted against the other, except in the case of the life of either being threatened. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, for example, if there appears to be no chance the embryo could survive and it will inevitably become a threat to the mother’s life, then killing the baby to save the mother is a tragic but fully justifiable option. It’s the only moral option, actually. However, looking into ectopic pregnancies just now I did find cases where babies developed and were delivered healthy via C-section. So everything has to remain case by case. But an objective and sincere medical determination that an inviable baby endangering a mother’s life is justification for ending its life for the sake of its mother’s. If continuing a pregnancy only risked the mother’s future chances of conceiving, that would not be justification for killing the baby.

What should happen if a mother was told her baby had no stomach, or had a terminal heart condition, or some other severe defect? What do we do now with born people with any kind of severe defect? We don’t kill them to spare them. We help them. And we often learn things about life, about humanity, and about ourselves that we could never have learned without them. The fact that the mother has an exceptionally harder roll to play in a scenario like that is, again, either the fault or the credit of God or nature. It doesn’t, though, change the primary premise. Just because I keep reminding us of that doesn’t mean I don’t care when what follows from that feels like shit. I do care. I really care. I cared when I was helping to bury a miscarried little baby at the funeral our church had for it. I cared when the excitement of the news of some friends’ pregnancy became the hushed, tearful retreat into grief, anger, and shame of miscarriage.

Turning to the consequences of making abortion illegal: guesses and prognostication at this point. It would dramatically and immediately reduce the number of unborn babies being killed. Yes, there would still be abortions, but they would be much harder to acquire and would pale in numbers compared to the efficiency with which they’re carried out now. The abortions that continued would be much more dangerous. This may or may not serve as a deterrent for some women. I propose an approach similar to an approach making progress in the fights against drugs and prostitution currently: decriminalizing the acts and the users, and instead focussing on the providers. Abortionists and abortifacients providers should have severe penalties. Women should be given more resources, education, and state/federally funded healthcare.

These are only some of my personal opinions about what MIGHT happen and about what MIGHT work. But policies aren’t an exact science and neither are they pure logic. The premise, however, remains both.

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