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When Does Human Life Begin?

By: Adriana Peralta - @AdriPeraltaM - Jan 7, 2015, 1:03 pm
When life begins is both a scientific and philosophical question.
When life begins is both a scientific and philosophical question. (Wikipedia)

EspañolSimple questions can often have complicated answers with profound implications, but perhaps none more so than those dealing with the fate of the born and the unborn. Before we can tackle when human life begins, however, we must first define a “person.”

Legally, a person is a human being with rights, privileges, and responsibilities. These attributes come into effect throughout one’s life, which is why there exists things like “age of consent” and “legal adulthood.” But the right to life is a person’s first and foremost right; it is the most inherent to personhood, and the right from which all others are derived.

As for life’s beginning, there are many ways of analyzing this question. The starting point we choose for human life will determine what rights this being will have until it dies, namely his rights to life, liberty, and property.

Therefore, the answer to this question cannot be taken lightly. It deserves strong legal, moral, and even philosophical considerations.

Who Gets to Decide?

Religious concepts of life and death, which often guide individual belief, cannot alone decide the answer to this question. That is not to say that it is wrong for people to live religiously, but only to suggest people cannot be forced into following any given set of spiritual precepts. For this reason, religion must be put aside as the source of absolute truth within this discussion.

Science can offer a guidance in understanding when life begins. Science has cleared the path toward answers for our many inquiries throughout history, debunking unsubstantiated theories and establishing truths with its discoveries.

To understand when human life begins, we must consult the works of embryologists, such as Canadian Keith Moore’s book Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects. In it, he writes human development begins “after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception).”

“Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei (the haploid nuclei of the sperm and ovum) and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell,” Moore continues. “This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being.”

This new being has 46 chromosomes and a unique genetic code. To further understand life’s beginnings, and to dispel the competing theory that life begins only once the brain becomes active, one can read the work of biologist Dianne Irving. The doctor earned her PhD from Georgetown University, and published her dissertation in 1991, titled, “A Philosophical and Scientific Analysis of the Nature of the Early Human Embryo.”

While the scientific community is not yet done researching the beginning of life, there is growing consensus that the zygote is a human being and, therefore, entitled to rights and protections.

How Can a Right to Life be Violated?

One reason people support abortion rights is by arguing that because a fetus exists inside a woman, she can decide what to do with it. But does a woman really have the right to decide what to do with another human being? Sure, it exists in her body and depends on her to stay alive, but this new being does not belong to her entirely. A mother is not the absolute owner of the lives of her children.

In the case of life-threatening situations to the mother, there is a medical decision to be made. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but ethically and medically, it is clearly preferable to save both lives. With the advancements in modern medicine today, this solution is increasingly possible.

One person’s right to life is not dependent on the action of third parties. Therefore, if a person is unfortunately conceived as a result of rape, does that diminish his right to live? Would knowing a person will be born with genetic malformations, Down Syndrome, or mental illness, diminish his human dignity and right to live?

In dubio pro vita is the Latin phrase for “when in doubt, favor life.” If there is scientific evidence in favor of life, why wouldn’t we save the lives of the unborn when in doubt?

There is inconsistency in the thinking of a person who does not support the right to life and yet is excited by the prospect of “life on Mars” or other planets. The sort who talk of traces of water or amino acids that may be able to develop intelligent life, while at the same time see a zygote — 46 unique chromosomes belonging to an unrepeated being — as a lifeless thing.

Translation by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

Adriana Peralta Adriana Peralta

Adriana Peralta is a freedom advocate from El Salvador and a @CREO_org board member. She is a PanAm Post reporter and blogger, a 2005 Ruta Quetzal scholar, a trained engineer, and an SMC University masters student in political economy. She is also a Pink Floyd fan. Follow @AdriPeraltaM.