Do biological facts determine when a human fetus is considered alive and human?

Do biological facts determine when a human fetus is considered alive and human?

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I often hear or read this statement:

"It's not a human, it's a fetus."

In other words, some think a fetus is non-human until a certain point.

And another similar statement:

"The fetus isn't alive until 26 weeks of gestation."

So some think the fetus is not actually "alive" until a certain point.

What does biology have to say about these two statements?

I encounter these statements often in discussions about abortion, but that issue, and other similar philosophical issues, are outside this question. I'm wondering strictly from a scientific/biological standpoint: are these statements true?

Is the fetus in a human mother non-human until a certain point?

Does the fetus not classify as "alive" until a certain point?

The people I encountered truly believed these statements (3 of the 4 in mind also claimed science was on their side), so it's not as if the question has no merit. I assumed that in the realm of science and biology, there must be a convincing and sure answer.

Life is generally distinguished from non-life by metabolism and growth. As such, a fetus is alive. The reference to "not… until 26 weeks gestation" that you've heard likely refers to viability.* With the most aggressive medical care, this is the approximate age when a fetus may be able to survive outside the womb.

The term human from a biologic perspective is a species label.** Given that a fetus is genetically indistinguishable (in broad strokes) from a post-natal human, I think it would be hard to argue that it is anything other than human.

Summary: Yes, a human fetus is both alive and human.

*Note that this use of the word viable is standard but deviates somewhat from the etymology of the word.
**I'm ignoring here other ancient species (homo-) which may be considered human but are irrelevant to the question.

The fetus is certainly "alive" from the very beginning, since conception. The second comment hence does not make sense.

Regarding whether it is "human" or not, that would depend on the definition of "human". It seems to be more a philosophical than biological question. From the biology point of view it all goes down to this, a fetus in a human womb is a "human fetus", certainly not a "mouse fetus". Fetus only indicates a time period in the development of a mammal (before being born). Another question is whether the fetus has attributes of grown up humans, like the ability to talk. But then, a newborn does not have many of those attributes yet it is considered a human.

Biological determinism

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Biological determinism, also called biologism or biodeterminism, the idea that most human characteristics, physical and mental, are determined at conception by hereditary factors passed from parent to offspring. Although all human traits ultimately are based in a material nature (e.g., memorizing a poem involves changing molecular configurations at synapses, where neurons interact), the term biological determinism has come to imply a rigid causation largely unaffected by environmental factors. Prior to the 20th century and the rediscovery of Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel’s work on heredity, a wide variety of factors were thought to influence hereditary traits. For example, environmental agents were thought to act directly on the mother’s or father’s germ cells (eggs or sperm, respectively) or indirectly on the fetus via the mother during pregnancy. After the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, theories of biological determinism became increasingly formulated in terms of the then new science of genetics. Thus, biological determinism became synonymous with genetic determinism, though some researchers later considered the two to be distinct.


Proper nutrition is a vital factor in a child’s overall development. Prior to birth, a mother’s diet and health play a key role. For example, folic acid intake of 400 micrograms (mcg) daily for three months prior to conception and during early pregnancy significantly decreases the risk of certain birth defects of a baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida).  

These birth defects occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy, which is why it is important for women in their childbearing years to ensure they are getting at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. Waiting until a woman finds out she is pregnant can be too late.

What are the medical benefits of fetal tissue research?

According to STAT News, fetal tissue was involved in the discovery of treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia. Recently, research on fetal tissue has helped scientists learn how the Zika virus might cause birth defects, and how it might be prevented.

Certain vaccines, including those for polio, measles, chickenpox, and rabies, were also developed with the use of stem cells derived from human fetal tissue. (Despite this, the Catholic Church—which is strongly opposed to abortion—has said that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the ethical issues involved.)

Last year, when the Trump administration temporarily halted the acquisition of new fetal tissue for government research, Science magazine reported that studies being conducted by the National Eye Institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Cancer Institute were affected.

And in his statement, UCSF Chancellor Hawgood said that �tal tissue is used in important research aimed at discovering cures for illnesses that affect the lives of millions of Americans, including Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, eye disease, and HIV.” He also noted that UCSF had been working with specially designed models “that could be developed only through the use of fetal tissue to find a cure for HIV.”

A Scientific View of When Life Begins

Questions about the very beginning of human life continue to surface in the media, usually in the context of a public policy issue like contraceptives vs. abortifacients, conscience policy, or cloning and related techniques. Recently, in an interview on Fox News, the issue was brought up by a public figure, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who, in response to a question about climate change, cited it as an example of political liberals refusing to recognize long-established science about human biology. “Facts are stubborn things,” the adage goes, but, unfortunately, so are politically or morally useful attempts to tailor the facts. CLI is pleased to publish this slightly updated version of Dr. Maureen Condic’s fine essay on the science of new life. The original version was published by Human Life International (HLI) and we offer it here with thanks to Dr. Condic and HLI for their permission to do so. For more information about HLI publications, please visit

A Scientific View of When Life Begins

The question of when human life begins has been answered in a variety of ways by different religious and philosophical traditions throughout the ages, leading many to conclude the question cannot be definitively answered. Yet what does science tell us about when life begins?[1] One of the basic insights of modern biology is that life is continuous, with living cells giving rise to new types of cells and, ultimately, to new individuals. Therefore, in considering the question of when a new human life begins, we must first address the more fundamental question of when a new cell, distinct from sperm and egg, comes into existence.

The scientific basis for distinguishing one cell type from another rests on two criteria: differences in what something is made of (its molecular composition) and differences in how the cell behaves. These two criteria are universally agreed upon and employed throughout the scientific enterprise. They are not “religious” beliefs or matters of personal opinion. They are objective, verifiable scientific criteria that determine precisely when a new cell type is formed.

Based on these criteria, the joining (or fusion) of sperm and egg clearly produces a new cell type, the zygote or one-cell embryo. Cell fusion is a well studied and very rapid event, occurring in less than a second. Because the zygote arises from the fusion of two different cells, it contains all the components of both sperm and egg, and therefore this new cell has a unique molecular composition that is distinct from either gamete. Thus the zygote that comes into existence at the moment of sperm-egg fusion meets the first scientific criterion for being a new cell type: its molecular make-up is clearly different from that of the cells that gave rise to it.

Subsequent to sperm-egg fusion, events rapidly occur in the zygote that do not normally occur in either sperm or egg. Within minutes, the zygote initiates a change in its internal state that will, over the next 30 minutes, block additional sperm from binding to the cell surface. Thus, the zygote acts immediately to oppose the function of the gametes from which it is derived while the “goal” of both sperm and egg is to find each other and to fuse, the first act of the zygote is to prevent any further binding of sperm to the cell surface. Clearly, the zygote has entered into a new pattern of behavior, and therefore meets the second scientific criterion for being a new cell type.

What is the nature of the new cell that comes into existence upon sperm-egg fusion? Most importantly, is the zygote merely another human cell (like a liver cell or a skin cell) or is it something else? Just as science distinguishes between different types of cells, it also makes clear distinctions between cells and organisms. Both cells and organisms are alive, yet organisms exhibit unique characteristics that can reliably distinguish them from mere cells.[2]

An organism is defined as “(1) a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole and (2) an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a living being.” (Merriam-Webster) This definition stresses the interaction of parts in the context of a coordinated whole as the distinguishing feature of an organism. Organisms are “living beings.” Therefore, another name for a human organism is a “human being” an entity that is a complete human, rather than a part of a human.

Human beings can be distinguished from human cells using the same kind of criteria scientists use to distinguish different cell types. A human being (i.e., a human organism) is composed of human parts (cells, proteins, RNA, DNA), yet it is different from a mere collection of cells because it has the characteristic molecular composition and behavior of an organism: it acts in an interdependent and coordinated manner to “carry on the activities of life.”

Human embryos from the one-cell (zygote) stage forward show uniquely integrated, organismal behavior that is unlike the behavior of mere human cells. The zygote produces increasingly complex tissues, structures and organs that work together in a coordinated way. Importantly, the cells, tissues and organs produced during development do not somehow “generate” the embryo (as if there were some unseen, mysterious “manufacturer” directing this process), they are produced by the embryo as it directs its own development to more mature stages of human life. This organized, coordinated behavior of the embryo is the defining characteristic of a human organism.

In contrast to human embryos, human cells are alive and, under some circumstances, they can assemble into primitive tissues and structures. Yet under no circumstances do mere human cells produce the kind of coordinated interactions necessary for building a fully integrated human body. They do not produce tissues in a coherent manner and do not organize them so as to sustain the life of the entity as a whole. They produce tumors i.e., parts of the human body in a chaotic, disorganized manner. They behave like cells, not like organisms.

The conclusion that human life begins at sperm-egg fusion is uncontested, objective, based on the universally accepted scientific method of distinguishing different cell types from each other and on ample scientific evidence (thousands of independent, peer-reviewed publications). Moreover, it is entirely independent of any specific ethical, moral, political, or religious view of human life or of human embryos. Indeed, this definition does not directly address the central ethical question surrounding the embryo: What value ought society place on human life at the earliest stages of development? A neutral examination of the evidence merely establishes the onset of a new human life at a scientifically well-defined “moment of conception,” a conclusion that unequivocally indicates that human embryos from the one-cell stage forward are indeed living individuals of the human species i.e., human beings.

*Dr. Condic is Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine. She is also Director of Human Embryology instruction for the Medical School and of Human Neuroanatomy for the Dental School.

12 Things You Should Know About Fetal Tissue Research and Donation

Controversy over abortion rights is threatening this crucial area of medical research.

Ever since an anti-abortion group released a series of sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood's fetal donation practices last summer, the little-known area of fetal tissue research has been thrust into the national spotlight. The highly edited videos allege that the women's health organization illegally sells aborted fetuses for profit. Planned Parenthood responded by saying that it is standard practice to seek reimbursement for costs associated with fetal tissue donation, and that neither the organization nor the patient benefits financially from it. The videos caused a frenzy among anti-abortion Republican lawmakers &mdash including Sen. Ted Cruz, who said the videos were proof that Planned Parenthood was "selling baby parts" &mdash and fueled a federal effort to defund the organization. However, eight states have declined to investigate Planned Parenthood due to lack of evidence of any wrongdoing, 12 state investigations have turned up nothing, and one grand jury even indicted the creators of the deceptive videos.

But fetal tissue research is still under attack. Republicans have launched a special House Committee to probe those who conduct fetal tissue research, which abortion rights activists and university officials say could threaten the lives of researchers, graduate students, administrative and support staff, and health-care providers at institutions that research or work with fetal tissue. Scientists and researchers have been procuring and studying fetal tissue for years. Though it may sound like an obscure area of science, you've probably been affected by the products of fetal tissue research in some way during your lifetime. As the government continues to debate the merits of this area of research, here are 12 things you should know:

1. Human fetal tissue comes from aborted fetuses. A human embryo becomes a fetus nine weeks after conception (the 11th week of pregnancy). For scientific purposes, human fetal tissue or organs can be acquired from either a miscarriage (which is called a spontaneous abortion), an ectopic pregnancy, or an induced abortion. But according to a Congressional Research Service reporton fetal tissue, fetal tissue from induced abortions is preferred for medical research. Spontaneous abortions and ectopic pregnancies are often unpredictable and can pose serious health risks to a woman, so "fetal tissue collected under these circumstances is often not suitable for research purposes."

2. Fetal tissue is hard to replace in research. Researchers use fetal tissue for a variety of reasons. They produce cell cultures from the tissue that can be stored in laboratories for long periods of time. According to the CRS report, these "[c]ultured cells mimic many of the properties that they have in a living body, and therefore can be used as a model for researchers studying basic biological processes." Carrie Wolinetz, the associate director for science policy at the National Institutes of Health, explained why fetal tissue is so useful to scientists and researchers in a December article in Nature. "Fetal tissue is a flexible, less-differentiated tissue," she said. "It grows readily and adapts to new environments, allowing researchers to study basic biology or use it as a tool in a way that can't be replicated with adult tissue."

This tissue can't simply be replaced by a computer model or simulation program either. "If we want to study a process, it's best to study the real thing," Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor Akhilesh Pandey told the Baltimore Sun. He has used fetal tissue to study cancer for more than a decade. "Models can be insufficient in mimicking what we want to study. Even today we don't understand all the biological processes. We can make a little bit of skin in the lab or cartilage, but not organs. For that, there is more complicated interplay."

3. Fetal tissue has been used in medical research since the 1930s . Though it's causing a stir today, human fetal tissue research has been a staple in the medical and scientific community for almost 100 years, and "virtually every person in this country has benefited" from its research, wrote Alta Charo, a leading bioethicist and professor of law and bioethics at the Wisconsin School of Law and School of Medicine & Public Health, in the New England Journal of Medicine. "Every child who's been spared the risks and misery of chickenpox, rubella, or polio can thank the Nobel Prize recipients and other scientists who used such tissue in research yielding the vaccines that protect us (and give even the unvaccinated the benefit of herd immunity). This work has been going on for nearly a century, and the vaccines it produced have been in use nearly as long."

4. It continues to play a critical role in research today. Renate Myles, chief of the National Institute of Health's news media branch, told via email that human fetal tissue "continues to have an essential role in the pursuit of a vaccine for Ebola and new therapeutics for HIV/AIDS." Myles adds that it is "also a critical resource for researchers studying retinal degeneration, pregnancy loss, human development disorders such Down syndrome, and early brain development, with relevance to autism and schizophrenia." In fact, new fetal tissue research recently revealed information about the Zika virus that is considered a public health emergency by the World Health Organization. Little is known about the virus, and restrictions on fetal tissue research may interfere with learning about the disease.

5. Researchers get fetal tissue from several places: abortion providers, tissue banks, or a company supplier. Some researchers acquire fetal tissue from "abortion clinics at their own institutions, or from tissue banks maintained by some universities," reports the New York Times, and "[m]any buy the tissue from companies that act as middlemen." Despite what the controversy generated by the videos suggests, Nature reports that only a "handful of [Planned Parenthood] clinics in two states supply fetal tissue for research," and the Times reports that abortion providers are paid "small fees" &mdash which providers say are reimbursement costs &mdashfor fetal tissue specimens. In response to the controversy, however, Planned Parenthood stopped seeking reimbursement for fetal tissue in the few offices where it was collected.

The companies that process the tissue then sell it to researchers for higher prices, sometimes charging up to thousands of dollars for a vial. But even this is not illegal. The founder of one major fetal tissue supplier told the Times that the increased prices reflect the high costs associated with extracting cells or tissue, storing them, and shipping them. StemExpress founder Cate Dyer said that isolating certain fetal cells can "take millions of dollars of equipment" and can cost "thousands of dollars" without a guarantee that it will work. However, the Times also notes that the suppliers "exist in a gray zone, legally," as "[f]ederal law says they cannot profit from the tissue itself, but the law does not specify how much they can charge for processing and shipping."

6. The federal government has supported the use of fetal tissue for medical research for decades. The National Institute of Health has supported fetal tissue research since the 1950s. In 2014, the National Institute of Health funded grants and projects for human fetal tissue research up to $76 million to more than 50 universities, including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT.

7. There are numerous restrictions on federal funding of human fetal tissue used in research. After abortion was legalized in 1973, there was a national debate on the ethics of fetal tissue donation and use in research. The government appointed a committee to assess the ethics of collecting and donating fetal tissue, which led to regulations that said that patients cannot be offered money or compensation to undergo an abortion and ensured that researchers "will have no part in any decisions as to the timing, method, or procedures used to terminate a pregnancy."

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the NIH Revitalization Act into law, which also made it illegal to profit from the sale, purchase, or transfer of human fetal tissue used for transplants. The law does, however, allow for reasonable payments for the reimbursement of costs associated with the "transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue." The law also requires that a woman consent to an abortion before she can be asked about fetal tissue donation, and she has no say in how the tissue will be used once donated. While Clinton's regulations apply only to federally funded fetal tissue transplant research, Charo explained that "most clinics and most researchers try to follow the same federal rule, even when it is not required, because it has kind of become a standardized practice."

8. Most states have laws regulating fetal tissue donation. Every state has adopted its own version of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, a framework created in 1968 to regulate the donation of human tissue, organs, and body parts. According to a report by the Guttmacher Policy Review, 38 states and Washington, D.C., have "UAGA laws that explicitly treat fetal tissue the same way as other human tissue, permitting it to be donated by the woman for research, therapy or education." The UAGA laws in 12 remaining states don't have language specific to fetal tissue, "neither allowing nor disallowing the donation of fetal tissue." In addition to the UAGA, the Guttmacher report says that some states have specific statutes in line with federal guidelines that prohibit profiting from sale and procurement of fetal tissue or require patient consent before donation.

9. A growing number of states are curbing the ability to use donated fetal tissue for research &mdash and some have outright banned the donation of fetal tissue. Several states &mdash including a handful in which the UAGA explicitly allows for fetal tissue donation &mdash have banned fetal tissue research. This means that even fetal tissue legally donated from abortions cannot be used for medical research. And according to the Guttmacher Institute, amid the furor over Planned Parenthood, five states &mdash South Dakota, Indiana, Florida, Idaho and Arizona &mdash have declared an outright ban on fetal tissue donation this year, becoming "the first [laws] to ever ban the donation of fetal tissue." According to Guttmacher director of public policy Heather Boonstra, the new donation bans supersede any existing UAGA laws that may have allowed fetal tissue donation. In South Dakota, conducting fetal tissue research is now considered a felony, and Indiana's ban on fetal tissue donation requires that aborted fetuses be cremated or buried. In total, Guttmacher says that eight states now have laws that ban fetal tissue donation and/or ban fetal tissue research.

These laws are a preview of what's to come. Guttmacher reports that similar bans have passed in at least one chamber of four other states, and since the Planned Parenthood videos emerged, 28 states have introduced legislation targeting fetal tissue research.

10. The anti-abortion debate has stalled fetal tissue research before. After Roe v. Wage legalized abortion in 1973, the Guttmacher Policy Reportnotes, "antiabortion leaders in Congress seized on fetal tissue research as a weapon in the war against abortion." The debate led to a temporary moratorium on federal funding of fetal tissue research until a bioethics committee laid out some ethical guidelines about fetal tissue used in federally funded research. The moratorium was lifted in 1975 and the use of fetal tissue in the research community flourished until 1988, when the Reagan administration put a moratorium on all federal funding of fetal tissue transplant research. A bipartisan ethics commission was again set up to decide on the ethics of fetal tissue transplantation. This commission concluded that using fetal tissue from aborted human fetuses was ethical. However, Reagan went against the commission's recommendations and continued the moratorium. Private funding continued and so "the work went on, it just went on more slowly, and went on, of course, in other countries," Charo explained. President Clinton signed an executive order lifting the moratorium in 1993.

11. Several anti-abortion conservatives previously supported fetal tissue research. Though they now oppose fetal tissue research, Sen. Leader Mitch McConnell Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, Fred Upton, R-Mich. and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., all voted to lift the moratorium on fetal tissue research in the 1990s. MSNBC notes that then-Republican minority leader former Sen. Bob Dole "even declared during the 1992 debate that lifting a ban on such research 'is the true pro-life position.'"

12. The current attacks on fetal tissue research pose a serious threat to medical breakthroughs around the world. Many researchers are seeing a steep drop in fetal tissue supply, have suspended their research entirely, or, as in the case of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, "no longer accepts applications from researchers seeking fetal tissue from abortions performed there," reports the New York Times. Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center, told Nature that the abortion controversy "absolutely puts fetal tissue research at risk" because it deters young scientists from entering a field "where funding is uncertain and physical threats are a real possibility." The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is distressed by Congress's ongoing investigation into fetal tissue researchers and procurement companies. In a statement condemning the hearings, the organization wrote: "Unfortunately, some state and federal politicians are working hard to obstruct &mdash or even criminalize &mdash fetal tissue research, limiting the ability of America's leading scientists and researchers to develop new vaccines and medicines to prevent and treat disease." If politicians continue to interfere with this research, the ACOG warns that "fetal tissue research bans will stymie U.S.-based medical progress, leaving us to rely on other countries to develop medicines for our own patients."

This article has been updated to clarify why fetal tissue supply companies may increase prices when selling tissue.

Medical Testimony

Page Summary:

It is false to claim that no one knows when life begins and dishonest to argue that abortion does not kill a human being.

Every new life begins at conception. This is an irrefutable fact of biology. It is true for animals and true for humans. When considered alongside the law of biogenesis&mdashthat every species reproduces after its own kind&mdashwe can draw only one conclusion in regard to abortion. No matter what the circumstances of conception, no matter how far along in the pregnancy, abortion always ends the life of an individual human being. Every honest abortion advocate concedes this simple fact.

Faye Wattleton, the longest reigning president of the largest abortion business in the United States&mdashPlanned Parenthood&mdashargued as far back as 1997 that everyone already knows that abortion kills. She proclaims the following in an interview with Ms. Magazine:

I think we have deluded ourselves into believing that people don't know that abortion is killing. So any pretense that abortion is not killing is a signal of our ambivalence, a signal that we cannot say yes, it kills a fetus. 1

On the other side of the pond, Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the largest independent abortion business in the UK, said this in a 2008 debate:

We can accept that the embryo is a living thing in the fact that it has a beating heart, that it has its own genetic system within it. It&rsquos clearly human in the sense that it&rsquos not a gerbil, and we can recognize that it is human life. 2

Naomi Wolf, a prominent feminist author and abortion supporter, makes a similar concession when she writes:

Clinging to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions. And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life. we need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death. 3

David Boonin, in his book, A Defense of Abortion, makes this startling admission:

In the top drawer of my desk, I keep [a picture of my son]. This picture was taken on September 7, 1993, 24 weeks before he was born. The sonogram image is murky, but it reveals clear enough a small head tilted back slightly, and an arm raised up and bent, with the hand pointing back toward the face and the thumb extended out toward the mouth. There is no doubt in my mind that this picture, too, shows [my son] at a very early stage in his physical development. And there is no question that the position I defend in this book entails that it would have been morally permissible to end his life at this point. 4

Peter Singer, contemporary philosopher and public abortion advocate, joins the chorus in his book, Practical Ethics. He writes:

It is possible to give &lsquohuman being&rsquo a precise meaning. We can use it as equivalent to &lsquomember of the species Homo sapiens&rsquo. 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. 5

Bernard Nathanson co-founded one of the most influential abortion advocacy groups in the world (NARAL) and once served as medical director for the largest abortion clinic in America. In 1974, he wrote an article for the New England Journal of Medicine in which he states, "There is no longer serious doubt in my mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy. " 6 Some years later, he would reiterate:

There is simply no doubt that even the early embryo is a human being. All its genetic coding and all its features are indisputably human. As to being, there is no doubt that it exists, is alive, is self-directed, and is not the the same being as the mother&mdashand is therefore a unified whole. 7

Don't miss the significance of these acknowledgements. Prominent defenders of abortion rights publicly admit that abortion kills human beings. They are not saying that abortion is morally defensible because it doesn't kill a distinct human entity. They are admitting that abortion does kill a distinct human entity, but argue it is morally defensible anyway. We'll get to their arguments later, but the point here is this: There is simply no debate among honest, informed people that abortion kills distinctly human beings.

Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer who founded Planned Parenthood, publicly condemned abortion. She called it "dangerous and vicious." 8 In attempting to distance contraception from abortion, she wrote in 1932 that "no new life begins unless there is conception." 9 In other words, Sanger knew that a new life begins at conception&mdashand she knew that abortion entails "the killing of babies." 10

Despite overwhelming consensus with regard to life's beginning, Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 verdict which legalized abortion in the U.S. is actually built on the claim that there's no way to say for certain whether or not abortion kills because no one can say for certain when life begins. Justice Harry Blackmun, who authored the majority opinion wrote:

The judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to. resolve the difficult question of when life begins. since those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus. 11

Justice Blackmun's assertion is a ridiculous one, at least as it applies to the field of medicine. Dr. Nathanson had this to say about the ruling:

Of course, I was pleased with Justice Harry Blackmun's abortion decisions, which were an unbelievably sweeping triumph for our cause, far broader than our 1970 victory in New York or the advances since then. I was pleased with Blackmun's conclusions, that is. I could not plumb the ethical or medical reasoning that had produced the conclusions. Our final victory had been propped up on a misreading of obstetrics, gynecology, and embryology, and that's a dangerous way to win. 12

Dr. Nathanson would eventually abandon his support for elective abortion and note that "the basics [of prenatal development] were well-known to human embryology at the time the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1973 rulings, even though the rulings made no use of them." 13 In biological terms, life's beginning is a settled fact. Individual human life begins at fertilization, and there are all sorts of authoritative, public resources to prove this. Consider the evidence below:

Modern Teaching Texts on Embryology

"Human development begins at fertilization, approximately 14 days after the onset of the last menstrual period&hellip when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, the zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual."

Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2016. Kindle Locations 739, 1094.

"Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote."

T.W. Sadler, Langman's Medical Embryology, 13th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer, 2015. p. 14.

"Human development begins at fertilization when an oocyte (ovum) from a female is fertilized by a sperm (spermatozoon) from a male. "

Keith L. Moore, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, 9th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2008. Kindle Location 555.

"Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a 'moment') 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 Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001. p. 8.

Older Teaching Texts

"Human embryos begin development following the fusion of definitive male and female gametes during fertilization. This moment of zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic development."

William J. Larsen, Essentials of Human Embryology. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1998. pp. 1, 14.

"The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual."

Bruce M. Carlson, Patten's Foundations of Embryology, 6th edition.. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. p. 3.

"It is the penetration of the ovum by a spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material each brings to the union that constitues the culmination of the process of fertilization and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual."

Clark Edward Corliss, Patten's Human Embryology: Elements of Clinical Development. New York: McGraw Hill, 1976. p. 30.

"The term conception refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of procreation from which a new living being develops."

"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. Saunders, 1974. pp. 17, 23.

"Every time a sperm cell and ovum unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live unless its death is brought about by some specific condition."

E.L. Potter and J.M. Craig, Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, 3rd edition. Chicago: Year Book Medical Publishers, 1975. p. vii.

General Audience Texts on Prenatal Development

"Every baby begins life within the tiny globe of the mother's egg. It is beautifully translucent and fragile and it encompasses the vital links in which life is carried from one generation to the next. Within this tiny sphere great events take place. When one of the father's sperm cells, like the ones gathered here around the egg, succeeds in penetrating the egg and becomes united with it, a new life can begin."

Geraldine Lux Flanagan, Beginning Life. New York: DK, 1996. p. 13.

Prenatal Development Videos

"Biologically speaking, human development begins at fertilization."

The Biology of Prenatal Develpment, National Geographic, 2006.

"The two cells gradually and gracefully become one. This is the moment of conception, when an individual's unique set of DNA is created, a human signature that never existed before and will never be repeated."

In the Womb, National Geographic, 2005.

Expert Testimony Relating to Life's Beginning

In 1981, a United States Senate judiciary subcommittee received the following testimony from a collection of medical experts (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 &ndash the beginning is conception."

Dr. Watson A. Bowes
University of Colorado Medical School

The official Senate report reached this conclusion:

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. 14

The American Medical Association (AMA) declared as far back as 1857 (referenced in the Roe. vs. Wade opinion) that "the independent and actual existence of the child before birth, as a living being&rdquo is a matter of objective science. They deplored the &ldquopopular ignorance. that the foetus is not alive till after the period of quickening.&rdquo

Why have all the teaching texts and so many medical experts come to this same conclusion? Because there are simple ways to measure whether something is alive and whether something is human. If Faye Wattleton is correct and everyone already knows that abortion kills a human being, they have come to that knowledge in spite of the information circulated by Planned Parenthood and the rest of the abortion-rights community. The abortion section of the Planned Parenthood website explains abortion this way:

"Abortion is a safe and legal way for women to end pregnancy." 15

Planned Parenthood either believes that the killing component of abortion is so obvious that it doesn't bear mentioning, or they are simply reinforcing a common and convenient misconception. Biologically speaking, abortion has nothing to do with potential human life. Every abortion at every point in the pregnancy ends the life of a genetically-distinct human being.

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Possible Objection:

Even if an embryo is alive at fertilization, it's still just a clump of microscopic cells. Until the heart is beating or the brain is functioning, women should be free to have an abortion.

To learn our response, continue to the next page: Prenatal Development

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Embryo vs. Fetus: Differences Between Stages Week by Week

Doctors define pregnancy according to the date of a woman&rsquos last menstrual period.

  • The first two weeks of pregnancy are counted as the time prior to ovulation, in which the body is preparing to release an egg.
  • Week #3 begins with release of an egg, or ovulation. If the egg is fertilized by a sperm cell, it is known as a zygote. The zygote divides and becomes a collection of cells known as a blastocyst.
  • In week #4 of pregnancy, the blastocyst implants in the wall of the uterus and develops into the placenta and embryo. The blastocyst is considered an embryo at the point when the amniotic sac develops (by about day 10 to 12 after fertilization, or at the start of week #5 of pregnancy).
  • An embryo represents the early stage of human development, roughly corresponding to the 5th-10th weeks of pregnancy.

Early Pregnancy Symptoms and Signs

Not every woman has the same signs and symptoms of pregnancy. For some women, the early signs and symptoms of pregnancy include mood changes, headaches, low back pain, tender breasts, weight gain, and nausea.

What is a fetus?

After the embryonic period has ended at the end of the 10th week of pregnancy, the embryo is now considered a fetus. A fetus is a developing baby beginning in the 11th week of pregnancy.

The developing embryo: Week #4 to Week #11

The embryonic period of development is the stage in which most organs are formed. Organs begin to form, and the embryo elongates and starts to assume a human-like shape. The heart and main blood vessels are formed, and the heart starts beating by the 6th week. The primitive brain and spinal cord (neural tube) also begin to form.

By 12 weeks of pregnancy almost all of the baby&rsquos organs are formed, including the arms and legs. The brain and spinal cord, however, continue to develop throughout pregnancy. The baby is about 2 inches long at the end of the embryonic period.

Most birth defects occur during the embryonic period, the critical time when organs are forming. The embryonic period is the time of greatest susceptibility to the negative effects of drugs, radiation, and viral infections.

Fetal period: week #12 to week #40

The fetal period is a time of growth of the developing baby. The organs and structures formed in the embryonic period continue to grow and develop.

The second trimester begins in the 13th week. By about 14 weeks of pregnancy, the gender of the fetus can be identified. Women can begin to feel movement of the fetus somewhere between the 16th and 20th weeks of pregnancy. The baby grows to about 2 pounds during the second trimester.

In the third trimester, starting in the 27th week, the baby assumes the size and characteristics of a newborn and prepares for birth. The fetus will open its eyes and breathe in the amniotic fluid.


Your first prenatal visit with your doctor or midwife

You should set up an appointment with your doctor or midwife as soon as you have a positive pregnancy test result. At the initial visit, your doctor or midwife will

  • Discuss your medical history and any effect this may have on your pregnancy.
  • Estimate your due date.
  • Perform a physical examination.
  • Order lab work to look for any infections and to determine your blood type, immunity against certain infections, and your red blood cell count
  • Discuss any medications you are taking, and whether you will need to alter these during pregnancy and discuss the need for vitamins or supplements during pregnancy
  • Discuss expected weight gain, activity level, and nutrition for a healthy pregnancy
  • Provide contact information to call in case you have any questions, or are worried that something is wrong
  • Answer any questions you may have
  • Set up your next appointment and discuss how often you should visit your doctor or midwife.

Which stage has the most risk of miscarriage?

The greatest risks of miscarriage are in the very early stages of pregnancy. An estimated 25% or more of pregnancies end in the very early stages, many before a woman even knows that she is pregnant or has missed a menstrual period. Most other miscarriages happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy when the embryo is developing.

Do biological facts determine when a human fetus is considered alive and human? - Biology

Some of the world&rsquos most prominent scientists and physicians testified to a U.S. Senate committee that human life begins at conception:

A United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee invited experts to testify on the question of when life begins. All of the quotes from the following experts come directly from the official government record of their testimony. 1

Dr. Alfred M. Bongiovanni, professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania, stated:

&ldquoI have learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception. I submit that human life is present throughout this entire sequence from conception to adulthood and that any interruption at any point throughout this time constitutes a termination of human life.

I am no more prepared to say that these early stages [of development in the womb] represent an incomplete human being than I would be to say that the child prior to the dramatic effects of puberty. is not a human being. This is human life at every stage.&rdquo

Dr. Jerome LeJeune, professor of genetics at the University of Descartes in Paris, was the discoverer of the chromosome pattern of Down syndrome. Dr. LeJeune testified to the Judiciary Subcommittee, &ldquoafter fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being.&rdquo He stated that this &ldquois no longer a matter of taste or opinion,&rdquo and &ldquonot a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.&rdquo He added, &ldquoEach individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.&rdquo

Professor Hymie Gordon, Mayo Clinic: &ldquoBy all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.&rdquo

Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth, Harvard University Medical School: &ldquoIt is incorrect to say that biological data cannot be decisive. It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception. Our laws, one function of which is to help preserve the lives of our people, should be based on accurate scientific data.&rdquo

Dr. Watson A. Bowes, University of Colorado Medical School: &ldquoThe beginning of a single human life is from a biological point of view a simple and straightforward matter&mdashthe beginning is conception. This straightforward biological fact should not be distorted to serve sociological, political, or economic goals.&rdquo

A prominent physician points out that at these Senate hearings, &ldquoPro-abortionists, though invited to do so, failed to produce even a single expert witness who would specifically testify that life begins at any point other than conception or implantation. Only one witness said no one can tell when life begins.&rdquo 2

Many other prominent scientists and physicians have likewise affirmed with certainty that human life begins at conception:

Ashley Montague, a geneticist and professor at Harvard and Rutgers, is unsympathetic to the prolife cause. Nevertheless, he affirms unequivocally, &ldquoThe basic fact is simple: life begins not at birth, but conception.&rdquo 3

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, internationally known obstetrician and gynecologist, was a cofounder of what is now the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). He owned and operated what was at the time the largest abortion clinic in the western hemisphere. He was directly involved in over sixty thousand abortions.

Dr. Nathanson&rsquos study of developments in the science of fetology and his use of ultrasound to observe the unborn child in the womb led him to the conclusion that he had made a horrible mistake. Resigning from his lucrative position, Nathanson wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that he was deeply troubled by his &ldquoincreasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths.&rdquo 4

In his film, &ldquoThe Silent Scream,&rdquo Nathanson later stated, &ldquoModern technologies have convinced us that beyond question the unborn child is simply another human being, another member of the human community, indistinguishable in every way from any of us.&rdquo Dr. Nathanson wrote Aborting America to inform the public of the realities behind the abortion rights movement of which he had been a primary leader. 5 At the time Dr. Nathanson was an atheist. His conclusions were not even remotely religious, but squarely based on the biological facts.

Dr. Landrum Shettles was for twenty-seven years attending obstetrician-gynecologist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. Shettles was a pioneer in sperm biology, fertility, and sterility. He is internationally famous for being the discoverer of male- and female-producing sperm. His intrauterine photographs of preborn children appear in over fifty medical textbooks. Dr. Shettles states,

I oppose abortion. I do so, first, because I accept what is biologically manifest&mdashthat human life commences at the time of conception&mdashand, second, because I believe it is wrong to take innocent human life under any circumstances. My position is scientific, pragmatic, and humanitarian. 6

The First International Symposium on Abortion came to the following conclusion:

The changes occurring between implantation, a six-week embryo, a six-month fetus, a one-week-old child, or a mature adult are merely stages of development and maturation. The majority of our group could find no point in time between the union of sperm and egg, or at least the blastocyst stage, and the birth of the infant at which point we could say that this was not a human life. 7

The Official Senate report on Senate Bill 158, the &ldquoHuman Life Bill,&rdquo summarized the issue this way:

Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being&mdasha 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. 8

1 Report, Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session April 23-24, 1981.

2 Landrum Shettles and David Rorvik, Rites of Life: The Scientific Evidence of Life Before Birth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 113.

3 Ashley Montague, Life Before Birth (New York: Signet Books, 1977), vi.

4 Bernard N. Nathanson, &ldquoDeeper into Abortion,&rdquo New England Journal of Medicine 291 (1974): 1189Ð90.

5 Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979).

6 Shettles and Rorvik, Rites of Life, 103.

7 John C. Willke, Abortion Questions and Answers (Cincinnati, OH: Hayes Publishing, 1988), 42.

8 Report, Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session 1981, 7.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of fifty-some books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.

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