“When do you believe life begins in the womb?” I’ve posed this question to pro-choicers in the past and seen other pro-lifers do the same. It’s a helpful question to get an idea on how a person thinks about infants pre-birth. In any debate, especially one so important as the abortion debate, it’s useful to learn the starting point that an individual’s viewpoint stems from. Asking questions makes both parties think. I certainly still see the use in this particular question; however, lately, I’ve been pondering how completely nonsensical the question is and how the “core topics” we’re forced to debate relating to the ethics of abortion aren’t even the real issues at all.
It seems that conversations about abortion always end up back to the question of when human life begins in the womb. We have to go there when the pro-choice side resounds with cries of “It’s not even a baby yet!” “Clump of cells!” “Life doesn’t start at conception!” But if we think critically and scientifically about it, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers have to agree that whether blastocyst, embryo, fetus, or onward “human life” is indeed present in the womb. Is it human? A look at the genetic structure and D.N.A would certainly make the answer clear. Just as forensic specialists can take hair or skin cells from a crime scene and determine they are genetically human, so too can we look at a developing infant and see that it belongs to the human species and not to say, a dog, octopus, or eagle. No pro-choicer I’ve met thus far would argue this fact.
Is it alive? The biological definition of life is:
- Organization: In a living organism “Individual cells perform complex biochemical processes needed to maintain their structure and function, and each cell is highly organized.” After an egg cell is fertilized and the two becoming one cell, that cell organizes itself to replicate into more cells. Those cells become specialized for different purposes; kidney cell, eye cell, skin cell, etc. There is no doubt that immediately upon fertilization, organization is occurring within the rapidly growing number of cells.
- Metabolism is defined as “The sum total of the biochemical reactions occurring in an organism.” In order to sustain life, cells must consume energy and nutrients through complex chemical reactions. In the womb, the infant is indeed consuming energy and nutrients provided by the mother and using them to keep growing.
- Homeostasis: The “maintenance of a stable internal environment.” Though it’s difficult to study the exact processes of the developing infant’s regulatory system, scientists do know that certain hormones associated with regulation and homeostasis are present in utero, such as vasopressin (ADH), aldosterone, and renin-angiotensi. No matter the number of cells, homeostasis is undoubtedly occurring.
- Growth: Through rapid cell division, the organism is growing in the womb at an astonishing pace. Just days after conception, D.N.A replication is occurring at a rate exceeding 208,000 nucleotides per second.
- Reproduction: At seven weeks an infant has developed internal sex organs and at 9 weeks, males and females begin to differentiate externally. By nature of belonging to the human species, they will one day be able to reproduce sexually.
- Response: Living organisms respond to stimuli or changes in their environment. Olfactory neurons develop between six and seven weeks. By eight weeks, touch receptors have developed in the face. The “five senses” are rapidly developing pre-birth, and even in the early days of being an embryo, the cells respond to changes in their environment to achieve the above homeostasis.
All this is to say that from conception to birth, infants unequivocally fit the scientific criteria to be deemed “living organisms.” We use similar criteria to look at single celled organisms and declare “life” on mars. Though one can research deep into the specifics of each one, these criteria in their most basic form are not horribly complex. A high school biology class could understand them.
When we engage in debates, the question isn’t when someone believes human life begins in the womb. Science has already proven that human life begins at conception.
The real question we are asking, and the core of the abortion debate is “What value do we put on human life? At what point does one find value in a developing infant and deem it worth protecting?” This is a major reason people become so impassioned and even enraged by the topic. Because it reaches to the core of what a person believes about life and our humanity.
What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? Who decides what a human life is worth? If one has no belief in a higher power, nor the existence of the soul, these questions can only be answered by one’s personal feelings on the subject. “Well, I don’t see it or it doesn’t immediately affect me, so I feel like it’s okay.” After all, humans at any age are just giant clumps of cells stumbling about converting nutrients into energy and reproducing until they die.
There is nothing to differentiate humans from any other organism. All of our apparent differences, our desire to create, our passions, our philosophy, our morals, our art, and history are meaningless in the grand scheme of an ever expanding universe. One day humans will become extinct and our monuments, museums, galleries, and homes will crumble and be swallowed back into nature’s leafy grasp. Before or after such decomposition, the sun may simply consume the earth in it’s fiery blaze. No matter the circumstances, humanity and all it’s created will cease to exist. And no one will be around to remember us. We are finite and insignificant. Nihilism is inextricably connected to a regard only for the physical and a rejection of the eternal and supernatural.
Ultimately, a world without God, souls, or eternal life leaves no room for an objective and absolute truth concerning our worth. Love yourself, because you’ll be happier. Love others if you want and it makes you feel good, but you don’t really have to. Love after all is nothing more than chemical reactions in our brains and bodies. Other humans have value only insofar as they can fulfill some need for an individual or society as a whole. This is why pro-choicers are willing to grieve with mothers who have suffered miscarriages because they know she lost something of value to her personally. But there is nothing beyond personal value to an infant in the womb. We should not be surprised when someone without faith defends abortion because they are only being consistent with their worldview.
Christians, on the other hand, see the world filtered through the lens of Scripture. Even though humans and the world they live in are fallen and diseased with sin, they still have objective value. We are made in God’s image and loved simply because we are His. We are loved so much that the creator of the universe took on flesh and died and rose to give us eternal life.
There is more to us than just bodies of clumped together cells. We each have a soul, a being that will last long after our lungs stop breathing and our bodies decompose. Our humanity is an extension of our souls. That is, our desire to create -our art, music, poetry, and passions, the wonder we feel as we stand on a mountain and view the sunrise, the indescribable love we feel for another, the unspeakable grief we feel when separated from them by death’s insatiable jaws- these aren’t just random bumblings of meaningless organisms residing on a speck in the timeline of infinity. These are the products of beings who have written on their hearts an intrinsic knowledge of something more, something beyond what we can see, touch, and study.
Therefore, human life in every form has meaning, beauty, and worth. Infants in the womb are not exempt from this truth. Upon exiting the womb, we aren’t suddenly gifted a soul and value, nor when we can breath, nor when our heart beats, nor when equipment can pick up brain waves.
This is the real debate. I’d love to ask us to do away with the language of “when life begins” but I know that won’t happen. But let’s be aware of what we’re really asking each other. “What do you believe it means to be human? When do we have intrinsic value? Who decides?” Science has already answered when human life begins. Yet, these questions science cannot answer. And that’s troubling for those who base their worldview on the material and the study-able. Because it looks to something beyond this world, beyond ourselves, yet something that can be glimpsed in the most meaningful expressions of our humanity. It lasts from the moment of conception, well after “life” as we know it ends, and stretches into eternity.