When does life begin? It sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it? Certainly it is a question to which one could give at least one’s personal opinion.

Not so fast. At least when asked in regard to abortion issues, “When does life begin?” is a smokescreen, a red herring, a trick question. It’s a “gotcha” waiting to happen.

Even scientists do not fully agree on what constitutes “life.” But by most definitions I can find, a single sperm cell or a single ovum, qualifies, as do most other single cells in the human body. Is that what the questioner means? Probably not.

Rephrase it perhaps, to “When does human life begin?” Not very helpful, as too general. OK, then, how about “When does a discrete human life begin?” Better.

Let’s posit that a discrete human life begins when sperm and ovum join. But wait! What if that entity later splits into two, producing identical twins? Did two discrete human lives begin when a single sperm and ovum joined? Did that single entity possess two lives? Or is one the original life, and the other just a copy? If so, which is which?

But that doesn’t really matter for abortion discussions, because it still isn’t the question that is actually being asked. That question is “When does a human life begin that is entitled not to be ended by another’s deliberate action?”* And that is the question on which people differ. Some say when the sperm and ovum unite, some say when the embryo is implanted, some say when life outside the womb is technically possible, some say at birth. Some say only when the life is wanted by the woman incubating it. Some at the radical ends argue either for the life-sacredness of the individual sperm and ovum or for the “right to life” not beginning until some period of time after birth.

It is a question that has occupied years of thought on the part of philosophers, theologians, and legal scholars. It is a question on which not all of them have decided on an answer, and of those who have, their answers do not agree. Small wonder, then, if the occasional person not able to devote their life to the question has not decided on an answer.

And then: it is a question regarding which some people are willing to impose their answer on everyone, and others are not.

*The obvious corollary is “When does a human life cease being entitled not to be ended by another’s deliberate action?” but this essay is not about war, self-defense, removing life support, capital punishment, etc.

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