Saturday, February 02, 2008

When does life begin?

I noticed recently on the blog of an internet acquaintance of mine (i.e., someone I know only through the internet, but have interacted with quite a few times; an atheist by the way), that he questioned how anyone could say life began at conception (this is in the context of the abortion debate). He admitted that drawing the line at birth is arbitrary, but he felt that any other line, including conception, would be just as arbitrary.

That inspired me to explain one completely non-theistic argument I believe can be made for life beginning at conception. First, I agree that drawing the line at birth would be too arbitrary. After all, two children can be at the exact same stage of development in the womb, but one will be born one week ahead of his or her due date whereas another one comes a week late. Some children are born extremely prematurely, so that doctors have to hook them up to respirators in order to survive. Yet someone who willingly murders such a child outside the womb would be accused of being a criminal whereas anyone drawing the line at birth would have to say there is nothing wrong with aborting a child at that exact same stage of development but still in the womb. Being inside or outside the womb doesn't relevantly differentiate between how much of a "life" exists in that little body.

So why do I advocate drawing the line at conception? Because at conception a process of bodily change begins that does not end until our death. Left to their own devices, an individual sperm or egg will never develop into a human being. But once conception occurs, that zygote/embryo has begun the process of developing, aging and changing. This process never ends until we die. After conception we start developing body parts. We start growing. The body begins the never-ending process of undergoing changes.

Can this process be interrupted so that the child is never born? Of course. A dear friend of mine lost a child before birth. But the fact that the process can be interrupted is irrelevant. After all, it can be interrupted once we are outside the womb as well. Any number of diseases or other abnormalities can kill us, but that does not mean we are not human. It does not mean we do not have life. Can the development process be stopped in the womb? Yes. But it can also be stopped outside the womb. So this cannot serve to make any relevant distinction.

Once this process begins, our body never stops undergoing this process of change. You can not even make a relevant distinction by claiming that while in the womb we are developing whereas afterwards we are degenerating. After all, we continue to grow outside the womb (our ears actually never stop growing until the day we die). A baby's skull is not fully developed when it exits the womb. And who can forget puberty? That certainly is a new stage of development after birth.

My point is simply this. Conception is the only non-arbitrary line that can be drawn. Before that, this process of change has not begun. After that it has, and it never stops until we die. Any other line would be completely arbitrary. Therefore, the only logical conclusion would be to treat life as beginning at conception.


Max Parish said...

Interesting thoughts on conception. I have spoken a number of times for my local Right to Life chapter, so I am quite interested in these issues.

Thanks for dropping by my blog. It is amazing how connections are made!


akakiwibear said...

I agree with your reasoning - it seeems obvious. There is no need to go to theist arguments to challenge abortion as other than a crude way of controlling the birth rate and saving governments from expensive infrastructure development to support larger populations (you know another reason?)

However the pro-abortion lobby tends to use an arbitrary line in the sand related to weeks of development (different in different places).

The basis for their argument is the ability to survive independently, rather than when life begins.

Unfortunately the argument is seldom thought through to its logical conclusion - is this an exception or is it a rule. Let me explain.

If a rule, then when a life is unable to sustain itself it has lost its right to continue and may be terminated by apparently the responsible care giver. For the embryo that is the mother, for the teenager on life support after an accident, perhaps the parents, for the adulst on dialysis ... who.

There is nothing in the abortionist argument that includes any condition other than the ability to sustain life oneself - the ability or potential to do so in the future is clearly not an issue, so I have included the recovering teenager or dialysis patient in my example.

IF however as some do they argue that this is not a rule it is an exception - its is necessary to make an exception to the law of murder for those who .... and at this point I get lost and I suspect they do too. Why allow the murder of those among the most defenceless but not others .... why ...

... problem is that once the abortion rationale (or lack thereof) is accepted into society then the rule can be extended to any who can't sustain life ... old people will be first.

Sala kahle - peace

Ten Minas Ministries said...


Thanks for dropping by my blog! Hopefully we can continue to encourage each other in our faith.


I think the best example to illustrate your point to those in favor of abortion would be the child who is born prematurely and needs to be put on life support. Would I be justified in deliberately taking a knife to that child? That child cannot support his or her own life. The only difference between the two examples is that one is outside the womb whereas the other is still inside the womb, but as I argued in my original post, that is an irrelevant distinction.

I agree with all the examples you give. But comparing babies to babies may make the point sink home for people a bit more.

And as much as I agree with the theistic arguments against abortion (being a devout Christian myself), I agree that it is not necessary to be a theist to disapprove of abortion. I sometimes like to show people who do not accept theism that some of their beliefs (such as the morality of abortion) cannot be supported even given their own naturalistic worldviews.

God bless.


Jim Jordan said...

Excellent post.
Because at conception a process of bodily change begins that does not end until our death.

No one could honestly argue with that. said...

Jim Jordan said...

No one could honestly argue with that.

I will honestly argue, that the structure of the claim is a biological truism. Consider this restatement:

Because upon eating this sandwich a process of bodily change begins that does not end until our death

This is also true, almost any biological process results in a life long progression of interactions, some of the sandwich becomes your blood, some becomes your brain, and these parts of you/sandwich effect everything that follows.

The fact that these statements are true, does not make them relevant.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

The point is that the attempts to draw a line about when killing this organism is ok and when it is not inevitably always seem to be based upon the stage of development. But my point is that any such lines are also inevitably arbitrary. This development begins at conception.

What non-arbitrary line would you draw after that? Birth? Then how do you respond to the fact that babies are born at different stages of development? Viability? Then would you say it is acceptable to murder a child who is born prematurely and must be put on life support?

You seem to be saying that this same thing is true of other biological processes as well. Why is that relevant? It is true in this case. That leaves you with the burden of coming up with some non-arbitrary and supportable line. Otherwise your position is inconsistent when you ban killing some organisms but not others with no clear line of demarcation in between.

Thank you for your comments.