When Does Life Begin? Hint: It Doesn’t Matter

The morality of abortion hinges on different criteria depending on with whom it is you are discussing the issue.  One of the most persistent defenses for abortion is the question of when life begins — despite the answer to this question having been known for decades (See: Get A Life, Part 1).  The moment life begins is the instant the sperm enters the egg and is not under medical dispute.  But some will argue otherwise: Since we don’t know the precise moment in time the new life begins, goes the argument, it is morally permissible to have an abortion.  I find arguing for abortion from medical ignorance morally and ethically irresponsible.  After all, if you don’t know, wouldn’t it be prudent to err on the side of life?  But for the sake of argument, let’s agree with the pro-choice advocate and say we don’t know when life begins.  What does that mean for the abortion debate?  Here’s a hint: It starts with n and ends with othing.

Abortions are not performed until well after the mother is determined to be pregnant.  The earliest a pregnancy can be detected is between one and two weeks after fertilization.  However, the majority of women will not begin to suspect pregnancy until after a missed cycle which could take a few weeks after fertilization.

So what does this mean?  All elective and medically necessary abortions — without exception — are performed long after the fertilized egg is indisputably established to be alive.  The objection that we don’t know when life begins is a distraction.  First, because when life precisely begins is completely irrelevant to the abortion issue (because of when abortions are performed).  But also, when life begins seems also to be irrelevant to the pro-abortion advocate who offers the objection anyway.  I have never had any of the scores of people who offered this objection change their mind on abortion once informed about when life begins, or abandon the argument; which exposes how deeply wedded to abortion they are.  As a side note: I find it incredibly suspicious that the only people who dispute when life begins, only do so in order to justify elective abortion.  I have yet to encounter this denial occurs in any other context.

This is not to say arguing the pro-life position is fruitless, many people come to change their pro-choice view.  And the discussion can be beneficial to those who may be on the fence.   The information is readily available to anyone who earnestly seeks to find it.  But I think the person defending elective abortion by claiming ignorance as to when life begins is offering a vacuous and irrelevant argument.  It flies in the face of medical fact and practical application.  I suggest before engaging this defense, we should ask if their stance on abortion would change if it could be shown that we do in fact know when life begins.  Who knows, you might even get someone honest enough to admit that they hold their pro-choice view for emotional (and not informed) reasons.


  1. Joe Labriola says:

    I find that the abortion issue is really more of an identity issue, much as with other identity factors – religion, spirituality, employment, etc. People like to cement their purpose in this world. For many, abortion undermines that foundation they and others have built an otherwise impermeable, meaningful community around.

  2. When does life begin? Interesting question. I never really thought about it. I googled the question and found solely pro-life websites going on and on about how life begins and therefore no abortion. As a pro-choicer with pro-choice friends, I disagree that ‘life begins at birth’ is a pro-choice argument.

    However, life certainly begins prior to getting pregnant, which is the real point of the question. The mother and the the zygote/blastocyst/fetus share a support system controlled by the mother. The question here is when the rights of one override the rights of the other. This becomes clear when a live birth might kill the mother. It also becomes clear when the mother, finding that she is pregnant, decides whether to donate a year or 20 of her life and health to this potential person insider her. Even though this article marginalizes ‘proper environment nutrition’ as some kind of no-big-deal thing to provide. A child even to 6 or 7 months gestation is likely to die outside the womb without expert modern medical care. Kids, even after birth, need LOTS of care and feeding. So again, the choice is the life of the mother vs the life of the fetus.

    The absolute right of the mother to choose is tempered more by the likelihood of the child to feel pain in the process and by the ability to make an informed decision. Given that, a cutoff at about 25 weeks gives the mother plenty of time to notice and choose whether she is willing to take on that responsibility. This also gives the embryo plenty of time to spontaneously abort (15% or so of pregnancies). For me, those considerations should be paramount, and between 25 weeks and birth, I think the life of the mother still takes precedence but only if the two are in conflict.

    Pro-lifers pontificate about the sanctity of life, but very seldom consider that lack of access to abortion shackles women to their womb and often to abusive and unhappy relationships. Every child born should be wanted.

    * Also see the life of those too poor to buy food or health care. Many who happen to hold pro-life positions are more than happy to ‘abort’ those lives for lack of a suitable environment and nutrition.

  3. Joe Labriola says:

    Good points, Jason. There’s a fair amount of research regarding the national drop in crime in the 1990s in connection with Roe v Wade passed in 1973. You can’t exclude the other factors that lead to the 90s crime rate decline (economy, police funding and measures, tougher sentencing), but huge national waves in areas like crime rates rarely have clear-cut causes. Most affects on a national level are reflections of a variety of changes. Anyone can do the math, however. 1973 to 1990 equals 17 years when many of those children would have begun reaching peak crime ages continuing on into their 20s (women and families with ‘unwanted’ or ‘unsupportable’ children commit more crimes). For better or for worse, they don’t exist now, however.

    I like what you said at the end, Jason, and I think that’s a much more interesting question than when ‘life’ begins (a sperm and an egg are both very much alive and forms of life without our moral labeling). Is it more morally wrong to force someone who is pregnant to keep a child and then let that child/mother/family suffer from lack of nutritian, healthcare, safety, etc.?

    • Would it also be morally wrong to force a woman to raise her child after birth if it is still or becomes unwanted? It seems that if the reasons you give for killing the child in the womb are justified then it should be justified for one outside the womb. There is no relevant difference between the two.

  4. Joe Labriola says:

    I don’t think any sane person would suggest what I understand you’re presenting as “post-birth abortions” but it’s a meaningless hypothetical. We’re trying to point out how to avoid those situations where a child grows up often without a parent, malnourished, and lacking medical care. I assume you were fortunate enough to have all those factors in your growth and development, but many are not as graced.

    It comes down to your own values, but I don’t see why those values have to be imposed on others who don’t benefit from the same wealth, prosperity and opportunity as those who often are the very ones trying to morally legislate. I’m not saying that abortion is “morally” right or should be done without serious consideration, but it is not my place to prevent you from making your own “morally” right decision. It’s fine to preach prevention and responsibility, but I’d never prevent an early pregnancy abortion any more than I would accept that child to raise until the age of 18 myself.

    • So if I am understanding you correctly, it is better to kill the child than to have it unwanted or malnourished?

      it is not my place to prevent you from making your own “morally” right decision.

      I also dont think you believe this. Surely you sould speak up or attempt to prevent someone raping or killing children, wouldnt you? Or would you not interfere with that persons morality? Or should I understand this statement to mean women should have the right to kill their childrfen, so long as they are in the womb.

  5. JB – You said you’re not seeing the distinction between before and after birth. You must have missed that part: “The absolute right of the mother to choose is tempered more by the likelihood of the child to feel pain in the process and by the ability (of the mother) to make an informed decision. Given that, a cutoff at about 25 weeks…”
    A woman should have the right to decide to be a parent or not. The child really isn’t a child for any practical purposes – like being born, separate from the mother, available for adoption, able to live by mundane means, able to feel pain, able to take in its surroundings. The mother can do all of those things. You seem to have no compassion at all for the woman or the child.

  6. If you want to really stump someone in an abortion debate, ask this question:
    If your mother chose to abort you (let’s say before 25 weeks), would you respect and honor her decision? The child can’t decide, but we all can assess that decision in hindsight. I consider it selfish to deny women the ownership of their own bodies. Women should be able to define themselves as other than a baby-maker. A pregnancy should be a celebration, not an 18-year prison sentence. A new baby should be born into good circumstances or at least loving circumstances. Forced pregnancy is bad for everyone except holier-than-thou religious pundits.

  7. Terrance H. says:

    I honestly don’t understand the current route of this discussion. The woman, of her own volition, engaged in a sexual act that, everyone knows, brings about pregnancy. Therefore, tacit consent – a perfectly valid legal concept – could be argued.

    That aside, I’d like to caution against the rampant embellishment coming from some on the pro-choice side. The woman consents – in my view – to lend her body, her life, for nine-months, not 18 or 20 years, since adoption is always available.

    As a former pro-choicer, I know how tempting it is to respond to this argument with appalling tales of rape in which the woman did not consent, but keep in mind that rape resulting in pregnancy occurs less than 1% of the time, so it would be patently stupid to attempt to justify the other ninety-plus-percent with a circumstance that accounts for such a minuscule number.

    I also don’t understand all this talk about the drop in crime since the passage of Roe v. Wade. Whether it’s true or not is quite beside the point, since systematically executing all who make less than $10,000 a year would produce a drop as well. And I think we can all agree that such a thing is completely immoral, regardless of its practical benefits, however meager.

    It is a fact – as good of a fact as any other we have – that unborn children, from the moment of conception, are human beings. They have begun the lifelong process of development that all of us are currently in. The difference between them, infants, teenagers, and adults is developmental progress and ability.

    When you get past all the inane posturing and seemingly heartfelt concern for women, you begin to realize that the pro-choice camp supports denying rights to someone based on their current developmental ability, or preconceived notions about their developmental ability. How disgusting and intensely Nazi-sque.

  8. Marshall Art says:

    Thank you, Terrence. I’ve used the “Nazi-like” angle myself, because it is so appropriate here. (“Klan-like” works as well) Pro-choicers dismiss the life of a human being based on something in which it has no choice: being black…I mean, being Jewish…I mean, being born and only microscopic in size.

    The idea of “choice” is also abused. Each woman has a choice to be mature in her behavior, to seek out men of good character and to take the time to make sure of their choice before having sex. Each woman has the choice simply to have sex or to abstain if she is unable, incapable or unwilling to raise the child that might be produced by a decision to engage in the act designed for that very purpose.

    Men are not absolved from also making mature choices with their sexual urges, but women are the last line of defense and unfortunately, to ignore all that comes before intercourse and then to demand the right to choose after the fact rings very hollow and very selfish.

    • Marshall, you’re showing the double standard that men are free and clear while women are shackled for life to this ‘mistake’. If the man wants the child, they may be shackled to him as well. Overall, your argument overestimates the ease at which people may get pregnant. Again, that is not the critical decision. At least a month of thought, while pregnant, should go into that decision of whether to bear and raise a child. Inflicting essentially 20 years of parenting on child and parent as a result of an accident is the height of irresponsibility.

  9. Marshall Art says:

    Sorry, Jason. The “accident” defense is totally unworkable and frankly, not a little bit childish. There are no contraceptive options that are 100% aside from abstaining from intercourse all together. Thus, when engaging in the act designed to produce a new human being, the expectation that a new human being could very well be produced despite the best of precautions, is the only mature position possible. Having intercourse and getting pregnant “by accident” is as accidental as pointing a gun at someone, pulling the trigger and saying the person’s death was an accident.

    As to double standards, that argument also doesn’t wash. While I hold men to be more responsible for what happens to the women in their lives then the other way around, the fact is that some men are assholes who use women instead of their hands. While this unfortunate fact remains a part of life, ultimately it is the woman who is, as I said, the last line of defense and she must take responsibility for whether or not she allows a new life to begin within herself. While no woman gets pregnant without the help of a man, it may very well be that it is the woman who gets left alone with the child. just as some people are left taking care of their elderly parents or a spouse or child with a catastrophic illness or injury. Mature people of character don’t put people to death for being a personal burden.

  10. Marshall, so by your logic, people shouldn’t do anything they want to if it might have unintended consequences. Let’s ban driving, driving cars, and eating food because if people die, then they were just being irresponsible. It’s even worse when you consider the kind of misinformation put out by abstinence campaigns, the damage it does in making people fight purely healthy and natural feelings, and the increased risk created by blocking sex education and contraception availability.

    “Mature people of character” don’t condescend to people in trouble on behalf of a non-entity that can’t feel pain or have any concern for itself. “Mature people of character” instead recognize the reality of the natural world we live in and try to help those who can be helped, which in this case are women with unplanned pregnancies who want to live good and fulfilling lives without having to bear and raise a child if they don’t want to.

    I’m assuming behind your argument that you are voting for universal welfare and health care programs so that the government or your church can step in to provide financial support for all those children being carried and born by women who have no means or education to raise a child.

    • What he is saying, Jason, is don’t drive IF you are not prepared to take responsibility for an accident if for some reason you are at fault and in one. You can’t say “I know I drove, but since I’m not financially prepared nor did I intend to get in an accident, I’m not going to take responsibility for it.”

      Or “I know I ate an entire pizza for lunch and dinner, but I didn’t intend on gaining weight or have any health risks associated with poor diet, someone is going to have to pay for my weightloss”.

      When someone engages in an activity that could have consequences, you need to be prepared for whatever the consequences are.

      And no, society shouldn’t be saddled with the responsibility to financially care for “unwanted” children, parents have a moral responsibility to care for their own children regardless of whether they want to be parents or not. Its called personal responsibility, and yes, it is the most foreign concept to liberalism.

    • Also, the yet to be born baby is only a non-entity to those who want to kill it.

  11. JB – exactly. You’ve created this ‘unfunded mandate’ to care for a child, and the losers in this system are the child, the mother, and a society that gets a greater proportion of disaffected, uneducated, unhealthy, and general dysfunctional citizens due to the circumstances of their birth. You can place blame on the parents all you want, but that doesn’t fix the problem. The solution of elective abortion solves the problem for everyone except pontificating fundamentalists, and yes, that includes the child here.
    And no, a child is not the same as a pizza-gut. It is also not a thinking, feeling person either, at least not until 25 weeks or so.

    • The problems are as bad as they are because of the “whose gonna help pay for this” attitude with everything. But its still no reason to permit something immoral. We don’t and it easier for robbers to rob safely just because “people are going to rob anyway”.

      Abortion should be no different. Taking the life of an innocent human being without proper justification is morally wrong, always. The fact that abortion is legal and so accepted only serves to prove how far lost we really are.

  12. Terrance H. says:

    Why are you stuck on this “shackled with 20 years of parenting” narrative? It’s patently false, and demonstrably stupid. Are you forgetting about adoption?

    Secondly, when a man engages in sexual activity and “gets” the woman pregnant, he is shackled with parenting – at least monetarily – if she chooses to continue the pregnancy. Why aren’t you concerned with this fact? Does it sound fair that one mistake should direct the course of his life?

    Honestly, aside from nine-months of biological concession on the woman’s part, both parents are equally affected, and if we are to accept your patently false logic, both are bound and forced into 20 years of parenting. So, again, why aren’t you concerned with the plight of the man?

  13. Good point. Adoption may be an option, and it’s more like a year than 20. And the 20 years is assuming a standard 18 years plus carrying plus the year out of the house. You can say 15 if you want to be generous. The stigma on the parent and child and the lower interest in minority and disabled children in the US, the danger of problems in the adoptive home, and the huge backlog already of unadopted kids that exist limit the value of adoption as a better alternative to ending an unwanted pregnancy.

    Good point about the man as well. I 100% agree that man should be considered, although I think men have shown they can more easily (and dishonorably) extract themselves from the situation. As a side thread, I would suggest that a man, when informed of paternity, have the option to provide $1000 to the mother (through the court) to buy his way out of paternity. This should cover all abortion costs, travel and a little extra for her trouble. But this is to be considered full and forever payment for the man to opt out of all rights to the child and all costs of parenting. The woman should have the sole and final decision, but the man shouldn’t have to bear the cost if she decides to keep the child against his wishes.

  14. Marshall Art says:

    And still Jason assumes that pregnancy is some kind of accident. This would be incredibly naive if it wasn’t actually a heinous abdication of responsibility. And how nice of Jason to decide for any child that it is better off dead! Reserve that kind of arrogance for your own life, and leave the innocents alone.

    • @Marshall

      I’m still trying to figure out what is it in the pro-choicer that views pregnancy and children to be burdens and punishments rather than benefits and blessings.

  15. Terrance H. says:

    Good point. Adoption may be an option, and it’s more like a year than 20. And the 20 years is assuming a standard 18 years plus carrying plus the year out of the house. You can say 15 if you want to be generous.

    If you want to be generous, you can say nine or ten — months. Because the reality is that adoption is available to women who wish to slip the vexatious bonds of parenthood. (:rolls eyes:) So, please, let’s stop trying to strengthen our argument with fallacious nonsense.

    The stigma on the parent and child and the lower interest in minority and disabled children in the US, the danger of problems in the adoptive home, and the huge backlog already of unadopted kids that exist limit the value of adoption as a better alternative to ending an unwanted pregnancy.

    I doubt your ability or willingness to substantiate any of these claims…But you need not bother yourself. It’s a purely nonsensical argument even if what you say is true. You are in no position to decide the quality of life another person may or may not have. You can be the judge of your life and your circumstances, but not the life or circumstances lived by another. Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers, was raised in an orphanage. Someone should have asked him if he would have rather been aborted…

    I must say how interesting that you would think to mention the horror of adoption, but fail to mention the horror of abortion. And I’m not referring to the obvious horror of an innocent life being snuffed out. No. I’m talking about the psychological injury it does to women. Your first reaction will be knee-jerk, undoubtedly, and talk about how unreliable all the “pro-life research” is, perhaps quote an APA website or two. But have a look at his before wasting your time. Abortion & Mental Health

    You continue to suggest that abortion empowers women. Read that and then tell me it empowers them.

    …although I think men have shown they can more easily (and dishonorably) extract themselves from the situation.

    That’s demonstrably false as well. A warrant will be issued for your arrest if you do not pay your child support, and if you don’t believe me, head to your county jail and ask around. I’ll bet at least 20% are in there for failure to pay child support.

  16. Terrance – I don’t think you understand what “fallacious” means. You use it to mean “in conflict with what you think” when it actually means “factually incorrect.” At best, you’re using it to describe a conclusion you disagree with. Your “americanlibertarian” link is interesting, but is trumped by my APA link* which debunks the abortion-mental distress link.

    And for the general public, we’re talking about the subset of pregnancies that are troublesome and burdensome. If you’re 15 or 19 or 23 or whatever age and you don’t have financial support, family support, and a strong foundation for a child, it can be scary and a burden. It’s more absurd for pro-lifers to suggest that every pregnancy occurs in a utopian world where pregnancy is no big deal and adoption is a perfect, accessible, and open system.

    * http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/abortion/index.aspx

  17. Terrance H. says:


    I’m quite aware of its definition and everything you’ve said is false, and demonstrably so.

    Furthermore, I addressed the APA’s position in my post, which clearly you failed to read, because not only did I address it personally, I offered the opinion of the Royal College, England’s APA equivalent. Abortion puts one at greater risk of developing mental illness. This is a fact. The APA’s position was crafted by a panel of eight people, all of whom admittedly pro-choice, like Brenda Major, who chaired the committee. It was a political document and nothing more.

    The APA says:

    Nonetheless, it is clear that some women do experience sadness, grief, and feelings of loss following termination of a pregnancy, and some experience clinically significant disorders, including depression and anxiety. However, the TFMHA reviewed no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.

    The bold text speaks volumes, in my view. What a strong argument. :rolls eyes:

    They threw out the majority of studies because, in their opinion, they were “methodologically flawed,” yet they fail to explain in what way. Meanwhile, you have study after study after study showing a connection, and other panels, like the Royal College, taking a vastly different position than the APA.

    According to the Royal College:

    Women may be at risk of mental health breakdowns if they have abortions, a medical royal college has warned. The Royal College of Psychiatrists says women should not be allowed to have an abortion until they are counseled on the possible risk to their mental health.

    This overturns the consensus that has stood for decades that the risk to mental health of continuing with an unwanted pregnancy outweighs the risks of living with the possible regrets of having an abortion.


    You have no argument. You relied on the APA and their flawed, totally partisan panel of eight people, and in so doing you have ignored a mountain of evidence. You don’t care about the truth. The very possibility that abortion may in fact cause serious psychological injury to women should be enough to give you pause, but it’s not. And why? Because you don’t care. You’re an ideologue and nothing more. And that’s one thing this pro-life liberal cannot be accused of.

  18. Marshall Art says:

    @ John,

    Worse than that is their staunch support for what amounts to adolescent sexual promiscuity. One visitor at my blog calls me a “sex-Nazi” (a play on “soup-nazi” from Seinfeld) because I encourage sexual morality as the responsibility of every adult. Sex merely for the sake of pleasure is not maturity, even within the confines of a legitimate marriage. I believe the evidence of the negative consequences of such irresponsibility are horrifyingly apparent in our culture today. Aborting babies is merely one manifestation.

  19. Terrance H. says:

    It’s a lonely existence being a pro-life liberal like myself. Occasionally you encounter such a diehard Lefty that they want nothing to do with you once they discover your views on abortion, even though you agree on most other issues. And sometimes my position on abortion will endear me to conservatives even though we disagree on most other issues – and simply because abortion is such an important issue. I hope that ‘s the case with us, Marshall, because you’re not going to like what I’m about to say.

    To suggest that having sex for pleasure with one’s spouse is irresponsible is perhaps the single most ridiculous statement anyone has ever uttered. It’s totally indefensible, even theologically. It’s crazy talk and I would be surprised should John actually agree with it.

    I’m the first to admit that he Left is far out here sometimes, so much so that I can’t help but to palm my face and shake my head. But the Right? You guys take the cake with some of this nonsense.

  20. Terrance H. says:

    Perhaps this could be a post idea for John. Is sex outside of marriage irresponsible or not? Let’s see what people have to say. I certainly believe it’s a silly insinuation, but might make for good academic discussion.

  21. Marshall Art says:

    “To suggest that having sex for pleasure with one’s spouse is irresponsible is perhaps the single most ridiculous statement anyone has ever uttered.”

    That’s because of an inordinate prioritization of sexual pleasure. I didn’t merely say sex for pleasure is irresponsible within a marriage. My point was clearly that sex for pleasure, without considering the potential pregnancy that every act of intercourse brings with it, is immature. Can you truly not see the logic of this? This is not “conservative”, unless by that term you mean that “conservative” includes rational thought and consideration of likely consequences of each act. It should merely be maturity and responsibility. But maybe that is a trait of true conservatism.

  22. Terrance H. says:


    If you’re saying that it’s irresponsible to engage in sexual intercourse without consideration for your actions, and the basic human decency to deal with the consequences (whatever they may be), then I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    I understood your point to be: “[S]ex for pleasure is wrong.” Period. But if you’re saying that sex for pleasure is fine so long as you’re prepared to accept its realities and deal with them without relying on the gutless out that is abortion, we are in agreement.

    When my wife and I had our first child, we were not married. We weren’t trying to have a child; we were trying to have fun. When we found out she was pregnant – at such a young age, I might add – we were worried. Her mom tried to pressure her into an abortion, but my wife would hear none of it. She was a Catholic; I was a pro-life liberal. There was no decision to make. Our son is now four years old; our daughter is three; and we have one on the way.

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