When does human life begin really?

Several years ago, I stopped into an antique shop, which is one of my favorite things to do, and I came across some old Life Magazines. I examined a Life Magazine with the famous photo by Leonard Nielsen, who has now passed away, but he was the first photographer to really figure out how to photograph the unborn child. This is the edition of Life Magazine that featured the pictures really for the first time in a very popular way. This magazine was produced April 30th, 1965 and the title of it is Unprecedented Photographic Feat in Color: the Drama of Life Before Birth.

Of course, if you’ve ever seen any pictures of unborn babies, it’s quite possible that it’s the Leonard Nielsen pictures that you’re looking at because they are everywhere. There have been others who have come along and done some work on the unborn child, but his are by far the most famous. One of the photographs shows the child and the little hair follicles on the forehead and the eyes closed which was quite stunning in 1965. It’s just a great magazine to have as a part of my library here and something that I’m quite proud that I was able to grab at the antique shop. IThe reason I mention this is because it leads me to the topic for today.

The question I wanted to raise today is when does human life begin? We hear a lot of debate about this, and you would think then that it’s a question of debate, but the reality is that it’s not a debate at all. In science, every book that’s published on embryology, a fetal or human development says the same thing: at conception you have the beginning of a human being who is living. I wanted to make that case for you today to know with confidence on this matter. Science and the Bible say the same thing, that human life begins at conception.

What do we mean by saying that at conception you become a living, distinct and whole human being? Well, living means that you have a one-celled human being that splits into two, that splits into four, that splits into eight, and so on and so forth. Cell multiplication is a sign of something that’s alive versus not alive. You are a living human being because you have reduplicating cells. You are a distinctive human being, meaning that while you’re in the mother’s body, you’re not a part of the mother’s body. You might be a different gender than your mother and about half the time you have a different blood type. The mother might be healthy and the child might be sick, or vice versa.

It’s very important in terms of science or embryology to recognize that you are living and you are a distinct human being. You have your own specific, exceptional, wonderful DNA that only belongs to you. You are a whole human being. This is the one that is most perplexing to people because we think of human development in terms of putting something together like a bicycle, but the reality is we are not assembled with different parts.

When you build a bicycle you have the frame, a tire, some handlebars, etc. At what point did it become a bicycle? That’s not how human beings are created. Human beings are created as whole human beings from the get-go, and they develop as human beings. So you don’t develop into a human being. You develop as a human being through the natural stages of human development.

I’m 68 and I am the same person that I was when I was six years old or six weeks old, or six minutes old after conception. I didn’t grow into humanity. I’m not growing out of it. I’m just growing as a human from the early stages up to age 68 and, hopefully, a few more good years. There’s no such thing as potential human life. That is a non-scientific response. There are human beings with potential, as we say, but there’s no such thing as a potential human being.
Scientifically, if you are only a potential human being, you are just as likely a potential rabbit or a goat for that matter. You are a human being at conception who is living, distinct and whole that’s just developing from within. After conception, there’s only two things that are added and that is time and nourishment. The same thing that we are being provided for today at any point of your life and mind.

I just wanted to make that case because I think some people assume that since abortion is so controversial, the science must be controversial, but it’s actually not whatsoever. If you want to do a little more reading on this, you might start with a very simple book called Stand for Life. This is the book that I wrote with Scott Klusendorff, who is America’s greatest pro-life apologetics teacher, and it helps people, especially young men and women, learn how to make the case for life in a secular culture.

In this book, we have several quotes from leading embryologists, and the point I wanted to make is that every book on embryology says the same thing in their own words. This is not disputed in science. For example, Keith Moore and T. Persuade wrote, “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

I think it’s quite stunning for us as Christian pro-lifers to recognize that there is unity of agreement on this particular point across the board. In fact, I was talking to a brother this morning who was just really puzzled by the fact that I would say that everybody agrees with this. Now you can Google the question and find different answers, and sometimes you’ll see doctors or scientists say, “Well, we don’t know when human life begins.” You’ll look at how they develop that case. It isn’t science. In other words, they might be using their scientific credentials to make a philosophical case, but they’re not making a scientific case. They’re not trying to show you, in science, that the question is unanswerable. The question is very answerable.

Human life begins at fertilization (a.k.a. conception). That’s when you become a living, distinct and whole human being that develops from within. It’s not disputed. Some people who try to dispute it are really looking for ways to morally justify abortion by saying things like “Well, it’s biologically human at its DNA level, but it doesn’t have the same characteristics of a full person.” Here they try to make a distinction between being human and being a person. But of course, that’s a philosophical argument.

They might also say, “It’s not self-aware.” That may be true. An unborn child is not self-aware. That’s an arbitrary argument to make. Why do we pick out self-awareness as a sign that you’re human or as a person? There may be many qualities that we might look for but this is very arbitrary. Even at 68, I’m not always self-aware. If I am sleeping, I’m less aware of what’s going on. If I go in for surgery, I’m not aware of what’s going on. So self-awareness does not make you a person.

What makes you a person is whether or not you have human DNA, and then you grow through different stages of self-awareness or a lack of self-awareness. Of course as you get older, you become less and less aware of things, but you don’t become less and less human. Some people have said, “Yes, but you have the potential for self-awareness even when you’re sleeping or if you’re in surgery.” That is also true. But so it is for the unborn. It has the potential of self-awareness. All we need to do in that situation is to let it grow and develop naturally just like we let someone wake up naturally and they become more self-aware. An unborn child, even in the first few days of its development, has the potential of self-awareness. It just needs time to develop and it will have it.

I just wanted to encourage all of you not to be intimidated by this assertion. We believe and recognize that human life has value because of God putting his fingerprints on us, so to speak, and being made in his image. On this point, all science is in agreement: human life begins at conception. Therefore we want to ascribe value to it at that point. We want to ascribe human rights to the unborn because it is a human being.

I really want to encourage you. Again, if you want to do some reading, we have a book that we use, mainly for students, but is helpful for all. It’s called A Student’s Guide for Making the Case and Saving Lives. It’s very inexpensive and it will give you some biblical foundations, apologetics, science and moral reasoning to help you know what you believe and why you believe it. That will make you a more effective Christian in these times. Thank you.