When Does Life Begin?

by C. Fletcher Armstrong, PhD

We hear it everywhere we go: “We can’t know if abortion is immoral or not, because nobody knows when life begins.” In reality, however, we absolutely know when life begins because science speaks with one voice on this question. The unborn child is a living human being from the moment of fertilization. Here are quotes from respected embryology textbooks and scientists, including abortion advocates.

Quotes from respected embryology textbooks and scientists

“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization ... is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.” (Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd ed., New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001, p. 8)

“Zygote. This cell results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm during fertilization. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).” ... “[The zygote] marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” (Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th ed., Philadelphia: Saunders, 2003, pp. 2,16)

“The zygote thus formed represents the beginning of a new life.” (J.P. Greenhill and E.A. Friedman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of Obstetrics, Philadelphia: W.B. Sanders, 1974, p. 17)

“It is the penetration of the ovum by a spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material ... that constitutes the culmination of the process of fertilization and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual.” (Bradley M. Patten, Human Embryology, 3rd ed., New York: McGraw Hill, 1968, p. 43)

“When fertilization is complete, a unique genetic human entity exists.” (C. Christopher Hook, MD, Mayo Clinic, as quoted by Richard Ostling in an AP news story, 9/24/99)

Testimony before a US Senate subcommittee (Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, Report, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981)

“It is incorrect to say that biological data cannot be decisive...It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.” (Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth, Harvard University Medical School)

“I have learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception.” (Dr. Alfred M. Bongioanni, Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics, University of Pennsylvania)

After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. [It] is no longer a matter of taste or opinion...it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.” (Dr. Jerome LeJeune, Professor of Genetics, University of Descartes)

“By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.” (Professor Hymie Gordon, Mayo Clinic)

“The beginning of a single human life is from a biological point of view a simple and straightforward matter—the beginning is conception.” (Dr. Watson A. Bowes, University of Colorado Medical School)

The official Senate report

Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being—a being that is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings.” (Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, Report, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981)

Quotes from leading abortion advocates

“Perhaps the most straightforward relation between you and me on the one hand and every human fetus from conception onward on the other is this: All are living members of the same species, homo sapiens. A human fetus, after all, is simply a human being at a very early stage in his or her development.” (David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 20)

“Whether a being is a member of a given species is something that can be determined scientifically, by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms. In this sense there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being.” (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 85-86)

“A human fetus is not a nonhuman animal; it is a stage of human being.” (Wayne Sumner, Abortion and Moral Theory, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981, p. 10)

Life begins with fertilization and abortion is legalized destruction of life.” (Dr. Arthur Morris, Jr., Abortionist, as reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times, April 4, 1976)

“We tell her exactly like it is … when they abort, they’ll be aborting a small baby.” (Dr. Arthur Morris, Jr., Abortionist, as reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times, April 4, 1976)

Summary — Science speaks with one voice

Science speaks with one voice: the unborn child is a living human being. So, the abortion debate is not about science (who is a human). The debate is about legal rights of personhood (who gets them and who doesn't) and what criteria will be used to grant or deny rights of personhood.

C. Fletcher Armstrong, PhD
Southeast Director
Center for Bio-Ethical Reform